Blog: Colin Grant

The writer outlines Kinship, a cabaret-style evening of spoken word and music in Leeds to celebrate 60 years of Jamaican independence

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The black nod.

“It’s a racial sacrament,” says my friend, Carl, a black man in his fifties, just a few years younger than me.

“What, the nod?” I ask.

“Of course.”

“The black nod?”

“Is there another kind?”

That was just a month ago when Carl and I reminisced about the disappearance of the black nod, that subtle gesture of recognition by which one black person always greeted another, even if, especially if, a stranger, when we were youths in the 1970s. Today, the nod seems defunct; only resurrected occasionally in public for the kind of distressed-looking black man whose searching eyes rarely find a willing audience but alight on mine before I can avert my gaze. Surely, when called upon, you can’t refuse the black nod; it’d be a disavowal of your past and your tribe.

I grew up with Jamaican parents in Luton. My mother, Ethlyn, was the kindest person I knew. But that quality seemed to desert her when disparaging bad-minded “naygars” who were bringing down the race. We were encouraged, nonetheless, to embrace the notion of being our “brothers’ keepers” – to maintain a watchful eye for any black stranger who might need our moral support when navigating the sometimes hostile white world.

WritersMosaic’s participation in Kinship, a literary night of kith and kin in Leeds, speaks to that notion of belonging and camaraderie. “Kinship” for me means being part of the African and Caribbean diaspora generally. Having spent significant time in Leeds writing a Carnival-inspired play, The Queen of Chapeltown, these days I cast myself as an honorary Kittitian.

The UK rapper Ghetts says all too often if they are strangers then black youths are wary of each other

“Kinship” evokes a kind of nostalgia for the kind of code that invited the black nod; especially as today, I wrestle with the tension of not wanting to be defined by those “bad-minded” black folk who appear to be transgressors of the “black code”.

Kinship poses the question: what is the black code now amongst the younger generation? How do they greet each other? Do they nod? The UK rapper Ghetts says all too often if they are strangers then black youths are wary of each other and are primed to make a judgement on whether they are in the presence of black people or people defined by the comedian Chris Rock with the n-word, the ones my mother disparaged.

As far as Ghetts is concerned they are bad-minded – a person to be feared. When you walk down the street in the wrong postcode or enter a nightclub, your radar is tuned to pick up the vibe from the black youth at your side. They have “a certain level of self-hatred”, says Ghetts. “You can’t be in the same place as other young black men. Some kind of violence is in the air… There’s going to be a bad outcome.”

I’m too old to know how the youth really interact. If my son is a reliable guide then the black code seems to have changed. Now the code is to signal that you are not on “badness” (not a threat). “If as you approach another black youth, the words ‘bruv’, ‘fam’ or ‘king’ pass their lips, you’re going to be okay.”

Scientists tell us that there is more difference genetically within groups than between groups. As the child of black Jamaicans, I have more in common genes-wise with a red-haired Scot than a black South African. Yet some tug of empathy always pulls me back to those with whom I share a phenotype.

Last week, in Brighton, where I live, there was much commotion – honking of horns, cars swerving as a strange black man walked dangerously down the middle of a busy road, his arms aloft, gesticulating towards no one in particular, mouthing a kind of unintelligible incantation. I watched from the window of the café where I ate lunch, resisting the itch to obey the old code.

I recalled my recent conversation with Carl about the complex loyalty to, and betrayal of, the code that still lingers. “Well, do you or don’t you still nod?” Carl had asked, before answering for me. “I like a nod but you’ve got to weigh up the risks. I guess I’m a sometimes nodder.”

In Brighton, I sighed over my barely begun “full English”, stood, and despite myself, was propelled out of the café. I raced after the black brother, who advanced down the road, consciously ignored by drivers and pedestrians. Eventually, I caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. His clothes were smart and clean; there were no tell-tale crumbs in his beard, crusts around his lips or wilderness in his eyes. More surprisingly, he seemed to easily come round, out of his trance-like state.

I exchanged names with Mo and advised him to stick to the pavement. “You don’t want to get run over, do you?” Mo dallied a while – not speaking – and then continued on his way. I watched him and just before he turned off onto a side street, Mo looked back and gave me the sweetest, most sublime black nod.

Colin Grant is the director of WritersMosaic, a literary platform that highlights British writers of colour from the Royal Literary Fund. On 6 October he will be hosting Kinship, a cabaret-style evening of spoken word and music at the Outlaws Yacht Club in Leeds, part of the Out of Many Festival celebrating 60 years of Jamaican Independence. Writers taking part include Jason Allen-Paisant, Malika Booker, Khadijah Ibrahiim, Jacob Ross, and Rommi Smith. Book your ticket here.

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