New symbols of being Black

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One of the most interesting features of the times we currently live is the constantly negotiated space and shifting goalposts within what used to be described as “The Black Experience”. Internet, social media platforms and mobile phones have irrevocably changed the dynamics of what we see and hear in this regard, which can only be a good thing.

For a very long time, because of the status of the USA as a global superpower, many notions of what was perceived to be intrinsically “Black” were cultural symbols and practices that came from US public figures. At the moment, the “Black World” is in a state of flux. Who would have thought that UK Grime artistes would be proud to be seen in media outlets of all sorts, accepting chieftaincy titles in Yoruba Land, for example?

I remember having conversations with friends after watching film footage many years ago, of Laurence Olivier playing Othello in black face. We were all dismayed by what we saw – it felt like Olivier was channelling Al Jolson in his performance. It was generally agreed that Black people were rarely represented on screen as full, rounded human beings with personal quirks, traits or characteristics.

Around the same time, I came across a book called From Sambo to Superspade, which dealt specifically with the challenges faced by Black actors and other performers in Hollywood and on TV, from the early days of the motion picture industry. Black people were only presented to the world on other people’s terms in those days.

We still have a long way to go before it would be fair to say that representation in the global cultural space is doing full justice to humanity of Black people, across the vast range of diverse heritages and ways of being, but at least there are many of us who are no longer waiting to be picked. We can now pick and present ourselves.