Finding Black Community in the UK as a Black American Expatriate
Kenya Hunt on Social Media, Black Excellence, and
Marvel's Black Panther
Much has been said about the fact that social media can make a person feel lonely. But I’d argue it can do the opposite for those who live chunks of their lives in spaces where they are an Only, an experience many Black people are well acquainted with. Anyone who has ever worked or socialized in a setting in which you are the Only One of One, Two, or at most Three understands the distinct sense of relief that comes from finally finding a network of people who have lived through similar experiences and who understand the particularity of yours. That unique kind of gladness in finding your tribe, people who can be both a mirror and validation of one’s difference as well as provide a kind of encouragement to embrace and celebrate it.
And while studies and polls reveal a loneliness epidemic sweeping through a generation of millennials thanks to social media, it’s impossible to ignore how Black Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have heightened a sense of community, connectivity, and solidarity for an entirely different demographic, Black people and especially Black women.
In my case, the alternative network I found on social media helped soften the culture shock of moving to a new country until I could find my own tribe on the ground in real life.
As a transplant to the UK, navigating insular, difficult-to-break-into circles in publishing and fashion, I have often felt the isolation of life as an Only in a way I didn’t feel it stateside. Back home, during my childhood in Virginia and my twenties in New York, if I was an Only in the classroom or work, the extensive tribe of girlfriends I had outside of it all helped fortify me against any feelings of exclusion.
Not to mention I could wake up in Virginia or New York, walk out the door, and dive into a variety of enriching Black experiences according to whatever mood I happened to be in that day. This was something I took for granted—until I moved to London, where more often than not I found myself in the position of outsider.
In the UK, where I moved in the late aughts into a historically white, working-class Southeast London neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, I found myself seeking out sameness in any form as a reprieve from Otherness. I knew the city had a rich Black cultural scene, I just hadn’t discovered how or where to tap into it yet. During those first six months abroad, I lived alone waiting for my boyfriend (who is now my husband and, I should point out, an American mix of Irish and Italian) to tie up loose ends back in the States so that he could board a plane in order to move in with me.While studies and polls reveal a loneliness epidemic sweeping through a generation of millennials thanks to social media, it’s impossible to ignore how Black Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have heightened a sense of community, connectivity, and solidarity.
I craved the company of other Americans, people who shared my accent and colloquialisms, people who didn’t pepper their spellings with u’s or say “sorry” instead of “excuse me” as they tried to navigate crowded pubs and rush hour trains. I formed tight, if fleeting, bonds with people I probably never would have gravitated toward back home in the States over the smallest Americanisms: a guilty affinity for Chick-fil-A and Ben’s Chili Bowl or subscriptions to the New Yorker and New York Magazine. It didn’t take much.
But more than anything, I craved a sense of community with other Black people, specifically Black women, and especially as Black people throughout the diaspora reveled in a new wave of pride and consciousness in the wake of the Obama presidency. I had grown up the product of institutions built to strengthen Black people in the face of systemic discrimination; I was the child of two historically Black university graduates. I understood the power of a strong tribe. And I knew if I was to successfully live in another country, I needed to find a community, even if it meant building one myself. I longed to be in a room where I was one of a loud, rambunctious many—like the greatest of all Black block parties, Sunday dinners, cookouts, or family reunions—rather than just the contained, observant party of one.
In the meantime, social media met the need, connecting me with my extended sister circle back home as well as with a group of talented Black women writers, early generation bloggers, and editors in other cities around the world whom I got to know through the internet. Social media tided me over until I could find what I was looking for offline.
I had found small pockets of it in London. At Notting Hill Carnival during my first full year as a UK resident. At the dinner party of a cousin of a friend’s friend later that autumn. And at a string of Afro hair salons I tried. But it wasn’t until January 2010 that I finally found what I had been looking for on a larger scale.
