Beyond Tourism: Race, Space, and National
Identity in London
By Idroma Montgomery, recent graduate of Arcadia
University and editorial assistant at an independent
academic publishing company.
I could say that I became a true inhabitant of London
when I started to recognize and observe the fault lines
of social exchanges and race relations that rested uneasily
beneath the prided multiculturalism of the city. London
remains one of the most diverse and progressive cities
that I’ve seen, and its constant social tension
pushes it forward in both positive and negative ways.
To be a tourist was to not understand this energy that
infused the land, to not see the possibility of transformation.
As an African American female, I was no stranger to
the effects of marginalization and being rendered “other”
in my own country. I often worried how my race would
affect my presence while in Britain. Being a black American,
however, allowed me to navigate the city in a way that
many of my white counterparts could not.
The English do not automatically associate blackness
with America. Within their society I became one of three
things on sight: Afro-Caribbean, Nigerian, or biracial
English. I was accepted as a citizen in some respects
because I was not considered truly American, at least
until I opened my mouth. Because of this, I was able
to participate in more mundane racial interactions that
infused city living, and thus, in part, view how people
of color live and exist in London’s many boroughs.
Though I had previously learned about the different
ethnic groups that composed the city, it wasn’t
until I lived among them that I truly understood their
importance. I was forced to learn the accents, dialects,
and customs that formed the cultural space around me
in order to not be “outed” as a foreigner.
I became intimately familiar with not only the physical
space of London and other parts of England, but its
people as well. I learned to understand the madness
that is English culture; it was no longer “quaint”
or “exotic,” but a space with which I could
truly interact and which I could help to shape. I was
no longer a transitory entity but a stationary one,
able to take on the freedoms and responsibilities that
living in a city entailed. I became an inhabitant, not
only because of my shared experience within those few
months, but also because I recognized that from then
on, I was affected by what occurred in the city, that
it had become an indelible part of my personal landscape.
Through this cultural transformation, I also gained
a heightened form of what W. E. B. DuBois termed “double
consciousness.” Not only did I have to reassess
what it meant to be American in a different cultural
context; I had to learn what it meant to be black in
England. In many ways, it was race coupled with ethnicity
that formed national consciousness. In London, I was
most surprised by my own interactions with the black
populace. Unencumbered by the presence of different
ethnicities within the States, I realized, shockingly,
that the centuries of shared experience that united
black Americans did not exist for British blacks. Even
my routine transactions in public spaces differed according
to whether I was speaking with a Caribbean, a Nigerian,
or a first- or second-generation citizen. I found that
when confronted with a host of nationalities with such
a strong remembrance of their own histories, “African
American” as an identity became problematic. For
possibly the first time I recognized what it meant to
have a country, to be both American and black. From
that small epiphany I started to view race relations
in a completely different manner. For all our differences,
minorities in America were still completely American;
in England there was, quite literally, a struggle to
figure out what British identity meant in a place that
could host thousands of differently identifying groups.
My sense of basic racial dichotomy, black and white,
was completely shattered in light of all the groups
I learned to live beside.
I was also able to view the dynamics of globalization
as it affected the local environment. Globalization
ceased to be some amorphous, all-encompassing entity
and gained specificity and a sense of locality. Through
student life especially I learned how many of my peers,
even the ones from small towns and rural areas, had
grown up with a dizzying array of cultures around them.
It became commonplace for me to see signs in both English
and Hindi, to walk past not only churches and temples,
but also beautiful mosques all over London. Even tragic
events like the 2004 tsunami gained resonance as I realized
that for a large population of the country, this was
no faraway occurrence but one that could easily involve
family and a life left behind. I heard Indian boys address
each other as “brown soul brother” and listened
while South Asians and Asian Muslims discussed how much
they had been affected by leaders such as Malcolm X.
I began to feel a kinship with the South Asian population
as I noticed how they were influenced not only by their
own culture and heritage but by black American and Caribbean
cultures as well.
This culture blend extended into aspects of my life
outside of academia. In music it was not unusual to
hear traditional Punjabi bhangra folk songs merged with
reggae and rap, or French artists who combined pop music
with Spanish melodies. I heard rap from all over Western
Europe and parts of Asia that reconfigured American
patterns in order to reflect their own cultural realities.
In museums, in the Tube, and on the street I saw paintings
and photography from all over Africa that tried to come
to terms with what it meant to be African and European
in a postcolonial environment utilizing traditional
and Western methods. I saw that while American culture
did have a global influence, in most cases this influence
became transformed to suit the culture it resided in.
It was no longer completely American but something forged
by each local community, made foreign and completely
unpredictable through each interpretation. American
culture became a vessel in which these countries could
modernize themselves; it became both subject and object.
Editor’s Note: This article is included with
thanks to Jeffrey Shultz and Ellen Skilton-Sylvester
of Arcadia University.