Onyekachi Wambu explores the work of black writers in Britain since the 18th century.
By Onyekachi Wambu
Last updated 2011-03-03
Onyekachi Wambu explores the work of black writers in Britain since the 18th century.
Black British literature, or that literature written in English by Caribbean, Asian, African, and other people who originated from the ex-British Empire, has an ancient pedigree, as ancient as the Empire itself.
Black writers have been at the forefront of unravelling the economic and psychological relationships at the heart of the Empire. the earliest examples from Olaudah Equiano to Ignatius Sancho in the 18th century, have been about the recovery of self, through autobiographical narratives. Their books, as well as being campaign tracts against slavery, also sought to declare through a first person insistence, their own humanity, against the abuses of Empire.
Over the years the preoccupation of much of the literature has been with this troubled quest for identity and liberty.
By the time of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks on June 21st 1948, there had been much change in the Empire itself and in the attitude of the people from the colonies. Britain was recovering from an exhausting and ruinous war, which had sapped her will to hang onto her former colonies. Already in 1947, India and Pakistan had gained independence. The Windrush pioneers were thus coming 'home', to a place that was rapidly changing. They were to become the important harbingers of profound transformation in post-empire Britain. And the writers who joined the successive waves of arriving migrants were going to be at the forefront of writing about this massive change in attitudes and landscape.
Although there had been a long established pattern of African, Indian and Caribbean, intellectuals coming to Britain to study, agitate against colonialism and publish their works (CLR James, Jomo Kenyatta, Hastings Banda, Marcus Garvey and George Padmore had lived in Britain in the 1930s), Jamaican poet James Berry was one of the first writers to come to Britain in 1948, to seize the same sort of economic opportunities that were attracting large numbers of other settlers. Earlier, Guyanese born ER Braithwaite, who had arrived to study just before World War II, joined up to fight the Germans and then stayed on in post-war Britain, attracted by the same possibilities that now enticed James Berry. As Berry said in an interview: 'I knew I was right for London and London was right for me. London had books and accessible libraries.'
Soon after Barbadians George Lamming and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Trinidadians Samuel Selvon, CLR James, and VS Naipaul, Jamaicans Andrew Salkey and Stuart Hall, and Guyanese Wilson Harris and Edgar Mettleholzer, were to join James Berry. Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Stuart Hall had arrived as students to attend Cambridge and Oxford respectively (as had their fellow African students Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in the 1950s). the other writers came because London was at the centre of the English literary scene, and they were seeking to escape the local backwater of the colonies, to get published and win the respect and validation of their literary peers.
Like many of their fellow migrants they were arriving back to the 'mother country' as 'familiar strangers' - familiar with the English landscape, English manners and culture which had dominated the imagination of their countries through the works of writers and poets such as William Shakespeare, William Blake, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. But they were also familiar with a far more concrete and useful resource - the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices.
Caribbean Voices had been run since 1946 by Henry Swanzy, and was a weekly programme which focused 20 minutes (29 minutes after 1947) of valuable air time on the literary output (short stories, poems, plays and literary criticism) of the Caribbean region. the programme helped launch the careers of people like George Lamming, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, VS Naipaul, the late Sam Selvon, Wilson Harris, Jamaican John Figueroa and St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott. the programme also helped them get publishers and when they arrived in Britain provided them with work as readers. All the major writers of the region, whether they came to Britain (or stayed at home like Derek Walcott and Jamaican Vic Reid) acknowledge the importance of the programme.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite has said that Caribbean Voices 'was the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative writing in English.' The themes of the writing before the arrival in Britain had to do with re-creating the space of the Caribbean as a lived in space. Up until 1948, the people of the region had been written about but had not sufficiently described their own sense of self or their physical environment and landscape.
In the 1930's CLR James had written a novel Minty Alley (1936) as well as the Black Jacobins (1938), the historical account of the successful slave revolt in San Domingo (now Haiti), unleashing a new hunger for self definition in the region. People of the Caribbean could be heroic, they could be important actors and even masters of their own destiny. This was particularly critical, given the other huge event sweeping the region at the time - the cry for independence and self government. CLR James' Minty Alley had convinced them that self-hood and the region's black and Asian poor were sufficient material for heroism.
