When I was at school I used to be accused by a small group of arseholes of not being black enough. This was mainly due to my complexion (I have albinism), my obsession with Backstreet boys (AJ was my favourite) and my mostly white circle of friends.
On one occasion I was alone, walking to the bus stop and a girl from a few years below me made a point of saying (loud enough for me to hear) “Urgh! If I looked like that I would kill myself. I love my colour”. She was right to love her colour, she had a beautifully dark complexion but I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself some weeks later when said girl’s ponytail, which, despite the protestations of her friends and anyone with eyes, she insisted was her real hair, fell out in the lunch queue. Or was it pulled out? I can’t quite remember, I only remember seeing it on the floor and thinking how strange it was that a person could be so proud and ashamed of themselves at the same time.
Let me pause here for a moment and explain that the ponytail itself wasn’t the issue but rather her insistence on passing it off as her own hair. Not every girl or woman with a weave or clip-on hair has identity issues.
What the people who accused me of not being black enough didn’t know was that I was an avid reader so while they were spending their free time worrying about me and dating white boys in secret (Yep, that happened. No judgement here, just another observation) I was reading books by Anthony Browder, Dr Cress Welsing and Haki Madhubuti – all before I was 16. I knew myself in relation to my race, I knew my history and I understood the socio-political issues facing my people all over the world. Not because I was trying to be the kind of black person that some people thought I should be but because I had, and still have a genuine interest in my people and the socio-political issues facing black people in particular and the human race in general.
But that doesn’t matter to the self-appointed gatekeepers of blackness. Their “Are You Black Enough” tests vary from superficial attributes such as complexion; taste in music, the way one speaks (!) and their circle of friends, to the more complex issues such as how many demonstrations you have attended; whether or not you’re a member of a Pan African organisation and if you reject European clothes, schools and jobs in favour of a more “traditional” lifestyle.
With age comes wisdom so whereas as a youngster I worried a lot about what people thought of me, as a now soon-to-be 32 year-old woman I couldn’t give a shit. So much so in fact that I’d actually forgotten about the Gate Keepers of Blackness until my cousin tagged me in a Facebook link about Lenny Henry.
The link was to an article in the Mirror newspaper. The headline is a quote from Henry which reads: “Some Black actors stop being Black…They become Will Smith”.
Some background here: Lenny has, in the last few years realised that lack of diversity in the media is a thing. When “The Lenny Henry Show” was at its peak and Lenny was all over our screens it was left to the likes of playwright Kwame Kwei Armah amongst other black actors and media professionals to highlight this issue only to be faced with a wall of silence or accused of “playing race card”. I suppose the adage “Better late than never” applies here as Lenny – Sir Lenny to be exact but I’ll get to that part later – quite rightly uses his fame and years of experience to highlight this very important issue.
I actually like Lenny Henry. When I was very young I thought he was the funniest man since my dad. (My dad is hilarious). Henry’s radio show “Rudy’s Rare Records” which aired on BBC Radio 4 was absolutely brilliant (thanks in large part to the character of Rudy (played by Larrington Walker). Henry’s charitable work through Comic Relief is also pretty remarkable and there’s no doubt that he has contributed a lot to comedy in the UK.
However, I was disappointed with his comments regarding Will Smith. The full quote from the Mirror article taken from the original interview with Lenny in The Sunday People reads:
“If a movie makes more than a hundred dollars, some Black people stop being Black – they become Will Smith”
The insinuation here being that Will Smith is no-longer Black?
And what, pray tell is it about Mr Smith that Henry feels excludes him from Club Black People? His wealth? His stellar performances in films such as Ali, Enemy of the State and The Pursuit of Happiness to name a few? Perhaps Smith’s membership gets revoked for the fact that he starred in one of the most successful Black comedy shows of all time which portrayed a successful wealthy Black family in a manner that hasn’t been matched to this day?
It’s not news that in the 1970s Henry was part of the Black & White Minstrel show of which he has expressed his regret (Because really, how could he not?). While I was shocked when I first heard about this a few years back, I can’t say I was surprised. Talk to any actor/comedian/singer and they’ll probably have a list as long as you’re arm of things they wish they had never done. Inexperience and desperation will do that to some people. We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of. What is pertinent about the Minstrel situation however is a comment Henry made in a 2015 interview with the Mirror:
“I didn’t realise I was being used as a political football: The Minstrel shows were under fire then for blacking up white people and it meant they could say ‘Oh but we’ve got that Black kid so it’s alright’”
Understandably, he didn’t like being used in that way yet seems to have no problem questioning the blackness of an unsuspecting Will Smith to bolster his argument about race and the media.
Sir Lenny Henry received his knighthood in 2015 and said he was “absolutely honoured” to receive it. Personally I think It’s great when you’re recognised for your achievements and as mentioned earlier, he has done so much for charity through Comic Relief. That said, a cursory glance at the history of Knighthoods reveals that the word Knight comes from the German word ‘Knecht’ which means ‘servant’, ‘boy’, ‘youth’, or bondsman’. Whilst a Knighthood is the highest honorary title a person can receive, agreeing to essentially be recognised as a ‘servant’ for a country that doesn’t even recognise you, and others like you in its media (not to mention other walks of life) can be seen as problematic to say the least.
