Red, White, Blue, and Black: Navigating my African-American Identity in London

During the spring semester of my junior year, I travelled beyond American borders for the first time in my life; my destination was London. Living in London both challenged and deepened my understanding of my identity as a black American. In the classroom, black students are still very underrepresented at KCL (especially in certain degree programs), but London itself is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. I just so happened to end up living in South London, which has one of the largest communities of black people in the city. The majority of black people living 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 (they even have separate boxes on the census).

Black in the Union Jack

While I never felt out of place simply for being black, I sometimes felt that my American identity marked me as separate. It was 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 me to provide 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 been living in the US 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.
The people I met in London were understandably curious about my relationship to my American identity. 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. 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 that I call my 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, living with the legacy of colonialism, vs. being black and American, living 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? If not, should there be?

Transatlantic Connections

Over the course of those five months, I became more cognizant of the myriad of experiences black people have around the world, and also more proud of the richness of my own heritage. My friends introduced me to a whole 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 will say that 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 in the city can vary dramatically depending upon a simple change in postcode. Had I spent most of my time north of the Seine, I don’t believe I would have been able to investigate my blackness in the same way. My advice for future study abroad students would be to challenge yourself 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 Walker is an English and Hispanic Studies student at Columbia University and studied abroad with IFSA at King’s College London in England in Spring 2019.