Category Archives: identity

Commonalities of Cultures

I discovered this a few years ago, but there seems to be a high correlation between Welsh and African American names. I discovered this arguing with my boyfriend about the almost stereotypical name of Jamal Jenkins, a character from the old children’s tv series, Ghostwriter. We reached the conclusion that while I saw it as a common Black surname, he viewed it as a typical Welsh surname. This then led to a sharing of surnames that also seemed to be both noticeably Black and Welsh, some of which are listed below:

Jenkins, Jones, Williams, Davis, Brown, Harris, Thomas, Evans

A quick search lead to the Data Wales website, which addresses this phenomenon with some interesting, if not well-researched, ideas.

In this context it might be useful to look at examples of Welsh place names in some of the southern states. Alabama has counties named Morgan and Montgomery… Georgia has the counties of Evans, Montgomery, Jones, Floyd, Morgan, Thomas, Glynn and Jenkins. There are smaller towns and villages named Davisboro, Evans, Jenkinsburg, Jonesboro, Morris, Morgan, Morganton, Pembroke… One correspondent had quizzed several African American friends about their names. This group, in the main, did not think that their ancestors had adopted the names of slave holders. They might well have adopted place name surnames from some of the locations above.

…it is true that in certain cases slaves adopted the names of their Welsh “owners” but several correspondents have reminded me of the “Underground Railroad”, a system designed to help slaves escape northwards. Apparently Welsh Quakers were prominently involved in this system and it is possible that some slaves, aided in this way, adopted the names of their helpers.

He also thinks it possible that due to the co-mingling of Welsh and African American communities during the creation of Baptist and Methodist churches in America (who knew the Welsh had anything to do with that?), surnames may have been shared and then passed down as followers took the name of their preachers and religious leaders.

The best thing about this discovery was that it all started with a fairly low-key conversation in the local pub. Yet another example of how interacting and communicating with another culture can provide you with insights into your own.


Cultural Code-switcher.

I just turned 26 last week, marking my third consecutive birthday spent in London. As I get older I find myself constantly search for a means of defining myself which encompasses my intersecting identities. I wonder how I can navigate, analyse and interact with the world around me in ways which don’t simply reflect and reinstate pre-existing Western and kyriarchal structures. A friend said yesterday that it is quite weird for Americans to think that we’re not allowed in certain countries, in reference to our continued restriction to Cuba.

As I reflect on it, however, it’s not that strange (to this American at least), to not be allowed into certain spaces. My life has been a continual process in understanding what spaces I can inhabit and in what context. What does it mean when I can walk safely through parts of London considered “dangerous” or “unsavoury” due to my appearance and how this is then identified and read by others within this environment? What does it mean that this Africanised, “Othered” appearance has both helped and harmed me in various places, tying me to the intersecting histories of black, brown and white women who have moved through European landscapes? How do I properly assess my identity and its relationship to urban spaces when I am viewed through the prism of others’ systemic and cultural prejudices and assumptions. Depending on the country I have been a spectre of Josephine Baker, an example of American imperialism or a lowly immigrant worker. My presence has been both an indicator for Yankee individualism or foreign anonymity, both rendering my body an object in how it is consumed by cultural fears and desires.

So I wonder, is it truly possible to understand an environment properly when so much of it is tied to my physical form, whether through race, nationality and gender? Along with this, how does my use of technology complicate my spatial relationships and understandings? So much of my travels have been influenced by what I have found online, making my understanding the world both limited and opened. I then continue the process by writing, classifying and discussing online my experiences, which helps to create a virtual environment and idea of urban space that is both a reality and completely fictional. I hope that my writings are at least complex and varied, allowing a world of narratives and identities to coexist within the same (digitised) space, even though at the moment they are just hinted at. A week after my birthday I wonder once again who I am, and if it is possible to perform ethically and authentically as an international citizen without creating a single, flat narrative of what I witness and experience.

