Why London is no place for a young black man
He was bright and he respected his parents, but as a teenager in the East End, Peter Akinti hovered on the wrong side of the law - along with many of his friends. Why, he asks, is it so easy for even the good ones to go astray? And what should we be doing to save them? Akinti, in this report by The Guardian (of London), talks of his struggles.
I grew up in the East End of London, in an area called Forest Gate, where you could get your arse kicked if you didn't learn fast to keep your mouth shut and your eyes constantly averted. My best friend, Alex, and I spent our free time hanging around, robbing bus conductors, breaking windows, stealing cars and challenging people to fight on the flimsiest pretexts. When I was 15, I bought a gun from a dread in Notting Hill Gate and Alex and I committed an armed robbery. Alex got caught and went to prison. I got away.
My parents, Nigerians, found out about the robbery from Alex's mum and vowed never to let me out of the house again; I could study and go to church, but that would be it. Nigerian culture doesn't allow for parent/child negotiations, so I complied, perhaps because I always wanted to be a good Catholic boy - and because I was terrified they would make good on their threat to hand me over to the authorities themselves.
Like many black men, I had reached a place from which there seemed no way out, gripped by the fear that all our efforts will come to nothing, that our whole lives may fall apart in our hands. It is a place where we easily forget any allegiances, feeling instead as useless as unstrung beads.
I have felt like this twice in my life. Ambition dulled, aspirations exhausted, my frustration became so all-consuming that I felt compelled to lash out against the system that I was convinced had been set up to make me, and others like me, fail. I had friends with older brothers who tried to live by the book. I watched many of them fail miserably. Breaking the law made sense; it felt like an easier option.
In Britain we are not generally honest or open with each other about racism, even within black families. When I was five, I spent the first of many summer holidays going to work with my father at Chelsea Barracks on the Kings Road. I would eat lunch with the soldiers in the mess hall and towards the end of his shift we would walk around the beautiful grounds switching on the dim lamps before it got dark. My father, tall and shiny, would lift me up and tell me bogeyman stories about the IRA (who nail-bombed his beloved barracks in 1981), and whenever he passed a soldier he would get all stiff and address him as "sir". I loved the camaraderie of the soldiers, the way they saluted each other. I was going to be a soldier, just like my old man.
I was 12 before I realised my father was a security guard. He didn't lie about his job, but for some reason I had always assumed he was the same as the soldiers I so admired. I felt so embarrassed. In the general confusion of adolescence, this discovery (and the feeling that I had been betrayed) made me lose all respect for him; I couldn't forgive him. Our relationship became quarrelsome and violent, and we grew apart. How could my father, who spoke to me of nothing but education and gainful employment, end up as a security guard?
It was only after I left home that I learned that in Nigeria he had been a governor of 12 schools. He came to London with the spirit of African independence blowing behind him but was refused teaching positions because he had a hard edge to his Nigerian accent. At some point he gave up his idealism. But at 12 I doubt this knowledge would have meant much to me - or made a difference.
I would find out how hard it was soon enough, when, at 19, I tried to find a career for myself. Almost 30 years had passed since my father arrived in Britain, but not so much had changed. I wasn't sure what to do after I left school. I wanted to write a novel but in the meantime I was working Saturdays in Topman on Oxford Street, selling suits to my mates at inflated discounts on the side.
In all the years I had spent in education, not one teacher had asked me what I wanted to do. Not one had offered me a book that I could relate to, nor spoken openly about race and social justice. My school was mixed-race but all the more confusing for it. The rugby team was mostly white; the football team mostly black; rap music was not allowed at the summer disco and we all spoke urban slang. I wasn't bullied but I grew up with a sense that I was less than "black". I was an African, laughed at by everyone because starving "Ethiopians" were always on the telly, because of my surname, my father's tribal marks, his accent, my mother's funny clothes. When I left all I knew was that I wanted to leave the area I had grown up in.
In the end, I read law at university to please my mother and then worked at HM Treasury Chambers in Westminster for five years. To some this might seem like a turning point, but I don't believe that education saved me. Lots of well-educated black men I know are unemployed or in jail. For me, staying out of trouble was more about listening to the voice inside that says you don't want to end up where you know you could, where lots of people expect you to end up. My motivation has always been to resist the image that many people have of black men.
For a while I felt I had arrived. I was earning decent money, bought my first suit (Kenzo) and a tacky Ford XR2 (white with all the trims). I got married and became a father. I thought I was the business.
