Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 15 September 2019

Language and race

The black code

A generation of black Britons grew up with the ‘nod’ as a sign of recognition and respect. What signs unite – and divide – now?

By Colin Grant

“Do you still do the nod?” I was asked by a black friend recently about the subtle but mutual recognition of blackness that was quietly affirmed in the 1970s and 80s, on the streets, by one black stranger nodding to another. The nod was part of the unofficial code that determined how black people interacted with each other.

Today, in London, where I work, the nod seems defunct; only resurrected occasionally in public for the kind of distressed-looking black man whose searching eyes rarely find a willing audience but alight on mine before I can avert my gaze. More often than not, I brace myself for the conversation that inevitably follows our mutual acknowledgement of a certain kind of sameness. In the past, he would have been recognised as someone’s brother or uncle, semi-detached from the group perhaps but still one who inspired a visit from the church brothers and sisters if ill or distressed and in need of community comfort. The least he could expect was a nod.

I grew up with Jamaican parents in 1970s Luton. My mother, Ethlyn, was the kindest person I knew. But that quality seemed to desert her when disparaging pretentious black people who were “white-minded” (sycophantic towards white people) or bad “naygars” (niggers) who were bringing down the race. We were encouraged nonetheless to embrace the notion of being our “brother’s keepers” – to maintain a watchful eye for any black stranger who might need our moral support when navigating the sometimes hostile white world.

A queue of people at a bus stop on London’s Oxford Street.

Even so, we wrestled with the tension of not wanting to be defined by the group (especially those transgressors of the “black code”), but to be thought of as exceptional. That exceptionalism was rooted in racist notions of difference, as much in evidence amongst West Indians as it was in African-American audiences who roared in recognition and approval at Chris Rock’s “black people vs niggers” routine in the mid-1990s. As Ibram X. Kendi argued in his recent book How to Be an Antiracist, black people can be racist (in their outlook to each other) too.

Calling out the failing black man was part of the code; it was complicated, though, because there was always a distinction drawn between cursing designed to wound, and acceptable, mischievous insults – the kind of verbal jousting found in Trinidad’s picong tradition.

If the black code was a handbook for living, then a premium was placed on respect. “Respect”, the most important word in the Jamaican lexicon, has its roots in the 19th Century, in the deference shown by the recently emancipated enslaved to each other, compensating for the disrespect of slavery.

Chris Rock on stage at Universal Studios in California, in 1997.

The lack of respect shown to my father, Bageye, by white Britons was why he couldn’t stand English people. He loathed them for their faux respect, displayed in almost every encounter. Bageye’s response was to match their over politeness with his own. As for his children? Well, we were commanded to pay respect, especially towards black people, and to confound the prejudices of the white man who thought us uncivilised. How we comported ourselves in public, then, was key to maintaining the code.

All that seems to have changed now, new rules have evidently been laid down by the younger generation, or perhaps they are just breaking our old code. Last month, I took the Number 2 bus heading south along London’s Vauxhall Bridge Road. A dozen or so black boys, aged 13 or 14 (still in their school uniforms) boarded and rushed upstairs after me; almost immediately most of the white passengers slid out of their seats and headed to the lower deck. The boys seemed in an excitable state – or, rather, both anxious and excited. Something had been about to “kick off” and they peered through the windows as if they’d just made a lucky escape.

Moments later, though, someone screamed, “It’s them, it’s them.” I followed a boy’s gaze through the front window and saw another group of black boys waiting at the next bus stop. The fidgety boys on the bus ran downstairs and howled at the driver: “Nigger, don’t stop. Don’t stop! What are you doing, nigger? Don’t stop!”

Black men in the West Midlands in 1961.

The bus driver – also black – did as he was commanded, zipping past the stop. A few of the rival boys chased after the bus, banging on its side, but in a minute or two we had gone clear.

I thought about what had just happened, with all its race-bound layers and complexities: who were the two groups of youths? What would have happened if the driver had stopped? Was it ever OK to use the vile n-word in public? I also reflected on what the driver might have felt and the prejudices that prospective black drivers had endured in the past. In 1963, West Indian activists began a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Corporation for its refusal to employ black conductors and drivers. Four months afterwards the company relented and lifted its colour bar in employing the first non-white conductor. It took another two years before a Race Relations Act outlawed racial discrimination in public places. In subsequent decades there have been further Acts legislating against prejudice, not just in housing, employment and public services but in our daily interactions.

A bus stop in Kingston upon Thames town centre, 2008.

One unexpected consequence of the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 has been a rise in hate-crime prosecutions of black people accused of the racial abuse of other black people. The Crown Prosecution Service’s statistics on the ethnicity of those convicted shows that, while white people make up the majority of offenders, black and Asian people accounted for 17 and nine per cent of perpetrators respectively. Most hate crimes were committed in public. Infamously, in 2015, a black woman called Simone Joseph was convicted of racially-aggravated intentional harassment of a pregnant Asian woman, Hanane Yakoubi. In the five-minute rant, Joseph told Yakoubi that she was an “Isis bitch”, with “bombs up her skirts” and told her to “fuck off back to your own country”. Like the passengers on Yakoubi’s bus, I had remained silent when the boys, despite being black, had used a racist slur towards another black “bredren”. How did it come to this?

