• The wrong part of town

    (Photo by Patrick Hendry)

    A week before the death of George Floyd, I re-watched two classic 80s American comedies – National Lampoon’s Vacation and Coming to America. Two scenes struck me even then. 

    In the first, Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold plays it cool after driving the family into an African-American city neighbourhood, and nonchalantly asks someone for directions back to the highway while his car’s tyres are quietly removed. 

    In the second, Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem and his aide, Arsenio Hall’s Semmi, rock up outside a tenement in Queens and go in search of a bedsit to rent as their luggage is pilfered from behind their backs by the locals. 

    Why did audiences laugh?

    Neither scene would probably be made today, and yet either would still resonate. The only difference might be the addition of Hispanic Americans alongside the African-Americans. 

    And the argument would probably go that the joke is not on the poor African-Americans in either case. It’s on the bumbling white guy and the African prince. As long as they’re the butt of the joke, it’s ok. Right?

    We all get the joke. It’s about deprived urban neighbourhoods. The same jokes are directed at Liverpudlians or Glaswegians in Britain, with possible undertones of anti-Irish sentiment. In Greece, theft is invariably blamed on Albanians. 

    A version of these jokes could probably be found everywhere in the world: poverty and its associations with crime and potential violence. The popular imagination will always be inclined to put a name and a face to that threat. 

    Of course, nothing confers an inferior social status like state-sanctioned slavery. That is a level of dispossession of which America – and many other societies – are still grappling with the consequences. 

    On the subject of popular imaginations, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be

  • Why is race so black and white?

    Why is Barack Obama more black than white? The question of race and the ownership of different racial and therefore cultural spaces is a vexed one. As someone most people would look at and identify as ‘white’, I feel the exclusivity of the discourse. 

    The American banjo player and roots singer Rhiannon Giddens – talking about her latest project Songs of our Native Daughters in Songlines magazine – spoke about the slavery of “my ancestors”. She is the daughter of a European American father and an African American mother. 

    I’ve never taken a DIY DNA test

    If I did, I might discover some unforeseen racial mix. We’re all African if you go back far enough. So why the segregation? And why, when that segregation is defined, is the black identity so wide, and the white identity so stunted?

    For a clue, consider what V. S. Naipaul had to say about ex-slavery societies in the Caribbean, such as Martinique, where he travelled before writing his book The Middle Passage in 1961:

    “Pedigrees are so carefully watched that there is no possibility whatsoever of anyone with the least tincture of Negro blood, however unapparent, passing as white.” 

    This fear of miscegenation runs deep in all American ex-slavery societies, as it does elsewhere in the world. Even in black or Indian communities, an instinctive preference for a lighter shade of skin in pervasive. 

    Perhaps this is at the root of the keen divide in US society today, where anyone with any amount of black ancestry therefore becomes designated, and self-identifies, as black?

    Where does this leave me?

    If my DNA showed up traces of African blood, what then? Could I claim the slaves of the Americas as my ancestors? Or am I condemned to forever be the descendant of oppressors? 

    And can I ever claim fraternity with Barack Obama? He is a politician I hugely admire. He stands for what I stand for. He is culturally my brother. Yet by current social mores, he is ‘black’ and I am ‘white’. We are divided. 

    Read this post for more of my musings on V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage