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More On The Black British Versus Black American Experience...

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 21, 2011 7:04 AM
15 Comments
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Maybe I'm only just now starting to pay attention to these matters... but, as an addendum to my post last week on the supposed talent drain, as black British actors migrate to the USA where better opportunities to work are believed to be in far more abundance, when compared to England... here's another article lamenting the state of the African in the UK - specifically, the lack of "an educated ethnic middle class... to counter the black 'street’ stereotype," which in turn affects the quality of content produced for black British audiences.

This one is from The Telegraph, and is written by Lindsay Johns, writer, broadcaster and self-proclaimed "hip-hop intellectual;" he's of African descent by the way (British/South African).

The article itself is quite damning! I'm not familiar with the man's work, but he pulls no punches here, and I'd really like to know what our UK-based readers have to say in reaction. Like the article I highlighted last week, this one also pits the African in the UK squarely with the African in the USA.

Here's a sample of the piece:


When it comes to film, Noel Clarke’s successful Kidulthood and Adulthood focused exclusively on the pathologies of the “You get me, blood?” ghetto underclass. Likewise, radio. When the new BBC radio station 1 Xtra was set up a few years ago, the thinly veiled rationale was to placate the black demographic with “urban” pirate radio-style “street” music. In short, give them what we think they want.

But hang on a minute. Where was the black Radio 4 equivalent? Don’t black people in this country want intelligent news, current affairs, drama and cultural programmes, too? Or are they only reserved for educated, middle-class white people?

On TV, black British protagonists – like Luther, the BBC detective played by Idris Elba – are a recent and rare phenomenon. How psychologically debilitating this must be for young black people, to be devoid of balanced, fair, let alone positive portrayals. Black America, with its educated, middle-class depth in numbers, is 30 years ahead of us. Think of The Cosby Show, a hugely successful middle-class family sitcom, whose patriarch was a black doctor. What do we get in the UK? The Crouches, whose father-figure worked on the London Underground.

So is middle-class black America the promised land for the educated black British? For all its many problems, America offers far more opportunities than Britain does right now. Hence the trans-Atlantic brain drain, which speeds up year after year: novelist Caryl Phillips and poet Fred D’Aguiar left for America years ago, as did actor Idris Elba. Playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah has just gone to be the artistic director at a theatre in Baltimore.

Over here, “black”, “working class” and “street” are still seen as synonymous terms.

You can read the entire article HERE.

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15 Comments

  • Steven | December 29, 2012 7:39 AMReply

    There is a large connecting between class (perception) and chosen profession. Within both countries, education partially explains professional trajectory, but in the UK, much more is conditional on 'behavioral factors' absorbed at home and school. These factors ‘signal’ class and are far more complex in the UK than in the US.

    I am British born black male of afro-Caribbean descent. I worked in the city of London for 12 years, reaching MD level, after finished a quantitative masters degree and an Economics undergraduate (both in London). I left the UK to set up an investment management company abroad. During my time in London I interviewed numerous candidates but never received a Black British CV. I came across several Black British in ‘back office functions(lower paid, non-client facing operational roles with no degree requirements at the time)’ but they were not serious, with little knowledge of social history, world events, basic politics or any level of cultural interest beyond football, the sun, chasing girls around and generally drawing attention to themselves through overreaction. Their divisions have since been phased out with globalization.

    I think the majority of black British start off in lower/middle income areas (myself included). Independent of race, these areas tend not to encourage traits that will prove desirable to professional employers. Teaching aside, the social side of low-income state schools is particularly damaging. Anti-intellectual ‘ghetto’ behavior is socially rewarded, at the expense of the reverse. High quality teachers, leave for the private sector, leaving uninspiring teachers in their stead. Uninformed parents working in low value industries with 60s style ‘entitlement’ mentalities and diminishing real wages misinform disenfranchised children with weak advise, all in an anti-intellectual environment. Uninspired and thus uninspiring Teachers negatively reinforce. Myself, my brother (Management Consultant) and my sister (Chef and business owner) were fortunate as my parents were astute thinkers. They encouraged discourse, reason, and were fortunate enough to be in industries that allowed us to access good information at an early age. We did paper rounds, milk rounds, and invested in small businesses under my fathers advice. My mother tuned the social side teaching use as she did a BA in Sociology at night school. We were quite disciplined and learnt to enjoy the rewards that come with the pain of effort. This is what is required to elevate the non-gifted.

