No leaders

Young black Britons don't need Big Man role models like Jesse Jackson. They need local mentors - and

I was born on the notorious West Side of Chicago. I first learned about sex not from my parents or the nuns at school, but from being kept awake at night by the gang initiations outside my bedroom window.

Each of my three brothers, in turn, had a gun pressed to his temple before he was 20. And a nephew was murdered by a gang in broad daylight on a busy street.

I have taught in schools in Brooklyn where ten-year-olds routinely made wills; and in schools in north London where boys ready for secondary school hid out to study in the reception class, so as not to become targeted as swots and eligible to suffer the fate of poor Damilola Taylor. Gangs and gang-bangers have been part of my life, all of my life.

Now, in early 21st-century Britain, black gang culture has finally emerged into mainstream consciousness. Proposed solutions range from the encouragement of "fathering" to the need for a national leader. Yet the rise of black gang culture also presents us with the opportunity to examine other ways of addressing not only this phenomenon, but black life in general.

The classic approach uses the languages of sociology, politics, religion or psychology. This is no longer enough to describe either the new generation that makes up the gangs or the black community in general. It is time to take the language, the thinking behind theoretical science and maths and add them, along with culture, to the mix.

This is necessary because of two factors.

The first is that, in London - where almost half of the black population lives - close to 50 per cent of children under the age of five have one non-white parent. These young people will, in time, present a definition of themselves that the old paradigms cannot contain on their own.

The second factor is the rise of new technology and the intense interface our young people have with it, creating a different kind of consciousness that is sweeping all before it.

October is designated Black History Month, but very soon it will be the familiar definitions that will become history.

The Atlantic model

Too often, America - the Atlantic model - is cited in policymaking for black Britain. Aside from our similar racial origins, however, black America and black Britain have less in common than meets the eye.

Black America is largely monolithic and our roots tend to be Southern Baptist and rural. We have roughly the same accent as a result of segregation and its consequent restriction of movement. We have lived continuously on American soil, most of that time in slavery, for more than half a millennium. (These, by the way, are some of the elements that make Barack Obama seem alien to many black Americans.)

Black Britain, on the other hand, is international. It is urban. It has no rural history in this country. Within the living experience and memory of all black Britons are other countries, other cultures. And ironically, because of the impact of biraciality, the term "black" may not define black Britain in the future at all.

Therefore, black Britain should concentrate on life as lived here. This concentration can develop a model for the rest of the world as urbanisation spreads.

Following the recent visit of Jesse Jackson to the UK, the Guardian lamented that black Britain had not, as yet, created a similar leader of equi valent power and influence. I congratulate black Britain on its failure to achieve this. Here, the "Big Man" model of a Jackson or a Farrakhan cannot be the answer. "No Leader" would be more particular to this country.

"No Leader" centres on the local level. It champions the hard-working, "get on with it" ethos of people such as Sidney McFarlane MBE, who works tirelessly in Lincoln through local charities and makes a difference. There are many, many black people like him. They walk the talk. "No Leader" responds to the people, is creative and adaptable. "No Leader" relies on mentoring. It is, for example, about young people working with young people. Its relationships are lateral. No one looks up. No one looks down. There is only "us" and "we".

Although poverty, racism and deprivation are some of the conditions in which gangs develop, they also are created through and nurtured through the sophisticated use of social networking sites, mobile phones and other rapidly developing technologies.

Because of this, we now live in a divide. We inhabit a kind of pre-Gutenberg/Gutenberg universe in which mathematical constructs such as Moore's Law, which describes the rate of change in a computer component, may be used, in years to come, as a means of looking at the waves of gang violence - and even at the growth of gangs.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Henry Jenkins, a director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted as saying: "The rate of change is so intense that the expertise you have as a nine-year-old may be obsolete by the time that you're 12 or 13. You [adults] need to keep an eye on the kindergartener who knows what you don't know."

For the first time in history, the young and the very young will have to sit at the high tables of policymaking. We adults will have to learn their language, enter their world. There will be no universals, no absolutes.

Culture will become a crucial feedback system across the technology chasm as well as a transmitter of the values we wish to conserve and pass on. This last will be culture's main and crucial purpose.

All of this will happen on the "atomic" level. Big, fat, top-down social programmes will roll over and die as microprogrammes target and pinpoint areas of concern and need.