The word “nigger” (or “naygar” as Ethlyn would say) was commonly used by people of my parents’ generation back in the Caribbean; less so when they established lives in Britain. Amongst my generation, our tongues would have cleaved to our palates before we uttered the word. Its present use among younger generations is in mimicry of African-American culture, especially in rap music. So in the UK it is not so much a case of re-appropriation, but rather a complicated adoption of African-Americans’ engagement with a word that still carries a toxic historical charge. Whilst there is no consensus that “nigga” has been successfully recast as a brotherly term of endearment, what is clear is that context is all important; spoken by these black British kids to each other in bonhomie may mean friendship; but levelled by them at an elder bus driver, it carries the sting of abuse.

An early morning wait for the bus at Trafford Park industrial estate in Manchester, circa 1978.

Recently my siblings have counselled me against my “stupid habit” of intervening in any public fracas involving black youths. I have always argued that the black code dictates that black people strive for a higher standard of behaviour towards each other; and that that greater expectation extends to intervention when the code is breached. But my siblings counter this by saying, “It’s not on you, anymore, those days are gone,” or, “Carry on; they’ll be bringing you home in a wooden box.”

As the boys disembarked, I caught the sound of the word “animals” from a solitary white passenger who had remained upstairs with me. “Animals,” he repeated under his breath, loud enough for me to hear. He should have been challenged; the boys should have been chastised too. I did neither, but lied to myself that I would do better next time. There will unfortunately be future opportunities as there have been in the past.

These episodes on buses may be nothing but unruly behaviour, but to me they seem like a litmus test of the black code that I have held so dear. In 1968, aged seven, I boarded a miserable bus destined for the outskirts of Luton. I had joined the Number 28 at a changeover, as the whistling driver turned off the engine, climbed out of his cubicle and left us awaiting his replacement. The doors remained open and people piled onto the bus until there was barely standing room. Days before the newspapers had splashed headlines of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and I thought I could detect changes in people’s faces that might have given them away as supporters of “old Enoch”.

1968: A black man walks past graffiti supporting the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who caused outrage with his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

After ten minutes, the replacement driver arrived and prepared to depart, but just as the doors began to close a black hand reached in and stopped them. A panting West Indian squeezed inside. He surveyed the bus, kissed his teeth and started to berate the “ras claat” driver for his alleged attempt to stop him from getting on board – “just because I black.” A few passengers groaned, and immediately, in answer to them, the cussing black man reached into a pocket, pulled out a photograph and flashed it as if it were a winning pools ticket. “Look you. This my baby. Me one. My baby!” He screamed. “We need more brown babies!”

Nobody spoke, and after making his assertion (of belonging and assimilation, I suppose), he had no choice but to stand in his unanswered fury. All the while I had sat praying for my West Indian compatriot to disappear. I tried, without success, to attract the attention of the heavy-set white woman who stood in the aisle beside me. I stood up, as any well-behaved boy would (and as Bageye would have directed), to offer her my seat, but no words emerged from my lips. She appeared unable to read my intentions. Did I want to get off or not? she growled. I could not answer. She leaned back towards a fellow passenger: “I don’t know.” She appeared more exasperated than perplexed. “I mean,” she turned more fully towards her neighbour now, ignoring me, “What does it think it is? Really. What does it think it is?”

In the liminal “no-time” between what she had said and my registering of it, a bell sounded. “One stop, driver!” It was the black man wanting to get off. He’d witnessed everything. There was pity in his eyes, and as he disembarked I detected a nod, in my direction.

That was 50 years ago, but the complex loyalty to, and betrayal of, the code still lingers. “Well, do you or don’t you still nod?” asked my friend recently. I struggled to formulate an answer and my friend answered for me. “I like a nod but it’s become a bit corrupted, hasn’t it?” he said. ‘Got to weigh up the risks. I guess I’m a sometimes nodder.’

People wait for a bus in Kingston upon Thames in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

What is the black code now amongst the younger generation? How do they greet each other? Do they nod? The UK rapper Ghetts says all too often if they are strangers then black youths are wary of each other and are primed to make a Chris Rock-like judgement on whether they are in the presence of black people or “niggers”.

As far as Ghetts is concerned, a “nigger” is bad-minded, not someone to be celebrated – a person to be feared. When you walk down the street in the wrong postcode or enter a nightclub, your radar is tuned to pick up the vibe from the black youth at your side: “A nigger is someone who has a certain level of self-hatred,” says Ghetts. “You can’t be in the same place as other young black men. Some kind of violence is in the air. You see the nigger in him; he sees the nigger in you. There’s going to be a bad outcome.”

UK grime artist Ghetts performs in London, 2018.

I’m too old to know how the youth really interact. If my son is a reliable guide, then the black code seems to have changed. Now the code is to signal that you are not on “badness” (not a threat): “If as you approach another black youth, the words ‘brother’, ‘fam’, or ‘king’ pass their lips, you’re going to be okay.”

Further reading

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon; a bittersweet tale that sees the protagonist, Moses, helping newly arrived West Indians navigate the forbidding streets of 1950s London.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh; a comic and tragic account of a sociologist embedded in a street gang in Chicago to better understand their lives and codes.

Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye; a witty A-to-Z analysis of 60 words – many of them negative – that have been used to describe black people.

Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth; a powerful confirmation of the humanity of black people.