The long road to a Black British identity

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Lenny Henry writes poignantly about issues of identity with which many Black Britons have had to wrestle (Integrate, my mum said, so I did. But Eric Morecambe helped me find my Windrush self, 22 June). I am surprised, though, that he still needs to understand why his mum “wanted us to integrate rather than celebrate who we are”. It may look less puzzling if we remind ourselves of the orthodox racial thinking of the time.

In 1960s and 70s Britain, people often used the terms “integration” and “assimilation” interchangeably, despite their differences. Integration connoted acceptance and equality (albeit imperfectly), whereas assimilation required a deracinating self-abnegation. A musical footnote illustrates the point.

In 1969, Blue Mink released a pop hymn to racial tolerance. However, it was couched, unwittingly, in an assimilationist nightmare (Take a pinch of white man / Wrap him up in black skin / Add a touch of blue blood …). Their Melting Pot boiled down difference in an inclusionist dream of producing “coffee-coloured people by the score”. The success of this song – it reached No 3 in 1970 – is not only evidence of the confusing race-relations vortex into which many were swept, but also how difficult it was to assert a cultural identity against a backdrop that equated racial harmony with colour-blindness.

Henry’s mother may perhaps be understood as reflecting this confused aspect of the times, but she clearly understood that the self her son felt unable to express would only be validated in the cocoon of the home. In that, her instincts were spot-on, even if her approach was problematic for all the reasons that her son enumerates. After all, it took longer than most of us remember for “coloured” people to become Black.
Paul McGilchrist
Colchester, Essex

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