Some Kind of Black
by Diran Adebayo
Diran Adebayo has been hailed as one of the most original literary talents of his generation. In 1995 this novel won him the Saga Prize, a Betty Trask Award, the Author's Club Best First Novel Award and the Writer's Guild New Writer of the Year Award in 1996.
Some Kind of Black tells the story of an Oxford history graduate called Dele, who also happens to be a street - smart black man. Dele and his sister Dapo's parents are Nigerian and very traditional in their attitudes and outlook. Dele glides through London, switching and shifting between African and Caribbean communities, and despite his Nigerian background, his voice is undoubtedly and authentically that of a Londoner. As Dele dissects the different attitudes to race and class, Adebayo makes observations in a sharp and original way, writing in a variety of convincing voices - Jamaican, Nigerian and South London.
Dele is sharp, witty and very engaging. His personal journey takes us through London, against a backdrop of recognisable urban landscapes, in and out of political groups, gambling and gaming dens, minicabs, student life and brushes with the law.
The book has a real feel of the city and really takes you there, and understands the layers of prejudice and pre-conceptions which lace the world Dele inhabits. Adebayo creates a very real world, drawn with humour and great tenderness - particularly in the relationship between Dele and Dapo, which is made more poignant by Dapo's chronic illness. Adebayo's London is alive with great characters and despite the violence and harshness of so many lives, it has a tangible and lasting optimism. I found it very evocative and authentic of London and would appeal to anyone who knows and loves the city, and who wants to join a young man's journey to find himself, to a sort of coming of age, set against a backdrop of pirate radio.
Some Kind of Black features Dele, a young black student living in Britain and his attempt to reconcile his experiences at University in Oxford, his Nigerian roots and his exploits in urban London, where he explores the music scene, experiments with drugs and becomes involved in Black activism after his sister is arrested. We meet him in his final year as he figures out his Oxford life style, questioning his reason for being there. Also trying to figure out his white colleagues who claim to be his friends as well as African colleagues expecting him to be African. And there is the problem of his parents who expect that when he gets to London, he should have an idea of what career he should follow. Dele, being from a typical Nigerian family, it is taken for granted that he should follow in some sort of professional career, a view that Dele finds oppressive.
Dele’s sister Dapo and his good friend, Concrete, have a confrontation with the Police. Dapo is taken to the hospital; she is unconscious and falls into a coma. Dele attempts to gain justice for her whilst anti-racist organizations use the situation to promote themselves through his family tragedy. Dele has to grow quite quickly from being book smart to street smart to outsmart all those who try to use him. In other words, he progresses from a man with a confused identity or more to the point, a man who has no racial consciousness to buffer him against the negative experiences, to a man who is more grounded and rooted by all what he has gone through.
I found this a difficult book to read so the way I want to review this is just to say what I liked and didn’t like about it. At times I felt I was on a roller coaster that was out of control. I felt the story moved from one place to the next without ever pausing. Maybe Adebayo is trying to capture the frenetic nature of Black London life. I wanted him to slow down so that one could savour some of his ‘realities’. But you don’t get the chance to do this. I didn’t like his approach to women. Women, with the exception of his mother and Dapo, were treated as objects to do things to. And this was more or less all the women he came into contact with. Without sounding too puritanical, a decent woman like Cheryl who had a lot of self-respect, Dele just completely overlooks and dismisses her virtues like it’s an inconvenience. And his depiction of West Indians?… well as I am of West Indian parentage, and fully aware of the tensions between Africans/Nigerians and Black Britons, it
doesn’t really surprise me that Dele views the West Indian with disregard. His dislike of them manifest itself by giving them silly names like Concrete and Sol, and presenting them as doing no good. However, I think its better that Adebayo speaks or writes as he finds. It would be pretentious of him to write that everything was cosy between us.
I found it interesting that when he was a student at Oxford, because he was black, he was seen as a kind of fashion accessory, that is, cool, a great body, great CD’s and quality drugs etc and that he did not question the fact that people wanted to ‘experience’ him. I found it irritating that he traded himself just to sleep with some of the women.
I liked the mix of Standard English, Jamaican/West Indian patois and ‘street talk’ – a mixture of American and English slang. I found it alive, innovative and incredibly creative but at times it jarred/irked because of his urgency to sound cool means coming up with hip hop words, made up words, phrases, just so that the author comes across as credible. I think where the language does work is when Adebayo describes the character’s love for music. An art form that is not always easy to find the right words to describe a particular sound or how it makes the listener feels, Adebayo, however, does not have that problem. He finds the appropriate words to express a variety of different types of music and what it does for him.
Another important feature of the story is location. Adebayo includes the areas where Black people live – Tottenham and Brixton, (similar to how Bernadine Evaristo does in Lara) giving the story the necessary realism.
I think the most poignant point in the novel is his awareness of what his situation actually is. From page 180 to 185, we witness Dele trying to explain the ‘bones’ of Dapo’s situation to Andria. Andria listens politely and nods her head, anxious for him to finish his explanation. He excuses Andria’s lame response as someone who is not easily ‘fazed’ by things because she had seen a lot of unpleasant things in her life and therefore feels no need to ask unnecessary questions. Then a little later, when he ponders on whether his father is aware of Andria spending a few nights at the house, Dele marvels at the situation that is before him: a sister who has been put in a coma because of a confrontation with the police and is now in hospital; parents who have suffered because of racism; and then himself, dating a white woman, a white woman he sees as a representative of a people who had made his sister and parents to suffer. He tries to console himself that by having an Oxford degree
makes him an establishment man. Makes him somehow special, different. But does it? Andria is a working class woman he has nothing in common with yet he cannot make up his mind whether he should like her or hate her. Or probably he realises he is with her for the wrong reasons. But it dawns on him, painfully, that his ‘paper’s’ are meaningless simply because society believes that the degree will hold little value as it is in the hands of someone they feel has little value.
Finally, I also thought it interesting that Adebayo had mastered the Jamaican patois/African-American street speak to perfection, but given the tension between West Indians and Africans, in order to survive, I find it sad that he and perhaps many other Africans, had to adopt the patois. Since the popular culture amongst the youth is so rap orientated, there is no room to accommodate anything that is Black, standard and educated. Nobody wants to be stigmatised as being ‘White’. Even White teenagers have to conform to a certain extent, as nobody can afford to be left out.
Diran Adebayo describes himself as a Nigerian Londoner. When he came to Nigeria and gave a talk at a Nigerian University, he said that he wasn’t your ‘typical Nigerian’ and African culture could be ‘conservative and that he wasn’t’.
Overall, Some Kind of Black was an interesting read albeit it a difficult one.
Margaret Woherem - from the Nigerian Book Group