Missing Black People In The Media

When Spike Lee asked why Clint Eastwood’s movie Flags Of Our Fathers had no black people in it, Clint Eastwood responded with anger saying that ‘a guy like him should shut his face’.

According to Clint Eastwood, there were indeed a few black people there in Iwo Jima, but they didn’t raise the flag (which is apparently the film’s focus). He then goes on to say that he made the film based on “… the way [he] read[s] it historically, and that’s the way it is”. Well, Mr Eastwood, that’s precisely the point Spike Lee was making – maybe how you see it isn’t actually how it is.

Spike Lee’s comments are not about tokenism, nor about equal opportunities. This is about the role of movie makers in documenting historical truth, not just ‘as they see it’ but as it actually is/was. In writing black soldiers out of war movies, film makers such as Clint Eastwood are actually re-creating their own – inaccurate and distorted – version of history and passing it off as fact.

Mr Eastwood is not the only war film maker to write history from his own perspective, a perspective which does not include any people of colour. Black soldiers appear in very few Western war TV series or films despite the fact that they fought on the front lines for Western countries in sizeable numbers.

Do you know that at least 16,000 black people from the Caribbean fought for Britain in World War I and at least another 10,000 fought for Britain in World War II? In America, close to 200,000 African-American soldiers fought in the Civil War. You probably don’t. And why not? Because those people are the missing black people – rarely spoken about, and rarely depicted in TV or film – which happens to be one of our most prominent mediums for the reenactment of history.  Why is their presence not deemed important enough to be included? Not just in Eastwood’s film, but in any war film? Why should Spike Lee be accused of playing the ‘race card’ just because he is pointing out that films about war without black soldiers are factually inaccurate?

Clint Eastwood’s response to Spike Lee was not suprising. It is hard for people who are in a dominant position in society to look outside of that dominant viewpoint and see that their view may not be representative of the entire picture. However, a person of colour drawing attention to that fact is accused of seeing everything along racial lines, therefore having their argument reduced to being the view of someone who thinks only in terms of black and white.

Considering how much emphasis is put on war heroes and commemorating the lives of those who died for their countries, it really is sad that the lives of black soldiers who fought and died for countries that they were not even from seem not to be worth remembering. 

This Eastwood/Lee argument is actually about much more than Eastwood’s film. It’s about the role of the mainstream media in general in story-telling – or story re-creation. People question the role of black-orientated media, such as black news sites or black magazines because they cannot see how skewed mainstream media is towards representing one, dominant point of view, that is believed to be all-inclusive, but is in fact very one-sdied. Like in war films, black people and black stories are often hidden or missing from mainstream media stories (or presented negatively if they do appear). and OK folks, before you say it, let’s keep Obama out of this. He is one man!

African-Americans are often shocked to hear me – as a black person – speak with a strong English accent. Their shock is not simply a matter of ignorance, it’s also because they see very few, if any, black British people on TV or in films that come out of England. Yes, over the years there have been some black musicians who have come to the fore, but in the visual medium, in the main we are hidden. I remember many black Brits asking why the film Notting Hill had no black people in it, when Notting Hill is an area of London is well known for its large number of black residents. Some people would say – well, black people in Britain only make up 10% of the population.. just as Clint Eastwood said that there was only a small detachment of black soldiers in Iwo Jima at the time in which his film is set. But so what?! Small numbers does not mean that those people are not relevant or were not there at all.

This is why I am a big advocate of black media. It is necessary, in order for the past and the present to be an accurate representation of life. Can the Clint Eastwoods of this world be expected to represent anything other than his world view? It may be that a small number of black people in a war film is not really important or worth putting documenting to him. This doesnt make him a racist, it just means that he has one way of seeing the world. However, to black people like Spike Lee and myself, the stories and lives of black soldiers are just as important as everyone else’s and deserve to be part of the documentation of war. Hell, we deserve to be part of the documentation of mainstream life, as it is today!


The Global African-American influence

Prior to living in America, I had already visited the country a number of times. But that’s not how I am able to sing RnB songs, or how I’m able to rap full verses from artists like Common, Jay Z, Biggie and Tupac or even much older hip hop groups. It’s not how I understand African-American slang or can do certain dances in clubs. I know all of that because African-Amerian culture is broadcast into homes around the world. Despite growing up in the UK, I have been exposed to many aspects of African-American culture throughout my entire life, as have many other black people around the globe.