George Lamming's 1953 novel In the Castle of My Skin was the region's first major fictional work in English following CLR James' Minty Alley. Published in London, Minty Alley tracked the life of a young boy, growing up in a colonial country, confronting history and the evolution of organised labour and other radical forces which challenged the old colonial order in the 1930s and 1940s. the following extract shows how it perfectly captured the social relations on the island, and its inheritance from slavery:
'An estate where fields of sugar cane had once crept like an open secret across the land had been converted into a village that absorbed three thousand people. An English landowner, Mr Creighton, had died, and the estate fell to his son through whom it passed to another son who in turn died, surrendering it to yet another.' George Lamming - In the Castle of My Skin
Before In the Castle of My Skin, Samuel Selvon's A Brighter Sun (1952), looked at the life of a young Indian boy in the Trinidad of the war years and later with VS Naipaul's Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr Biswas (1961) , independence was not now an echo, but was part of the growing confidence of the protagonists of these books. Lamming's later novels Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960) developed these themes of freedom and independence further. Other's like the Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris in Place of a Peacock (1960) and the late Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence (1959) looked to older Amerindian and African influences as a fecund source of ideas for locating the identities of these new countries. CLR James, shortly after published a seminal sports book Beyond a Boundary (1963), where cricket was used as a powerful metaphor to examine the struggle with the British inheritance and the necessity of forging new post-colonial identities.
MacInnes recognised the newcomers as the harbingers of wider social transformation in Britain
While they were looking back at their countries of origin, these writers were also becoming increasingly preoccupied with the challenges they were facing settling in 1950's Britain. They soon began to address the issues of lack of housing, racial discrimination, the search for dignified jobs and the open hostility of their new hosts. George Lamming was again the first off the line, addressing these issues with his 1954 novel the Emigrants which traced the journey on a boat over to Britain, and the disappointment of many of the migrants as they struggled to grasp the opportunities and new freedoms represented by Britain. Also worth mentioning here are Nirad Chaudhuri's A Passage to England (1959) which followed the Indian writer's visit in 1955. But the novel which perfectly captures the thrill, humour and pathos of the new migrants is Samuel Selvon's the Lonely Londoners (1957). It chronicles the adventures of a number of larger than life characters who see the novel's central figure, Moses as their 'wailing wall':
When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn't have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he could meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away - for this city powerfully lonely when you on your own. Samuel Selvon - The Lonely Londoners.
One or two white writers such as Colin MacInnnes also began to chronicle the new arrivals. In two important books, City of Spades (1957) and Absolute Beginners (1959) MacInnes recognised the newcomers as the harbingers of wider social transformation in Britain, especially when they were seen by white teenagers, in the emerging youth culture, as being the owners of alternative and anti-mainstream sources of cultural resistance and rebellion through music, nightclubs, fashion and attitude.
The pressures of integration and transformation did, however, eventually explode in the 1958 riots in Notting Hill, and a deeper despondency was apparent amongst Black British people. They began looking at the necessity of campaigning against bigotry and for wider rights, and began to look to the United States to borrow strategies from the Civil Rights struggle. The books that best reflect this changing mood are ER Braithwaite's To Sir with Love (1959) and Paid Servant (1962), which chronicle Braithwaite's rising frustration as a teacher and social worker in the 1950's.
The emergence of the revolutionary and sometimes angry 1960s, saw the arrival of more migrants from Pakistan and families joining many of the men from the Caribbean who had arrived in the 1950s. The writers, settled and established in Britain, also began to travel widely, revisiting the Caribbean and also the ancestral homelands of their forefathers as they contemplated the nature of their 'exile.' A number of books such as VS Naipaul's The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), The Loss of El Dorado (1969) and the Overcrowded Barracoon (1972) find him visiting the Caribbean, India and later in the 70's Africa. Naipaul began to consolidate his position as a major novelist when he won the Booker McConnell Prize in 1971 for In A Free State , which emerged from his travels to Africa. Meanwhile, Lamming's The Pleasures of Exiles (1960) sees him meditating on Africa, Britain and America.
the increasingly militant nature of the American Civil Rights and Students movements, began to affect the writing in Britain
The increasingly militant nature of the American Civil Rights and Students movements following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1964, began to affect the writing in Britain. The Caribbean Arts Movement set up in 1966 by Kamau Braithwaite, Andrew Salkey, and publisher John La Rose, reflected the temper of the times - drawing inspiration from the works of international revolutionary writers such as Leroy Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Franz Fanon, Black Power activists and Black Panther, Eldrige Cleaver, following the publication of his seminal book Soul on Ice.
