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How Black Men are Reflected in Culture: A Review of ‘Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Spa

In the new collection, Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, twenty writers run through personal anecdotes and essays designed to provide fresh insight into what life is like for black men in contemporary Britain. The anthology is edited by Derek Owusu, the former co-host of the award-winning podcast, Mostly Lit. Owusu and several of the book’s contributors, Yomi Sode, Okechukwu Nzelu and Alex Wheatle, will be speaking about ‘Safe’ on Saturday the 6th of July at the British Library as part of the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Tickets are available: here.

In the introduction, Owusu states his aim of having this anthology ‘function as a mirror; a new conversation and a bridge.’ As well as containing subtle mirror imagery throughout, this collection indeed achieves Owusu’s aim of constructing a mirror. This is because the writers are largely concerned with their own image—the representations of themselves within society. In other words, they locate their own identities by observing and scrutinising reflections of themselves within culture, institutions and prejudiced individuals. In doing so, one might find that these stories articulate W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of two-ness – a term used to describe the uncanny, doubled existence of black people. The writers look at themselves as they are, but are also forced to look at themselves through the eyes of prejudice, which constantly reminds them of their status as ‘other’.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog

In some of the essays, the writers hold up the mirror to look at themselves directly. For example, there are personal commentaries which delve into their pasts, their family dynamics, the coming-out process and the battle to forgive having faced such difficult experiences.

In many of the essays, the writers look at how cultural forms function as a mirror. They examine the representation of black men across various strands of culture, and consider how this impacts their identity. For instance, we dissect the concept of ‘flossing’ and the significance of fashion; analyse language as a carrier of culture; and break down the notion of fatherhood to dissect the impact of single-parent households. Further, there are several essays advocating increased black representation within the arts. For instance, there are commentaries on the influence of the media, and the importance of controlling one’s image. Many writers within the collection also emphasise the significance of black British representation in film, literature and music, stressing the need for more black creatives.

In the remaining portion of the essays, the writers look at their place in society by breaking down the image of themselves reflected in the thoughts of others. We confront harmful stereotypes, looking at how people tend to pigeonhole black men into athletes or rappers, neglecting to imagine anything beyond these categories for their futures. We look at numerous incidents of racial abuse, and analyse why black men are feared by the public, or seem to be surrounded by a life of violence. We see how black men are fetishised by white women, and how this treatment has negative ramifications in the job market. The prominent casual racism within single-sex education is also revealed to us. Finally, we are presented with a break down of ‘road-man-tality’ – a type of street culture born from institutional bias and discrimination that only ends up perpetrating harmful stereotypes.

For the fellow black male reader, this anthology will act as an introspective mirror, forcing them to reflect on their own life and experiences. It will act as a vital piece of representation, one which gives voice to some repressed thoughts and feelings. It is an important outpouring of emotion – something which is too often absent from narratives about or by black men due to the lack of channels available to them to speak candidly about their mental health.

Some readers may recognise themselves in the image of the antagonists within the stories. For these readers, this collection will act as a mirror of blame. It will ask them to face any prejudices they may have about its subject. It will scrutinise, criticise and accuse. It will provide for them a stinging education and act as a painful, but necessary antidote for ignorance.

For all other readers, this work will act as a mirror which shows them what is behind them. It will encourage them to take another look at their surroundings, and ask them to interrogate the bias structures around them; the unfair deck stacked against their peers; the institutions which unfairly benefit some, while penalising and excluding others. In doing so, Safe can help provide insight to form better allies.

If the mirror has the ability to reflect, it also has the ability to disfigure; it is subject to manipulation and distortion. Safe is a mirror-like anthology which may reflect back temporary truths, but is also open to the possibility of change: the reflections of black British men we see now need not stay the same forever.

And with that, I conclude with an extract from a poem within the anthology by Jesse Bernard:

‘But the mirror knows all my secretsAnd I’m tired of its lies.’

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure


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