For UK Black History Month, I talked to eight black men between the ages of 21 and 31 and we explored what it's really like to be black, British, and male. After our conversation, it was pretty obvious being a black man comes with many different narratives.
According to these men, being black means dealing with racial microaggressions and subtle racism every day, because racism only seems to be overt when people are drunk or in big groups. It is keeping your head down and your eyes averted when around black boys you don’t know. It is having your dreams and aspirations dulled because the British media only celebrates black rappers and athletes.
It is knowing that you are not really English, because to be authentically English is to be white. It is to know that your definition of black British is connected to African and Caribbean traditions. It is to have a strong sense of "home", even if you have never been "home".
Keith Dube: Growing up you either wanted to be associated with the guy getting girls, or you wanted to be the guy getting girls. To be cool you had to either play sports, get girls, or get money. And as much as you had a strong brotherhood, it was also a dog-eat-dog environment. It wasn’t a choice – you had to be hard, because people would test you. You had to prove that you wasn’t a victim. No one wanted to be a victim.
Toba Akande: Growing up in a African household also affected the kind of young boy you were. So as much as I wanted to be hard on road with my boys, I always had my dad at the back of my head. So I wasn’t just scared of police and mandem, I was also scared of my dad. It was like I couldn’t get in trouble, because what was I going to say when I got home.
There were set ways to have fun, and if you were not doing it, you weren’t cool. I remember being called a wasteman because I had not lost my virginity, age 13. If you was the guy that wasn’t getting girls, the pressure was so much. You had to be the guy that was sick at football, on swingers [fighting] or getting girls, or you were a dickhead.
Dior Clarke: Being a black boy for me meant being a bad boy, being masculine, being on road, having the most swag, and having the best-looking girls. You had to be a certain type of way to fit in, because it was what you saw your olders doing.
This hasn't changed much being a grown-up – I feel like my narrative as a black man is who I am meant to be rather than who I actually am. People expect black men to be a set type of way. They expect you to follow negative stereotypes.
Seun Omobitan: It was pretty much the same for me growing up. Being a black boy meant you were getting girls, you were funny or you were good at sport or music. The guys that used to MC in my area were the guys that were respected. These were the guys that could spit back-to-back on the playground.
Marvin Abbey: When I was growing up, you had to be the cool guy, and the cool guy meant having and doing certain things. You had to have Reebok Workout trainers, you had to have an Avirex jacket and a Nike tracksuit. You also had to be popular or be around the popular guy. It also meant being a little troublesome – we weren’t trying to be killers or anything, we were just having fun. And fun meant getting into trouble sometimes. We would hang around in groups, chat up girls, and look up to our olders – we were just finding ourselves.
But now, being a black man, I feel like being black is linked to so many stereotypes and incorrect narratives. The stereotypes that we are strong and fast don’t bother me – the problem I have is the fear factor that comes with being a black man. I get on the train, people move out the way. I can see white people feeling uneasy when I’m around, and that is because of how black men are seen and spoken about.
Dominique Daniel: It was all about your sporting ability and being "the guy", where I grew up. You had to be the guy that wouldn't let anyone take you for a mug. You had to be associated with being the hard, tough guy. Your olders were hard and tough and those were the guys that you looked up to. It was about being the alpha male, or if you couldn’t be the alpha male, be around the alpha male.
Terroll Lewis: A lot of the black boys I grew up with were driven by sports. You played football or you did boxing. But it was always one foot in sports and the other on the streets.
I asked the men if they trusted the police. I got a resounding no, mixed with laughter.
TL: The police can kiss man's arse.
KD: I have tried to have a positive view of the police, but I can't count how many times I have been stopped and searched yet I have never been arrested off the back of these searches. I always seem to fit some sort of profile.
MA: I have been violated by the police, and I feel like many black boys have been, and we don't complain about it because we are used to that treatment from the police, it's how we expect the police to treat us. I feel like a lot more white people are committing crimes in the UK, because there are more white people in the UK. Yet we are still targets. We see how the police treat black people and we can’t do anything about it. It’s the worst feeling in the world.