It can be hard for African-Americans to get a grasp of just how pervasive and global African-American culture is and has become. When I lived in Johannesburg in South Africa, for example, I was at times amused and at other times disturbed by the adoption of African-American language, fashion and music by young South Africans. I used to go a particular club that could have come from a Beyonce video. You would have thought you were in New York or Atlanta rather than Johannesburg.

People always ask me ‘how do you know these songs?’ and ‘how do you know about that, how do you know about this?’ and I tell them I know because I have been massively exposed to it all throughout my whole life. America, and by extension African-America, is constantly shown to the world on a huge scale.

Now, I wonder if African-Americans realized this, they would also feel more responsible about what they put out. I’m talking here about people like Nas and his new album, I’m talking about BET and the type of content they put out, I’m talking about all of those people who insist – through various media – in showing the worst aspects of African-American life. Not only is that stuff released to America, it is released to young impressionable black people around the world who look up to African-Americans as a beacon of success and progression.

I was reminded of this by a blog I came across in which the writer said he’d come across a shop in Malawi called ‘Nigger’ (see picture above) and how proud the owners were of their shop’s name, thinking that they were somehow in touch with African-Americans that they looked up to.

Nas is releasing his song Nigger not only to his homegrown community but to the global community. What will the effect be on the young kids in the townships of South Africa, for example, who don’t really understand the significance and nuances surrounding that word? What about the black kids in the inner cities in England who have only just, in the past 10 years or so, started calling each other ‘nigga’ – just because their favourite black hip hop artists have made the word seem cool – and who now believe that they are ‘niggas’?

The global influence of African-American culture is huge. It affects black people all over the world. This can of course be a great thing. It has unfortunately also been a negative thing. I just don’t think people get how far the reach of African America extends… If they did maybe people like Nas might really think hard about how they use that influence.


Best Of The Web This Week


The Root: Blackness Primer Revisited – Writer John McWhorter argues that it’s not stereotyping to say that religious leanings, a love of fried chicken and a penchant for dancing are black cultural traits. Well, I guess there are black people out there – me included – who do these things… But how far do you go with this type of argument? A love of fried chicken is pretty harmless. However, some might say that, judging by statistics, low educational achievement, a propensity towards violence and lawlessness and poor family values are also traits that appear to be associated with black culture. But I know that’s not right and I would call that stereotyping. So I’m not quite sure I agree with John McWhorter on this one. It’s dangerous ground.

The Guardian: Black, British & Proud – This one was written by myself. My opinion is that despite being black, I am also very much British and proud to be. Being black (or any other kind of immigrant or offspring of) does not stop you from becoming immersed in the culture in which you were brought up in. I had a range of thought provoking and interesting responses…One friend of mine was sad and frustrated with me. “England colonized us”, she said. “How can you claim them?”. See what you think.

Chicago Tribune: Smear Campaign Speaks Volumes About Society – Interesting piece by Ahmed M. Rehab about being Muslim and American. Seems we are all dealing with our racial identity issues!

Stuff White People Like: This is a very funny blog, written by Christian Lander. Yoga, Study Abroad Programmes, Coffee are all apparently things that white people like. Going back to my comments on the John McWhorter piece above – is this also an example of stereotyping (the author is white by the way)? I guess it is, but it is also satirical. Plus, being interested in yoga and coffee never really affected anyone’s position in society. These are all pretty harmless stereotypes and nobody says things like ‘you’re not really white if you don’t drink coffee’.

The Guardian: Entertaining Or Exploitative – This is another one of my comment pieces published this week. As BET launches in the UK this week, I ask if it’s something that Black Britons really need? Is BET entertainment, or exploitation?

Don’t Underestimate the Racists…

nobnp.jpgI know I’m late on this, but I’m going to add my tuppence worth on the freedom of speech argument sparked by the debate recently organized by the Oxford Union.

Whether or not I agree with them, “historian” David Irvine and BNP chairman Nick Griffin are entitled to their views – everyone is free to believe whatever they want. What I strongly disagree with, however, is the argument – even supported by Labour’s Higher Education Minister – that giving such people a platform gives the audience the opportunity to knock down their opinions.

The problem is I don’t believe that most people are capable of knocking down the arguments of those like Nick Griffin or David Irvine. Why? Because neither Griffin nor Irvine, or others like them, are stupid. Those who invite them to speak in the belief that they can easily knock down their arguments are the stupid ones.

