During spring semester of my junior year, I travelled beyond American borders for the first time in my life, to London. Living in London both challenged and deepened my understanding of my identity as a black American. In the classroom, black students were still very underrepresented at King’s College, but London itself is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. I ended up living in South London, home to one of the largest communities of black people in the city.
The majority of black people in London are of African or Caribbean descent, and many strongly identify with their immigrant backgrounds, as well as their British culture. The emphasis placed on the distinction between black Africans, black Caribbeans, etc. is strikingly different than in the United States.
While I never felt out of place simply for being black, I sometimes felt that my American identity marked me as separate. People often assumed, for example, that I must be of mixed ethnic heritage because of my complexion. When people asked me where my parents were from, expecting a comprehensive list of nations or ethnic groups, I’d say, “Well, just black. I’m American.”
My friends had no issue repping Nigerian and Jamaican flags, but as a black American whose family has lived in the U.S. for generations, ethnic identity, race, and national identity are tangled and fraught in a very different way. I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel fully comfortable doing the same with the Stars and Stripes.
When I met people in London, often, the first words out of their mouths were something along the lines of, “What’s it really like in America right now? Is it as crazy as it seems on the news?” I was peppered with dozens of questions about presidential elections, health care, gun control, race relations.
New questions to explore
My relationship to my American identity has always been complicated. It is impossible for me to forget or neglect the legacy of racism and anti-blackness in the United States. At the same time, it is the country I call home. The cities I’ve lived in, the media I’ve consumed, the education I’ve received, and the loved ones I hold close have all surely shaped me in a way that is uniquely American. Furthermore, I want to acknowledge the invaluable contributions black Americans have made in the United States.
My experiences prompted me to ask myself challenging, but important questions: How is it different being black and a descendant of immigrants with the legacy of colonialism versus being black and American with the legacy of slavery? Who defines themselves as black, who doesn’t, and what criteria do they use? What misconceptions do black communities in one part of the world have about black communities in other parts—and how has the media contributed to this? Is black a color or a political stance or a culture or a place or a shared experience? Is there a unified trans-national black community? Should there be?
Over the course of those five months, I became more cognizant of the myriad experiences black people have around the world, and prouder of the richness of my own heritage. My friends introduced me to a new world of languages and rituals, and graciously welcomed me into their space. We had intense kitchen conversations about gentrification and jollof rice. We danced the nights away to grime, afrobeats, and dancehall. We shared hair products and recipes and family memories. We talked about the times we felt unseen and the people that had given us a sense of home, of community.
I would not have had this experience were it not for the sheer luck of getting placed in student housing in New Cross. London is a vast and sprawling city, each neighborhood a microcosm of totally different worlds. Your experience here can vary dramatically depending upon a simple change in postcode. My advice for future study abroad students is to explore as much of your host city as you can. Challenge yourself to reflect on the nuances of your identity with the people you meet, and ask them to share their stories as well.
—Francesca W. (Columbia University), King’s College London