To Be (Politically) Black and British

Idris Elba and John Ridley on the set of Guerrilla. Photo: IMDB.
Idris Elba and John Ridley on the set of “Guerrilla.” Photo: IMDB.

At a recent preview screening for the first episode of Guerrilla, a joint SKY Atlantic/Showtime production, members of the audience expressed frustration at the show’s depiction of Black British radicals in the 1970s. The controversy centered on director John Ridley’s decision to prominently feature an Asian woman as co-lead with no significant (or positive) depictions of a Black woman. Since the initial screening many have questioned the tenor of the panel’s response to criticism, which included Ridley, an African American man, centering his own interracial relationship as a means to side-step Daily Express columnist Dominique Hines’ question about the erasure of Black women; Babou Ceesay’s attempt to dismiss the validity of Hines’s question; and subsequent media coverage of the event, which accused Black Lives Matter UK activists of reducing Freida Pinto to tears. However, the most enduring conversation has centered on Ridley and Pinto’s comments that the casting, and Black Liberation groups of the time depicted in the show, ascribed to “political blackness,” wherein “black” was an umbrella identity for marginalized racial groups in the UK.

I first encountered this coalitional ethos while reading The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, which is a seminal chronicle of the migration, discrimination, and organization of, mostly, West Indian women in Britain after the Second World War. The authors—Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe—were founding members of the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and veterans of other Black organizations like the British Black Panther Party and Brixton Black Women’s Group. OWAAD specifically sought to bring together Afro-Caribbean and Asian women’s groups to acknowledge similar, but not identical, modes of oppression faced by immigrant women in the UK across racial lines. But, Afro-Caribbean and Asian solidarity did not originate with OWAAD. Groups like the British Black Panther Party and the Black Parents Movement also valued alliances between racialized immigrant groups because of the institutional marginalization faced by immigrants from former British colonies in the metropole. Kennetta Hammond Perry’s work discusses the ways in which the “racialized discourse” of the post-WWII period “provided a public vocabulary of non-belonging.” From their shared experiences of alienation, Afro-Caribbean and Asian migrants organized between their communities and “Black” became the mode through which they named their place in society. British sociologists, specifically, later understood these coalitions as “politically black,” where “Black” was a sociopolitical, rather than racial, marker.

The Black Parents Movement, 1975. Photo: Twitter/No Colour Bar.
The Black Parents Movement, 1975. Photo: Twitter/No Colour Bar.

However, there is a difference between these coalitional Black organizations in the 1970s and 1980s and, as Tariq Modood understands it, “political blackness” as hegemony. In her description of “political blackness,” Pinto noted, “Black was not just the colour of your skin… We were all considered outsiders. For me it’s important that the conversation about diversity is inclusive and not just the colour of your skin.” But this is inaccurate. By erasing the very real reality that Black people were identified, and identified one another, by the “colour of their skin,” Pinto and Guerrilla ignore the historical record and participate in a specific framing of blackness that was espoused not by the activists they seek to represent, but by the British state. Rather than acknowledging different histories, immigration patterns, languages, or cultures, the State often lumped all “non-white” people into one category in need of regulatory legislation (i.e. the “Immigrant Problem”). For instance, in a volley of reports published in the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Education and Science (DES) studied the “problems” facing immigrant children in English schools, including language needs and supposed cultural “deficiencies.” Tellingly, the 1985 Swann Report included the significant and much older Black communities in Liverpool as part of their inquiry. Throughout the various reports it became clear that the real problem facing Afro-Caribbean and Asian children was simply that they were not white. Even though many Eastern and Southern Europeans had migrated to Britain after WWII, the DES reports focused almost exclusively on Afro-Caribbean and Asian children, because they (as opposed to their white counterparts) were not easily assimilated into the (racialized) nation. Thus, “Black” was simply code for “not white.” However, this was not necessarily how African- and Asian-descended activists understood the more expansive use of “Black.”

