Kwame Kwei-Armah: Reborn in the USA

As a black British immigrant to America, I have clung to my roots and my accent. Perhaps it is time to let go.

Reborn in the USA
Finding an identity in a new country. Photo: Getty Images

The Fourth of July marked the first anniversary of my relocation to the United States. Baltimore, Maryland, to be precise. Baltimoreans have other reasons to celebrate this auspicious date but with every firework that went off, every parade that I witnessed, every “Happy Fourth of July” I was offered, I was reminded, as America reminded itself, that not only was this country once a colony, but a colony owned by the country of my birth.

Alas, no more! I was surprised to discover that well over half of my colleagues at work are addicted to Downton Abbey, the new Sherlock Holmes and even Hollyoaks but that doesn’t stop my pre- and post-Fourth of July period being dominated by their incessant mocking of “the old country” and its loss of global pre-eminence. It’s friendly, harmless teasing because the US, unlike many other former colonies I have visited – maybe partly due to time, maybe to its present position on the world stage – can afford to wipe the pains of foreign subjection from its collective memory and celebrate this day for what in fact it is: an act of remembrance.

But has the US really wiped clean the slate of imposed inferiority? Some might argue that the addiction to all things British, or the phenomenon of the British baddy in many a Hollywood film, might still indicate a desire to negate its former Anglo-Saxon overlord. However, if that is so, then it is slight and almost inconsequential, for in nearly all other matters the US reigns supreme.

Its declaration of independence, its articulation of the American dream, its eminent position as the engine of 20th-century capitalism – and I mean 20th – all contributes to making America a place that not only attracts people from all over the world but demands an assimilation to it even if you do not reside within its borders.

To my mind one of the first indicators of that power is the way, unlike in Britain, almost every immigrant that arrives in this country gets a version of an American accent within a few moments of touching down. There are people who have lived in Britain for decades and still can’t speak English at all, but here the American accent, from whatever region it may be, seems to be reached for and once attained held up as a badge of success and honour.

All do this, it would seem, except the black Brit. For me, and I wager most of my fellow black British peers that have made the recent journey across the pond for various versions of the glass ceiling, being black and British provokes a strange mixture of emotions in our American cousins, both black and white, that range, depending on their propensity to leave the shores of the US, from amazement and hilarity, to amusement and – relative to how far from either coast you are – total confusion.

Nearly every single black Brit that I have run into this year – and at last count that may be about 20 – sounds as British, actually a little more British, than they did at home. That includes me! (The actors among us have cultivated myriad American accents for professional usage but as soon as the director shouts cut – or for the more “‘Stanislavskian” of us, the moment one gets home from the set – the British accents reappears, often with greater gusto.) I am being a little facetious but not much.

It may not seem odd on the surface of things but to me it’s fascinating, as so many of us black Brits were raised on a strict diet of African-American music, television and dance. And it was certainly true that for people of my generation, the black American accent used with discernment – that is, not within a 30-mile radius of anyone who could identity your Caribbean or African ancestry – gave you a certain “leg up” with the opposite sex if it could be immaculately maintained for the duration of the evening.

The black American was the über-black. The most glamorous, most advanced, most visual and vocal of all in the African diasporic realm. So much so that in my early days of travel, wherever I landed, the locals would assume I was born in the US of A, and often, no matter how many times I said “England” when asked where from, they would repeat: “America?”

So it is with this history in mind that I look upon our cleaving to the unstressed vowel and articulated Ts in words such as butter with some concern and fascination. The obvious thing to say is that we simply wish to stand out in the crowd and as “actors or performing types” wish to revel in the exotica that it may provoke. Possibly, but I think it has less to do with that and more to do with a desire to subconsciously differentiate ourselves from our African American cousins. That is not to separate or feel better than but to differentiate.

Let me state very clearly, I owe most of what is intellectually dear to me to African American scholarly activity. From the writings of the playwright August Wilson that revealed theatre as a cultural, political and artistic act of bravery and service, to the role-modelling of manhood through both the “in and out of the ring” activities of Muhammad Ali, to the “back to Africa” lens shift that Alex Haley’s Roots facilitated for my generation. The articulation of blackness born out of the hot cauldron of post-slavery and civil-rights America has led and accompanied me nearly every step of my life. From wanting to be Michael Jackson as a child, to Lionel Richie as teenager, to Malcolm X as a young man – yes I did say Lionel Richie, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” – the African American has led the way.

