Black Britons and the vaccine: Government distrust, the comfort of religion and the post-truth age of social media
Outside of racism and the prospect of Carnival going ahead this year, what has united a vast majority of the black British community? And no, I am not talking about being fed up with this whole lockdown.
It's the strong distrust against taking the COVID-19 vaccines.
Whether old or young, second generation or third generation, African or Caribbean, there is a universal truth among black Britons right now: Don’t trust the vaccine. It’s even official now. Stats from the UK Household Longitudinal Study showed that 72% of black people in the UK were unlikely to take the jab.
The fact that such a high percentage of black people in the UK are so against the virus does not surprise me. Some of my friends, who are educated and mostly well-balanced black men and black women, have straight up told me they would have to be tied down and drugged off their faces for anyone to inject the vaccine into them. Most of my family aren't keen either - my Mum is outright against it (more on her later).
Many black social media influencers have basically voiced their doubts about the vaccine. Some have made humorous videos showing exaggerated side-effects of taking the vaccine, such as half of your face sliding down or slurred speech. Although it's content for entertainment, it fuels fears among the black British community that the vaccine could seriously affect your ability to do anything, from walking to having sex. This is despite the reassurances from qualified medical professionals that there will be no other ramifications apart from protection from the virus.
Now it is easy to simply dismiss black people's reluctance to take the vaccine as a another example of us being cynical for the sake of it. Even if you're from the community, to do that is to ignore the complex and intertwining reasons why black people are such adamant anti-vaxxers.
Distrust of a government who have historically not had their interests at heart
Most black people don't trust the government. This is universal. To be fair, we black people have not had the best relationships with those in power in the western world. In Britain, when the first West Indians stepped off the HMT Empire Windrush onto British soil in 1948, they weren't exactly embraced. Instead, they and their children would be subjected to two solid decades of racial abuse, discrimination and police brutality that was encouraged by the government. And if it wasn't pushed by the British government, then whatever mistreatment that befell the burgeoning black British community was largely ignored by it.
The West Indians who came to Britain and the Africans who migrated afterwards in the 80s have not forgotten. Britain's appalling treatment of its new African and Caribbean population has left a bad taste and a deep, raw distrust in white-dominated government. This anti-government stance has been passed down to the next generation of black Britons born into this country.
Worse still, we have a Conservative government in power. Given that Thatcher's Conservative government resided in parliament during the 80s, when black Britons really had an awful time, the black British population's cynicism toward the British government is even higher. This is further compounded by some of the questionable remarks the current PM has made about black people in the past, and well… you can sort of see why many black Britons aren't really buying into the government's endorsement of the vaccines. I honestly think the Labour party, which historically secures black votes, would have a marginally better chance of convincing black people to take the vaccine.
But even Labour would struggle to convince black Britons to trust the vaccine for another reason.
Big pharma have a history of abusing black bodies*
Pfizer, the American multinational pharmaceutical company, is manufacturing the main vaccine currently be rolled out across the country.
But Pfizer has a dark past of endangering black lives to test new drugs. Almost 25 years ago now, Pfizer carried out drug trials on children living in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria. Tragically, 11 children died and dozens more suffered irreversible disabilities. What's worse, the trial was carried out underhandedly and was effectively illegal.
Although Pfizer did eventually give massive payouts to the family as compensation - the damage had been done. Not only would these families never see their children again but Pfizer's reputation had been seriously damaged, perhaps permanently.
So it's not surprising then that many black Britons aren't exactly queuing up enthusiastically to take vaccine, given the history behind those who have manufactured it. Young black people, because of social media, are well informed and know about the Kano incident.
But this brings me to my next point.
Influencers and celebrities have more sway than actual experts
Among young black people today, celebrities and social media influencers have significant sway on their opinions. A friend of mine told me he wasn't taking the vaccine and when I asked him why he sent me a video of a social media comedian explaining why the vaccine is potentially dodgy. It wasn't a video from a qualified expert but a comedian whose job is to make people laugh, not to provide educational content on vaccinations.
The government's problem, and this isn't exclusive to black millennials but the younger generation at large, is that young people don't really give a toss about the objective truth anymore. Experts can be ignored. To play devil’s advocate, government experts have made some assurances in the past about when we would be out of lockdown only to backtrack on their word. So there is a credibility issue about the truth behind the words of these medical experts.
Also, social media is a whole lot of noise. Everyone has an opinion. The person with the most engaged followers has the power to change millions of views with their own uninformed opinions about the vaccine. The government has quite a task on its hand cutting through the social media jungle and engaging these social media influencers to communicate the correct information to their legions of followers. But there may be some reluctance among the black influencers to peddle the government's message. We have seen black stars like Ashley Walters use his Instagram channel to encourage his fans to take the vaccine. But this is few and far between.
The strong hold of religion
Religion is like gravity for many black Britons, especially the baby boomer generation. My mother is a fervent Christian, and she has told me that she would outright refuse to take the vaccine when it is offered to her. In her eyes, the vaccine has not been sanctioned by God.
Often, in African and Caribbean households, science takes a backseat to religion. It will be challenging to convince a steadfast Christian like my mother that she should take the vaccine. This is where the government will need to work closely with community and church leaders to educate people with strong religious beliefs about the vaccine's benefits. But even that might not be enough. Religious black people are notoriously stubborn – I speak from first-hand experience.
Widespread fake news and misinformation
Fake news has probably been the most defining aspects of western society in the last five years. The proliferation of messaging apps, like WhatsApp, has only exacerbated this. Not a day goes by when my mother hasn't sent me some ridiculous 'news report' on WhatsApp. I once got a video from someone on WhatsApp suggesting Barack Obama was a lizard in disguise.
The older black generation, who did not grow up with social media or even this level of complex technology, is easily tricked by fake news. Technology has also enabled fake news to look legit, and only the discerning eyes of someone well-versed in the norms of social news can spot when a news report is just a load of fabricated nonsense.
