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September 05, 2006

The success of urban black culture has made victims of urban black men, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

Is it any wonder so many young black men end up in prison, considering the culture they are exposed to on the streets? This is the question posed by prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham.

The young, black men I work with find their role models on the street and on TV screens. There is one who provides the edifying exception that proves the rule.

"Steve" is a mixed-race 25-year-old who describes the Acton housing estate he grew up in as a place teeming with would-be mentors. A man called "Extreme" would line Steve and his 14-year-old friends up every morning. He would then walk down the line and punch each boy in the chest. This was to toughen them up. He then gave them a spliff each, and told them to go off and earn some money. Steve, unlike the other black men I work with, did have a father around - but he was an alcoholic. The interesting thing about Steve is that, in being fostered by a family in Hertfordshire for one crucial year, he had a glimpse of what men can be like. "It's where I learnt my manners," he told me. Those manners are his saving grace. Partly because of his father being white, partly because of this family, he feels more white than black. In fact, he told me, he feels uncomfortable around black people.

Most of the young, black men I work with are living up to a concept of blackness that urgently needs to be re-defined. The way they talk, the way they touch each other, bespeaks a fragility and insecurity that is pitiful to behold. They are trying to create a community within the society from which they feel excluded.

Afro-Caribbean boys are still three times more likely to be excluded from schools than white boys. Only 25% of black boys get good GCSEs, whereas the national average is 51%. Overall, their attainment levels fall between the ages of seven to 16. At the age of seven it seems that their ambitions are still unclouded by racial stereotypes. The changeover from primary to secondary school finds them starting to mimic the role models around them. They become more difficult to manage. They cannot follow simple instructions. Their concentration is shot to pieces and they do not see the point of working hard.

It could well be that they have seen their older brothers leaving school with qualifications and not being able to find work. It could also be that they find they have another group to please - their peers, who are harder to please than parents and teachers. Young boys don't want to be kicked out of their crew. Success within an institution is seen as acting "white" or "gay", in other words, deviant. To be black means being "street". Blackness has become a block to progress. To be black means adopting a new slave mentality.

Being black is a burden because of the stereotypes of keeping it real in the ghetto, living in the yard, and having "bare" (lots of) babymothers. The black boys who follow this career path are your bruvs, bros or breres; all words for "brother".

Blacks who enter the professions or excel academically have "punked out". They have become a different person, they think themselves superior, they are patronised and defined by the white man as a "decent chap". Black prison officers, the inmates tell me, are harder on black prisoners, because they have something to prove to their white colleagues. A black inmate will not ask a favour of a black officer in the way that he would a white officer. But in our wider culture black professionals are seen by others within the black community as having sold out.

Teachers are seen by the black community as having a problem with black boys. Teachers are accused of labelling black boys as aggressive. This reminds me of the response to the first influx of postwar Afro-Caribbeans, and that primal fear of an alien culture. Black boys want to be able to dress and express themselves without being seen as troublemakers. If David Cameron wants us to embrace hoodies, he should also be urging us to understand the pressures facing young black men. As it is, they are used to the rejection they receive at school, and build walls around themselves, navigating society by means of music and street life.

On the streets, they embody the post-Thatcher, hip-hop generation. Material gain, front, status are what it's about. Not study, office work, or stacking shelves. To gain the symbols of wealth and the high life, they turn to crime. It's quicker. And they have to be quick because within their community they are racing for status. Most of the boys I speak to don't expect to live beyond 50.

Megaman is a rapper from Brixton. His music is of the get-rich-quick, gangsta rap type. His songs endorse the lifestyle. Behind the moniker is a hard-working businessman called Duane Vincent. He works hard to promote his gangsta alter ego but his fans don't see the relentless slog. He has no responsibility to his audience. He wants them to buy into the myth of the black man that he is profiting from. He doesn't want them to see boring old Duane pedalling his wares in a back-street office off Brixton High Street. Where are the responsible, black men who should be helping the children who buy into this music? There are plenty of black men who work in the community as teachers and sports coaches. They are trying their best, but they face the confusion and suspicion of a community that feels itself to be beleaguered. And, of course, they are not covered in bling.

There are plenty of footballers and musicians to act, albeit unknowingly, as role models. But football and music limit the options of young men. The success of urban black culture has made victims of urban black men.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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In a recent interview in the Telegraph, Wynton Marsalis said something very similar about the pernicious effects of gangsta rap. Alas, I can't find that inteview on the Telegraph website.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 5, 2006 08:12 PM

Wynton Marsalis interview is here:

Posted by: M Prince at October 19, 2006 10:02 PM
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