I’m a firm believer that people should do as they like as far as accepting such “honours” are concerned. Far be it for me to insist that someone decline an honour, however as someone who has zero respect for royalty and knowledge of their wickedness as far as non-white people are concerned, I regard the acceptance of these “honours” as acceptance of this country’s past and present racist and xenophobic actions, of which millions of people around the world are still paying the price.
I’m not alone in my thinking. John Lennon returned his MBE (Member of the British Empire) stating: “Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.”
Others who declined or returned their honours include: Founder of Agent Provocateur Joseph Corre on the grounds of Tony Blair being “morally corrupt”; Benjamin Zephaniah, who when offered an OBE (Order of the British Empire) explained: “I get angry when I hear the word ‘Empire’, it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers were brutalised” and Rabindranath Tagore who accepted a Knigthood from George V in 1915 but returned it in 1919 after the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre where British troops gunned down hundreds of Indians who were suspected of plotting an insurrection.
I don’t know Henry personally but I don’t need to to know that at one time or another he has been accused of being a “sell-out”; “coconut” or whatever other derogatory terms people use to describe non-white people in interracial relationships. His ex-wife Dawn French is white and as such Henry would have been subjected to those kind of comments by some members of the Black community as well other comments from certain members of the white community. I imagine that being referred to in this way would have been upsetting to say the least so how strange that having had his own racial identity and commitment to his race questioned, Henry would then go on to do the same to Will Smith? I guess the saying is true: “hurt people hurt”.
The coast is clear
The past few years have seen many Black people speaking candidly about our experiences in entertainment, politics and the like. In the world of comedy, no-one was more outspoken that Chris Rock who has the ability to win over audiences – both black and white – whilst speaking an often uncomfortable truth where race is concerned.
I remember, around about the same time Rock was touring the UK, Henry did a stint on Live at the Apollo. He was brilliant but I couldn’t help but notice that his set was all about “Black people” this and “Black people” that but not in his usual ‘I’m just poking fun at my people’ way. He even addressed the black women in the audience as “sistas”.
It is my opinion that had race not proved to be a popular topic amongst top comedians and been well received by comedy audiences, Henry would have continued with his safer style of comedy.
Yet Henry can’t help but throw shade on black women. He paints a rather unattractive image of George Michael’s female backing singers, who, if his verbal impression is anything to go by, were black…
…And in his 2011 appearance on the show he impersonates black women at Carnival (complete with ‘chicken-head’ movements and reference to babies). Needless to say, it’s not very flattering.
So, whilst his stand-up had become significantly more Rock-esque – where race is concerned, Henry’s negative perception of Black women also rears its ugly head adding mysogynoire to his repertoire which is a real shame given that most of his work is absolutely hilarious. He can say what he likes about Smith but I’ve never seen or heard of him disrespecting women – black or otherwise.
Divide and Conquer
In public discussions about race it does help if, regardless of our personal opinions, we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet as it were. Whilst Henry and others who are constantly bringing the issue of lack of diversity in the media to the fore are absolutely right in their assertions, bringing down another person – especially of the same race of which you are demanding respect for – is counter-productive and just damned right stupid. This is not to say that everyone should and will get along because they’re the same race, but if I were to make a point about the lack of positive depictions of albinos in the media I’m not going to take cheap shots at, say, model Diandra Forrest to make my point. (Side bar: I’m so jealous of her – she’s insanely beautiful!).
Henry’s comments have played right in to the hands of those who argue that they refuse to respect a group of people who don’t even like each other or themselves.
I’m not naïve, I know that Will Smith and his wife Jada can be annoying sometimes, constantly jamming their seemingly perfect family life down our throats at any given opportunity. I know that the Smith children, although smart and creative can, and do come across as pretentious at times and I know that Jaden’s gender fluidity does not sit right with a lot of Black folks. I know some of Smith’s films are whack and I know that he has gone on record as saying that “Racism is rare in Hollywood”, although he does add that prejudice is not and goes on to explain the difference which, personally, although I disagree with the idea of racism being rare in Hollywood based on the testimonies of so many black, Asian and LatinX actors, I do agree that people often confuse racism and prejudice and that it’s important for people to know the difference between the two. Yet none of this gives Henry – or anyone else for that matter – the right to question, belittle or take away someone’s God-given racial identity. Especially when the person acting as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Blackness has such a precarious relationship with their own identity.
There is no ‘one type’ of black person, nor should there be.
In his comments about Smith, Henry reminded me of the girl at school who was so proud of her colour yet so ashamed of her hair. The girl who would rather be dead than look like me but who, every morning attached synthetic hair to her head and tried to pass it off as her own.
Hurt people hurt.