The Year of Return 2019 – Fear of a Black Man Featured

An award-winning writer’s essay offers a slice of real life for men of African descent in the diaspora, from the American South in the civil rights era to the hospitality room at festivals in England today


The author

It was Brixton 1978. I had taken a 109 bus from Brixton Hill to Brixton High Street en route to my social services offices just off Coldharbour Lane. Having recently arrived from a Surrey children’s home, I was relatively fresh to the racial dynamics in Brixton. Casually dressed in trainers, jeans, T-shirt, anorak and a beige-coloured cloth cap, I enjoyed the sound of reggae music blaring out from cars, houses and “Brixton suitcases”, as I always did when I was out and about in Brixton. Within the 15 minutes it took me to reach my destination, two white women had crossed the road to avoid me and another had clutched her handbag so tightly to her chest I’m sure it left an imprint of the maker’s brand on her clothing. If I ventured further afield to the leafy avenues of Dulwich or the wide pavements of Putney, there was a more than even chance that someone would alert the police about my presence.

It was the same whenever I browsed in shops. The security guard would move stealthily to ensure that he’d always have me or my friends in his vision. He would flex his fingers, shift his eyes and ready himself for a confrontation. The more criminally minded of my bredrens used this racial profiling to their advantage. They dressed down and entered clothing stores in the West End. They acted suspiciously on purpose and readily accepted the attention from security as a white accomplice lifted all manner of garments.

Football hooliganism was at its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a time when shopkeepers located near soccer grounds would board up their windows on match days. Parents instructed young children to stay indoors. Women were warned to steer clear of the streets. In a weekly ritual, rival supporters clashed in pubs, bars and train stations with crowbars, knuckledusters, bottles and other weapons of choice. Yet the “sus” law, where the police had the powers to arrest an individual if they believed they were about to commit a crime, was never used against white football supporters en route to a match. In Brixton, I was once stopped by the police for having an afro comb in my back pocket. According to the arresting officer, it was an offensive weapon and I had behaved menacingly.

Inhabiting a black skin was mistrustful enough for them.


These were the days of police intimidation, beatings in cells and forced confessions. No statements or witness accounts were filmed or recorded. I’ve never heard of an account where a black man was assaulted by a single officer whilst in custody – there were always three or more assailants. The mere presence of a black man, perceived by most of white society as wild, violent and sexually dangerous, led to fear.

In 1955, it was this same irrational dread that led to two white men, Roy Bryant and J W Milam, abducting and mutilating a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, before shooting him in the head and dropping his body into the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi. The supposed crime that he had committed was to flirt with Bryant’s white wife, Carolyn.

I have visited Emmett Till’s shrine at the National Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC. I stood perfectly still as I viewed the original casket his body was buried in. Although his face was hideously deformed, his mother decided on an open casket at his funeral so the world could witness his defacement. I asked myself, “What hellish, primal, racist fear could cause Bryant and Milam to inflict such appalling injuries on a child?”

A similar trepidation has led to numerous unarmed black men being executed by American policemen. These same officers never seem to be so trigger-happy when apprehending white murderers who in some instances have slain scores of people. More often than not, they manage to present themselves at court unscarred, unshot and unharmed. The media never label them as terrorists.

Emmett Till’s mother views her son’s remains. The teenager was beaten, lynched and dumped in a river in 1955 for “whistling” at a white woman


Even a silent, still gesture from a black man can terrify fragile white folks.

In London, I was fortunate enough to meet one of my boyhood heroes, Tommie Smith, winner of the 200 metres sprint at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In protest against the way African Americans were dehumanised in a racist society, Smith and his compatriot, John Carlos, marched out shoeless to their medal ceremony in black gloves and black socks. As the US national anthem blared out, Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in acknowledgement of those who had fought and lost their lives in the struggle. Avery Brundage, president of the US Olympic Committee, took extreme offence. He immediately suspended Smith and Carlos from the Games and expelled them from the Olympic Village. This was the same Avery Brundage who didn’t utter a murmur of dissent amid the mass Nazi saluting at the 1936 Berlin Games.

White America has means of making black men pay for forcing it to acknowledge its own atrocities.

Smith and Carlos returned to the US. They initially found it almost impossible to gain meaningful employment and struggled financially. Almost half a century later, the American footballer Colin Kaepernick has also discovered that a silent, still gesture, taking a knee as the US national anthem is played before a game, will destroy his job prospects. As I write, no National Football League franchise has offered him an opportunity to resurrect his career. He was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. Oh yes, they’ll always make us pay.

In 1981, white alarm reached new heights in the UK when black people held their “Day of Action” march against police apathy after the New Cross Fire where 13 black youngsters lost their lives. Thirteen dead, nothing said, we chanted. As we crossed Blackfriars Bridge that day, I witnessed at first hand racial taunts and growing panic from the police even though the rally was peaceful.