Initially, there had been a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus. Now we are seeing this repeated with the vaccine. I remember, when this whole pandemic began, my black friends were sending me videos about how the pandemic was part of some clandestine distraction so the government could install 5G. Remember when we had people destroying 5G towers? It's a perfect example of what happens when social media and fake news come together to form a dangerously convincing narrative that can galvanise a lot of people to do the wrong thing.
Give it time
Giving all the twists and turns of this pandemic - the broken promises and the backtracking - black people simply aren't in the right frame of mind to trust this government's endorsement of the vaccine.
However, give it a year or two, and if there have been no cases of any significant side effects from taking the vaccine, then black people will more likely be open to taking the vaccine. But right now, the black British community stand mostly united against it.
And that's on God.
*This section was added after the original article was published
It is not remiss to say that Megan Markle has been the most divisive and most radical addition to join the British Royal Family ranks since the late Princess Diana (may she rest in pace).
Since getting married to Prince Harry back in 2018(is it me, or does that feel like it was much longer), Megan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, has caused quite a stir among the Royal family, British media and the broader British culture. It is fair to say that she has not been treated kindly by the Brits.
At first, there were many high hopes. There was an initial outpouring of love and excitement when Prince Harry officially announced he would be marrying Megan Markle, a divorced American actress from California who starred in Suits. However, it soon turned sour. After that memorable fire and brimstone, full-on African-Sunday-service wedding reception, the British media soon had their claws out. We had a news outlet stating Megan's DNA was 'exotic'. A BBC presenter tweeted an image comparing her and Harry's then-unborn son to a chimpanzee (thankfully, that idiot journalist got the sack) and even suggestions that Megan Markle eating avocado is somehow linked to human rights abuses and drought." Ok then. *rolls eyes in confusion.*
Then came the rift with the Royal Family. We first got an inclination of this family feud when the Queen banned Megan from wearing the royal jewels worn by Princess Diana. Allegedly, this was a response to Megan's demanding behaviour ahead of her wedding. Things came to a head when the Duke and Dutchness of Sussex announced they wanted to be 'financially independent’ and carve their business entity/empire outside of the Royal Family while still benefiting from the brand association. The fact that the Sussexes did not consult the Queen before making this decision only added gallons of petrol to the fire.
Was it just racism?
After months of uncertainty, the Sussexes have now officially announced that they will no longer be working members of the Royal Family, effectively severing ties with the Royals. With an upcoming stint on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, their brand building in America now underway, now is a good time to reflect on Megan's treatment by the British press.
Many of those in the Black British community believe Megan was a victim of blatant racism from both the British media and the Royal family. And that’s it. But I do not think it's that simple.
Prominent Americans and the Royal Family have never mixed well
I am an avid student of history. You want to know why? Because history reveals seeds that were planted long ago and grew into the current situations happening in the present. Nothing is by accident.
The history books show us that whenever an American, especially a famous one, becomes entangled with a Royal Family member, it is almost always a messy affair. For example, Edward VIII, the shortest-serving king of the United Kingdom, caused a constitutional crisis when he proposed to Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, in 1936. This caused a great deal of headache for the Royal Family because Miss Simpson was twice divorced, which put Edward VIII at odds with the church, eventually forcing his hand to abdicate the throne altogether so he could marry his love.
There have been other times when Americans forming close relationships, romantic or otherwise, with British royals has brought scandal to the Royal Family. Kiki Preston, another American socialite, was a drug-addicted, free spirit who befriended Prince George, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George V and Mary of Teck. Preston encouraged Prince George to embark on a hedonistic and scandalous lifestyle of sex and drugs. It is even alleged they both had a son out of wedlock.
Prince Andrew had a short-lived affair with Koo Stark, an American actress, much like Megan Markle, who starred in a very raunchy film. Prince Andrew's close friendship with the disgraced and deceased American investor Jeffery Epstein has been well covered. Another American investor, John Bryan, effectively ended the already rocky marriage between Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson when the former was caught sucking on the former's toes in 1992. What a scandal!
As you can see, there has been a precedent of prominent Americans having relations with British Royals that almost always ends in scandal. The fact that Megan Markle was a divorcee before falling in love with Prince Harry would raise eyebrows among the Royal family, least of all someone as conservative as the Queen.
American's showy behaviour is also very much at odds with the dignified reservation that the Royal Family aims to perpetuate to the public (even if we all know they're not as prim and proper as they make out to be). It's not surprising that the Queen has been unhappy with Megan Markle since the former actress refuses to bow to conformity and follow protocol.
The Queen's disapproval of Megan Markle significantly influenced the negative tabloid reporting around her.
The British paparazzi have always been nasty. Megan is not the first to experience it.
While I do not deny that there is undoubtedly some racial element involved with how the British press has reported on Megan, it is not the only factor. Again, good old history shows us that the British media always love a juicy Royal scandal. The British paparazzi is one of the most reviled and brutal in Europe. The tabloid's obsession with celebrities contributed to the tragic death of Princess Diana.
Although Princess Diana's mental health was already precariously on edge with her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrating before the public, the relentless media onslaught made it worse. It has been well documented how journalists were incentivised with big pay-outs for getting exclusive snaps of the Princess of Wales. The media did praise Princess Diana of course as the people’s princess, a reception the Duchess of Sussex has not received, but they were also quick to highlight her several love affairs. As you can see, media intrusion and bad press is not exclusive to Megan Markle.
Megan’s individuality invited criticism, not her black heritage
The British press used Megan's biracial heritage to embarrass her, but I would argue that her conduct has brought this much negativity on her more than her race. Now, before you crucify me, I am in no way stating that Megan has done anything wrong in the way she has carried herself. I personally think she is a wonderfully progressive and independent woman who has brought much-needed rejuvenation and relevance to an outdated Royal Family.
But I also understand that it is because she is an ex-divorcee, an American and is also very independent that has caused her to be shunned by the Royal Family and be a victim of a smear campaign of negativity by the British press.
Ultimately, the unkind treatment of Megan Markle by the British monarchy and the media is simply a display of progressive attitudes clashing with conservative ones. It is a battle of ideas. Megan Markle married into a family that isn’t big on modernity or breaking with tradition. As much as I admire Meghan, I think it's better for her, Prince Harry and their children to live in America.