I soon became bored of office life. I was terrified of turning into one of my black colleagues who had been working there for decades, making the same complaints about the illusions of equality within the civil service being worse than the obvious inequality. (Yes, there are lots of black people in the civil service but they'll spend a lifetime waiting to be promoted, unlike their white counterparts.) So I wrote a letter to Tony Elliott, the founder and publisher of the Time Out Group, about a fantasy I had to start a magazine for black men. After a year of an internship (after work, I would take the tube from Westminster to Tottenham Court Road), he agreed to invest. He gave me £100,000 in instalments, and I launched Untold, a style magazine for black men. It sold 30,000 copies a month and ran for five years. Advertisers paid top dollar for pages. I interviewed Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Quincy Jones, Youssou N'Dour. But the £100,000 didn't go far. Soon I was on my own, trying to extract money from reluctant advertisers. It is not only because of their small circulation that so many magazines aimed predominantly at black people collapse. It is about racism. I ran around London trying to sell advertising space for five years and mostly got nothing but absurd excuses. It was like banging my head against a jagged wall. Then one day, I turned up for work at the magazine offices, bright and early as usual, and a bailiff, a tall white
found myself in that dark place. Only this time it was much worse than when I was 15. Like all company directors who lose their businesses, I felt a huge sense of failure. My magazine had banged on about successful black men. Now I couldn't afford a travel card. I was 32 and immersed in anger. I had lost my business and my home. I was bankrupt, divorced, and finding it difficult to come to terms with my absent/weekend father status. My world was falling apart. I started making bad decisions under stress. I was tired of constantly being reminded that I was not good enough, of having to be better than average just to be considered normal. I went into free fall, tempted to do things I had never dreamed I could contemplate doing. Instead of simply reacting to what was happening, I wanted to act: think I'm a thief? I'll show you a thief. Think I'm violent? I'll show you violence. I wanted to fight everyone, to repudiate all allegiances, morals, values, loyalties and sentiment. I just wanted to lash out.
But what I really wanted was to curl up like a dead leaf and allow myself to go wherever the wind blew. To me it seemed that the systems - those historical conditions that shape advantage (government, economy, judiciary, education, mass media, pop culture), so drenched in racism - were geared to make me fail.
I had to get out of east London fast. I spent a year living in west London, four months in Paris, a year in Nigeria. Whenever I spoke to my mum she reminded me (nicely) just how much of a bum I was. Then, two years ago, I moved to Brooklyn. It was like taking a deep, warm bath. America has always had its problems dealing with race. Accepting black men into positions of power isn't necessarily one of them. I'm no expert; I just prefer my chances in the US, where I've met more than enough successful black men to lift the lid on my kettled anger.
At first I returned to London every three months. It was when I started to dread these trips home that I realised how completely I had lost faith in my country. But I can't walk around London without wondering what has happened to all the black men of my generation.
The lack of any significant social reform is disappointing. We should look back and perhaps reform the race relations acts of the 1960s. Some of these hideously white companies should be forced to hire and promote black people. The arbitrary powers to exclude that are too often deployed against black boys in our schools need to be overhauled. Banks should be encouraged (subsidised) to help black business. We need black universities just like they have in America. It feels to me as if black men are being denied access to the credentials that enable us to compete. In some respects it is as if we are in the process of being wiped out. I haven't known anything but a multicultural Britain. Yet the echo of all we have inherited from the post-war immigration era rings loud and clear in my ears and in the ears of young black Britons of the fifth and sixth generation.
Just before I left for New York I met my old friend Alex again. We had a Guinness in the Princess Alice in Forest Gate. He is now a businessman of sorts. He sells heroin, morphine, methamphetamine and cocaine around a large slice of east London. "We would've made great partners, me and you," he said. Alex spent years in prison because of something we had both done. He got caught and in that great east London tradition, he never spoke a word to the police about me. In those years we grew far apart. So much changed between us - but not really.
When we were kids Alex's little brother Isaac used to try to hang out with us. I remember Isaac begging to come out with us one Friday night when he found out we were going to rob the man who collected the money from our parents for the football pools. We followed that man for most of the night around the estates. He was white, in his mid-40s with a Barbour-style jacket and a flat cap. We took him for £80 and used the money towards buying a gun.
I asked how Isaac was now. But Isaac was dead, Alex said. He had jumped off a tower block when he was 16, and he hadn't left a note.
It has become fashionable for both black and white people in Britain to act as if they don't have the slightest idea about racism, about why black men reach the point where inertia sets in, where we can't seem to connect properly with the world, why we are absent, why we end up unfocused, directionless, trying to rob and kill. In 2007, 30 teenagers, mostly black, were reported murdered. A recent police report on London's gang culture identified 170 separate gangs, with more than a quarter said to have been involved in murders. According to a 2008 study by Queen Mary University, London, suicide is proportionally more common among young black men than white men; but more alarmingly, most of the suicides that occur among black men happen within 24 hours of talking to a counsellor.
Black men in Britain remain almost invisible, at the lowest level of the "racial hierarchy". Yes we get jobs, but not often enough in boardrooms; 37% of black men in the UK are on the police's national database, whether they have been found guilty of a crime or not (compared with 13% of Asian and 9% of white men). This racial disparity hardly ever works in our favour. Even if we play by the rules we are twice as likely to be unemployed. White men are the gatekeepers to the roles we could use to redefine ourselves: in politics (UK ready for an Obama? Pull the other one), in television, radio, newspapers, even club promoting. Let us not pretend we can't see.
I still have a lot of things to put right, but today I have found a way to value myself and to look in the mirror without flinching. Last year, I got married again. I have a two-month-old son.