It is utterly naive to believe that people who hold racist or bigoted views are intellectually deficient. Their views may be ignorant, but this does not make such people unintelligent. I may not agree with what they say or believe but that does not mean that they are not able to convey their arguments in a way that is convincing, and that can – on face value – sound plausible.

Those who have led – and lead – racist movements and parties have never been idiots. They have always been sophisticated (at least on the surface) with an air of respectability, well-educated men with slick words, who use statistics and research to reinforce their arguments and who are able to manipulate the public’s fears, weaknesses and vulnerabilities to their own ends. Unfortunately those who think they are capable of arguing against such people are often not as prepared or informed about their side of the argument as the bigots are.

Hitler was not a stupid man – he could not have been to have organized such systematic and calculated atrocities on such a grand scale. Those who followed him and carried out his order were doctors, engineers, lawyers – people with more than half a brain – taken in by the supposed legitimacy, at the time, of his views. Nick Griffin is also not a fool – he studied law and history at Cambridge. Believing that racists are missing a few brain cells is convenient, but plays right into their hands. Once they start talking some may actually be impressed by the apparent lucidity and coherence of their views, making it even more important that such people are not given high profile platforms from which to speak.

The liberals of the world have good intentions, but sometimes such intentions can be naive and misguided. Prejudice and racism are extremely complex. The Griffins and Irvines of this world are well aware of that. They know that respectability is key.

Let’s not play into their hands by underestimating them… Unfortunately I feel the Oxford Union has already done that.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty… Terrorists too.

rendition.jpgI recently went to see a brilliant movie called Rendition. I say brilliant, as it was well-acted, but it was also rather shocking and frightening because of its subject matter.

To give you a bit of background, the movie is about an American man of Egyptian descent who is detained by the CIA on suspicion of being connected with terrorist activities. Although there is scant evidence, he is taken to Morocco – under anti-terror laws which allow the US government to remove suspected (foreign) terrorists from the US to be imprisoned and interrogated in other countries – where he is tortured (using techniques such as waterboarding) until he ‘confesses’.

“Extraordinary Rendition” (from which the movie takes its title) is a practise which has been increasingly used since 9/11. Foreign nationals who are suspected of engaging in terrorist activities are taken (forcibly) to their home, or other, countries to face trial or be held for intelligence purposes. It is a highly controversial practise, and this film really brings home the point that despite our fear of terrorism, we must not allow governments to erode our civil liberties.

Of course we are all concerned about terrorism. When tensions and sensitivities are high it is easy to believe, and be persuaded, that governments should take any means necessary in order to combat it. Extraordinary rendition and extended detention of suspects without charge (which Gordon Brown is currently trying to push through parliament) are two of the means that governments have tried to convince us are in our best interests.

However, the problem is that those who administer the law cannot always be trusted. Innocent people get caught up in the fray, as happens in the movie Rendition, and as has happened at Guantanamo Bay and other places. Innocent people must not be abused in the name of counter-terrorism.

What happened to innocent until proven guilty? The fact is that suspects have – or they should do – the same rights as everyone else until the authorities have provided enough evidence to charge the suspect of a crime.

I cannot understand the need to hold suspected terrorists for up to 56 days, as Mr Brown is proposing, without charge. This essentially means that any innocent person can be kept in prison for nearly 3 months without knowing what they are there for. I’m sure there are those of who you don’t think it’s a big deal because you believe this does not apply to you. However, the point is that any one of us could become a ‘suspected’ terrorist at any time. Just look at Jean Charles de Menezes.

It is for the government to focus on better intelligence, on better use of police and other organizations’ resources which will lead to the capture of terrorists rather than eroding our civil rights. It is also for the government to satisfactorily prove – through robust evidence – that extended detention and other such practises have any real value. So far, it has not managed to do this. Even the security minister, who this week made an U turn – one minute saying he didn’t see a need for detention to increase from 28 days, and then changing his mind – seems unsure.

I want to see a reduction in terrorism, but it must be done in the correct – and legal – way. The infringement of human rights – everybody’s human rights – is not the solution.

Immigration, Immigration, Immigration

[This post is taken from my weekly column on www.tmponline.org]

Last week Chief Constable Julie Spence from Cambridge entered into the immigration debate, giving her views on how migrant workers – particularly those from Eastern Europe – are placing a heavy burden on the resources of the police force. Language, cultural and social differences are all, according to Ms Spence, costing her community – and no doubt others – dear.

Of course the media loved that! They might as well have shouted: “See! We knew we were right! Immigration is bad for our beloved country! Forget what the government says, here is a senior police officer telling us what we’ve always known!” Lo and behold, the newspapers – from The Daily Mail to The Telegraph – played up to the hysteria.

