Opening Up – Being a Black Man

  • Being a Black Man
  • Star rating: **
  • Being a Man Festival
  • Festival Village, Southbank Centre
  • London SE1
  • Saturday 28th November 2015

What does it mean to be a Black man today?  Is it any different from being a white, Asian man or man of any other racial identity or nationality?

This was the topic under discussion at the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival 2015.

The panel comprised performance artist and writer Lasana Shabazz, Social Media Manager and Attitude magazine columnist Jemal Polson and BBC television presenter, writer and founder of Afropean Johny Pitts. It was well chaired by writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun.

They aimed to explore the “contradictory and complex ideas around black masculinity and asks what tensions arise from stereotypes, colonial histories and economic power.”

Whilst it was at times an interesting and very funny debate it failed to clearly address its stated objectives. For instance tired old stereotypes re black men as potential thieves, not sounding black or the depiction of the well hung black man were spoken of. The men wanted society to move away from the “myth/legend” of the big, black cock. Johny Pitts came up with the funniest lines of the talk to counter this by saying, “We need a small black cock movement!”  The packed audience erupted with roars of laughter reverberating around the Festival Village hall.

Lasana Shabazz and Jemal Polson

Johny Pitts, Lasana Shabazz, Jemal Polson and Ekow Eshun

The myth/ negative perception of black men as potential muggers was also talked about. Lasana Shabazz spoke about how when in London he lives his live as a regular guy, not especially race aware, but was shaken out of this on one particular occasion. During a train journey out of London he noticed a woman move her bag away when she saw him approaching. For some people all they know of black people is what they see on TV and in the newspapers and if that’s negative it breeds that sort of reaction.

Living in London one can forget how much less diverse other parts of the country are and how unusual it can be to see a black person in real life. I can identify with that. I recall once going to a Stourbridge pub for a Sunday lunch only to be met by all eyes of the pub on me and my partner as we walked in and were told, “Sorry it’s a lock in.” Hmmmm. Of course it was. As all pubs do in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

One of the Nigerian panelists spoke about his difficulties encountered when “travelling whilst Nigerian.” I had no idea there was an issue regarding this and that view was dismissed by a couple of Nigerian men in the audience who said they had no problems travelling abroad.

It was interesting to note that 2 of the 3 panel members were gay. Nothing against having gay men on the panel, but more the fact it meant this wasn’t a representative panel of black men and resulted in a discussion that didn’t focus on many areas most heterosexual men encounter. I wonder why the Southbank ‘Being a Man Festival’ created such a mix.

The Integrated Household Survey (2014) compiled by the Office for National Statistics stated that just 1.6% of the UK population declared themselves gay (1%), lesbian or bisexual. Even allowing for the likely fact that is an underestimate with many being un-willing to reveal their true persuasion it’s no-where near the two in three (66%) make up of this panel. This skewed representation of men was to some a slightly troubling feature of the make up of many of the panel’s at the Being a Man festival. Two of the four men on the ‘British Asian Men’ panel were homosexual. Again, another gross miss-representation of the sexuality of the average British Asian man.

There was discussion on the specific issues encountered by being black and gay, which was fine in itself but hardly surprising.  The event lacked any sort of discussion of black men and their careers, employment, educational attainment, business, economic power and relationships.

Pitts did touch on the economic power disparity from the upper echelons of American society when he re-told the Chris Rock joke about how for a black dentist to live on his street he’d probably have had to have invented teeth!! That was hilarious and had the room in stitches as it was so on point. It re-emphasised how the black man has to work twice as hard as the white man just to stand a chance of achieving anywhere near as much as them. Though he spoke of superstar levels of income, the message was classic Chris Rock in highlighting a truth about being a black man regardless of their income level or social class. It spoke of un-level playing fields, whether you’re in show business, office administration or a professional career.

It was also a curiosity that on casual observation of the audience there were clearly more black women present than black men, white men and women; plus more white women than white men. Very odd and though the debate was not closed to women, it’s disappointing there were not many more men in attendance to listen to the talk and voice their opinions.