SO: I have never felt supported by the police – even when I am a victim of crime I feel like I will still be treated unfairly.
DC: I started distrusting the police when I felt I was constantly stopped and searched for no reason. I feel like the police don’t deal with black men correctly. I remember the Tottenham riots, when it was peaceful, and police were manhandling people. Mark Duggan being shot and he didn’t have a gun on him. [In 2014, an inquest jury found Mark Duggan was lawfully killed, even though they agreed he was unarmed at the time of the fatal shooting.] How can I trust that?
Tolu Odusina: I feel like black boys get racially profiled all the time. If a bunch of black boys were outside just talking and police walk past I bet you any amount that they would get stopped. And I don’t think that is an issue white people face.
SO: It's true, when we go out we are likely to be troubled by the police, or drunk white racists.
MA: The Stephen Lawrence case was my first example of injustice. Prior to that I had no idea how bad things were. Inquiry after inquiry, yet nothing. So much evidence went missing, so many dodgy things happened.
SO: This guy [Stephen Lawrence] was actually killed because he was black. Like, when you let that sink in, it's mad.
MA: That could have been any of us.
If you are a black man in Britain, you are 17 times more likely than a white man to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition and six times more likely to be an inpatient in a mental health unit.
TL: In the black community, mental illness is a very hush-hush thing and it is often pushed under the carpet. I have suffered from mental illness, and mine escalated from being in a very deep, depressed stage of my life, when I was a part of gang activity. It was being stressed over lack of money, or having too much money – I had so much going on in my mind. So much brought me down. I would be sat on hills crying, because I wanted to hurt people.
People won’t understand what you go through when you are a part of that gang culture. It can drive you down that road of depression. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to. I used to cry and didn't know what was wrong. I would be chilling with my guys and something would hit me and I would go outside and just start crying, and come back and act normal. I was in a place and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I feel like we don’t get support anywhere as black men. I have white friends and they have their parents pay for therapy.
SO: I feel like I wouldn’t even know if I had a mental illness, like it’s not discussed so I would just feel like I’m down.
KD: I feel like a lot of black people don’t know about mental illness, because it's not talked about in our communities. It wasn’t until I was open about being depressed [Keith fronted a BBC documentary called Being Black, Going Crazy?] that I found out I could get help. Religious black people feel like you can pray it away. But no matter how much you pray, you can’t pray away schizophrenia.
MA: But what if you can pray it away? Like, depending on the strength of your faith you can pray it away. Sometimes God is the only person you can talk to when going through certain things. Because growing up my mum always told me that I could talk to her about anything, but I never felt like I could. I can’t talk to her about being sad and crying because she will judge me. She will slap me and tell me to snap out of it. I had fear for my mum, so I couldn’t tell her what I was going through. So I couldn’t talk to anyone.
TO: Mental illness is not discussed in my family – if something was going wrong, it was "go to church and pray". If I am going though something, I wouldn’t tell people, because people will see me as soft.
Would you go to therapy, given the chance?
DC: I think everyone should have therapy.
DD: Black men are mocked if they show emotion, and I don't know if I would want to be seen as vulnerable. I was brought up to believe that black men don't go through mental illness, it's white-people problems. But that is bullshit, and we should be able to speak out and seek help.
TO: I wouldn’t take it – I tried it once and I didn’t feel comfortable. I grew up thinking that I can handle shit by myself.
SO: We are made to believe we can handle things ourselves. It’s like, I don’t need to seek support. I don’t want to be made to feel vulnerable.
MA: No, I wouldn't want to be judged.
KD: Therapy changed my life. I opened up, it made me feel like I could talk to someone that wasn’t going to judge me. I felt like I could say whatever I liked. I feel like many people are afraid therapy will expose things they are not ready to deal with.
Do you feel like black communities are explicitly homophobic or anti-gay?
