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The Innate Black Britishness of I May Destroy You

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

In the eighth episode of Michaela Coel’s searing drama, I May Destroy You, our funny, layered, and hurting protagonist Arabella bangs against the door of her errant, on-again-mostly-off-again Italian lover Biagio. She is frustrated, she is humiliated, and her heart has — not to make a finer point of it — been shat on. Ignoring what is clearly a cry for help, Biagio has rejected Arabella’s impulsive visit and manipulatively locked her out of his home. When she sheepishly states that she has left her passport in his apartment, he wordlessly, coldly slides it to her beneath his door. It’s a moment that slices into sinews. In response, she jolts, physically rocked by his rejection.

“Wow,” she says, in a moment of quiet, stunned realisation. And, as if this is not enough, she chases it with “Rah.”

“Rah,” she says, and it is a declaration of shock. “Rah,” she says, and it’s an acknowledgement of deep, confused hurt. “Rah,” she says, and it’s a prelude to an emotional explosion, a raucous reckoning of the fact that this man is a terrible person, a cruel coward. “Rah,” she says, and the average Black Brit feels that shit in their gut.

When the episode aired on the BBC earlier this summer, the subtitles translated the Black Brit slang word of rah to raw. It’s perhaps an easy mistake to make; however, the inaccurate reading slightly undercut the tension of the moment, mitigating the emotional beat. This is because the texture of I May Destroy You — a complex tessellation of contradictions, layered convergences, and multiple conclusions — is hinged on Black Britishness. It is innately connected to it. Sophisticatedly woven themes of consent, sexual politics, and social media’s power to amplify, soothe, and subsume are not presented within a neutral vacuum, but rather within a specifically Black British sphere. The story is told through our tongue, spliced from many.

In a time when many Black people around the world are standing together in solidarity whilst fighting their own specific battles against racism, the distinct ability of I May Destroy You to portray the universal without negating cultural nuance rings particularly powerful. Sexual politics as a whole, but also sexual politics as a straight Black woman, as a gay Black man. Blackness as a whole, but also Blackness as many cultures, multiple voices. Scenes are soundtracked with musicians like Ramz (South London), Little Simz (North London), Jean Deaux (Chicago), voices and accents slip and slide from West African to American to Jamaican, twangs and tones shifting with moods, with words, and with intentions.

It would be easy to call this Black Britishness a “lens,” but “lens” is clinical and anthropological — “lens” is external and removable. It is less of a lens and more of a feeling that coats the chords of the show. A culture rarely seen in mainstream television, it’s not that Black Britishness (and the specificity of being a Black Londoner) assists in telling the story, nor is it that Black Britishness is its own character within the story. It is that it helps form the story. The rhythm and pulses chug narrative along, enriching the grain of the series. It’s a millennial tale, but it’s a Black British millennial tale, and within the nucleus of Black Britishness is a nexus of cultures, a diasporic mutuality that recognises our diversity whilst also drawing them together in communion.

Arabella’s surname is Essiedu, so one may presume that, like Michaela Coel herself, she’s of Ghanaian heritage, as is her best friend Kwame. Terry Pratchard, the third of their triad, could really be rooted from anywhere; her background is nebulous. One thing, however, is for certain: She is a Black Brit. There is a specificity preserved along with the breadth, emblematic of what Black Britishness is. Black Brits are rooted from mostly the West Indies and Africa, and our cultural etymologies have melded throughout time to give us our own language, our own expressions. Alongside this, the humour is distinctly British in tone, sharp-tongued and bracing. Black and the universes it holds coalesce within the space of Britishness to create a community of communities, layered to build our own world. Our characters slide through slang: Ting is sprinkled everywhere (what does ting mean? Ting is just ting, innit). Kwame drops oya (a Yoruba word that’s loosely translated to “come on” or “hurry up”). And Terry seamlessly bounces into a specifically Nigerian lilt when pontificating or joking.

The dialectal shifts are used as punctuation, an emboldening of a point, a highlighting of a punch line, but never are they actually the punch line. When Terry is impressed by Arabella’s confirmation that their Italy trip is covered by expenses, she utters wawu, rather than wow, as subtitles suggest. Technically the same but effectively different, the state of being impressed is given a playful edge that those who know know. When the girls are getting ready for a night out on the town in Italy, they drop into a rap, their accents naturally tilting towards American, a nod towards a Black culture that Black Brits often find themselves in intercommunication with. I May Destroy You never coddles, never patronises, and never does the work of detangling or translating for us; it presents itself and says, “This is life; do what you will with that.”

In Allison Pearson’s Telegraph review of I May Destroy You, the (white, British) columnist boldly, perhaps even smugly, proclaims that “the fact that they’re Black is irrelevant,” positioning the statement as praise. It is as baffling as it is incorrect. Pearson seems to intimate that when Blackness is not treated as an adjunct, when it is not the subject and when it speaks on themes that are universally accessible, culture becomes invisible, perhaps even rendered unhelpful. This is fascinating when you consider that it takes extreme mental dexterity and acrobatics to be able to extricate I May Destroy You out of the cultures from which it speaks. It raises the question of why one would even go to that effort; it removes the flavour from the show, numbs it. Within the show, Black Britishness is everything in that it is treated as nothing — this is to say that it just is, we just are, and you are confronting it whether you like it or not. Just as when we, the audience, are made to confront challenging grey areas and questions relating to sexual politics; just as we reckon with the fact that even our most benevolent characters have light and dark sifting through them; and just as we are forced to reflect on our own discomfort. If we are to fully appreciate the show for the textured masterpiece that it is, (colour) blindness and evasion will not work here.

In the ninth episode, “Social Media Is a Great Way to Connect,” Arabella goes off on a doctor who calls her Afro-Caribbean, the oft-used political synonymisation of all Black Brits. She states that there is a “unity and a distinction” within the diaspora. It speaks to the gift of the show itself, its ability to draw recognisable experiences without flattening or homogenising, without smoothening its hard edges and making it easier for the audience to swallow. I May Destroy You is as specific as it is universal — Blackness and Britishness infused in its essence. To watch this show without understanding that it is Black and British is to willfully ignore the fact — and yet, it exists not to be seen. It exists to exist, just as we do. This harks to the themes of complications, contradictions, and tensions that helm the series: Its Black Britishness is not notable, and to understand that it is not notable, you must first recognise that it is present and important. You must recognise that it matters. Black Britishness need not be removed to relate to the show. I May Destroy You, as a piece of art, is not in the business of servicing those who ignore the needful. It is an intellectually and emotionally vigorous show that gloriously presents its world without explanation. It is a show that states that when one says rah, you don’t need to understand to understand, babes.

The Innate Black Britishness of I May Destroy You