  • Jenks | October 14, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    The reason there is no 'black' middle class is because we don't make those type of distinctions in the UK. People generally don't associate based on race over here unless they're immigrants. There is no white middle class either, just a middle class of all races and ethnicities. Why anyone, black or white, would want to identify themselves with other based soltely on racial lines is beyond me, and I have to say, these days black people seem more guily of this than anyone else. It's bizarre.

  • rob | August 7, 2011 4:39 AMReply

    why would you think radio 1xtra was set up for black people and not just people who like that type of music.
    "if you look hard enough at anything you only find what your looking for"

  • Angelo | June 26, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    If they won't cast enough Black actors/actresses in the mainstream news companies, create your own! Like here in the US we have Black Entertainment TV (BET). You can't always rely on the mainstream media to look out for the interests of minorities.

    At the end of the day it comes down to making money, and as long as they make sufficient returns for the owners of the media companies, or the management if public owned, then there is no financial incentive to change the current formula.

  • CareyCarey | June 22, 2011 8:48 AMReply

    "Why is it that we want to be represented on TV and in film, but we want that representation to reflect some sort of altered reality? We’re always screaming “keep it real”, but then we want to act like having a doctor for a father and a lawyer for a mother is the norm. There’s nothing wrong with having that life, and there’s nothing wrong characters on TV that depict that life. But we shouldn’t be embarrassed by our own realities"

    That was an open and honest comment. Very insightful Mr Kunle Adekolo! In fact, your entire comment(s) spoke to the core of the issue, particularly your take on “The Crouches”. and Jmac's mention of The Cosbys.

    I've always said that a person receives what they are looking for, so to champion the views of you and Jmac, I have to mention the first series on American television featuring a black cast: Amos & Andy. Some saw the characters as gullible, conniving and lazy. Looking at the show today, none of the plots were ever based on race; and in fact, Blacks were seen for the first time as doctors, lawyers and leaders in the community. Drugs, violence and sexual indescretions was never a part of the plot. Sergio told me that he thought it was the best representation of our culture that he had seen on TV. But alas, as with The Cosbys and The Crouches, some folks will never be satisfied, and will continue to look at life, and the movies, through the eye of the "blue eyes", refusing to accept, and denying the fact that we come in a varity of "colors" and "flavors". UK or the USA, you can take the black man out of his country, but.....

  • Lynn | June 22, 2011 6:30 AMReply

    I was wondering when S&A was going to cover a post about this but y'all finally did. Cudos!

    @Kunle Adekolo

    U make some very interesting points. I agree w/ the majority of people who said, "the grass is always greener on the other side". I am afraid that is the main issue here. I do not live in the U.K and I am not familiar w/ the struggles of the actors who come from the African disapora. But I always thought that Blacks were represented more in England than in the U.S in Film/TV.

    I watch a lot of sci-fi, medical, legal and crime dramas rom the U.K and I always see a Black actor w/ a great lead or supporting role.

    For example, "Being Human" there is a Black actress by the name of Lenora Crichlow who plays a ghost in the series. How many Black girls are in original sci-fi TV series who are part of the main cast in the UK/U.S??

    Not many at all.

    Also, In Law & Order U.K there is a Black actress by the name of Freema Agyeman who is part of the main cast. Her role might not be large but she also had a large role in the Doctor Who series.

    I think many Black British actors move across the pond just to become household names. And they also want more work but I think they want to move out and become well known actors instead of being the actor on the local soaps like; Coronation Street, East Enders or Emmerdale.

  • JMac | June 22, 2011 5:37 AMReply

    @ Kunle Adekolo

    Your description of the criticism of The Crouches reminds me of how The Cosby Show was treated here. Twenty years after the fact everybody thinks this show was great groundbreaking entertainment but when it was on tv... Until recently, I never knew about Jesse Jackson's complaints about the show (unrealistic to show a middle class black family with two professional parents - give me a break) and the other camp that thought Cosby was shuckin' and jivin' for the white folks. Can't win for losing -not even when it's done to help your own people.

  • SayNay | June 22, 2011 3:59 AMReply

    Having lived on both sides of the pond this is definitely a case of "the grass is greener." Many of the issues that we struggle with in the US are the same issues that Black people struggle with in the UK. There is definitely a black middle class in the UK, however its size is really only a function the small black population in the UK as a whole. Black people only make up something like 3% of the UK population, whereas in the US it's more like 13%. And while 13% of over 300 million people is more than half of the UK population (regardless of race), we all know the US isn't always the proverbial land of milk and honey for black people.

    As Richard stated, the Johns piece is highly speculative and anecdotal at best. We are all struggling. This continually reinforces the need for self-generated work and finding new ways to bring it to audiences.