They’re both far too cool for the Royal Family anyway.
‘Blackness’ is a white European invention that makes sense in America but is lazily applied in Europe.
One of the books I've finally got round to reading since I have so much time to stay indoors now has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half Of A Yellow Sun.' I am about 30% through it, and it's honestly one of the best historical fiction novels about Nigeria that I've ever read. Well-written, brilliantly researched and filled with a great cast of characters all living in Nigeria during the tragic Biafran war – Nigeria's first and only civil war.
There is a scene in the novel, and I won’t go into too much detail for spoilers, where an Igbo academic explains that the purest form of a Nigerian’s identity is essentially their tribe. The whole concept of 'blackness' is the invention of white Europeans who colonised and enslaved Africans.
It was a revelation in the book that hit me, and I had to re-read that part several times to digest it.
And I had to agree with the statement. This term ‘black people’ only exists outside of Africa. The entire concept of ‘blackness’ has not only robbed so many Africans and Caribbean of their true heritage, but it has effectively confined people with melanin skin and restrict us economically, socially and even culturally.
The very idea of blackness is probably the worst thing to happen to people of African descent.
Blackness was inevitable in America. But in Europe, it’s just lazy and dismissive
What it means to be a ‘black person’ is different across the diaspora. In my view, this concept of ‘blackness’ created by white Europeans has different connotations in America and Europe.
In America, the label of ‘blackness’ is inevitable. The children of African slaves who were shipped to the Americas have sadly lost any real connection to their African heritage. If you were to ask an African American where they are from, they would say from "New York" or "California." What else could they say? They see themselves as American. Since they have melanin-rich, brown skin, which signals their African heritage, they have been collectively labelled as African Americans, which they have proudly adopted. How else would you describe the population of people in America with African heritage who no longer have a link to Africa and, even if they do, it’s tenuous at best.
Even if an African American were to trace back their ancestry and head back to whatever country in Africa their ancestors came from, they would still be African Americans. You wouldn’t call them American Nigeran or an American Ghanaian unless their parents migrated to America during this century, so the connection to their motherland has not been tragically robbed from them.
But the idea of a collective ‘blackness’ in the European side of the diaspora doesn't make sense in the same way it does in America. In Europe, people with melanin-rich skin are very aware of where they came from in Africa or the Caribbean. Unlike African Americans, there is no disconnect to their African or Caribbean heritage.
In modern Britain, the term 'Black British' sounds odd to me now. A British Jamaican and a British Nigerian, the latter I identify as, are not the same, even if our shade of skin might be. Many, if not all, of the third and second generation of black people living in the UK today, have parents who had migrated from one of the former commonwealth colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. These children heard Yoruba, or Twi or Jamaican patois and ate African or Caribbean food at home. They heard, even if they didn't actively listen, to the African or Caribbean music from their motherland. It’s why Afrobeats, the popular music genre created mainly by the third- and second-generation European Africans, is so heavily influenced by music from the motherland. That kind of African influence is barely present in the R'n'B and Hip-Hop genre created by African Americans.
The term 'black people' to describe people with African heritage living in Europe is plain lazy. Instead, I would use the prefix 'British' in front of their place of origin or ancestry—for example, a British Nigerian. But the phrase 'black people in Britain' doesn't make much sense to me anymore. What exactly do you mean by 'black people' in a European context? It makes sense to use that term in America, but in Europe, it's just condescending. ‘Black people’ in Europe are not homogeneous in their culture the same way African Americans are in America.
Tribalism is the trustiest form of the African identity
This idea of blackness is ultimately a by-product of the transatlantic slave trade carried out by White Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, African Americans are reduced to being 'Black people' because their link to their African lineage has eroded over centuries. But it's important to remember that 'blackness' is not the identity of Africa's children.
Tribalism is the most authentic identity of every brown person whose ancestry begins in Africa. Even Nigerian nationality is a construct from the minds of white Europeans. My real identity, one that white European hands have not moulded, is British Yoruba. Both my parents are from the Yoruba tribe, so that is what I am. White Europeans did not create the Yoruba language and its customs. It is pure African culture.
Of course, I understand that using the term 'black people' or 'Black British' is a much simpler way to group various ethnic minorities. And I agree in that context. It would be a headache trying to group people by their ancestral tribes on a hospital form. I still label myself as a 'Black British' author because it’s easier for my author brand. But what is important is that I remember who I am. I will not allow myself to buy into the white European construct, especially in Europe, that I am just a "black person."
A recent friend of mine sent me this YouTube video of a white filmmaker named Michael explaining why white pride does not exist because there is no such thing as white culture. Michael argues that there is only white ethnic culture (e.g. German, Italian, Polish etc.), but there is no overall white culture. However, in his view, there is such a thing as a universal black culture because black people have collectively suffered under racism, systematic oppression and universal slavery.
To some extent, I agree with Michael’s well-articulated answer (he’s definitely allowed to spud me). However, for me, where he loses me is when he says a black culture exists because of black people's collective suffering. When he said this, I had to wince uncomfortably. I get where he is coming from, and I understand its well-intentioned, but equating black culture with black suffering is not only very harmful, it's a typical narrative driven by white people. Unfortunately, it's one which black people have dangerously convinced themselves to be true.
Let me break it down.
Slavery is not black culture. It’s black history.
In America, slavery will always be the needle that stitches the African American identity. As everyone knows, the ancestors of African Americans were kidnapped, gagged and chained. Ripped away from the African continent, these African slaves toiled and served under white masters for over hundreds of years. Almost 300 years after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, its legacy and long-lasting and damaging ramifications are still deep-rooted in America.
But is this black history or black culture? The dictionary definition of culture is:
“the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”
If we take the above description of culture as gospel, what are we implying if we believe that black people's enslavement is part of black culture? African Americans' subjugation and the systematic racism that hinder their progression cannot come under black culture. The slave trade was an entire ecosystem created by white people to profit from the bodies of African men, women and children. It's an unfortunate part of African American and black history, but it is not black culture.
