Read your roots

Encounters - As a child in the 1970s, he was called Golliwog and Sambo. Kwame Kwei-Armah talks race

Is mixed race the new black? Now that black culture is positively cool - think hip-hop, baggy trousers and Blinglish - what will be the next battle in race relations? Kwame Kwei-Armah - the actor and playwright who is also a frontman for the BBC's new Culture Show - thinks it will indeed be mixed race, which is a subject in his new play, Fix Up, opening soon at the National Theatre.

"I believe that mixed-race identity has been a sleeping issue," he says. "But in the next five to ten years, it will be huge within the black community." After all, he argues, the fastest-growing section of the population is mixed race. And yet the very idea of it encourages prejudice. "We talk about people of dual heritage being half of one and half of another - white society sees them as black, and blacks see them as close to white. But in places such as Liverpool, there are people whose families have been mixed race for generations, so they can't just be half and half."

Some mixed-race youth already refer to themselves as "Generation M" or the "remix generation", and ad campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Lancome use models with racially indeterminate features - the ambiguous look appeals to a wider audience. The mosaic approach pioneered by Benetton in the 1980s is out, and the idea that a drop of black blood makes you black is as dated as the Afro hairstyle.

With the growing power of Generation M, argues Kwei-Armah, some of black culture's icons will have to be reclassified: Bob Marley is a prime candidate for mixed-race hero, as is Jimi Hendrix, Shirley Bassey, Sade or Naomi Campbell. In fact, what is unmixed race?

"In the Caribbean, there's a kind of shadism," says Kwei-Armah. "The closer you are to white, the better educated, better fed and better paid you've been. And in British society, the most acceptable shade of black is a kind of coffee brown. Why? If you look at plantation history, when the master took someone, the resulting child would still be a slave, but they would be a house negro rather than a field negro."

This violent history is reflected on stage in Kwei-Armah's new play, set in a run-down bookshop in north London during Black History Month. Run by Kiyi, a fiftysomething black intellectual, the shop attracts not only Kwesi, a younger militant, but also Alice, a mixed-race woman searching for her heritage. It's an emotionally powerful and politically provocative story which, unusually for black drama, focuses on intellectuals rather than street kids. "I don't want to be the chronicler of the underclass," says Kwei-Armah. "I want to write plays based in places where black people congregate: the West Indian restaurant, the church, the hairdresser and the political bookstore."

Fix Up is a passionate plea for the study of history. Its motto could be Marcus Garvey's "A person without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots", or the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah's "The present is where we get lost - if we forget our past and have no vision of the future". The novelist is no relation: Kwame was born in London as Ian Roberts, his parents having come from Grenada. In 1989, after travelling to Ghana and the West Indies, and researching his family history, he changed his name as a political act.

One of his favourite quotations is L P Hartley's "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". Kwei-Armah stresses the changes in social attitudes in his personal history. "Growing up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s was horrendous. Youth culture defined itself by how aggressive it could be against people from ethnic backgrounds: I was called Golliwog and Sambo. In the 1980s, a lot of directors would say: 'I'd love to cast this black actor, but I don't think the public would accept it.'

"They were horrible days and we've made huge strides since then."

When he was a child, "the overwhelming majority of the black population had no idea of their history and their worth, and only thought about history in terms of slavery. And that's no help to your self-esteem." While the Jewish experience in the 20th century produced many narratives, Kwei-Armah argues, Africans have only one: Alex Haley's Roots. "There are many more narratives waiting to be told," he says.

In Fix Up, Kwei-Armah makes the point that many black people today are more interested in their hair than in books. "Our current obsession with all things material and instant celebrity has replaced the graft of learning. Reading isn't instant; it takes time. My latest hairstyle is great for today, but we spend lots of money on things that contribute to our disenfranchisement. If there is one shout in the play, it is: read your history. Not just to search for heroes, but also to find the grotesque, because sometimes in the grotesque - such as the complicity of African chiefs in the slave trade - we find the truth."

Fix Up is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) from 16 December to 23 March

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