  • Tess | June 22, 2011 3:37 AMReply

    Makes me wonder what British Africans in the UK entertainment industry have done to collectively combat the lack of opportunity as well as what I assume to be lack of access...?

    In some US circles, the prevailing perception is that despite what studio distribs have fed the masses that black films don't and won't travel across the pond, there is a need and a niche for arthouse black-themed, or black cast films.

    Honestly, talent in the US and UK need to band together and do their own projects. Each collective has the money and creative resources to make it happen.

  • Kunle Adekolo | June 22, 2011 3:24 AMReply

    I hear what they are attempting to say with this argument, but I think a lot of the statements are misguided. The same way we complain here in the US that we are under-represented on TV and in film, is the exact thing we're hearing from across the pond. Ironically, I always thought they had it much better in the UK, with the plethora of TV series and mini-series that they crank out over there. I bet if one really did the research, one would discover that there are probably more blacks in prominent and supporting TV roles in the UK than in the US. But alas, the grass always appears to be much greener on the other side of the fence.

    Also, I have to take issue with the never-ending crticisim of "The Crouches". That was a great show, before people complained that it didn't accurately portray the typical black British experience (whatever that means). Once the original (white) writer was booted from his duties, the show went to sh!t.

    Yes, the character of Roly Crouch was an employee of London Underground, but he was also a good husband, caring father, and loving son who provided a nice home for his family. There was so much more to the character than people give it credit for. The American character of James Evans, from TV's "Good Times", was worse off in life, but many of us recognize and appreciate the good in him. Most of us relate to having a father like James and Roly, more so than we do Cliff Huxtable.

    Why is it that we want to be represented on TV and in film, but we want that representation to reflect some sort of altered reality? We're always screaming "keep it real", but then we want to act like having a doctor for a father and a lawyer for a mother is the norm. There's nothing wrong with having that life, and there's nothing wrong characters on TV that depict that life. But we shouldn't be embarrassed by our own realities.

    Do you remember when the BBC aired the programme "Shoot The Messenger", and what seemed like all of black Britain was up in arms about what they called a stereotypical depiction of black youth? If you will recall, that film was probably the most honest look at what a lot of black Britons feel but are discouraged from saying aloud. Yet, instead of taking into account the truths that it disclosed, so many of us went on the defensive, just like we always do. That film was supposed to make us look at ourselves and aspire to do better. But all we did was say, "that's not me!", becaused we were embarrassed by how a growing number of us behave in society.

    To any Britons thinking of coming here, because it's supposed to be so much better, think long and hard before you make that decision. There are ups and downs no matter where you go. Maybe sticking it out in the UK, and trying to make things better there before abandoning ship, is the best thing to do.

  • AM | June 22, 2011 1:35 AMReply

    Wow, Mr Johns article is really doing the rounds both here in the UK and US. I largely agree with him, as I am also tired of the endless theatre productions that concentrate on 'ghetto' culture as opposed to a more stable and educated Black identity.

    Black-British made movies about our culture is almost none existant and we look forward to and appreciate African-American releases as much as you do.

    White Brits still equate our identity with struggle, poor estates and crime, hence almost every Black person that makes it is always divided into one of two camps: Oxbridge-educated or 'came from a poor background'.

    America, to many of us here, is truly the land of opportunity in terms of what Blacks can achieve, as there's a palpable glass ceiling here.

    America, I'm on my way!

  • Richard Iton | June 21, 2011 10:20 AMReply

    If I were an elitist, with a deep antipathy towards working people, and was comfortable making arguments on the basis of anecdotes rather than real data, I could imagine writing something like what Lindsay Johns has pulled off here.

  • JMac | June 21, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    The grass is always greener... However I can understand his viewpoint. As much as we criticize the shortcomings of American entertainment (and politics and business) with regards to blacks, it still is in a better state than some other countries. I don't how I would have fared if I lived in a country that is 3/4 black but the only women you see in media are white. I agree this should be a call to join forces and eliminate the plight blacks suffer in one form or another at the global level.

  • MD Griggs | June 21, 2011 8:12 AMReply

    If we are not willing to pool our resources and talents, then we can only be objective to mainstream's subjective projections of our existence. Didn't mean to get all academic but there was no other way for me to explain it. I don't think we should say we are pitting American African against British African, but we must realize that our experiences are multi-varied. He claims they had the working class Crouches, but Black folks in America had the Jenkins in DC on "227". No one can be put over the other. Unless you get a role in a Tyler Perry film...

  • Jug | June 21, 2011 7:59 AMReply

    Damn, guess I shouldn't be buying my ticket to London to get "imported" to America huh?

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