No Leaders: Young Black Britons Don't Need Big Man Role Models like Jesse Jackson. They Need Local Mentors-And a Recognition That Their British Culture Is Valuable and Unique

By Greer, Bonnie | New Statesman (1996), October 15, 2007 | Go to article overview
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No Leaders: Young Black Britons Don't Need Big Man Role Models like Jesse Jackson. They Need Local Mentors-And a Recognition That Their British Culture Is Valuable and Unique


Greer, Bonnie, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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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.

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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 nonwhite 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.)

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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 equivalent 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.

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