I have recognised the same fright in white teachers when black male students banter in school classrooms and corridors. They overreact and escalate the tension in a way they would never do if they were addressing white boys. Black male pupils are much more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts for the same offence. When black men enter the justice system, they are more likely to receive longer sentences than white men for identical crimes. Black men are perceived as more of a physical threat to society than any other racial group.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games



As an award-winning writer, even I am not immune to a sense of apprehension when I’m speaking at high-society venues and prestigious book festivals. I arrive wearing casual clothes (as mostly every other author does). As I walk into the green room, I sense suspicious eyes on me, a sudden alertness and stiffening of shoulders. To date, I’ve been asked if I’m in the band. Do I know where the cloakroom is? Am I aware this is the green room and reserved for writers? Where can I get a drink? This space is not for the public. And my favourite: are you lost? On all of these occasions, I have detected a dose of trepidation, an overcompensating smile and an obvious relief when I’ve explained that I’m a writer. I try to be as approachable as I possibly can but sometimes the old rebel in me would like to produce my best Brixton scowl.

Simply waiting for my turn at an ATM machine can cause anxious glances over shoulders and a hurried look along the street for potential support. I’m confronted by a similar nervousness when I attempt to gain entry late at night into a club or bar. The eyes betray the bouncers’ thoughts – is this black man here to cause trouble?

I have to peel back the years to try to understand this illogical terror.

Slavemasters excused their abominable behaviour towards their black captives by convincing themselves and others that their slaves were animals. From South Carolina, John C Calhoun, the seventh Vice-President of the United States, famously said in a speech defending slavery: “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilised and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

Articles debating the slavery/anti-slavery issue were published in the Charleston Mercury. Many slaveholders strongly believed that “slavery would liberate Africans from their savage-like ways”.

So my ancestors were granted the status of “animal”. This has seeped into the consciousness of many ignorant white people over many centuries and decades. It is taught to their children and passed on to their children’s children. Now, the hatred is whipped out and fanned by right-wing media commentators, politicians and social media trolls. The 45th President of the United States says these are fine people.

The racist abuse perpetuates the myth that we are untamed, wild and dangerous. Hence the wary glances, the tightening of shoulders and the mild tension in the cheeks as I enter a green room at a literary festival.


My spirit informs me that black people carry a sense of injustice in their bloodline: Rastafarian brethren are always instructing me that the blood remembers. I also believe that those who have greatly benefited from our slave state have this subconscious and wholly conscious dread that one day there will come a reckoning when we will exact a merciless revenge. It’s why in the past our freedom fighters were silenced and executed.

There are many slave revolts I could mention which occurred in Jamaica but I’ll relate specifically the story of “Tacky”, who was born in my mother’s parish of St Mary. In 1760, Tacky and his band killed their slavemasters and took over a fort that contained guns and ammunition. The British sent in reinforcements, more slaves from adjacent plantations joined the rebellion and the battle raged for days. Tacky was finally captured. His severed head was displayed on a long pole in Spanish Town to serve as a warning to others. Rather than return to a slave state, many of his followers committed suicide in coastal caves.

They didn’t teach me tales like this when I was at school.

Over a hundred years later, a similar fate awaited another Jamaican freedom fighter, Paul Bogle, and he wasn’t even a slave: he was a man of the church. That didn’t save him. No chains on my feet but I’m not free, Bob Marley and the Wailers sang in the early 1970s. The reggae icon never killed anyone but the CIA kept a file on him because they knew he had the rhetoric, the intelligence and the power to rouse the black masses. To put it simply, they feared him.

To this day, the message to us is clear: if we see you as a threat, if you force us to confront our vile colonial past, if you dare to question our morality, beliefs and self-righteousness, if you light the flame of black consciousness and solidarity, we will find ways to silence you, discredit you and eliminate the way you make your living. Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick can bear witness to that.


I yearn for the day when I can walk into an establishment, wearing my casual clothes, with my red, gold and green shoulder bag, listening to Dennis Brown on my headphones, and not be given a flicker of attention or perceived as the slightest of threats. I don’t think that day will come in my lifetime.

For the unaccountable atrocities that my ancestors had to endure, it is me who should cower in the presence of white men. It is me who should look up and down the street for potential support in case of an unprovoked assault and me who should be mistrustful of a paler skin. But it is me who is still seen as a menace to society.

Alex Wheatle is the author of 11 novels. His debut, “Brixton Rock”, was published in 1999. His other novels for adults include “East of Acre Lane”, “Island Songs” and “Home Boys”. He received an MBE for services to literature in 2008. His Crongton series for young adults includes “Liccle Bit” and “Crongton Knights”, winner of the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His twelfth novel, “Cane Warriors”, set at the time of the Tacky/Tackie Rebellion in Jamaica, will be published by Andersen Press in 2020. The full version of this essay appears in the anthology “Safe” (Orion, 2019)

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Last modified on Saturday, 04 January 2020 12:32


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