Whenever I see a white person say or imply that slavery is black culture, I can’t lie, I do get triggered, and I am not a fan of that word. Slavery is black history, but it doesn’t make it black culture. For example, the Nazis and the Holocaust atrocity are part of German history. Still, I am sure if you asked most Germans today, they wouldn’t associate such horrific acts of human brutality with German culture.
In the same way, we should not be slapping slavery under the black culture label. I see many well-meaning white people and even some black people do this. Do you want to know why it has me worried?
Because if we do this, black culture becomes one focused too much on black people's suffering under white Europeans rather than a celebration of black people’s art, music, African history, clothing, various African ethnicities, and the fantastic food. Of course, the history of slavery will always influence black culture, but it's not representative black culture.
Black people did not create the transatlantic slave trade, and most did not profit from it. It was designed, enforced and exploited by white Europeans. Black people have made the best music on earth, delicious food, the best clothing style, and some of the world's best entertainers and sportsmen. That is black culture. Black people in America and worldwide should celebrate that as our culture and not our dark history written by white Europeans. Slavery and colonialism might unite black people under a shared history but it does not define black culture.
When I first saw the trailer for Bridgerton, the next Netflix-funded production from the streaming service's growing library of original content, I was intrigued. I had been a mild fan of Downtown Abbey, and I generally love a quality period drama. Besides, we hadn’t seen a decent period piece in ages. But what made Bridgerton stand out wasn’t just its genre, but it featured black people.
A lot of black people. In prominent positions in British high society.
I had never seen a black male lead, albeit a light-skinned one, in a period drama set in Regency-era England. You had a black queen dressed in an elegant Regency-era costume, sitting on a golden chair and dispensing instructions to her white servants. Just what kind of period drama was this! Even if it was going to be total rubbish, I had to check it out to see how they would handle and even explain all these black faces in an aristocratic setting, in a period where Britain had its hands all over the slave trade.
In my opinion, anyway, having watched the first six episodes of Bridgerton, I can report that it's not an epic fail. It has high production values with its dazzling costumes and detailed and vibrant settings. The dialogue is witty, and the performances are excellent across the board. But what about its black characters? How are they treated?
It's the treatment of its black characters that makes Bridgerton both refreshing and very confusing at the same time.
To address racism or not to address racism?
By the time I got to episode 3 of Bridgerton, I had accepted that the show was based in some alternative reality, sort of like Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse where you had different spidermen and spider women from a different universe. In my mind, Bridgerton took place in another universe where black people and white people co-existed in Regency London, and everyone just accepted it as normal. How else could you explain the presence of dark-skinned people in a ballroom party, not servants but high ranking members of society, or a black woman in one of the highest positions of the land during a period where England was very much involved in the slave trade.
I was on board with this, but then at some point, the show started to acknowledge race. Or at least slightly jab at the issue. There is a scene where Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh, tells a young Simon Basset, the black romantic lead, that he must be excellent because people like him and her cannot merely hide or blend into the background. This dialogue seemed to imply that they had to be exceptional because of their race.
Another time where race is called out, and it's very blatant, comes midway through the series when Lady Danbury tells Simon Basset that “We were two separate societies divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all."
These attempts to address race took me out of the story and the world the creators have crafted in Bridgerton. If you're going to address race, don't do it half-heartedly and without commitment. I understand that Bridgerton exists as light-hearted escapism, which it accomplishes, but then trying to sprinkle in more serious anecdotes about race don't mesh well with the show's overall tone.
During these instances where race is highlighted, it feels as though the creators thought they needed to mention the issue in a production filled with black people. But by doing this, the whole point of colour-blind casting, which the producers of the show have gone on record to say was why they cast black actors, rings false. If it were genuinely colour-blind casting, the producers would never have brought up race in the first place during any part of the storyline.
Black people as window dressing
The more I watch Bridgerton, the more I am entertained. There is no point where I am bored with its story of romance, matching-making, high-society antics and scandal of course. But the more I see the black extras in the background; it dawns on me that this is what most of the black people in this drama are – background characters.
Apart from about four, most of the black characters in Bridgerton don't have substantial speaking roles. You can't call them characters even but extras. These black people in high British society seem to exist as window dressing – their purpose is to make Bridgerton's visual aesthetic different from the other period dramas that have come before it. As a result of this, however, the casting of black actors then feels very perfunctory and opportunistic, since diversity is all the rage these days.
That being said…
Even though I have issues with Bridgerton’s handling of race, I am still binge-watching it because it is endlessly entertaining and mostly well-acted and well-written. And it's excellent, and even refreshing to see black faces featured in an expensive production, dressed in Regency-era clothing and looking very dapper. Even if the producers just wanted to populate the setting with black people, bringing some melanin to proceedings and winning brownie points for diversity, at least those black extras look fantastic while strutting around in exquisite castles and lush garden parties.
Men, in general, don’t write romance books. If you narrow that down even further, black men, in general, don't write romance books. Now that isn't to say, any brother in the UK isn't drafting the next Pride and Prejudice, or a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in Peckham.
Apart from Shakespeare and Nicholas Sparks, the populist romance genre is the preserve of middle-class, white women – not that there is anything wrong with that, just an observation.
Bearing all the above in mind, you can imagine the looks on my friend’s and family’s faces when I told them my first novel would be a romance novel. “You? You’re going to write a romance?" was what a few people told me, looking bemused as if I told them I wanted to join Nigel Farage's political party.
While everyone was surprised that I was writing a romance book as my first novel, I wasn't surprised. I've always been fond of the romance genre. This fascination probably started when I was in my early teens and would religiously watch Boy Meets World. There is no shame in admitting I loved the romance between the two central characters in that show, Cory and Topanga (played by Danielle Fishel one of my 90s crushes).
When I started writing my debut novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, a romance, I did some reflection. What made me, a man, read and enjoy romance books so much that I wanted to write one as my debut?
The psychology of falling in love
I'll admit up front that this is a generalisation but, from speaking to women and reading reviews of popular romance books, I get the impression that romance fiction is so popular because women readers love reading about two people's journey falling in love. The romance genre's appeal is the 'will-they-want-they' formulaic story of two people being kept apart by something or their denial to fall in love with each other. The story must end with a nice, happy ending eventually.