The Caribbean Arts Movement, as well as struggling with issues of Caribbean artistic identity and politics, was also concerned with consolidating a broad alliance between all 'Third World' peoples whether they were in the 'metropolitan centres' or back in the 'peripheral' countries of origin. Frequently these peripheral margins were now the engines for revolution, as were the local black 'ghettoes' in the metropolitan areas. So the Caribbean Arts Movement oversaw the first really decisive steps being taken to establish grassroots book stores and publishing houses. Trinidadian John La Rose's New Beacon bookstore, Guyanese Jessica and Eric Huntley's Bogle L'Ouverture, Trinidadian Darcus Howe's Race Today publications, and Ghanian/Trinidadian Margaret Busby's Allison and Busby, were to be the key players in the move to establish viable publishing houses promoting new black writing, as well as reissuing old classics. Bogle L'Ouverture were to be important in publishing Walter Rodney's seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as well as many of Andrew Salkey's explorations of the Caribbean folklore character, Anancy the Spider.
Finally these publishing houses were to be important in developing and publishing talent that was shaped and moulded in Britain. Race Today publications and Bogle L'Ouverture were responsible for unleashing on the world Voices of the Living and the Dead (1974) and Dread Beat and Blood (1975), the first and second book of poetry respectively from Linton Kwesi Johnson, which mixed reggae and Caribbean patios in a potent and angry new brew: and which heralded the emergence of the voice of an angry new generation. This was the voice of those who had been born or grew up in Britain and who were not going to put up with the challenges of Britain in the polite way that their parents had done.
this generation of writers expressed their frustrations about being born and brought up, but not accepted in Britain
Like Linton Kwesi Johnson, this generation of writers began through poetry and theatre to express their frustrations about being born and brought up, but not accepted in Britain. A fresh riot in Notting Hill, this time at the 1976 Carnival, provided another major watershed in the development of black British identity, and the search backwards, through Rastafarianism and other separatists ideas, for a comfort zone. A vibrant music and poetry scene evolved around these explorations, focusing on the sometimes bitter life experiences of Black Britons at the hand of the police (the 'Babylon'). The venue for these explorations were increasingly the burgeoning community centres springing up everywhere, out of which developed community writing programmes such as South London based Black Ink.
Around this time other voices began to be heard as well, especially those of black women. Buchi Emecheta's autobiography In the Ditch (1972) announced a bold and prolific new talent. She followed this with the novel Second Class Citizen (1976) which vividly and poignantly described the story of Adah, discovering her talent as a writer, while she struggled with a cruel husband and a brood of children. Beryl Gilroy also published Black Teacher (1976) about her time as a teacher in north London. Farrukh Dhondy also began to carve out a role as a writer of children's books about multi-racial Britain such as the prize-winning East End at Your Feet (1976) and Come to Mecca (1978).
Meanwhile, many of the older writers like George Lamming, ER Braithwaite, Sam Selvon and Andrew Salkey, were getting to the point where they couldn't chronicle the energy of the new Britain. ER Braithwaite was the first to leave in 1960. But between the 1970s and 1980s others began to take up positions abroad, in the Caribbean, the USA and Canada. they wrote a number of odes to leaving Britain such as Andrew Salkey's Come Home, Malcolm Heartland (1976) and Selvon's Moses Migrating (1984), where Moses the pioneer from the Lonely Londoners takes his leave. As they leave others such as Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, Guyanese poets John Agard and Grace Nichols, and Jamaican Jean Binta Breeze are just arriving. VS Naipaul meanwhile, continued to produce major novels such as Bend in the River (1979) which are not directly writing about Britain.
In order to make sense of the present, the British born generation begin to find their voice in poetry and the theatre which had emerged from community centres like the Keskidee Centre in North London which was established in 1970. Older playwrights like Mustapha Mutura in Black Pieces (1972) and Welcome Home, Jacko (1980), Edgar White in Lament for Rastafari (1983) and Michael Abbensetts in Sweet Talk (1974), Samba (1980) and Empire Road (1979) were beginning to write about the lives of young black Britons. While younger playwrights like Caryl Phillips' Strange Fruit (1981) and Hanif Kureishi's Borderline (1981) and Birds of Passage (1983) were mapping out in a more intimate way, a new multiracial Britain.
Philliphs and Kureishi, as they made the transition eventually to novels in the mid 1980s, were the vanguard of a fresh new wave of creativity to rival the pioneers of the 1950s. the process had already began with the emergence of Timothy Mo's Monkey King (1980) and Sour Sweet (1981), and Roy AK Heath's The Murderer (1978) and the his family trilogy, From the Heat of the Day (1979 One Generation (1981) and Genetha (1981). Both novelists won major awards and received critical acclaim.
