Halfway round the array of hats, hairstyles and dresses on display in the V&A's exhibition "Black British Style", I realised the contradiction at the heart of the show. "Black" suggests a homogeneous identity defined by skin colour. "Style" is the antithesis of that notion: it is predicated on individuality. The truly stylish define themselves in opposition to the group. Think of, say, Oscar Wilde. Or, for that matter, many of the figures featured in this show. Here are images of rakish young men at blues parties; groups of girls in matching outfits at nightclubs; the drum'n'bass artist Goldie decked out in diamond rings and a mouthful of gold teeth. If all they have in common is the colour of their skin, then the V&A can't claim to have curated the show at all, but has merely brought together an assortment of pictures and memorabilia.
The nature of being black runs deeper than phenotype. It is to do with culture as much as colour, place as much as race. What unites the figures here is a shared sensibility based on their experience of life in Britain. The show is organised thematically, with space given over to clubs, churches, Carnival and other places where black people have gone to express themselves. It also tracks a chronology of settlement in Britain, beginning with a section that describes the arrival of the Windrush generation after the Second World War. In doing so, the exhibition raises a question it struggles to answer.
You can see the curators' assurance falter the closer you get to the present day. While it is possible to detail black style convincingly from the 1950s to the early 1990s, it becomes near impossible for the past decade. There are references to pop groups such as Mis-Teeq and the singer Martina Topley-Bird, but these are peripheral figures in black British culture and they serve only to highlight the difficulties of historicising the current moment. This is not to criticise the work at the V&A. Only to say that while the issue of what it looks like to be black has been handsomely covered, it is beyond the show's own means to answer the larger query that it throws up: what does it feel like to be black today?
Back in 1903, America's sagest philosopher of race, W E B Du Bois, said that living as a black person in a white country meant always being treated like a stranger in your own home. Can the same be said of Britain in 2004? This, after all, is the country whose best-loved newscaster, Trevor McDonald, is black, and where a myopic building society clerk called Howard can become the figurehead of a multimillion-pound advertising campaign. In different ways, both McDonald and Howard are indicative of how Britain has changed from a place where black people were grudgingly tolerated to a nation that warmly embraces them.
When I was a child in the Seventies, 16 million people a week watched the Black and White Minstrel Show, and West Bromwich Albion fans spat at their own player Cyrille Regis. Today, the captain of the England football team takes his fashion cues from young black men. Even true-blue Tunbridge Wells turned out in force to cheer Kelly Holmes back from the Olympics.
More notably than ever during the past decade, black people have moved from the margins to the mainstream of British society. For the likes of Holmes and McDonald, this is the result of individual endeavour. For Howard, the Lilt ladies and other mascots, it's the consequence of corporate intervention. It is the latter who provide a better indication of how the shift in relationship between Britain and black people has come about.
Angela Davis recently complained that her contribution to civil rights politics in the Seventies had been reduced to the "revolutionary glamour" of her afro. This is not altogether different from how it feels to be black in Britain today. As the V&A attests, black people have placed an emphasis on dress since they first settled here in numbers after the Second World War. Yet the importance of style was symbolic. It meant affirmation. Whatever indignities the white world threw your way, you could hold on to self-respect by looking sharp.
The irony today is that greater social visibility has brought about a commodification of the black image. From sports stars such as Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, sponsored by Nike and Reebok, to the l'Oreal ads featuring the singer Beyonce Knowles, blackness has become a kind of international signifier of youth and vitality. Like Davis and her afro, black people have become a cipher for their clothes and music and taste in bling-bling jewellery. Hence the ludicrous argument that David Beckham is black because he wears a pair of diamond earrings.
Black people in fact collude in this process. In the US, hip-hop stars such as P Diddy and Jay-Z have parlayed their image into self-owned brands worth several hundred million dollars. By claiming to represent black street culture, they have discovered a way to sell everything from clothes and cars to vodka, much of it straight back to black people.
How does it feel to be black today? Like another target of global marketing. Indeed, what becomes apparent from the V&A show is that, for all their individuality of dress, many black people are also relentless consumers. Perhaps it's always been that way. One of the earliest outfits on display, shown together with the coat she later bought in London, is a particularly smart suit worn by Beryl Gilroy in 1951 as she stepped off the boat from Guyana. The difference today is that what black people are being sold is a version of themselves.
"Black British Style" is at the V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) until 16 January. Ekow Eshun's book Black Gold of the Sun: searching for home in England and Africa will be published by Hamish Hamilton next year