ED GORDON, host:
Gary Younge grew up in England, but he spent the last three years in New York City, commenting on the quirks and complexities of U.S. culture. Younge's new book is called Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States. He wrote it after traveling across America and talking to people of all political stripes and political backgrounds.
He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
How do Americans react to you as a black Brit of West Indian ancestry, asking them about politics? Do you think the answers you got might be different if you were a black American?
Mr. GARY YOUNGE (Author, Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States): Depends what the questions are. I mean, when - there's no doubt about it: when I turn up in people's houses and say, hi, I'm the guy you spoke to on the phone, they're not expecting me. That's also, I must say, true for different reasons in Britain.
Black Americans and white Americans react differently. African-Americans are more likely to think in the first instance that I'm trying to be haughty or (unintelligible). White Americans are kind of confused and bemused. And it really depends on where I am and what the context is.
So, once I was in Orangeburg, South Carolina. I went, really, by accident to a white Baptist church in the rural South. And I got these stares like I've never had before. I've had the, you know, I-don't-think-you-can-afford-the-bill stares and, you know, geez, we've-never-seen-any-black-people-around-here-before stares, but these were kind of like, is this a demonstration? Is this -what is this? We know that you know that you're not supposed to be here.
And afterwards, when I was walking out of the church - nobody had spoken to me, obviously, and a woman grabbed my shoulder and she said, I'm really glad you came, but kind of - quite bug-eyed. And I said, well, thanks very much for having me. And she said, you're not from here are you? And I said, no, I'm from England. And then, you could hear it being passed back, he's from England, he's from England. It's okay; he's not here to stay. He's not bringing his friends. He's from England.
I didn't feel threatened at all and nobody was mean to me, but there was a lot of confusion. So the primary thing is confusion, and then it really depends on where you are and what you're doing as to how people respond to that.
CHIDEYA: Somebody once said to me, black Americans talk about race, Africans talk about politics. Now, do you think that's accurate? And how do black folks here measure up in political involvement today, compared to, say, people you grew up with in the U.K.?
Mr. YOUNGE: Well, I don't think it's fair to say that African-Americans talk about race and Africans talk about politics, because in America, race is a central part of politics. You can't really understand politics in America without it. I think that people who say that are being a bit condescending to African-Americans. And, of course, African Americans talk about lots of other things as well.
There are some big differences in the way that - my wife is African-American and we talk about these differences a lot in the way I grew up, as opposed to her, so here are a few. Britain had a civil rights movement abroad; it also had a segregation abroad. Our civil rights movement took place in India, in Ghana, in Kenya, in Jamaica, as did our segregation. And that makes a big difference as to how British people understand themselves.
We also, in large numbers, have been in Britain less long. So we have less of a - we feel less of a claim on the island and we are repeatedly kind of informed about our little claim to the island. And then, finally, in terms critical mass, there are - maybe 4 percent of Britain is of African descent, and then another 6 percent is of southeast Asian descent - or south Asian descent, I should say.
And that means there are less of us. So the opportunities for autonomous organizations, for black nationalism, for those kind of currents that have always run through black American politics just simply - really aren't there. We're a much more integrated society, particularly people of Caribbean and African descent, for the basic reason that we kind of don't really have much choice. So, one in two Caribbean men and one in three Caribbean women are in relationships with white people. That's a big difference between Britain and the U.S.
CHIDEYA: You know, in your writing, the Americans, conservative and liberal, still call on American values to argue the same points from different perspectives. So what does that say about maybe the malleability of American values? And does that resonate for you at all during the immigration debates that have been going on recently?
Mr. YOUNGE: It really does. It was - the first time I came to America for a length of time, I was - I'd been granted a fellowship to work at The Washington Post. And I arrived on July the 3rd. July the 4th, I went to the mall with some friends and saw the Independence Day parades. And they had fireworks and they kept pumping out quotes. And one was from John Wayne and one was from Martin Luther King.
And I thought, God, there's an awful lot you can do with this, national identity, you can almost do anything you want with it. And, sure enough, people do. They kind of - they claim Americanism in order to bomb Iraq or in order to argue that we shouldn't be bombing Iraq.
Actually, in many ways, that comes to the fore with immigration to me, because on the one hand, you have this sense of - I always get the sense that Americans love immigration. They love the idea of the social meritocracy. You know, my grandfather arrived to Ellis Island with $5 in his pocket and look at me now. Of reinvention, I mean, in a way it gets to the heart of a lot of what Americans think about themselves.
So they love immigration, but they hate immigrants, it seems. And they always have done it. And it doesn't really matter which - at the moment, the Hispanics, who've become the focal point for intense discussion about the nature of America. And that to me is nothing but intriguing, because in Britain, particularly growing up as a black person, I had to deal with this sense that people had that they were Anglo-Saxon and, therefore, Britain was a white country. And so actually trying to crowbar your way into that identity is quite difficult, whereas America always felt to me far more fluid and flexible.
CHIDEYA: So are you going to become a U.S. citizen? Are you going to be an immigrant over here?
Mr. YOUNGE: I may do. I mean, to be honest, I have two brothers. One lives in Maryland, the other one lives in - near Dublin. We've all left Britain for our own reasons, but at the heart of that I think that there isn't a great attachment to the soil. I love British culture, but I don't feel wedded to Britain in a way that means that I would feel the need to really stay here. And since my wife is American, I may well end up leaving here.
That wouldn't be without some - I wouldn't say misgivings, but some kind of trepidation. But it wouldn't be a radically different kind of feeling than I would have if I went back to England. I think I could be equally placid and equally angry about the domestic party wherever I lived. And so if I lived in America, then that's fine, too.
CHIDEYA: Thanks, Gary.
Mr. YOUNGE: Thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with Gary Younge, a columnist for The Nation magazine. His new book is called Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States. You can hear Younge read an excerpt from his book at our Web site at npr.org.
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