WHAT DOES it mean to be black and British in 2019?
Better yet, what does it mean to be a black British man in 2019? While black men are far from a monolith, their shared experiences is often what unites them for better or for worse.
Shining a light specifically on these experiences is Derek Owusu, writer, co-host of hit podcast Mostly Lit and curator of Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, an anthology of essays from poets, writers, musicians, actors and journalists, which offers an insight into the black male experience.
“The idea for the book came from a good friend of mine, Yomi Adegoke who published a book called Slay In Your Lane with Elizabeth Uviebinené. During a conversation, she mentioned to me that there isn’t a book like this [Slay In Your Lane] for men,” says Owusu. “She said it’d be great to have a book like this coming from a male perspective and that inspired me.
“So with Safe, I wanted to get 20+ black British authors published at the same time, combining up and coming voices and pioneers in one space.”
Slay In Your Lane – bound in millennial pink and filled with words of wisdom from some of our black girl faves including June Sarpong and Clara Amfo – has become a black British bible for women across the UK and Safe aims to do just that for men who don’t see themselves reflected in society.
“I really want readers of Safe to take away a much better understanding of what it means to be a black man in the UK and how dynamic we are,” says Owusu. “Also a lot of what’s written about black British men is imported from the US and African American male experiences which is then applied to ourselves when the cultures are very different from one another. It’s important to differentiate and hone in on our experiences and that’s what these essays do.”
Some of the key topics explored in the book include the experience of black men in Britain, where they belong in school, in the media, in the conversation on mental health, in the LGBTQ+ community, in grime music, and how their voices can inspire, educate and add to the dialogue of diversity already taking place.
LOVE FOR LIT
Dissatisfied by his secondary school’s approach to literature, Owusu began his literary love affair whilst at university at the age of 23. “When I went to university, I stumbled across a short story by D.H. Lawrence called St Mawr,” he shares.
“Before then, I hadn’t read a book cover-to-cover before and suddenly this new world opened up to me which I had never experienced before. After reading every single day, I began writing poetry, prose and essays again, like I did when I was younger.”
While the revelation came too late to change courses at university, Owusu would often sneak into English literature lectures at The University of Manchester just to get his fix. His love of literature continued beyond those university walls, and resulted in him writing for an online publication, become a co-host of literary podcast Mostly Litand the curation of this very anthology book – with contributors including Alex Wheatle OBE, poet Suli Break, Channel 4 news reporter Symeon Brown, Guardian journalist Joseph Harker and many more.
“Selecting who to feature in Safe was interesting because I had people who I immediately thought of, but I also wanted to look at who was up and coming,” recalls Owusu. “I went beyond London to Manchester and Birmingham and called up youth centres to see if they had anyone they would recommend to me. The great thing about Safe is that it’ll give writers full visibility and people will know who they are.”
Through researching and speaking to many black men of various ages and backgrounds, Owusu discovered just how wide the black British male experience is. “There’s so many things we don’t talk about in our community, because it’s a taboo or we just don’t talk about it out in the open.
“And while we have many similar experiences, the different ways we approach and deal with them is unique to each individual,” he says. “So if Safe does well, I’m keen to do another book just to create platforms to allow certain discussions to take place.”
Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space edited by Derek Owusu will be published March 7.