The formulaic romance genre does not appeal to me, however.
I love a good romance when it does a deep dive into the psychology of two people falling in love. To put it another way, I am not captivated just by the journey of people falling in love – but why they fell in love with each other in the first place. But also, the challenges that come after getting together.
Recently, I watched two films which describe the types of romance I tend to like. One is Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and the other is Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. If you get time during this miserable lockdown and want an emotionally-moving story, I recommend watching these two movies. Both films deeply explore why two individual people would fall in love and what causes two people to fall out of love with each other and the pain that comes with that.
I call these type of love stories romance realism. They deeply explore the psychology of love and attraction and the powerful moments of connection that bring people together. But they also examine the harrowing experiences of heartbreak and divorce.
The difference between romance and romance realism
Even though I wish I had, I did not coin the term "romantic realism." Literary critics have been using the word since the early 19th century. My idea of romance realism is similar with novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand’s definition. In her book “The Romantic Manifesto”, she described it as:
"The method of romantic realism is to make life more beautiful and interesting than it actually is, yet give it all the reality, and even a more convincing reality than that of our everyday existence.”
The purpose of fiction is to be a form of escapism from our reality, and populist novels exist to entertain us with drama, characterisation and plot. A pure romance novel aims to arouse a cathartic feeling about a beautiful couple who surmount external odds to come together and have their happily ever after. Keeping them apart is always something external – an evil stepfather, warring families, different locations, etc.
With romantic realism, however, it's not only external factors that keep two people apart, but internal ones too and these are often the focus of romantic realism fiction. It’s the character’s internal weaknesses, fears, and misbeliefs that sabotage their relationships or ruin their marriage. Romantic realism can still have a happy ending, but often it’s an ambiguous ending or a ‘happy-for-now’ ending. But a pure happily-ever-after ending is usually reserved for the romance genre and not the romance realism subgenre.
Why I prefer romance realism
As someone who has had two quite intense and dramatic long-term relationships, I would say I know a thing or two about the highest highs and the lowest lows in relationships. It's not only external factors that are the sole reason for volatility in relationships but also our complex personalities.
The most realistic and most exciting stories about romance explore the psychology of lovers. Whenever I am writing about two people falling in love, I like to examine both people’s idea of love and how they place this expectation of love onto their partner to fulfil.
Sometimes, someone can meet their partner's expectation or fall short due to their own shortcomings or the other partner's unrealistic standards. Pure romance novels tend to explore the first stages of love, where they are finding each other and overcoming obstacles to be together finally, but what about afterwards? Romance realism delves into how people's personalities test the foundation of marriages and relationships after they’ve hooked up.
Novelists are psychologists, delving into their characters' mindset while building a plot and story that tests their protagonists. In the same way, the best romance novels are not just about the beauty of falling in love; they examine the psychology of two people falling in love and why they would also fall out of love.
The best romances don’t end after the happily-ever-after. As a writer, that’s when it’s the most interesting.
Would I deny my black son if he were gay? If you were to ask me this question when I was 18, then I would have said yes without flinching. “My son can’t be no batty boy” would have been my exact words.
If you were to ask me that question as a 31-year-old man, you’d get quite a different answer from me. I would shrug my shoulders and tell you: “That’s his sexual preference. I will love him all the same.”
But where did this seismic shift in my mentality come from? You couldn’t simply put it down to my age. There are many black men who I grew up with that were very homophobic when we were teenagers that haven’t lost any of that in adulthood. So what was it then?
Well before I spend the rest of this article explaining why my views on homosexuality changed, two disclaimers first. I know I’ll have a few critics, so I want to address their concerns right off the bat.
Firstly, the purpose of this article is not to advocate for black men to become gay. Nobody “becomes gay” anyway. Instead, this article is an exploration of black masculinity and why homophobia is not only ridiculous but also not an affront to black masculinity.
Secondly, I am not a homosexual man. I am straight, but I have written this article to address why I would not dismiss my child, hypothetically speaking, if he were gay.
Growing up in a hypermasculine world gave me a homophobic mindset
I grew up in East London or the "ends" as it is colloquially known. My environment was very hypermasculine. Raised by a very conservative and traditional Yoruba man, my first experience of masculinity was one of strictness and dominance. Please don't mistake me, my father was and still is an exemplary father, but he was not one for hugs and kisses or openly expressing your feelings. He was a provider and a protector.
At school, many of the black boys (and to be fair, boys in general) were also very hypermasculine. This hypermasculinity manifested itself in several ways. For example, bragging about how many girl’s numbers you had on your phone and how many girls had you had slept with (everyone would double their body count), how many people you’d beaten up and how good you were at football and how aggressive you were.
What it meant to be a black man, growing up, was all through the lens of being a straight man. It was why I was very homophobic by the time I was in my late teens. During this period of my life, the very idea of another man kissing another man was a perversion of masculinity. It corrupted the concept of what masculinity was in my head, and so I thought being gay was a disgusting and despicable act.
Also, the early 2000s was not as openly accepting of the gay community as it is today. Anyone who suspected of being gay would face backlash, more so if you were black. If someone in the ends thought you were a "batty boy", a derogatory term for a gay man, you would be at risk of violence.
Meeting gay people while I was at university
The first time my dislike towards gay people was challenged was when I first attended university. Fittingly enough, my first actual interaction with a gayl person happened when I left East London to attend university in Brighton – considered to be Britain’s gay capital. At the time of completing my degree application, I was not aware of Brighton's reputation, but by the time it was brought to my attention, I was already in my first semester.
It was while living in halls that I became friends with a boy who was gay. To be completely candid, I was uncomfortable around him initially. In my ignorant, small mind, I had unfounded suspicions that he might fancy me or kiss me in the student lounge. God, I was an idiot. However, once I had gotten to know him, he was, in fact, a cool guy. We both liked watching WWE, reading novels and enjoying cheesy 90s action films.
And he never tried to kiss me.