A friend, determined to show me that London was just as rich in community and melanin as New York (her words: “if not even more so!”), invited me to be her plus-one for an art party. The Tate Britain had just launched a sprawling, midcareer retrospective of the British painter Chris Ofili’s work. Chris Ofili, unapologetically Black and Manchester born, of Nigerian descent. Chris Ofili, Turner Prize–winning member of the famed Young British Artists. Chris Ofili, the man behind that painting of the Madonna rendered as a Black woman surrounded by big, Black, sexualized asses and actual elephant dung on canvas. The one that not only offended Catholics the world over but also divided the art world and pissed off a fair proportion of the viewing public. The one the mayor of New York tried to ban. Yeah, I’ll be there.Social media met the need, connecting me with my extended sister circle back home as well as with a group of talented Black women writers, early generation bloggers, and editors in other cities around the world.
It was the Blackest party I had ever been to in London, not quite a sea of melanin but definitely more Black faces than I had seen in a single gathering thus far, beyond my semiregular trips to Brixton for hair supplies and goat curry. It was the fifth of February and damp and glacial outside. But indoors, the rooms were warm and the crowd was hot. A DJ played Afro Beat as guests milled around dressed in their finest.
I was buoyed not just by the Blackness in the room—a photogenic mix that included tall, elegant-looking older men in jackets and kente shirts; young, stylish women in clashing graphic prints with all manner of braids and twist outs; and lean, straight-backed tracksuit-wearing guys with towering, free-growing dreadlocks—but also by the Blackness hanging on the walls. Collaged, painted, beaded, and gold-flecked odalisques, Black women in regal and sensual repose. A constellation of Afroed heads. Teardrops containing the image of slain Stephen Lawrence. Cutout images from Blaxploitation films. Ice-T. Don King. Blackness was the star, subject, and guest of honor at the show.
Near the gift shop, a line snaked its way through the ground floor as guests waited for the artist to sign catalogs and prints.
The mood was celebratory and dazzling. The night felt glamorous, even if much of the work on the walls was haunting and devastating. The evening was a moment and a rarity—a historically White institution and an enduringly homogenous industry honoring the country’s most famous Black artist.
But that was a different era from where we are now. Instagram had launched, but #BlackExcellence hadn’t yet taken off as the natural progression from the Black Power Movement, born in the 1960s, it would eventually become. And I hadn’t yet solidified the network of girlfriends I would go on to build following that night—effervescent, ambitious journalists, artists, stylists, and executives with thriving careers who not only lived Black excellence but also wanted to create space for other women to join them. Women who did make space for other women, building out teams, publishing imprints and brands that created new jobs and platforms. I had finally found my tribe! And the shared experience helped minimize the isolation I felt in my work life.
No, Black excellence hadn’t yet evolved into a social media phenomenon and cultural sea change. But that was where it had arrived by the time Marvel’s Black Panther, perhaps the decade’s most definitive visualization of Black excellence beyond the Obama White House itself, hit theaters in 2018.I was buoyed not just by the Blackness in the room but also by the Blackness hanging on the walls.
Like the Chris Ofili exhibition, the Black Panther premiere in London took place in February. Not that the cold weather stopped anyone from showing up in their boldest, brightest clothes, accessories, and African prints. And not since the Ofili exhibition had an unapologetic study and celebration of Blackness generated such fervent excitement among Black folk and the White mainstream alike. Yes, London had hosted the Basquiat retrospective Boom for Real at the Barbican a year before, but that was largely an American show staged in the UK. There was something about the Black Panther moment that, like Manchester-born Ofili’s evening, felt uniquely British with its cast full of homegrown talent filling both the screen (despite being written and directed by Americans) and the theater.
My life had changed considerably in the years between the two events. I was no longer a new expat homesick for community, searching for like-minded friends. By that point I had become a part of a large, loosely connected network of Black creatives, many of whom were planning to be at the premiere of Black Panther at the Hammersmith Apollo. And when I arrived at the theater, I realized I had finally found that sprawling, expansive, loud, and proud mass moment of Blackness I had been craving when I first moved to the UK.