Ross Clark in the Times wrote the following piece of well-investigated journalism (please note my sarcasm): “That our murder rate has doubled since the 1950s, for example, is not entirely unconnected with our having absorbed a great number of migrants from cultures much more violent than our own.”

I would love to ask Mr Clark from where he gets his evidence that a) Eastern Europeans (or anyone else for that matter) are more violent than Brits, and b) that the increased murder rate in the UK since 1950 has anything whatsoever to do with immigration.

In another piece of scare-mongering, the Telegraph says: “Society is fracturing, segregation growing, the dream of integration further away than ever. This poses profound problems for the country: funding adequate public services is probably the least of them.” Again, where is the real evidence for any of this?

Unfortunately, these are simply the ill-informed, un-researched personal – although presented as fact – opinions of supposedly intelligent, forward thinking and educated people. But blimey, if they feel that way, what must the average Joe Bloggs think?

Immigration is – and always has been – a controversial issue in this country. Whilst the government plays up the economic benefits, many remain unconvinced, believing instead that it harms ‘social cohesion’ and damages the fabric of British society. Ms Spence’s comments served only to reinforce this viewpoint. According to her, people from Eastern Europe have ‘different standards’ and are responsible for a rise in knife crime and drink driving.

On the whole, media discussion of immigration tends to appeal to people’s fears of ‘the other’. Constable Spence, by positing Eastern European and British cultures as being fundamentally different and at-odds with one another, does the same. The hysterical and hyperbolic language used by the media leads to a sense of panic whereby the public is led to believe that wonderful, quaint British society will fall to pieces as uneducated, uncouth immigrants with non-existent moral values ‘swamp’ the country.

I find the fears surrounding immigration uncalled for and rather ridiculous. Ridiculous because they are age-old. Whether it’s blacks, Irish, Jews or Eastern Europeans, there has always been a public fear of those from other countries coming into the UK. There has always been someone, whether it’s a politician or a police officer, with ‘evidence’ to show how dangerous immigration is to the British way of life.

Back in 1968, Enoch Powell’s gave his controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Today it seems we are still hearing the same thing; the underlying notion being that migrant populations will overwhelm Great Britain and its people.

However, I do not see any real basis for this belief. The UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The economy is stable, unemployment is low, violent crime is on the decrease. On the whole, people from different countries live quite well side-by-side in modern day Britain.

Undoubtedly there are some tensions, and terrorist activities have increased public anxiety. However, we must not generalize based on the behaviour or actions of a few. There are bad apples in every cart – immigrants and British alike. We must not forget that the vast majority of violent crime and anti-social behaviour is committed by British people.

No doubt Constable Spence’s constabulary now has different and pressing needs. However, life is all about change and they will simply have to adapt. Interestingly enough, the Immigration Minister was today quoted as saying that, in real terms, funding is up by 20% in Cambridgeshire and crime is actually down in the region.

Let’s focus on the positive and look at the benefits of immigration. Let’s focus on just how much immigrants have contributed to British society over generations. It is a disservice to hard working, law-abiding people who have come to this country and made social, cultural and financial contributions to make gross disparaging over-generalizations about those who come to reside in the UK from abroad.

Isn’t it time Ms Spence and others look at the bigger picture and applaud immigration?

Thank goodness for the NHS…

nhs.jpgOn Saturday night, I had one of my fingernails ripped off… It was extremely painful and has been bleeding pretty much ever since.

Since there is no free healthcare in America (where I am currently based) I had to pay to be seen to by a doctor…

I found it strange that I had to pay before I could receive medical attention. Strange because I come from a land where we have a national healthcare system. It really got me thinking – what happens to Americans who cannot afford health insurance? Surely the present healthcare system in America set up in such a way that it benefits the rich and disadvantages the poor? Despite paying it’s not as if I had a superior service either. I still had to wait 2 hours to see the doctor, despite having an appointment.

I never thought I would long for the NHS but that changed after having to whip out my debit card and pay a hefty amount of dinero for medical care!

There are many things that I like a lot about America… but how they can continue to justify the current healthcare system beggars belief… There are some things that should be available to all on an equal basis. Healthcare is one. Education is another.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but here’s to the NHS. Despite it’s shortcomings, at least there is no elitism and inequality where that system is concerned….

P.S. I am hoping not to have any more accidents while I’m in the US!!