By the time I had completed my English degree, I had spent three years in Brighton and interacted with many gay people, men and women. There was nothing different about gay love and straight love other than how they enjoyed physical intimacy. I had even watched two gay couples fall in love, get together and then break up – just like any heterosexual couple. My strong antipathy towards gay people, hardened over my heart like ice, had now melted away.
Science over emotion and religion
However, the reason why I would never deny my son (or my daughter) if they were gay is not only because of my university experience. It’s also down to science. Much of the argument against homosexuality, particularly within the black community but not exclusive to it, is that homosexuality is unnatural.
But it isn’t unnatural at all.
Firstly, what we must remember is that humans (homo-sapiens if you want to get all technical about it) are mammals (a fancy word for animals). I've heard many people, not just black people, tell me that other animals don't engage in gay behaviour, but that is entirely inaccurate. Homosexuality has been observed in dogs, elephants, baboons, and even lions, to name just a few. Now yes, an argument could be made that you can't compare the sexual behaviours of non-sentient mammals to that of humans who are self-aware. But considering humans have just evolved from animals and the fact that homosexuality is seen in other animals, even if they lack sentience, is proof that homosexuality is as natural as homosexuality.
Another argument against homosexuality, which I once held, was that the sole purpose of sex is for procreation. However, considering how the millennial generations, and the many generations before, have engaged in sexual acts purely for pleasure, going so far as to use contraception to eliminate the "sole purpose" of sex, renders that argument moot.
By the time I had left university, I was no longer religious, as I felt it limited the human experience and naturally made be a prejudiced person. While I still do draw on the Bible occasionally and my empathy and feelings to examine anything, I also look at cold, logical and impartial science. And from a purely scientific point of view, I can no longer see homosexuality as an unnatural act. Human sexuality is complex and scientific studies have shown that the binary idea of sexuality, male attracted to female and vice versa, is only one expression of the broad spectrum of human sexuality.
Black masculinity does need to evolve
Being from the black community, I can say that, from my observation, there are still negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Blatant homophobic attacks have lessened, but this is mainly in the black diaspora, which has been influenced by western society’s embracement of the LGBT community. However, homosexuality is still punishable in some Caribbean and African countries. It can land you in prison or worse.
Black masculinity is still very much tethered to this idea of hypermasculinity –physical superiority, sexual prowess and intense competition. Homosexuality is viewed as the antithesis of all that. However, there are some black men, who you might consider traditionally masculine, that are gay. The 2016 film Moonlight dramatises the experiences of a black male gangster who is muscular, tall, violent - and gay. Some of the most brutal men in history, who many would categorise as embodying typically hypermasculine traits, were gay such as Ronnie Kray, of the Kray Twins. In prison, there are many examples of violent men engaging in homosexuality. Even if our mainstream society satirises it, it still happens.
The strict idea of male blackness is limited, and this is perpetuated by black mainstream culture – in rap music, our fashion and our films. Over the years, I admit that black masculinity, in the West, has become broader. Still, I do feel there needs to be more of an acceptance of homosexuality as being compatible with black masculinity. Of course, this will take much time as religious ideologies are still influential in black communities – both in the diaspora and back at home in Africa and the Caribbean islands.
Would I purposefully encourage my black son to be gay? Of course not. Never would I influence any child's behaviour to prove an ideological point – an issue I have with many liberals, but that argument is beyond the scope of this article. But I would be supportive of my hypothetical gay son and love him all the same because being gay is not a choice – it’s who you are. And he would still be a man in my eyes, in every sense of the word.
“Youths are the life blood of any nation.”
― Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha
When we think of a nation’s future and possibilities, we always look to its next generation of leaders. The next 50 years of the world's current democracies will not be directed by those currently in power but by the generation below them. Future advancements in technology, medicine, and the arts will come from the millennials.
For Nigeria, it's the millennial generation that many hope will finally lift Nigeria out of the darkness of poverty and into the light of prosperity.
But political protests such as the latest #endsars movement, and the terrible bloodshed that followed, has got me questioning if the job of saving Nigeria is too big for Nigeria’s youth to accomplish given Nigeria’s history and the mentality of Nigeria’s political body.
A nation governed by leaders who are at odds with its youth
Violence in Nigeria is not unique to Nigeria.
All democratic nations on this Earth went through a history of civil war before they became the functioning societies they are today. You could say it’s democracy going through puberty. Take America, for example. It is considered the greatest democracy on Earth – ignoring a particular blonde-haired president - and was once bitterly divided between the northern and southern states. It wasn’t until the end of the civil war in 1865 that it became a unified America. Even today, the George Floyd protests reminded us that America is not as unified and advanced as Hollywood movies would like us to think.
Nigeria, being a relatively new democracy compared to America, has gone through its periods of violence. Assassinations, coups, and bloody military rule dominate every chapter of Nigeria’s 60-year history as a democracy.
Yet Nigeria still doesn't feel like a democracy that has come out of its puberty phase. The powers that be who govern the country were all involved, in one way or another, in the previous violent and corrupt governments of Nigeria’s past - this is a significant problem for Nigeria's youthful population. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president since 2015, was the ringleader in the military coup d’etat of 1983 where he became Head of State. He was also involved in the Biafran War as a soldier.
Men of war often dominate Nigeria's political class. These men come from a generation where Nigeria was a bitterly divided nation with long-established tribal and religious divisions. Due to globalisation and a more pronounced western influence, Nigeria's educated youth do not have this same appetite for tribal hostility and iron-fisted governance that those in power still clearly have in their heads. Also, young Nigerians are pursuing careers which are more creative but also they are more tech-savvy than the previous generations. They are also more open to giving women more opportunities in the workforce – again, a western influence.
But Nigeria's leaders are not swayed by any westernised thinking which puts them at odds with Nigeria's youth. The youth-led protest against Nigeria’s now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is not just a protest against a brutal government organisation but a repudiation of the government’s old-school ways of brutal governing.
In western democracies, its leaders will overhaul entire policies if the youth cry out in protest. Just look at the British Conservative government’s U-turn around free-school meals when 23-year old footballer Marcus Rashford publicly criticised the government’s policy. It could never happen in Nigeria. Cries from the youth are falling on deaf ears as Nigeria's leaders show blatant contempt for the youth and their westernised mindset.