Outside, the streets were cold and dark. But inside, the theater was alive, every seat full and walls vibrating with a mix of loud music and animated voices reverberating throughout the space: speaker-shaking bass, Kendrick Lamar’s flow and high-pitched “Ayyyyyeeees!” The audience doubled as fashion show—all party dresses and heels, statement jackets and sunglasses, conversation-worthy hair and nails.
I arrived nearly an hour late to find the movie was nowhere near beginning despite the 7 pm start time listed on the invitation. I fell in line with a string of latecomers, climbing the theater’s red-carpeted steps behind a boisterous group of fabulous-looking women, including the actress and screenwriter Michaela Coel. From my seat I scanned the audience and could make out the rapper Stormzy and actor John Boyega as well as a slew of media peers and friends. Onstage, stars Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira stunned in beaded dresses.
The opening scene rolled nearly 50 minutes later. The screen went black, with white stars gradually appearing to reveal a dark night sky. A young boy’s voice, optimistic and inquisitive: “Baba, tell me the story of home.” A glowing blue meteorite emerges from the darkness, speeding toward the continent of Africa and landing in a field of baobab trees as the boy’s father explains the history of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation hidden away from White colonialism and powered by the strongest substance in the universe, vibranium.
Moments later another little boy in Oakland, California, is playing basketball with his friends, unaware that inside his apartment upstairs, his father, an undercover Wakandan agent, is being confronted by his brother, the Black Panther.
Throughout the next two hours and fifteen minutes, the audience whooped and cheered as we watched a film in which Black people are hero and villain, savior and victim, with complicated paths to getting there. And in between the raucous moments of laughter and applause, contemplative silence as the film told a story of Africa and Black America, posed questions about Black liberation and Black radicalism, and presented the possibilities of gender equity. It was a film for and about Black culture, with a record-breaking $200 million budget.But inside, the theater was alive, every seat full and walls vibrating with a mix of loud music and animated voices reverberating throughout the space.
Few works of pop culture are as widely consumed as the superhero film. Of the twenty-five top-grossing movies of all time, more than half are big-budget, meticulously commercialized blockbuster productions revolving around men with superhuman capabilities. One of the most momentous feats of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is that it takes the globally revered medium and bathes it in Black. It was the eighteenth Marvel film but the first to star a Black superhero and an all-Black cast. The first to be set in Africa. The first Black film of any kind with such a massive budget. It was a movie in which women ran the place, with women warriors and matriarchs saving the day. It was nominated for an Academy Award. And it was the highest grossing superhero movie ever made (more than $1.3 billion globally).
It was also a gift to a global community of people of all races still reeling from the election of Donald Trump two years earlier and the rise of populism—and a gift released during America’s Black History Month, at that.
Much has been made of all these things. But I was struck most by how the movie shifted the conversation about Blackness away from America (a place that long dominated it) and became a kind of rousing phenomenon for people of color everywhere with social media serving as the vibranium that powered it.
In the film, residents of Wakanda showed their solidarity by crossing their arms over the heart in salute, a move the director Ryan Coogler styled after, among other things, the Egyptian pharaoh’s burial pose. Years later, some would interrogate the film’s mash-up of African references and argue it was a form of cultural homogenizing that did more harm than good. But as we sat in the theater we were all self-declared Wakandans too—immigrants and expats and homegrown Brits with roots that spanned Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, America, Senegal, Bermuda, Trinidad, South Africa, and more. One big diasporic tribe.
In an interview on The View, Lupita Nyong’o described it like this: “Wakanda is special because it was never colonized, so what we can see there for all of us is a reimagining what would have been possible had Africa been allowed to realize itself for itself. And that’s a beautiful place.”
Wakanda demonstrated to many of us what we already knew, that #BlackExcellence exists on a global scale, on screen and off.Black Panther was also a gift to a global community of people of all races still reeling from the election of Donald Trump two years earlier and the rise of populism.
To be clear, Black culture has always had currency, and Black excellence has always existed. One need only scroll through centuries of history to see this. But I’m talking about #BlackExcellence, the social media–driven amplification and celebration of Black culture. I’m talking about the rebirth of the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s—which was itself an advancement of the Negritude movement of the 1930s, which was in part inspired by the Harlem Renaissance—as an entirely new era that sat at the intersection of ideology, technology, and economics.