DC: Yep! I come from a Caribbean family, and when I was growing up, I used to act like I liked girls, I was sleeping with lots of girls. And then I went to drama school, an environment where I felt I could be who I wanted to be. And that’s when I felt comfortable to come out as gay. Which was so hard. I come from a yardie family. I grew up to songs that say “burn a batty boy,” "burn a chi chi boy” – anti-gayness is a part of my culture. And it’s crazy because there are so many black gay guys who are undercover because of our culture.
SO: I’ve never been homophobic, I don’t think. But I have kept my distance from it – I never tried to embrace it. I don’t feel like I hate gay people, but I was brought up in a Nigerian religious household – I was told being gay was wrong.
DD: Growing up I didn’t want to be around gay people. And then I started to see things with my eyes and not my community’s and I dropped all of that.
TO: I grew up in a Christian household so I was brought up to be against gay people. And I was explicitly homophobic, and this stemmed from my parents. Once upon a time I wouldn’t even want to be friends with gay people, then I grew up.
DC: I can relate to that, because before coming out I was homophobic. But now I wear my gayness with pride. I think it’s a generational problem – the older black generation are anti-gay, and it was hard for people to come out back in the day. Like, if I was to come out in Jamaica back in the day, I would be dead. Whereas now, people don’t care no more as much. But black people have a long way to go when it comes to accepting homosexuality. Before I came out, being gay was a diss, it just wasn’t something you did as a black boy. It wasn’t seen as right. We didn’t talk about it.
But do you think if being gay was a choice, a black man being brought up how we were brought up would choose it? Why would you choose to be something that your community doesn’t accept? Being gay is a part of me, I didn’t choose it. I always knew I was gay, but I thought it was wrong. I battled with myself – I also believe in God, so I really thought it was wrong.
TA: Saying someone was gay was a way to insult them – it didn’t even seem like something someone could actually be. Being gay has so many negative connotations in the black community.
MA: Black parents don’t allow you to be who you want to be. We still have a generation that is very stuck in their ways and are not willing to accept homosexuality.
TL: As we are getting older it’s like, if someone is gay, then they're gay, respect all humans. But at the same time I would feel uncomfortable with a gay guy in my personal space.
How would you feel if someone you knew came out?
TO: I can’t lie – I wouldn’t know how to take it, I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. I would see them different.
TA: I would accept it, but, like, it would change things. I wouldn’t be open to hearing about his relationship.
DC: Because I came out when I was 21, many of my male friends are straight, and all my friends accepted me. When I came out to my mum, she laughed and said she always knew. My brother wasn’t as supportive, he just couldn't accept it. But my friends are cool, it didn't change our relationship. I can tell them about my relationship issues, but I feel like I can’t go into certain details.
DD: I would be fine with it. I think we need to be brought up that it isn’t wrong. That is where the problem stems – we are always told it’s wrong. When we have kids, we need to normalise it.
TL: I have had conversations with black people and some people say it’s OK and some people still believe it’s an illness.
Do you feel loved, and who do you think loves you?
KD: Yeah, I feel loved.
TA: I would say my family and friends love me.
MA: I feel like the first time I felt love was when my mum took me to Universal Studios in Florida, that was a big deal for me and I will always remember it. Right now I don’t feel overly loved, I just don't feel hated. I feel like I'm respected.
TO: I know my friends love me. It took me going through something to really see how much they loved me. We don't tell each other we love each other, because black boys are not really explicit with our love. Which is why I rated the "Letter to Cadet" and "Letter to Krept" tracks, because these were two black MCs that were publicly showing love.
SO: My mum and dad are still very much in love with each other and my household is a very loving household, so I have always felt love. And I feel like my friends have my back, like, boys show love in different ways. The black boys I’m around won’t just tell you "I love you, fam", but they will always be there if anything happened. They do things for me because they love me, I guess.
TL: I feel loved by a lot of people, and it's nice.
DD: Right now I feel loved by friendship groups and my girlfriend.
DC: Do I feel loved by the world? No. But it’s alright because I love myself. And the people around me love me.