A nation with too many identities and fractions
Dealing with a government ruled by heads of state who do not share its youth's vision for the nation is just one issue. In Nigeria, you have many who are educated. You also have many who are educated to poor standards or not even at all. And this is against a backdrop of tribal underrepresentation in government and religious conflicts which create a north and south divide.
Nigeria has one of the largest populations in the world. Yet a staggering 10.5 million children are out of education. Even if you are educated to a degree level, you face grim prospects. 2.9 million Nigerian graduates and post-graduates are unemployed and 13.9 million people aged between 15 and 34 years are unemployed.
Poor education and an economy unable to meet the demands for jobs are compounded even further by the religious divide still present in Nigeria, particularly between the south and north of Nigeria, and the dominance of mainly three tribes in Nigeria – the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani.
There are over 400 languages in Nigeria, but only these three tribes are represented in government and given a higher status than any of the other minor tribes. In the background, the north is still dominated by fundamentalist Muslims who oppose any western ideologies, feeding the growth of militant Muslims such as the Boko Haram that the Nigeria government has struggled to eradicate. I doubt Nigeria's youth would be able to sort out this myriad of problems.
Corruption is a Nigerian state of mind
Corruption has become synonymous with Nigeria. Putting aside the 419 jokes, everyone universally acknowledges that Nigeria has a serious problem with corruption. In 2018, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 148 in a list of 180 countries considered corrupt.
The duplicity in Nigeria is not just a disease that lives in the minds of those that govern Nigeria but is part of the nation’s mentality. Fraud, extortion, coercion and abuse of power – these are practices carried out in every class, from the poor to the rich. Nigeria's young are trying to carve out legitimate businesses, but how can they be successful entrepreneurs in a land where contracts can be ignored, and regulations are only enforced if you have deep pockets. In Nigeria, the law can be bought.
It is this state of affairs that discourages many young Nigerians in the diaspora, myself included, from returning to our motherland to build businesses over there. While western democracies also deal with corruption to some extent, it pales in comparison to the rampant criminality that bleeds into every aspect of Nigerian society.
The long game
Nigeria's youth are caught in Nigeria's violent sea of deep-rooted problems and have a long time to wait until the sea has calmed. How will we know when that has happened? Only when the older generations of Nigerians have become too old to govern the country and the millennial generation can now take their positions in government.
But even when that happens, governing Nigeria will still be such a gargantuan task.
With a population of well over 190 million, almost six times larger than Ghana's population, Nigeria is almost like several countries forced to become one nation. All Nigerians can hope for is that, over the next few decades, the various tribal divisions and religious differences will become less important as the national identity of Nigeria becomes the dominant mental state of the population. You cannot govern 195 million people if they only identify themselves by their tribe and religion with their nationality as an afterthought.
The most important job of Nigeria's youth will be to unite all the tribal and religious factions under the Nigerian nationality, so everyone in Nigeria views themselves as Nigerians with every tribe feeling they have a real stake in the direction of the country. I would be lying if I said it would be easy, and perhaps only the passage of time will make it a reality.
Right now, Nigeria's youth can only wait. But that doesn’t mean waiting in silence. They must continue to protest and call out injustice, corruption and the brutality that blights the nation. Even if the job of saving Nigeria is not necessarily one in which they can carry out right now, it doesn’t mean they cannot start preparing themselves for it.
Michaels Coel’s ‘I May Destory you’ is one of the most exciting and ground-breaking black British television shows to grace our screens in recent years. Apart from being well scripted and superbly acted across the board, 'I May Destroy You' portrayed the lives of young black people outside the usual narrative of crime, violence, and road life. It is a refreshing representation of modern black British people that was long overdue.
A standout episode featured Arabella (the main character played Michael Coel) visiting her mother and younger brother on the former's birthday for a family dinner. Her father, who appears to have separated from her mother, visits the family. As the episode progresses, viewers are treated to tender scenes of Arabella coming to terms with her father's infidelity while loving him all the same. Although not the most present parent, Arabella's father still shows affection to his two children.
It was such a great moment to witness on British television. An African man living in Britain showing genuine love to his children – and he was not locked up or an ex-convict - just a Ghanaian father living an ordinary existence in the UK. I love to see it.
But then my mind started to wonder. Why don’t we see enough positive representations of black fathers on British television? What effect is this having on black British men, and how is this absence of mainstream visibility of positive black fathers endangering black masculinity in the UK?
Why are so many amazing black fathers in real life underrepresented on British television?
It would be remiss of me to completely pretend that the issue of single-parent households among the black community is non-existent. According to ONS (2020), 24.3% of black households were single-parent families, while 21.6% were married couples or civil partners. These might seem like low numbers, but if we compare them to other ethnic groups, we start to see a trend. In those same ONS figures, for white households, 32.9% of were made up of married couples or civil partners, and 10.2% were single families. For Asian homes, nearly 47.0% of Asian households were made up of married couples or civil partners.
By comparing the statistics of married couple and single-parent households across the white, black, and Asian ethnic groups, it's evident that single-parent families and unmarried couples are far more prevalent in the black British community. The reasons for this are complex and multi-faceted and not the focus of this piece.
However, if only 24.3% of black households are single parents then, logically speaking, it can be summarised that 75.7% of black households in Britain are not from single families. That's an overwhelming majority of black homes in Britain with a mum and dad both present.
But if you watch British television about black families, you wouldn't think it.
Over in America, shows like This Is Us, Black-ish and Black AF are great television shows which showcase black men as full-time, successful fathers diligently looking after their families (in a humorous way of course for entertainment). In the UK, if you think about it deeply, there is an absence of any British television series which focuses on or at least shows a prominent black male character as a positive father figure who is consistent in his children's lives.
Whenever black fathers appear on British television, they are usually written as someone who has abandoned their parental duties and strives to make amends. Richard Blackwood's highly publicised character in Eastenders, Vincent Hubbard, just ended up being a gangster who was unable to keep to one woman or provide for his daughter. Despite how much praised I heaped on I May Destroy You earlier, even Arabella's father's storyline shows him committing adultery while being an inconsistent figure in his children's lives.
