As a kid I didn’t expect to see myself reflected in a majority of the TV shows I saw or the magazines and papers I read. It was the same for many children of immigrants in 90s UK. Even though I lived in London and grew up in working-class Tottenham, the media I consumed was white and British.
The only media I could find about people like me were New Nation, Pride Magazine (I did work experience there for years as a young student) and The Voice, but not much else could be considered even close to mainstream. Many others started up, like Colures Magazine, but they found it difficult to grow or even stick around. To read more about black people, I turned to TV shows, films, and magazines from the U.S., like Black Beat.
With so few representations of working-class black people, I was ignorant of the social and economic obstacles built against people like me. I lived within the confines and effects of race and class, and yet I rarely confronted it. For example, as a teenager, I could not buy concealer for my darker skin tone from any high street shop, and I could not afford Fashion Fair, the only line made for black skin. So I used my mum’s make-up for special occasions or I just didn’t wear any. It was frustrating not to have other options just because I was black and dark skinned. It would have helped to read what other people like me had to say about that experience. But without access to stories or voices like my own, I remained inexperienced.
The black working-classes are not taught the importance of our lived experience or to value and work with what we already have. We aren’t taught to search out our talents and potential based on what we study about ourselves. We are not encouraged to learn about tensions or to expose the frustrations and injustices inflicted by the privileged. But we should. Just like the middle classes, we should have the privilege of understanding of our histories. It should be okay for working-class people to tell our own stories and learn from them.
In Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni-Eddo Lodge exposes the ignorance and apathy of black history in Britain. She also encourages the underrepresented to focus on the development of their journeys and set the tone: “Rather than be forced to react to biased agendas, we should outright reject them and set our own.” If we are to see any changes, the voice of the white privileged male that dictates, skews, and leads all conversations must be challenged. Like Paulo Friere, Lodge encourages the oppressed to look beyond what is set before them by engaging in dialogue, asking each other questions, reflecting, and through that process learning.
This is what I have done in my projects, creating work to document and analyse my experiences using social media, citizen journalism, and even research about interactive Psychogeographic Mapping. To help my development as an artist, I reflect on loopy questions that make my head heavy, all in the hope of discussing the world around me. I question authentic participation and who the work is for. I post plenty of other questions, too, including about the need for support and why funding schemes supports some projects and not others. I am also interested in the need to archive our activities and how to preserve our processes.
These questions and my personal interest in documentary where art and research meet innovation — like Teju Cole’s Blind Spot — draws me to the uprising of UK minority voices encouraged at independent publishers. I’m inspired by writers such as Panashe Chigumadzi at Indigo Press, JJ Bola and Robyn Travis at OWN IT, Warsan Shire at Flipped Eye Publishing, Inua Ellams at Oberon Books, Yemisi Aribisala at Cassava Republic. Imprints like Dialogue Books and the new Merky Books are also making this kind of work possible. Most of these authors are young, black, and from working-class backgrounds, genderqueer and non-binary, or of the diaspora community. They are the voices raising important life shaping questions and exposing the issues we face. And their stories reflect lived experiences.
A growing number of podcasts is helping these writers reach wider audiences. Podcasting offers dialogue, a free audio library, and, crucially, a catalogue of our development, an archive to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. Independent shows like Stance, Mostly Lit, and of course Women Who create modes for exchange. They acknowledge, discuss, and even critique diverse works. They are inclusive in the way that the mainstream is not, discussing a range of texts and popular culture, middle-class and working-class, and providing common ground for listeners from the same background. For example, during a recent episode of Mostly Lit, entitled All About Love, as the hosts were discussing bell hooks, Derek talked about how his father did not reflect the mainstream father-figure image of a man who is always deeply connected with his children. He shared his personal experience, explaining how he was not deeply connected to his own father but had not taken the time to understand his father’s own upbringing and heritage. As Derek explained, he may not have understood that there’s another angle to be considered, an experience that many can relate to and should not be dismissed. We all get things wrong sometimes. That’s part of the journey, and the podcasters make listening to such stories enjoyable because they are aware of the importance of what they do. For some artists or entrepreneurs, these podcasts are the only recognition their work receives. As these shows grow, even without the funding and institutional support that they deserve, their popularity prods and confronts the status quo.
