Pete Kalu is a novelist, playwright and poet and has previously won the BBC Playwrights Award, The Voice/Jamaica Information Service Marcus Garvey Scholarship Award and Contact/BBC Dangerous Comedy Prize.
His latest book Being Me (HopeRoad Publishing) is out now.
Writing about ‘blackness’ –
acting and feeling black regardless of the actual colour of your skin:
Is it possible? And if so, how?
I was sitting recently talking to a philosopher studying a branch of philosophy called phenomenology who suggested it might be impossible for any one human being ever to experience what another human being was experiencing. From that hopeless (and geeky) starting point, let us kick this question around!
White authors can and do write excellently around the idea of what black people might feel when they encounter racism and its effects, especially where the feelings being depicted are those such as exasperation, frustration, despondency, or a will to endure, to overcome. The voices of the characters they create often still sound white – which is not in itself a bad thing since we are in the realm of fiction, not science. Yet I asked myself why.
There are often missing notes the absence of which can tell me it is a white writer not a black writer who is crafting the character. Two of those notes are sublimated rage (which sounds perhaps a little fiercer than it should, but bear with me) and humour.
They say children have a natural sense of justice. If you have ever tried to give one five year old within a family two fish fingers and a sibling who is close in age, three fish fingers, you will know what I mean. All hell breaks loose. Even if the five year does not want the third fish finger it is the justice of the matter that appals them. They understand equal treatment keenly and will express their unhappiness at high volume!
Now drip into that child’s life several weekly moments where they learn they are not equal simply because they are black, then try to imagine the repressed rage, the sense of injustice at such moral irrationality these accumulating instances might foment in a black child.
(You think they are too young to pick up on such colour-coded injustice? Read the black journalist, Gary Younge’s piece where he reflects on taking his son to day-care and his son asking him to avoid certain roads: click on the link HERE)
That anger at injustice is often socialised out of their day-to-day interactions and repressed psychologically, but it goes somewhere, it colours perception, behaviour, habits, engagement with the world. It gets reinforced by further instances of racism they experience. And it’s there in the best fictional texts.
Which leads us to humour. Psychologists talk about coping strategies. There is an acerbic or fantastical humour to many black writers works that decodes for me as ways of squaring off the situation in their minds, of dealing with the double think of being a black person in a world built out of white privilege. Constantly having to adjust vision, switch focal points, slough off micro-aggressions, adjust the presentation of the self to conform, confuse, slip through the barriers and choke-points brings with it a particular consciousness, a particular humour, a particular awareness.
Black writers can of course tap into this: somewhere in their soul, in the excavation of their own experiences they can find it. And they can choose to use it to infuse it into their work, lightly, heavily or barely at all. But they have that option. With white writers it is different. They may struggle ever to find that consciousness, and so to tap it. To find it, they must first examine where they themselves are coming from, the nature of their privilege and try to set aside the assumptions they have acquired that have grown out of that privilege. It is not done easily.
Once they have emptied that cup, they can then fill it with the knowledge from experience that black people can bring. How? The biggest next step for a non-white writer would be quite simply to talk to black people, befriend them, get to know their daily routines and perhaps in time their inner lives. (If they have no black friends, they might usefully ask themselves why). A further step would be read books that provide the insights that black writers can bring to the table. For starters, maybe read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Buchi Emecheeta’s In The Ditch, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, Audre Lorde’s Zami.
Within UK Young Adult fiction, good reads might be Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, Catherine Johnson’s The Lady Caraboo, and Tariq Mehmood’s You’re Not Proper.
For white writers creating convincing black characters is a difficult but not impossible task. There is nothing more powerful than human imagination, it leaps over difficulties. And there are hundreds and hundreds of black stories out there in the street called life, just waiting to be told.
Meet Adele Vialli: an intelligent, funny and resourceful 14-year-old – and a born troublemaker. Bored by her privileged life in a leafy suburb, Adele prefers shoplifting and hanging out with her footballer boyfriend, Marcus (from The Silent Striker, the previous book in the series). As the weary school counsellor says: ‘there’s never a dull day with Adele.’
Adele is the star of her school’s football team, and when an England scout comes on the lookout for potential new players, Adele’s future seems full of promise. But when her city banker dad suddenly starts flirting with the mother of her ‘frenemy’ and fellow footballer Mikaela, a war breaks out between the two girls which threatens to throw everything off course.
Teenage rivalry, family troubles – and the beautiful game. Being Me is an honest, tender and witty examination of what it means to grow up in a culturally-diverse Britain today, and the struggle every young person goes through of finding out and understanding who they really are.