Outside of television, I see so many examples of black fathers who are present in their children's lives and doing a fantastic job as fathers. Some of my closet black male friends are truly inspiring fathers. My father has been in my life since the day I was born and is still a massively influential figure in my life. Although I am co-parenting with my ex-partner, I am consistently in my daughter's life, financially and emotionally.
But why aren't these kinds of black fathers rarely portrayed on British television?
Honesty, in my opinion, the reason is that there is still a narrative in modern Britain to demonise black men, particularly young black men. Showing black fathers as responsible is not something that fits with the negative stereotype the white British elites, who control the major networks and media corporations, want to spin around black men. British mainstream media love to bang on about the lack of black fathers in black children's lives as a significant factor in knife crime as if there is some correlation. But these news reports always ignore that 75.7% of black households in Britain have two parents at home. Funny, how that is never headline news in the British media.
Is it British television's responsibility to showcase more positive representations of black fathers?
Some people might argue it's not British media's job to present positive black fathers on their shows, but I would beg to differ. I feel that British networks have a huge responsibility to showcase all realities of black British communities rather than always focusing on the negative aspects to drive narratives about black people, especially black men.
One reason why we may be seeing a lack of positive black British fathers on our screens might be to do with the lack of black talent behind the camera. Ofcom’s annual figures on diversity in the UK-based TV industry show 13% of staff at five major organisations – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5-owner ViacomCBS and Sky – come from BAME backgrounds. While this is roughly in line with the UK’s working population of 12%, it is far below the levels of the black population in London. Ofcom’s figures also illustrated that BAME representation at senior levels in Britain’s major TV organisations was only at a dismal 9%.
Perhaps, we need more black British screenwriters at senior levels to greenlight more British television shows which have story lines featuring black men as positive male fathers. Black British fathers who are great parents exist in real life. Surely then, they should be represented on British television. After all, the purpose of TV is not to only entertain us with escapism but tell stories based in reality, and not just specific realities but all realities.
Even when carnival is cancelled, it will still attract some controversy around it.
But this year, the controversy was not the usual. It wasn't around the numbers of people who got stabbed which, by the way, is always sensationalised by the media. Nor was it around all of the mess on the streets Notting Hill carnival leaves in its wake.
This year’s carnival (or non-carnival) attracted controversy because of Adele’s hair. Yep, to celebrate non-carnival, the pop star decided to tie her hair in Bantu knots, a hairstyle typically worn by black women to protect their afro hair.
And many voices within Britain's black community were in an uproar.
To some black observers, Adele had shown poor taste by ‘culturally appropriating’ a hairstyle that is traditionally worn by black women. Many of her critics pointed out that Adele would never wear that hairstyle on an album cover and has never worn that hairstyle in any other context outside of carnival. For many, this demonstrated that Adele is not really appreciating black culture but culturally appropriating a black hairstyle only when it is safe to do so.
Would Adele wear Bantu knots on her album cover? Probably not. Does that mean she is culturally appropriating black culture? Probably, but how harmful is it really and does it warrant this much aggravation from the black community?
Cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural discrimination
I would never make an argument that cultural appropriation of black culture does not exist and that, in specific contexts, it's not an insult and exploitation of black heritage. Films which cast white actors to play African people (e.g. all those Egyptian epics from the 50s). That is negative cultural appropriation. Britain plundering Africa of its cultural artefacts and displaying them at museums without any permission from those who created those artefacts. That is negative cultural appropriation. White people who wear blackface at parties as some kind of grotesque joke. That is negative cultural appropriation.
But Adele wearing her hair in Bantu knots? Yes, it is undeniably cultural appropriation but is it the type that is dangerous or harmful to black culture and black heritage? Of course, it isn't. You'll need to come up with a convincing argument that it is without looking very, very silly.
Scrolling through the internet and reading some of the criticism, something became apparent to me. Many of those who are deeply upset with Adele's choice of hairstyle (and it is understandably coming from black women) are looking at cultural appropriation and cultural discrimination as if they are the same. It is for this reason that the black community's anger is misplaced.
Yes, it is true that if a woman were to wear Bantu knots to her corporate job, she would be met with raised eyebrows and probably an email from HR. There is no denying the stigma against black hairstyles in the workplace and within other institutions in western society. But that is a matter of discrimination which should not be conflated with cultural appropriation.
Every one of us culturally appropriates other cultures, including black people. Whenever a black person goes to a Chinese restaurant and uses chopsticks to eat food, we are culturally appropriating Chinese culture. Black people who read a lot of manga and go to cosplays dressed as their favourite anime character are culturally appropriating Japanese culture. All of these examples are done in the spirit of celebrating that culture. How do we celebrate it? By consuming it and sometimes adopting its customs.
Justified but misdirected rage
Adele, who, don’t forget, grew up in Tottenham, which has a sizeable black community, was celebrating the spirit of carnival with her chosen hairstyle. To think otherwise means you are projecting your unjustified and misplaced rage onto her because of the stigma around black hairstyles perpetuated by the white elites in western society. The fact that she wouldn’t wear it on an album cover is because her record execs, who control her image, decide what is and what isn't an appropriate look for a pop star. If you want to have this rage, you should direct it at them, not at Adele.
Furthermore, why does the black community pick and choose which forms of cultural appropriation is deserving of their wrath? The Indian community have been profiting from black hair and black hair products for a long time, but black people are curiously silent about this. Yet we have our pitchforks raised when a white woman decides to adopt a black hairstyle. I can't help but think that Adele being a white British person is the reason she is getting this much heat. If she looked more tanned, would black people have cared? The cynic in me says no.
Lastly, black people have a lot more urgent and essential matters where we need to be channelling our energy and rage. The killing and imprisonment of our black men, lack of job opportunities for young black men and lack of economic prosperity among the global black diaspora – these are matters that need our urgent attention. Remember, only very recently, a black man was shot in the back and paralysed in front of his children by white police officers.
Black people’s fight is not with Adele’s hair. It’s with the elites and the establishment. Can we please redirect our rage back to the real battle?