We see similar confrontation from some more established personalities, such as television host, comedian, and author Trevor Noah. In his memoir Born a Crime, he describes how he came to run a music business at school. He uses his experience to question the poor being expected to work miracles or create their destinies when they are not given tools and advice on how best to use them. He writes about working with Daniel, a white boy at school who traded in bootleg CDs. This “was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from a privileged world to come to you and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’” Through this story, Noah highlights how working-class people need help to navigate a system built to disadvantage them.
But I see something else in this story: that being in position of always working around the system is in fact working with the system. Fighting and navigating around structures created for a privileged group does not challenge the status quo. That is not the best use of our skills. Instead, we should focus on shifting away from this narrative and reflect on our collective and individual stories. It’s essential not just to get by but to understand and trust ourselves even if we remain on the outside. In the UK these days, reassuringly, my younger self would not need a ‘niche’ magazine to get a ‘fix’ of people who look like and come from the same background. She would have many avenues for work experience, for advice, and for public circles to inspire her. I value this progress and learning about the personal journeys that led to it. I think it’s just the beginning. If we can find ways to share our experiences, we can build our own paths, free of the usual obstacles.
Following The Contemporary, a master’s degree at Kent University, Adjoa Wiredu has developed her practice as a multidisciplinary artist exploring relationships between people and the places they live. She is currently working on a site-specific project about music and the elderly, incorporating a multi-media diary, photographs, and prose. Her work is online at theearththedirt.com
Jah and Jahnes love. Thank you for a very interesting article about being Working Class, Black, Artist, Female, Immigrant and Talented. I am a 2nd generation Transnational American woman of Ayiti descent. I was born in Brooklyn, New York and my parents were born in Ayiti. They met in NYC and were married a year before I was born. I am 49 years old and I have yet to experience the success that the American Dream supposedly promised. I am typical of my generation- I was obedient and I attended school regularly, I did well enough in my classes so I got to continue to College and Graduate School.But, I never felt competent or expert in any thing. Thanks to your article, I now realize that I needed mentoring and some guidance. There were some very nice White Male and Female professors who took time to make supporting comments and to write letters on my behalf, But, it was never enough to get me through the process. In fact, I had to learn to navigate the Bureaucracy at the various schools that I attended all on my own. And the process was torturous. I would love to become a film maker but that will require more schooling and time is running away with me.
I lost everything during the Obama presidency. He caused an economic meltdown that greatly affected Black Working Class and impoverished people like me. I have yet to recover. I lost my shelter, my house was repossessed during a foreclosure and my children were taken from me by the same thieves and predators and I have not seen them in 7 years. I decided to travel to Europe to try and reunite with them but I have not been able to get help to do so. In 2011 my children were sent to France to live with their father and his new wife, He moved to France in 2009 after he was deported from the U.S. (where he grew up since age 6/7)to his native land in the Caribbean. He had no Collge or University degree but his knew people who helped him get us money for food and shelter in Miami. But, when he left, I couldn’t manage even though I had a College Degree and a Masters in Anthropology from a Research 1 Institution!
I was born so that my father could obtain a Greencard. And I now wish that I could talk to that 24 year old man. I would beg him to reconsider marriage and fatherhood. My father wasn’t a good nurturer, he needed someone to care for him. In fact, he needed the meager wages that he earned as a Taxi driver to pay for his own care. He had no regular Doctor’s Visits and no Health Insurance and we were caught off guard when he was diagnosed with Diabetes which caused complications that caused his death within 5 months. I had just turned 16 and life became really hard.
I think that the immigration process is racist and unfair. I also think that more pressure should be placed on the Sending Nations to resolve their problems because the process does not guaranee a better quality of life for the immigrants. I wish that my parents had been able to stay in Ayiti and been able to attend University and to live a good life. I have no cushion to fall back on and I am homeless and destitute. I beg on the streets of Paris for money because I cannot work. I don’t have the proper Visa. Ironically, my ancestors were French until 1804 and some of my close relatives were French.
Thanks again for a very nice article. I really enjoyed reading it.