Afro-Caribbean and Asian people could temporarily blur racial and ethnic distinctions to organize under the banner of blackness in recognition of their perpetual foreignness in the UK, but this did not erase their specific cultural histories and racial pride. For instance, many Afro-Caribbean groups welcomed Asian membership primarily because there were Asian people from the Caribbean with whom they shared migratory histories and cultures. In this case, some groups that were labeled “politically black” might be more accurately understood as West Indian. The very specific Caribbean roots of many of these coalitions suggests that it would be a mistake to imagine that all African- and Asian-descended people subscribed to it. For instance, groups like the Brixton Black Women’s Group and Southall Black Sisters organized exclusively Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, respectively. The specific communities that birthed these groups made interracial organizing unnecessary or undesirable. Blackness as an umbrella did not erase specificity. Thus to make “political blackness” the means through which 1970s and 1980 organizations are understood dismisses the practicality of the ethos. In other words, the viability of “political blackness” was always limited by the intersection between political identities, lived experience, and historical-cultural realities.

British Black Panther Party. Photo: Neil Kenlock/Vice.
British Black Panther Party. Photo: Neil Kenlock/Vice.

A brief summary of a moment in the history of the Black Parents Movement (BPM) indicates that “politically black” organizing reflected the expediency of the moment while clarifying its limitations. The BPM emerged in 1975 in North London as an organization dedicated to protecting Black children victimized by abusive policing and discrimination in schools. In their early days, the Haringey branch noted a rift with the Hackney section over whether or not the BPM would be a Black-only organization or if they should allow white parents (particularly mothers) of biracial children to join. In the almost year-long debate over the issue, the group decided, seemingly incidentally, to allow “Indo West Indians” to apply to join, but the Hackney branch continued to refuse white membership. The rift was so severe that Hackney ceased communicating with Haringey and the latter decided, in the summer of 1976, to stop recognizing a BPM branch in Hackney. While this episode would seem to suggest the viability of “political blackness,” it actually perfectly encapsulates its contours. White membership was so controversial because white parents had not personally felt the sting of British racism. Their partners were welcome to join the BPM and their children could join the Black Student (later Youth) Movement, but why, some wondered, did white people need to join the Black Parents Movement? Why not start a group for white parents with mixed children? White membership would stretch the idea of “political blackness” much too far. Thus, the inclusion of Asian members came to make sense only in comparison to potential white membership, but it was not a foregone conclusion at the outset. This indicates that “Black” coalitions were, as many have suggested about the American Civil Rights Movement’s use of non-violence, a strategy, not necessarily a way of life.

The most important point to be made about the problems inherent in “political blackness” then and now, however, is to focus on the ways in which the idea could just as easily obscure certain kinds of oppression as illuminate them. In an interview with Harry Goulbourne archived at the London Metropolitan Archives, Guyanese activist and radical bookseller Jessica Huntley speaks passionately of the need for all-Black organizations. In interracial groups she noted that Black women were likely to be silenced, or to silence themselves, while intra-group organizations provided safe spaces for Black women in particular. Thus it seems significant that Ridley’s Guerrilla has, through its touting of “political blackness,” managed to silence the very same women who helped to birth the radical Black British groups the show seeks to represent. The specific question Hines asked did not invalidate Pinto’s role, which Elizabeth Obi believes to be a fictionalization of Farrukh Dhondy’s life. Rather, Hines asked why Black women did not receive prominence of place in the story as well. The coalitional groups of the 1970s and 1980s were not beholden to “black” as the only signifier of their activist work. Academics, and those looking nostalgically back at the past, have allowed the idea of “political blackness” to erase all of the improvisation and flexibility of the time period.

Black women were at the center of the Black British organizing. If, in telling this important moment in Black British history, “political blackness” can be used to erase the important contributions of women like Althea Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese, Olive Morris, Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, it should be deleted from our vocabulary. If “political blackness” can further marginalize those most vulnerable, it is no longer useful. The erasure and (mis)representation of Black women in Guerrilla and the demonizing of them in recent discussions indicates that the idea of “political blackness” has long since run its course.

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Nicole Jackson

Nicole M. Jackson is an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora History at Bowling Green State University. Her work focuses on Black social movements in the post-WWII African Diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @nicole_maelyn.