This directly impacted my working life. In the fashion world, European brands were casting a multitude of Black models of all skin tones to sell their clothing on a scale the world hadn’t seen since the seventies, when designers such as Saint Laurent, Halston, and Valentino regularly employed a diverse cast of women of color ranging from Donyale Luna to Pat Cleveland, Iman, and Bethann Hardison.
Meanwhile, fashion magazines began casting Black celebrities as cover stars of big issues in unprecedented numbers after years of mostly quarantining any woman of color not named Rihanna or Beyoncé to the smaller, “low-risk” issues of the year (January, February, and August, for example), indicating that publishers finally viewed them as bankable enough to do so. In August 2018, so many magazines featured Black women as their September issue cover stars that it made global headlines and inspired a wave of celebratory memes. The BBC and Sky News called, asking me to comment on this new phenomenon. Major media outlets began referring to this shift, as well as any other wave of inclusion in predominantly White spaces, as the Wakanda Effect.
Wakanda became a synonym for Black excellence and represented all of its possibilities, yes. But it also became a qualifier mainstream media used to reduce the idea to a trend, a fleeting “moment” that raised the inevitable question: “When will it end?”
To me, the decisions to feature Ruth Negga, Lupita Nyong’o, Tracee Ellis Ross, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Slick Woods, and Tiffany Haddish on the covers of magazines ranging from British ELLE, a title I worked for, to Grazia, Harper’s Bazaar, and American Vogue seemed like a no-brainer. These are all beautiful and accomplished women with a proven track record of appealing to a mass audience. These are women who have the body of work, the major cosmetics contracts, the interest of powerful fashion houses—women who tick all the boxes. It galled me that their accomplishments could be reduced to one superhero film.
The impact of the film’s enormous success could not be denied, but Black Panther was a highlight in a groundswell that had been building for years; it did not instigate it. For example, before Black Panther there was Get Out, which broke records as the highest-grossing original debut ever. The actress, director, and screenwriter Lena Waithe summed it up well: “I think Black people in this industry are making art that is so specific and unique and good that the studio heads have no choice but to throw money at us. They’re saying, ‘How can we support you and stand next to you?’ The tricky part is that they want to be allies and they want to be inclusive, but they also want to make money.”I’m talking about #BlackExcellence, the social media–driven amplification and celebration of Black culture. I’m talking about the rebirth of the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s.
And like Black Panther, her 2019 film, Queen & Slim, a sumptuous love story and heartbreaking reflection on the politics of Black Lives Matter written and directed by two Black women, probably wouldn’t have been as successful without a global tribe, connected by social media, supporting it.
I saw the film in a special preview in Shoreditch, hosted by BBC personalities Clara Amfo and Reggie Yates. The theater was filled with London’s homegrown Black excellence, most of them women, including model sisters Adwoa and Kesewa Aboah, photographer Rhea Dillon, designer Irene Agbontaen, and more. As the screening let out, guests, eyes wet with tears, congregated in the lobby for a group, family reunion–style photo, which made the rounds on Instagram in the following days.
It was a moment, and one that was no longer an anomaly in my life. That’s mostly because I had long bedded into life in London and connected with the city’s diverse network of Black creatives. What I hadn’t imagined is that Black creativity on both sides of the Atlantic would be as in demand by the mainstream as it currently is.
When we featured Lena in ELLE magazine several years before, she described it as a new version of the Harlem Renaissance and used the analogy again when talking about Black Panther in an interview with the New York Times. “We’re definitely in the middle of a renaissance, make no mistake. In twenty years, people are going to be writing about what you’re writing about. But for me, I want more.”
Who doesn’t? We all want to see more of ourselves in places where we aren’t and deserve to be, whether it be on the walls in a British museum, on a screen in a movie theater, or in the White House. To find our tribe and rally, arms crossed in salute. Wakanda Forever.
Excerpted from Girl Gurl Grrrl by Kenya Hunt. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2020 by Kenya Hunt.