But it is with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children which won the 1981 Booker McConnell Award that this new wave made its greatest impact. It announced a literature that would look back to its source, but would be far more self-confident about its own position in Britain. It wouldn't be marginalised as 'Black', 'Commonwealth' or any other kind of literature that put it at the edges. It would be a fully fledged member of the broad range of British writing. These young writers were critical insiders not outsiders, and had moved from post-colonialism to multicultural Britain. In that year alongside Rushdie, Buchi Emecheta was shortlisted as one of the best young British writers by the Booksellers campaign. In 1983 Grace Nichols won the Commonwealth Poetry prize for I is a long memoried woman.
Mike Phillips in Blood Rights, explored the complicated and mixed heritage of black and white Britons
In the 1980s Britain and its institutions started to open up to Black Britons. the decisive incident was the 1981 Brixton riots,and the publication of Lord Scarman's report investigating the causes of it. Scarman identified the causes as police relations and school exclusions. Investment in black community groups was one of the solutions. This investment by national government coincided with new initiatives by local government and the Greater London Council, and led to the support of many black institutions and artists. there was an explosion of poetry and the development of a formidable circuit, which the ground breaking Third World and Radical Book fair in May 1982 aptly captured. It featured poets as diverse as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Montserratian born Archie Markham, James Berry, Fred D'Aguir and John Agard. Berry was to reflect this energy in News For Babylon (1984) the first major anthology of black British poems.
Black Community writing groups such as the South London based African Caribbean Educational Resource (ACER) also flourished, as well as other radical groups supporting discourses on gender and sexuality, much of which was coming over from African American women like Alice walker and Toni Morrison. Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe published the Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain (1985) a ground breaking collection of essays, poems and stories about black women which caught the mood of the time.
By the mid-1980s another group of publishing houses such as Akira, Karia, Dangaroo, and Karnak House had been established promoting another wave of new writers and poets. Radical feminist publishing houses the Women's Press, Sheba and Virago also promoted new black talent. The careers of Mike Phillips, Joan Riley, Martin Glynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Amyl Johnson, Jackie Guy, Fred D'Aguiar were launched in this wave.
By the late 80's the major writers who had emerged at the start had begun to consolidate their position. Salman Rushdie had followed Midnight's Children with the dazzling Shame (1983) and the powerful and controversial Satanic Verses (1988), Tim Mo produced the epic An Insular Possession (1986), Ben Okri produced two startling collections of short stories Incidents at the Shrine and Stars of the New Curfews , while Caryl Phillips' The Final Passage (1985) and Joan Riley's the Unbelonging (1985) began the process of rewriting the story of the arrival of their parents.
Meanwhile, Mike Phillips in Blood Rights, explored the complicated and mixed heritage of black and white Britons. Similar territory was mined by Hanif Kureishi in his first novel the Buddha of Suburbia (1990), which followed the success of his screenplays My Beautiful Laundrette (1984) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). Some of the older writers, VS Naipaul in particular began finally to deal with Britain. His novel The Enigma of Arrival (1987) explores the English countryside and his relationship with both it and the country which had dominated his imagination for so long. The 1990s began with Ben Okri's 1991 Booker McConnell prize winner, the Famished Road, promising bright prospects for the next ten years.
Although the questions of identity and freedom still haunt the literature produced by black Britons, the wider diversity of writers has ensured that, as in the Famished Road and the Satanic Verses, the styles, forms and issues tackled are increasingly broader. The 1990s also saw the contours of black identity become more complicated, less black and white. Gender issues and different notions of sexuality are now part and parcel of the matrix. Where the autobiographical narrative (which so far has carried the weight of the literature) worked for exploring various tensions, other genres allow different explorations of other complex nuisances. The new generation of writers, are moving away from the limitations of the biographical narrative into many different varieties of genre fiction in order to capture this new complexity.
For years Mike Phillips has ploughed a lonely path in crime fiction with Sam Dean, the detective hero of the Late Candidate, Points of Darkness, and An Image To Die For. This, and the other huge gaps that continue to be apparent in other genres (travel, particularly within Britain, science-fiction, satire, horror, thrillers, adventure, and courtroom dramas) will soon begin to be opened up in dramatic new ways by the group of black writers who emerged in the 90s.
SI Martin's Incomparable World (1996) revisits 18th Century Britain, while Dirian Adebayo's Some Kind of Black (1995) examines conflicting notions of blackness; as does Bernardine Evaristo's Irish/English/Yoruba epic Lara, Andrea Levy's north London family dramas Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994 ) and Never Far From Nowhere (1996). While Victor Headley's Yardie featuring gangster anti-hero D, unleashed a new hunger and audience for black pulp fiction, which has been quickly exploited by publishers X-Press.
Onyekachi Wambu is the editor of Empire Windrush - Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain. Written to accompany the BBC Windrush season, Summer 1998