I think it’s still the case that in spite of the UK having had the Race Relations Act 1965 for 50 years there is still some way to go before black men can say there is a level playing field and genuine equality in employment, access to housing and even just  getting into night clubs, as some black women experienced for themselves recently trying to get into Dstrkt London! Though it was acknowledged that gay man can be subject to additional discrimination it is not something many would put on a par with everyday discrimination black people face as a person’s sexuality is generally not known when it comes to applying to employment and housing for instance. That’s more of a minority issue within a minority.

Review and photograph © Tiemo Talk of the Town

Video © Southbank Centre


  1. It’s all in the mind – Tackling the male suicide crisis – 20th December 2015
  2. Life’s a drag for British Asian Men – Review – 19th December 2015
  3. Are men in crisis? Debate and book launch – 24th  September 2015
  4. The Trouble with Men III  review – 9th March 2015.
  5. Should there be a place for men’s rights on the political agenda? article – 18th November 2012
  6. Tiemo Entertainments Funny Ha Ha Amazon Store

If you attended the show we’d love to read your comments. They can be simply posted via the comments section below. These may be posted anonymously if you wish.

This entry was posted in Being a Man Festival 2015, Debates, Lectures and Talks and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Opening Up – Being a Black Man

  1. Pingback: Is Life a Drag for British Asian Men? | tiemotalkofthetown

  2. Tia says:

    Great review of the event. I agree with a lot of the points expressed.

    A lot more of these talks and discussions are needed, this created a great platform to discuss black race in an audience open to all races, genders and sexualities, this brings more exposure to issues, ease pain and sensitivities and allows us to discuss the solutions. In my opinion the event would have been better if it was longer, had more discussion points instead of just free flowing talk (so a topic breakdown- career, relationships, etc).

    Lastly, a larger panel would have been better, potentially with black men from completely different types of careers (two of the panel were in the journalism/media profession, the other in musical arts).

  3. Tiemo Talk says:

    Thanks very much for your kind words Tia.

    I agree with your comments too. Tiemo in the past regularly put on debates and need to do more next year. The enjoyment of the open minded, mature talks over the 3 day festival was a highlight for me.

    Yes, the panel was a bit narrow in scope. One of the other main themes was the need for men to open up more in conversation about any issues they have, something covered in the ‘All in the Mind’ discussion with Dr Christian Jessen from C4’s Embarassing Bodies.

  4. Saffron Blue says:

    1st paragraph

    Racial identity rather than nationality.

    Paragraph 9

    It would have been more honest if the session was called black gay men issues around sexuality, homophobia and racism.

    The session needs to be revisited to deal with social policy, political and economic issues. How it affects the black man in terms of relationships, family,social status and public image.

    By concentrating on racism and sexual stereotypes we fell into the self prophecy trap that the racist created.

    What about being in a country where being black is not an issue?

    How about living in a country where blacks have economic power?

    Let’s move away from racial stereotypes.

    The 100 Black Men organisation mentors young black men to be the best they can be. Maybe they will provide the platform for heterosexual men to address these issues.

    Your experience in the pub in Stourbridge sounds like the American Deep South. Outside of London racism is overt depending on ethnicity.

    Overall the issues on black sexuality and racial stereotypes, on being a black gay man were treated sensitively with great humour that made the audience laugh out loud!

  5. Tiemo Talk says:

    @Saffron Blue – Thanks very much for taking the time to make some considered and well thought out comments.

    Re 1st paragraph – I have kept “nationality” but added racial identity for clarification. I see that racial identity best describes the point being made, but nationality is a valid comparator too if we’re considering whether the issues that bother Black men, or whether the hopes, dreams and ambitions of Black men, or British men differ from those of other nationalities.

    Paragraph 9

    “It would have been more honest if the session was called black gay men issues around sexuality, homophobia and racism.” Fair comment.

    I agree with you that the session would have had wider appeal and relevance if it dealt “social policy, political and economic issues. How it affects the black man in terms of relationships,family, social status and public image.”

    What did you mean by the “self prophecy trap” and who is the racist you refer to? Do you mean that when black men are discussed the trap is just discussing race?

    “What about being in a country where being black is not an issue? How about [tackling] living in a country where blacks have economic power”

    [Interesting questions, but I don’t see the relevance of them for a debate about the black British experience. Yes, Southbank could easily have found non-Black British men for the panel, but that would have taken away from the core of the discussion].

    I agree that the issues of being Black and gay were dealt with sensitively and with good humour.

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