No white country likes its own blacks. I say this as a black millennial who has been compelled to face up to the bourgeois privilege of being raised by middle class parents who self identified as pan africanists. My family home was quite the library, and my well read school teacher father and local government worker mother leant books to friends. My mother belonged to the bougiest black women’s book club imaginable. The plantain she brought for everyone to snack on was delicately floured and dusted with cinnamon before they were fried. As children, we were not encouraged to be arrogant but nevertheless, we travelled widely and I got addicted to the glamour of taking flight. Being raised in the age of the supermodel, I worked the runway to the plane with such élan, my mother chastised me for loving it too much. I toned it down in that moment with her, but ramped it up as soon as she was no longer there. Paris, Barcelona, Madeira, Martinique… I went places. I experienced colourism and racism on my travels obviously, but I also experienced something else. Feeling wanted.
In the local pan Africanist Saturday schools of North London, I came into contact with the Du Boisian concept of the ‘talented tenth’ – that notion that the upper tenth percentile of educated Blacks with a diasporic vision for our people’s elevation would uplift the African masses. Trickle down economics for the Roc Nation Brunch generation. As an avid reader and with a mother who admonished us for improper grammar, pronunciation and banned slang in the home; becoming well spoken was a necessary requirement for an easier life. So I was swishy, because I was gender non conforming in my femininity and I was toffy because I read and spoke like a Victorian heiress. I did not belong. However, once I went to a school with the upper white middle classes and started travelling with them; my tokenised role as their queer fluffy friend who was not like the other blacks became thrilling. I loved not being like other blacks. No longer encumbered with the stereotypes of those I had grown up amongst, who had subjected me to so much violence and antagonism, I was glad to escape.
On the campus of UC Santa Cruz in 2008 I went to a talk and in the q&a session which followed my accent put her stake in the ground. I was speaking truth and the whites were shooketh, but besides all that I noticed something much more important about the reaction to me from everyone in the room. “They’re actually listening.” It was not that I was saying anything differently than I had done in other public spaces before. The composition of the audience was also not super remarkable; a left wing intelligentsia of Blacks, whites, Asian, Latinx, Queer, Straight youth who were filled with as much fear as zeal. They laid their eyes on me with a mixture of awe and respect and my voice elicited a stillness in the room that made me feel regal. I was just popping in to visit my best friend Frankie who was doing her year abroad here and smoke as much Californian weed as possible. Yet, here I was in a role I came to adore: The Black British Ambassadress. After the talk was over, she came over to let me know that one of her new friends had come over to enquire, grabbing her shoulder with gravitas and asking:
“Who – is – she?”
I had forgotten what this felt like until recently. Facing employment discrimination as a black trans woman is a trip. People contort themselves every which way around the reality that they do not wish to pay you an adequate wage to be around you every day. After five years of rejection from a job of every description you can think of, I had to make a change. Not only cashing in on the passing privilege I fought too hard to acquire but also going stealth in day to day life in a foreign country where I do not speak the language. Here, I have found a spot where I can make money as an exotic black girl with a BBC (wink) News voice and a look that sells well. “Where are you from?” They ask me. “London… but I’m half Jamaican and half Zimbabwean ” I say. They’re delighted. I give them my nationality and ethnicity in a morsel of a sentence because I know what they’re looking for. What kind of black are you? They get more than they are expecting to hear, overjoyed to be able to say they’ve had one they’ve never had before.
My own travels have transformed me from a herring into an oyster. In a time when “NICHE IS THE NEW MASS” says the CEO of Beauty Con, Moj Mahdara; I have found a way to monetize my marginality. I know this may anger certain people. That I have found temporary respite and a needle thin bridleway in a system which hates and salivates over me in unequal measure. I can understand a bit better the disdain African American actors have for Black British actors coming over to snatch their roles. After years of training the best and brightest of Black Britons look around and see their careers encaged with no breathing room for their potential. So they head to a country where casting directors are dazzled by their Shakespearean eloquence and say they don’t have the bitter cynicism their homegrown Blacks are unable to shuck and jive themselves out of. It was one thing for Idris Elba to be cast as Stringer Bell in The Wire, but for Cynthia Erivo to be cast as Harriet Tubman ignited the ire of Black Hollywood AND Black Twitter, because one of their greatest heroines was gifted to someone arrogant and undeserving. It was the role of a lifetime in a film which should have been made several times over in the same way “A Star Is Born” has been. Yet, black films don’t get that sort of privilege as Kimberly Foster of For Harriet so poignantly points out in the case of Self Made, the chronicling of the life of Madame C.J. Walker. You get one shot. So for that one shot to be snatched away by someone who is looking all brand new, precisely because they are ‘once removed’ from the culture they are portraying… that hurts. The role of Harriet Tubman has so much historical significance that one would have hoped for a talent search akin to the hunt for a Scarlett O’Hara in the 1940s. Even though white Americans of the time were also outraged that it ended up going to a British actress. Plus ça change…
In the book “Afropean”, Johny Pitts details that the neo-soul group ‘Les Nubiennes’ found a home and an audience in New York that Paris was unable to afford to them. James Baldwin and Josephine Baker fled to Paris seeking peace from the racial tyranny they faced coming up and were named ‘new negros’ in the process. It would appear that Western Countries just can’t let go of their tendency to trade our talents and wares on the black exchange. Perhaps the poem on the Statue of Liberty could be revised:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses – “
MASSES?! Yelp the whites in the same tone that Soldier Boy shrieked “DRAAAAKE?”
No, that will not do. The hipsters of Harlem petition to take one or two of the young sexy ones to the chagrin of all those who are left behind.
Yes reader, I am one of those young sexy ones. Not for much longer, but in the meantime I intend to milk it. I am often called a minority, but in truth my needs as a human are universal and I am way more conscious of being ‘minoritized’. On becoming aware of this, I strategized. I spoke to the right white guys who were in the right place at the right time and because they didn’t feel personally implicated in my historical story of slavery, colonialism, and immigration, the sleeping dog of their white guilt was left to lie whilst I reaped the benefits of their benevolence. I cannot now turn around and tell other black trans girls how they need to get like me and find themselves a rich white man to help them get to somewhere they’re considered fun and exotic. There’s not enough to go around. I can’t assure them they would arrive intact.
“A fatherless girl thinks all things possible and nothing safe” Gloria Vanderbilt said to her son Anderson Cooper in the documentary he produced about her life. I look back on the path I walked and see that it is scorched. I am now among the few of those black people rewarded for not being like the other blacks and it’s been made abundantly clear to me that just because I’ve found a way, this does not mean that We’ve found a way.
KUCHENGA is a writer, a journalist and an avid reader of black women’s literature as a matter of survival. She is a Black transsexual feminist who has been published in many online magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.