The Danger of a Single Story

The Spectre of Immigration- Conclusion

British history, much like that of most Western nations, is seen as linear, and immigration in all its multifaceted forms is seen as a disruption to this straight line of action. However, Britain has never possessed a simple historical narrative, it is a complex network of crossed histories that have left their traces in every city. It is also a nation whose strength has been built through the work (mostly forced) of other nations all over the world. Though the population may not reflect this to the same degree that it has in the Americas, Britain has been a island of immigrants for centuries, from black and Asian seamen and freed slaves, French Huguenots to Eastern European Jews.

The influences of other nations are archived in architecture, the words we speak and the foods we eat, which have only made this nation richer. I have walked the streets of London countless times, weaving though side streets, small neighbourhoods, and museums and what I have seen is glorious. Modern Britain has reached a wondrous point where (despite the battles and violence that still flare up about identity) all these groups are starting to create a synthesis of being, a new sense of identification that recognises those that inhabit it shores. I, as an American, can listen to English youth speak in a manner that encompasses “proper” English and Jamaican patois and speech patterns and recognise that it is an authentic representation of Britain just as RP used to be. Places like Banglatown/Brick Lane are marketed as fixed parts of the London experience, while the Regent’s Park Mosque sits nestled next to one of the pinnacles of literary England, Baker St. As new groups enter, more mutations and blends are bound to occur, blurring even further what it means to be British.

On a personal note, what drew me back to England was this mix of people and traditions. The first places I saw were filled with immigrants and the descendents of immigrants, which lent a feeling of wild possibility and chance to every place I saw. While I take comfort in many places that are still staunchly traditional, even if it is solely in name, in the end it was foreigners that makes this place continue to be utterly fascinating. And I know many others who have settled for the same reason. For me, Britain continues to be my gateway to the rest of the world, and I look forward to that distant day where people like me, with our funny accents and differing cultures and ways of viewing society are finally seen as what we are: equals and not a part of the problem. When that day comes, I’ll celebrate with a well deserved cup of tea.

Turkey Day Reflections

Thanksgiving has come and gone, my third in England. Since most of my expat friends have returned to their former homes, I am now continuing the good fight and hosting my very first Thanksgiving dinner. It has become a synthesis of different cultures and traditions where sweet potato pie sits easily next to Yorkshire pudding and curry. My Thanksgivings have become a reflection of the multiple identities I feel as a traveller. My homes have been numerous, bits of my heart and memories remain in New York, DC, Maryland, Philadelphia, London. In a talk at the New York Public Library, one of my favourite writers, Zadie Smith, discusses the multiple voices that individuals gain as they move through different spheres and environments. I feel this sense of multiple consciousness (perhaps an expansion of double consciousness) grow the longer I am here. America has become a land both innately familiar and abstract; I have become used to discovering news in English broadsheets and American blogs, which sometimes creates a strange dissonance of voices and understandings. I realise that despite my stubborn urge to stay on top of American pop culture (especially much of black American pop culture), I am becoming less aware of what happens there and more immersed in the minutiae of pointless and interesting pop culture of Britain. My voice is changing the longer I am here, American idioms and slang that once reflected my background as a black sub/urban Northerner with Southern parents are slowly melding with English phrases and European mannerisms. Even the way that I approach words have changed as my mind is jostled by American and English pronunciations. Sometimes it’s as if I’m straddling two worlds, that of my past and my present as marked by different semantic landscapes. The longer I live in London, my lovely new home where memories are constantly being composed in the nooks and quiet corners of the city, the more I come to appreciate this cacophony of voices and paths that have led me here.

The spectre of immigration , Part 2

The reality is that the majority of immigrants into the UK are white and from Europe, the Americas and Oceania, who in 2001 made up 53% of the foreign-born population. Following at a very distant second are those from India and Pakistan. Though these figures have changed somewhat in the last few years, the demographics basically remain the same. Along with this, many immigrants tend to only stay for short periods of time, creating a constantly shifting population of people. What these statistics show is a foreign population of skilled (whether in labour or “highly-skilled” fields) workers from Westernised nations who tend to migrate towards large urban centres and the south-east of England. What is perceived about immigration, however, could not be further from the truth.

Immigrants are portrayed as the fearful harbingers of Britain’s decay by the media and many political parties, especially as the recession drags on. As many Britons lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones, they blame immigrants for coming over and “stealing” their work. Along with this, they blame immigrants for overpopulating the island while bemoaning the changes of multiculturalism and “political correctness gone mad” taking place in their communities. In their minds immigrants follow these patterns: they are poor, dangerous and minorities, if not black and brown than Eastern European. They are relatively unskilled, follow dangerous religions and are a powderkeg of dangerous ideas and actions which threaten the rights of native citizens.

This paranoia screams out at me from broadsheets, news reports and television programmes on a regular basis. Instead of confronting the government about the stifling class system and programmes in place which allow so many British citizens to become victims of their environment, instead of creating grassroots programmes which allow for safer communities and a network of support for those in need, many British people have chosen to follow those in charge and blame those who are different from them, a cyclical accusation which always occurs in times of national duress and uncertainty. This, of course, is a dangerous way to react to change, and such ideas, coupled with all too familiar forms of racism and xenophobia are continuing to have devastating effects on British citizens unable to completely assimilate to the majority of society, whether due to race, religion or culture. When people cry out about overcrowding (which simply isn’t happening outside the major cities in the ways that fearmongers would like us to imagine), what they are really railing against is the incremental increase of people who don’t look like and, in some cases, have no urge to be like them. What these perceptions really show most of all is the failure of Britain to come to terms with its own intersections of identities and histories in the new century.

The spectre of immigration , Part 1

Gordon Brown has released his hard-line stance on immigration this week. He has set a series of limitations on what non- European immigrants can do if they are lucky enough to obtain a visa, including closing about 250,000 skilled sector jobs (catering, engineering and caring) to non-British workers. He has created what can be considered a two pronged attack on immigrants and asylum-seekers/refugees, limiting not only their ability to enter the UK through a labyrinthine bureaucratic system that has had devastating effects on incoming students, but also making it difficult to remain and survive in the country once they actually arrive. I will not state that I am very knowledgeable about the situation surrounding refugees, so I will mostly discuss what I have personal experience, that of the international student-cum- skilled worker.

Due to changes in the visa system implemented after I finished my postgraduate programme, many international students are having to defer or, worse yet, give up their dreams of studying in the UK completely after they have been accepted in their courses. Since international students contribute about £4 billion to British universities, many universities have bemoaned the projected loss of money that would directly contribute to maintaining departments, libraries and British and EU students. Along with this, international students will be barred from working part time in temporary jobs, which will make life extremely difficult for many students who are already surviving on loans and financial aid. This restriction will also make obtaining a work visa after graduation even more arduous if not impossible for most students, which is clearly the Prime Minister’s point. For those who then manage to obtain work visas and stay in the country, the road to citizenship has become more fraught with dead-ends and pitfalls.

Says Brown, “the right to stay permanently will no longer follow automatically after living here for a certain number of years … Instead, we have said that after living here for five years, migrants will have to apply to become probationary citizens – and at that point they will have to pass a points-based test.” The idea of “probationary citizenship” has been criticised before because it restricts the ability of immigrants to participate in civic activities such as anti-war protests and forces prospective citizens to prove their worth through parting with hundreds of pounds through the years of their stay. Another issue is that it forces a strict idea of what Britishness is through the forced learning of countless statistics and facts (many of which British subjects themselves would not know), ignoring the more personalised and varied experiences of Britishness that immigrants could obtain (which may also draw from foreign cultures already present.)

Brown has been criticised for his efforts to make a stand, many have said that his declarations are too little, too late as fears of the immigrant invasion coupled with a devastating recession have caused people to leave the Labour party in droves to more right-wing extremist parties. In his attempts to appease fearful citizens, as made clear in his quietly chilling “British jobs for British workers” quote (in which he echoed the same right wing extremists that he so fears), he is causing serious damage to the future of British identity while also ignoring the past effects of British and European colonialism that has contributed to much of the non-European immigration occurring today. The spectre of immigration also once again reveals British fears of class, race and nationality as well as their privilege.