This is a longer version of a short piece published in the Observer, 18 April 2021.

The African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s final work, Seraph on the Suwanee, is set among poor Southern whites. Published in 1948, it’s often dismissed by critics as a “whiteface” novel because the lives and diction of the white characters seem too “black”, as if they were really black people in white masks. Hurston dismissed such criticism. “About the idiom of the book”, she wrote to friend and fellow-novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, “I too thought when I went out to dwell among the poor whites in Dixie County that they were copying us. But I found their colorful speech so general that I began to see that it belonged to them… Just stand around where poor whites work, or around the village stores of Saturday nights & listen & you will hear something.” There was a way of speaking, she adds, that was “common to white and black”. 

The debate over Hurston’s novel articulates well the fraught relationship between ideas of “authenticity” and “identity”.  Poor whites in the American South are not supposed to speak as they do, because that is “black speak”. If a novel captures their actual speech, it appears inauthentic. The irony is that to be “authentic” to an identity, one must not necessarily be authentic to people’s lives as actually lived. 

“Authenticity” and “identity” are both concepts that seem simultaneously indispensable and indefinable. Both are concepts that emerge in the modern world and there is a heap (in fact, far more than a heap) of discussion and debate about their meaning, which I am not going to even begin to address here.  Both authenticity and identity are, however, far more embedded in contemporary culture and the relationship between the two is even more difficult to negotiate today than it was when Hurston wrote Seraph on the Suwanee. It is not just that the meanings of both are more fiercely policed. It is also that marks of identity have become like placeholders. It is not the content that matters, just the outward appearance. And having the right outward appearance – the right marks of identity – is what is policed.  Hence the constant stream of controversies over cultural appropriation” or who is authentic enough to engage in some cultural process, or who should be included in “diversity”.

The latest skirmish is over BBC police drama Luther. BBC’s head of diversity, Miranda Wayland, apparently thinks that Idris Elba’s lead character is not “authentic” enough, as he does not eat Caribbean food or have black friends. 

There may well be another universe in which Luther shares jerk chicken with black buddies. Whether that Luther would be any more authentic than the Luther in our universe is a moot point. After all, why should Luther consume Caribbean as opposed to West African food? Why can’t black people prefer Italian or Moroccan or Indian or Thai cuisine without losing their “blackness”? And why should Luther’s authenticity be defined solely by his skin colour? Why not his misanthropy, his rage, the fact that he is a policeman? As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has observed, given that Luther is a policeman, “The character’s social circle is probably the most realistic thing about Luther, as the friends we see him make are people he meets through work”. Bush adds that “part of the joy of Luther lies in it being both high-quality hokey escapism and a drama with a protagonist who is incidentally black.”

In today’s culture, though, it is difficult not to politicise identities. The very perception of identity – white, black, Muslim, gay, trans – is always framed by the social and cultural meaning attributed to that identity. At the same time, what the Luther controversy shows is how defining authenticity through the most trivial marks of identity is itself a mark of our times. One of the ironies of the way in which many talk about diversity today, as I have observed before, is that diversity often seems magically to vanish at the edges of minority communities.

“We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth”, James Baldwin observed in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”; “and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.” Sometimes, in one of my more cynical moods, I wonder, if Baldwin were still here, whether his authenticity – and indeed his identity – would be questioned, too.


  1. To ‘other’ and ‘inferiorise’ individuals because they don’t conform to racialised and essentialised cultural stereotypes is not progress but a regression to scientific racism.

  2. yandoodan

    Authenticity was a major issue in the time of Martin Luther King, when I was a lad. We called it “stereotyping”, and saw it as bad. It was used to confine people, not free them.

  3. Will Harris

    The problem is other than his skin color what makes him Black? I remember arguments about the blackness of Jimi Hendrix’ music versus is male identity and self identity. This goes back to the reification of concepts and conflation of racialized group identity with individual expression. The resurgence of biological racialism in genetic testing perfectly illustrates the confounding of culture and group identity.

    • Andrew

      You could play this game endlessly. Are we supposed to view Jessye Norman or Kiri Te Kanawa as ‘inauthentic’ because these African American and Maori women expressed themselves through a European art form?
      It’s not hard to think where this kind of thinking leads and that it’s been embraced in so called ‘progressive’ circles is deeply depressing.

      • Will Harris

        Culture does not exist in a museum, the arguments over how to represent a culture or who represents a culture within the institutions of that culture play out in absurd ways, traditional costumes versus modern apparel, authenic blues versus Adia Victoria, who is more Black versus a “white form”of art or writing. The truth is that no one can control who writes a novel, who says a word or who braids their hair or sings rock or roll or opera. We are struggling with the results of blending and bending cultural norms and groups from histories of prolonged conflict and colonial appropriation. It would be wise to understand respectability politics is a losing game, Stepin Fetchit was a frind of Muhummad Ali, Stravinsky was popular among jazz musicians, Satie incorporated jazz idioms, everyone considered Keith Jarrett a jazz and classical musician.all these labels are makeshift. none can be taken seriously. Jessye Norman can sing spirituals as well as arias, Misty Copeland can dance European ballet and Sinead O’Connor can sing soul. We are struggling with the after effects of minstrelsy and vaudeville but without these “art forms” we may not have had Louis Armstrong, Tom Waites or Bruce Springsteen.

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