Although I have been travelling back and forth from the US for over 20 years. and reading about it for much longer, it was not until relocating here that I fully understood, if I even do now, the role that race plays in the US. It is huge, humongous, the elephant in nearly every room I have entered. Only this elephant isn’t quiet, this one shouts and screams and swings its trunk, and will hit you full in the face several times a day if you’re not careful. I was in a meeting the other day when someone referred to a play written by an African American as “white” because it was intelligent!

It’s important to note that I am not only speaking of racism here but of race itself. Racism is as prevalent in the UK as it is in the US, however it is often disguised more effectively because race is an uncomfortable conversation in Britain. Race in the US is everybody’s business. Speaking of things black is not the sole property of the African American but seems to belong to everyone. I’ve heard critiques of “whiteness” in a most dynamic way from many a white academic, such as Tim Wise. Several of the leading thinkers and teachers on race are of the Caucasian persuasion.

However, what I feel “race talk” in the US and UK has in common is the underlying assumption of white European supremacy. To go a step further, white Anglo-Saxon supremacy. In this paradigm, the diasporic African, specifically in this case the African American, bumps somewhere near the bottom of the societal pile.

Even in the age of Barack Obama, it is as if black is a byword for poverty and questionable morality. This is not helped by the glamorised globalisation of thug culture as made manifest by certain aspects of hip-hop culture, nor the oft-reported record numbers of black males in incarceration. I would argue that everywhere one looks, from theatre to cable news, the black narrative seems almost inextricably bound to poverty, self-destruction and dysfunction. This has been frustrating for me, as I grew up with James Baldwin’s eloquent articulations on behalf of the maligned and downpressed being praised nationally and internationally. With Marvin Gaye singing: “What’s going on?” With Alvin Ailey demonstrating with the body a quest for the higher plain.

I look at the brilliant and diverse work of today’s public intellectuals, people such as Michael Eric Dyson or Touré or DJ Spooky or Malcolm Gladwell – each one musing at the highest possible vibrational level and acknowledged as global thought leaders. I look at them and wonder: how come the leaders of the black free world are still viewed (and others might argue they are complicit in the creation of such binaries) as the updated 19th-century stereotype of the lazy, shiftless, criminally minded persons of African descent? As I thought about this, I wondered if this is in part because many American cities or areas of cities seem to be geographically and culturally homogeneous. Different European ethnicities and nationalities have their own parts of town. Sections, often streets, in black communities are dominated almost exclusively by various African or Caribbean émigrés.

The workplace is as multicultural as anywhere I have been in the world, if not way ahead, but the home space still seems to be tribal. And without that level of integration, I wonder if the different tribes that make up this great country might only know each other through media-constructed narratives.

It is into this that we black Brits enter the fray. Apart from Idris Elba, the US media on the whole do not know we exist, so the US public has no place to put us. Are we like American blacks who love jazz and southern cuisine or do we drink tea at the Ritz? Are we academically minded because our “European school system” is supposedly better, or do we also lag behind? Often I find the unspoken question on first encounter from both black and white is – who are you and should I be afraid?

So, rather than simply wanting to be exotic, I think many of my black British peers subliminally answer these questions from white America by clipping our Ts a little more and emphasising our linguistic non-rhotic roots. A kind of “don’t judge me till you know me” primal linguistic scream.

My question to myself is, even if this were only partly true, is it a bad thing? Are we sublimely contributing to the unwarranted stereotype of the African American? I have experienced many a expat community across the world and the one common denominator I’ve observed is that in their cleaving to the land of their birth too tightly, they invariably miss many of the joys of their newfound land and  live a hothouse version of their homeland that has long passed by. Does holding on to your accent lead to that? Probably not but it could be the start of a slippery slope, one that although not geographical, could possibly lead to a mental ghettoisation in a land that may have too much of that already. It could lead to the African American feeling that we are contributing to the problem rather than being part of the solution.

I believe it is our role to contribute to every culture that we are in as positively as we can. So on this Fourth of July, when faced with the possible double negation of being black and British, or the possible double celebration and investigation of being black and British, I decided to be my recent immigrant self and revel in them all being beautiful by keeping the question alive. Who am I, today? And how am I helping the place I now call home?

Kwame Kwei-Armah is the artistic director of Center Stage, the state theatre of Maryland