Courttia Newland: The Evidence of Things Ignored

Shantella Y. Sherman | 10/30/2013, 3 p.m.
London youth have an identity problem.
Courttia Newland, author of "The Scholar," penned a definitive book that addresses the experiences of London's young adult population. Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman

London youth have an identity problem. Often maligned and rarely understood, when taken on the whole, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, they represent boogeymen that disrupt natural codes of civility and propriety. In recent years, very few positive stories have graced the international pages of newspapers or blogs concerning Afro-British youth. From the violent gang culture that plagues some areas to the street rebellion that saw historic British landmarks fall to ash, Black youth have been cast as culprits –both expressly and indirectly. In fact, like their American contemporaries, where stereotypes and conjecture are absent, there is little acceptance of Black youth as anything other than problematic.

So imagine this writer’s surprise, when in 2005, she encountered at least 12 different young people standing in cues, riding the tube (subway) or sitting in coffeehouses, reading the same book – The Scholar. With particular focus, the readers appeared gripped by the words on the pages in front of them and seemed stereotypically out of place – with sagging pants, oversized earrings, and fresh shined trainers (tennis shoes).

The text in question, The Scholar, by Courttia Newland, as it happened, was a novel that spoke directly to the experiences of London’s young adult population.

“I’ve seen every young person in London reading this book. What’s so great about it?”

“It is my life and my mates’ lives. It represents well. I need to read this one before I read Society Within. That’s the new one.”

The representation, as it turned out, was of young people, living on a Council Estate with working-class, loving parents and trying their best to stay out of trouble. In the vein of Sista Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, which it predates by two years, both The Scholar and later Society Within (2005) helped open a racial and generational dialogue about Black British youth identity formation.

“You sometimes have to fight against the tide of information coming at you about your own existence,” Pasqual Felix, a Newland fan, said recently. “When all you see about people your own age is that they are ‘hoodies’ out stabbing people or the cause for social and economic issues, it is difficult to recognize yourself outside of that. It is even more difficult to challenge such negative perceptions.”

Felix, 24, said that he became a supporter of Newland’s work when his younger sister, who was 15 at the time, purchased The Scholar.

“Janice was hell-bent on being the neighborhood bad girl – cutting school, smoking, hanging out with boys, and then she pops up with a book that she actually paid 10 quid for. It was so out of the ordinary and it made me realize she was searching for herself in popular culture. She had a mother and aunts and girlfriends, but she needed to see herself out there and like the reflection,” Felix said.

Newland, 40, who showcased his latest work, The Gospel According to Cane during a book talk at the Hackney Central Library, said, while he never expected his first work to become a staple, he wanted to present a more realistic examination of London’s Black youth.