One of my favorite pieces of Caribbean/Black British literature is Merle Collins’ poem, “When Britain Had Its GREAT.” In the short and powerful piece, Collins highlights the tensions around Black Britishness and the imperial past. She begins by considering the imperial nostalgia that had become a significant feature of popular culture and political discourse in the late twentieth century but critiques it, focusing instead on colonial trauma as generational memory. “Some people yearn for simple things/Like/Putting the GREAT back into Britain/They cannot hear the strangled haunting voices of infant sisters/and brothers/who died/because enslaved mothers loved too much to watch them grow to mate, unloved, unloving, to build GREAT Britain’s greatness.” Collins’ work calls into question the past and the present as she lays out a conundrum: What does it mean to be Black and British? This question is bound to a long conversation about race and the politics of belonging in (post-) imperial Britain, which has yet to be resolved, if it ever can be.
In early 2017, Black British artist Chris Ofili donated his “Union Black,” a piece that reimagines the Union Jack in the colors of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)’s flag (black, red and green), to the Tate Britain, an art museum in London. The flag, like much of Ofili’s work, claims the mantle of Britishness for Black Britons–domestically and internationally–to highlight the diasporic nature of Black Britishness. On the other hand, Lisa Amanda Palmer notes that the absence of Black Studies in the United Kingdom “reinforce[es] and reveal[s] the ways Black lives and Black intellectual thought are seen as inconsequential to British society and to the production of knowledge within the British universities… [and] is a sign of the wider systematic exclusion of Black communities in Britain.”
Both Ofili and Palmer’s works critique the ways in which blackness has been, and continues to be, positioned as mutually exclusive to Britishness (especially through the vector of Englishness, often synonymous with whiteness). There is a tension in these works over the right to belong in Britain, but as Collins’ poem and Ofili’s art reminds their audiences, Britain is not the only sphere of belonging. “Put the GREAT back into Britain /and can’t you feel the shivering shake of a great dead sister/turning to mourn within a canefield grave/dug by Britain with its GREAT.”
It has been common historical knowledge that in the twentieth century Black Britons were often framed as perpetual immigrants to undercut their social citizenship and, ultimately, their sense of belonging in the United Kingdom. Many studies have thus discussed the ways in which Black Britons fought to secure their rights by highlighting their membership in the global “British Family.” Black imperial subjects claimed British identities but, as Anne Spry Rush explains, they “recast [it] in their own image.” Stressing their right to claim Britishness has not meant that Black Britons have uncritically accepted the (racial) hierarchies pushed out of the metropole, which saw England as the “Mother Country” and the colonies are her wayward children. Rather, Black Britons have at times sought to redefine what it means to be British, by de-centering the United Kingdom, emphasizing their relationship to the “non-white” British World and the African Diaspora.
By the early 1960s, after roughly a decade of steady migration from the Caribbean, Black children were enrolling in English schools where they often endured educational environments that pathologized them because of their (supposed) immigrant status, accents, English language fluency and a variety of other cultural traits used to mark them as “other.” Black parents noticed that their children were often being labelled as “educationally sub-normal” (ESN) and transferred to schools for remedial learners. Black community activists came to believe that the ESN categorization was being used to discriminate against their children.
In 1970 Bernard Coard published his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System and “openly denounced the practices of British schooling with regard to Black Children.” Coard explained that it was not just that Black children were shunted off to ESN schools to be barely educated, but that every facet of their schooling reinforced Black inferiority by either ignoring Africa and the Caribbean or presenting Black people as savages. “As the weeks and months progress, the Black child discovers that all the great men of history were white… His reading-books show him white children and white adults exclusively. He discovers that white horses, white rocks and white unicorns are beautiful and good; but the word “Black” is reserved for describing the pirates, the thieves, the ugly, the witches.” While working to push their local schools to provide safe spaces for their children to learn, Black parents and community members also organized supplementary schools that, as Kehinde Andrews notes, sought to “make up for the deficit in the mainstream curriculum” by focusing on Caribbean (and in some schools, African and Black American) histories and contemporary politics.
Many of these supplementary schools owed their existence to the Black bookshops littered throughout England. Probably the two most important in London were Bogle L’ouverture, founded by Eric and Jessica Huntley, and New Beacon Books, founded by John LaRose. These bookshops painstakingly acquired an array of materials from across the diaspora for readers, young and old. Bogle and New Beacon presses also published novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs and scholarly texts relating to the experience of Black people in Britain, including Coard’s pamphlet and Beryl Gilroy’s memoir Black Teacher. By housing the supplementary schools, the bookshops created alternative and affirming educational sites for Black children to learn, formally and informally, about blackness in Britain and beyond.
Colin A. Beckles posits that “Black bookshops were interconnected locally, nationally, and internationally, forming an informal network of Black counterhegemonic resistance.” And this was intentional. Eric and Jessica Huntley sourced reading materials on Black history and cultures in the Caribbean and the US for all age levels, while also holding informational talks and hosting speakers on political developments in their native Guyana, other former British colonies, and Black radical movements in the US at Bogle. Beckles asserts that the “Black counterhegemonic information emanating from these bookshops (re)presented community-valid definitions of Blackness well beyond the shores of England,” which, according to Andrews, developed “a conception of Blackness that reject[ed] all colonial readings and unite[d] the people of African ancestry into a common collective and resistance.” These bookshops were sites for radical political development that challenged what it meant to be Black and British. In these sites, the Empire was a unifying association for Black Britons only in that it provided a space from which to critique imperial legacies.
October was the thirtieth anniversary of Black History Month (BHM) in the UK and, to celebrate, the Tate Britain raised the “Union Black” on its flagpole. In a moment when Black British history and culture seem to be infiltrating contemporary British culture, it is important to reflect on the narratives that have become popularized (and those that have not). We must be careful, as Black British history becomes mainstream not to strip the radical Black past from the narrative. Black bookshops and supplementary schools offered community-centered educational opportunities where Black Britons critiqued British (imperial) history and Britishness to include Black perspectives. By not accepting the denigrating histories of Africa and the Caribbean presented in British schools they rejected assimilation as the price for their right to belong. Collins’ poem similarly rejects the imperial nostalgia of post-imperial Britain by reminding her readers that Black Britons can never be just British; they are always, still, Black. “Put the GREAT back into Britain/and my GREAT GREAT GREAT grandparents’ ghostly hands/touch my face/and ghost faces claim my restless roving eyes/to whisper/And you/would you, then/be part of the GREAT British nation, too/when Britain regains its GREAT?”Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.