Not just victims

The black American designer and long-time London resident Kevin Spellman has an interest in atomisation in relation to the black community. He has worked on urban projects in Lewi sham, south-east London. And, from his interest in various ideas contained in chaos and other theories, he has designed a concept he calls "holarchy". For him, "small is beautiful".

"What interests me is the different approaches towards fostering creativity in black areas," says Spellman. "Perhaps we should concentrate more on a bottom-up approach which centres on creativity, instead of top-down, which tends to be an economic approach. There are many questions to ask regarding how, for instance, creativity interfaces with economics and ethnicity. We should look deeper into this."

Paul Goodwin, urban research fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, is developing what he calls "black urbanism", which looks at how black people actually live in cities. He believes that the study, from a positive point of view, of the way we reconfigure cities is very important in understanding the dynamic of urban centres where black people live.

"Black people and immigrants have created their own urban worlds; there is no single experience of city life. Until now the concept of the 'ghetto' has limited our understanding of not only how these spaces are produced, but also how or what they represent and signify," Goodwin says. "A shift of understanding is not just academic or conceptual - it has major imp lications for the way we deal with 'black', immigrant or 'ghetto' spaces in terms of policy and intervention.

"Studies of discrimination and 'urban disadvantage' do not cover the totality of the black urban experience," he says. "Black people are not just victims. Histories of community-building, the making and remaking of cultures, art and creative practices, the construction and deconstruction of urban landscapes, and their relationship to black and migrant urban communities, all need to be addressed by urbanists and planners today. Black and immigrant communities have contributed much to the current vibrancy of British cities and need to be central to any inner-city urban regeneration efforts."

Black urbanism is not only an understanding of urban culture and experience from a black perspective - it also requires the active involvement of us, the black communities in cities and neighbourhoods all across the UK. Black communities should be more engaged in the process of designing and creating the very neighbourhoods and spaces of the metropolitan areas they have done so much to help revive over the past half-century. Black urbanites, and the expressive "dissident" cultures they help produce, must be seen as active participants and innovators in the production of urban spaces - not just as passive victims of urban decay or a "culture of poverty".

The black middle class is the one segment of the black community that is largely ignored. It is a community whose stories and points of view are seldom heard, whose images we hardly see. They are the disappeared of black Britain.

The writer and broadcaster Zina Saro-Wiwa believes that too much attention is paid to black pathology and not enough to other stories, other lives. "The middle class is the real cause for hope," she says. "The recent publi cation of a black power list, with a broadening of black success stories from sports, music and politics, was refreshing - but not refreshing enough. Very few people, of whatever colour, become QCs, government ministers - or, indeed, multimillionaires. Many more black people are middle class. We need to break this paradigm of extremes: of either hoodies or pol iticians. We need to normalise black success."

And normalise our perception of Africa. One way of helping our young people, instilling in them more pride, more concern for the community and more hope for the future, is to refocus our reporting of Africa.

Good news

I will forever be grateful to my parents and teachers for presenting to me an Africa that was other than the land of spear-waving, screaming crazies depicted by the media when I was a child. Besides the Darfurs, the Sierra Leones and Zimbabwes, we need more good news about Africa.

Because it does exist.

For example, Africa has the world's second- fastest-growing local stock market; Kenya is a leader in the advanced use of mobile-phone technology for bespoke medical care. The Africa that will show its face on the new rolling news station A24 will be not only an Africa of wars and poverty, but an Africa of culture, of universities, of good governance and health care.

The journalist Onyekachi Wambu, who is also information officer at the African Foundation for Development, is passionate about linking up the African diaspora with the continent."Eight million new people come on to the job market every year in sub-Saharan Africa," he says. "Finding suitable jobs for these people should be the focus of any genuine poverty-reducing strategy, not all that stuff about aid. Africa is going through an incredible period of activity and business optimism. Had you stuck £1m in 2003 in the ten leading stocks on the Nigerian stock exchange, you would have walked away last year with £1m in profit. I am optimistic about Africa's future and how the diaspora can plug in to transforming Africa."

Black Britain can help define the 21st century in this country and in the world. We just need to open all the windows in the house.

Bonnie Greer, Paul Goodwin, Kevin Spellman and others will be at the RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2, on 18 October at 6pm

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power