Reflections on my Blackness
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Let me make this point clear at the very beginning, Blackness is diverse and comes in many shades and experiences. How you see yourself as an agent of African descent may be different from another person – depending on many factors such as national borders or the ethno-nation you belong to. However, we are also united by a range of common experiences due to shared histories and treatment from hegemonic institutions. This experience is increasingly variable and complex when one is a member of the Diaspora. The forced or voluntary nature of migration, the generational distance from an ancestor’s departure from the homeland, and one’s integration into their new diasporic setting all contribute to how an individual may understand their Blackness.
To be a member of the Black Diaspora is to be simultaneously home and away; a constant sensation that lingers in the background at times, and at others, it is the only thing that one can conceptualize. It comes as a wave of loss, confusion, nostalgia; between moving ahead and looking back.
My personal experience as a Black girl just trying to navigate is one of many. I moved to England from Kenya when I was 12 and lived in a small town in Oxfordshire. My family moved to South London while I was an 18 year old undergrad in Essex. After I graduated four years later, I properly settled back in London to begin a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies at SOAS. I wrote this essay upon reflection of my personal experience with Blackness, a process of moving through liminal spaces, trying to find and maintain an identity in my teen years, and how I have now settled in discovery and acceptance as an adult.
April 2017, Hong Kong
Being a teenager is a difficult process of change in the body, mind and environment. As a young Black girl, I was truly unprepared for the shock of transitioning to a Black teenager. I was isolated from those who looked like me, being one of five Black students in my school year; I was forced to take on a role I did not truly understand. No Black person I have met, has EVER wanted to be an ambassador for their race. From countless tone-deaf questions by overly curious peers, to the hyper-sexualisation of my body by boys that discovered porn far too early, and the constant under-estimation of my academic abilities by teachers; I was pulled in multiple directions trying to maintain some sort of composure. It is too bad I did not discover Audre Lorde during those years. I wish that that I would have, “recognised that a source of power comes from knowledge…as my silence will not protect me.”  As such, I was in a purgatory state where I searched for refuge in fiction - TV shows, cartoons, anime and fantasy novels. A very optimistic, mostly naïve, part of me felt I could rewind time and give my younger self a manual to navigate this new and hostile environment. I was not so lucky.
In retrospect, I came to one of my most uncomfortable realisations: at the time, I had no one to discuss these experiences with. I consider this to be one of the more consciously traumatising parts of my life for several reasons. Firstly, I came from a place where I identified myself as a Kikuyu, Kenyan, African girl. I never understood myself as dichotomous from white until I came to England, where my own history and culture was reduced to Black. Secondly, in my ignorance, I never connected the historical dots. I never asked why things are the way they are, even though I knew they were wrong; and they still are wrong. Like why I spoke English better than my mother-tongue, had a Christian name, or why Kenya celebrates Independence Day from the British (12th December 1964). Thirdly, like any other teenager, I just wanted to fit in - even at the cost of my own peace. I brushed every insidious comment aside as a joke and pretended to be part of a group I knew I could never join, constantly reciting to myself, One day I’ll leave, it will be okay and I’ll finally be happy .
By the time I finished my GCSEs, I understood that this would not be a place I would be accepted, let alone liked. Resigned, I scrambled to maintain the basic parts of myself. I was Black in a white space and thus my life is designed to be uncomfortable due the powers that be (I did not fully understand white supremacy just yet). I could not change that. No matter how much I had in common with them (music, humour, fashion), everything was shallow. Consequently, even though I had pride in my Blackness, I did not find joy in it during those years.
To this day I’m unsure what the universe did in my favour, but I moved to London right after my last A-level exam and severed many ties to my old town. Even though I remained isolated during those few summer months, I was more excited at the prospect of going to university and starting over. Like any other keen 18-year-old, my first year involved partying, making friends and learning the consequences of loose boundaries (story for another day). But this time I was interacting with other Black students. Even the small conversations or glances of common exasperation at certain behaviours, validated my Black experience for the first time in seven years. These new connections, combined with intellectual experiences in my classes and research, allowed me to self-reflect on a deeper level as to how the social construction of Blackness and whiteness came to be and how that relates to me. This knowledge made it easier to cope with my past.
Because I held my Blackness as my own foundational being, I never really thought about the Black diasporic communities that made England their home. I missed many of the cultural nuances (mostly due to geography) that tend to define Blackness in the context of the UK (more specifically, London). Some thought I was not Black enough because our experiences differed or because of the way I spoke and carried myself. To many, I was just another confused member of the Diaspora living somewhere in between. If I still had the same mindset from my younger years, the first group of people would have crushed me. However, I always remembered the hard-earned lesson: no matter how much I’m pushed to change for others, I’m happiest and most comfortable as myself, no matter how confused I felt.
Thus, I had to learn by looking back into the literature of my own history, stories from my parents about a time when being unapologetic was not limited to survival in hostile spaces like my small town. A time when one had a chance of living as the authentic self with little fear. The number of diasporic Kenyans in the UK are a lot fewer compared to people from the Caribbean and West Africa. So, after years of blanketing my identity as just Black, I was finally able to specify my Blackness to its richest level: East African, Bantu, Kikuyu.
It was difficult at first to maintain this understanding of self. I had blocked it out for so long out of self-preservation. I wondered if others in the Diaspora felt the same thing; creating a different version of themselves to survive, whilst simultaneously losing the core they tried so hard to protect. Even though I may not know their history, unless they tell me, I began to see a similar richness with every person. Amusing similarities ranging from our parents’ intense child rearing, our aunties that always had something wild to say, and our love for plantain (this include debates on how to say it). I also recognized solidarity in our more negative common experiences: the abuse from Western institutions that stole from us and say it was our fault.
September 2019, Madrid
In conclusion, peace came to me slowly with self-reflection. Not just with my own experiences, but from the different Black people I have met, a community. Each individual had a different take on their own Blackness. Some had negative views of themselves, others loved certain versions of their Blackness more than others, and some were yet to discover the magic within them. To be a member of the Black Diaspora is to be in an ongoing journey in the margins of national parameters. It’s an incessantly draining battle against white supremacy and scrambling for our stolen histories. As individuals, we are also not a monolith. There is a vast variability in the way we present introspectively and externally. How we choose to identify should exist outside of national parameters; with and without a certain passport. This is often draining as external forces are prepared to dim that shine and minimise that human experience, forcing us to explain the complexity of our presence.
Our histories are special. Our ancestors are not to be trifled with. You are valid in your Blackness and no one can take that away from you, not even yourself. So, unlearn the lies that taught you that your people are unworthy; for you are worthy. Destroy the binaries that make you feel the most vulnerable, or that you are undeserving of a fuller life. They did that on purpose. Finally, respect all of the complexities that make you and your people whole; a common understanding that does not require translation.
 Audre Lorde, “Transformation of Silence”, Your Silence will not protect you, pg. 41
 I was a very depressed and over-dramatic teenager as you can tell