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14 November 2016

With migrant stories under attack, the BBC’s Black is the New Black has come at the right time

This new series reminds me, a British second-generation Nigerian immigrant, of the experiences I share with my father.

By Emmanuel Akinwotu

In 2004, my friend and I walked into a pub in south London and sat down by a screen to watch a Premier League game. The manager at the bar walked over and told us that we couldn’t stay unless we bought a drink. I politely told him I had intended to and a minute later walked to the bar. When I asked if I could order, he refused, telling me that my friend and I should leave.

My dad, who had arrived in Britain in the early Eighties had often spoken – quite animatedly, where his voice would shrill in a way that often made me want to laugh – about dealing with racism. But until then, I never internalised his experiences. Being born in Britain, of Nigerian origin but with a British accent, felt in some ways like a completely different identity and race to his.

He would constantly reiterate that my name and skin colour meant that I had to be more aware of my behaviour, more determined at school, more hardworking than my white, British friends and peers. This is a common trope for African parents. But I had mostly seen his experiences in Britain as to some extent distant from my own.

However, after that day, my distance from his experiences decreased. I pressed the manager for an explanation until he told us his pub “wasn’t for your type”. Rarely have I been subjected to such brazen displays of racism, as my dad experienced. But as a black, British, second-generation immigrant, your awareness of your difference, and the prejudices it can provoke, is always there. Both where it is clear-cut and less so.

Black is the New Black – a new series on BBC Two as a part of the BBC’s Black and British season – brilliantly explores the experiences of black British immigrant life, and how those experiences have changed over time.

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In each of the two episodes thus far, interwoven conversations from a reel of prominent black British figures – Naomi Campbell, Malorie Blackman, Trevor McDonald, to name a few – make up an emotional snapshot of their lives. From the “children of the empire” – the generation that came to Britain in the Fifties and Sixties – to later generations, the show moves through more contemporary experiences of younger public figures like Thandie Newton and Reggie Yates.

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It highlights where their experiences diverge and which common threads persist today – from the brazen racism of signs on shop windows barring entry to blacks, Irish and dogs to the more covert kind.

Each of the talking heads speak to an interviewer who stays behind the camera, and detail how their backgrounds have shaped how they feel about Britain.

Some of the anecdotes are light-hearted. Trevor McDonald’s disdain for snow and the excessive number of pockets in winter jackets that he struggled with from the moment he arrived in London from Trinidad. Bill Morris, the first black general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, laughing at how his first sight of smoke coming out of chimneys made him think that houses were actually on fire.

Morris, often nostalgic about first coming to Britain and living in small spaces in London that he was proud to be able to afford, was nonetheless afraid to leave his home alone throughout the Fifties – for fear of being attacked.

It’s this variety of memories that the show handles so brilliantly. It airs the adventure of immigrant experiences, which make it intriguing – and close to home. Hand-in-hand with the challenges of moving to a new environment was the exhilaration of being in a place that was, in many Commonwealth countries, romanticised. Old pictures of the numerous dirty, cramped, barely affordable shared flats in Stockwell and Oval that my dad bounced between often bely the excitement with which he remembers that time.

The series is also timely. Immigrant stories are increasingly portrayed as negative. Perfectly normal and widespread motives for travelling to a new place, to pursue either a better or different life, are increasingly depicted as perverse and wrong. Growing anti-immigrant populism in Britain, and a normalising of dehumanising rhetoric prevalent in the press and public discourse, makes this series’ empathy and revelations all the more important.

Black is the New Black is on Sundays at 10pm, BBC Two.