Unheardwords of Writers of Colour

Where Are The Black British Novels?

Editorial: Where Are The Black British Novels?

My first sticking point has been the very question I'm trying to ask and answer.

A Novel Black Question

Is this my question? I mean, is it a pre-occupation of mine?   Or is it a question of genuine wider interest?

Do I mean black British novels or do I mean contemporary writing that deals with issues of being Black in Britain?  Books that are concerned with individuals, identity and life as lived, experienced?

I think I’m trying to say, that at some level, I launched UnheardWords as a kind of search for Black writers; that it didn’t occur to me until after I launched that others may have the same idea; and that it might be possible to find and link with ‘like’ sites, individuals, writers. When it did occur, it wasn’t easy to find ‘likes’ and linking up also proved a challenge – sites have come and gone along the way.

Writers that I did discover were American

This was at first encouraging, and at second rather unsatisfying.   African-American writers were writing in a range of genres. They and the publishing ethos and industry that surrounded them were way in advance of what was going on in the UK (by perhaps as much as a decade).   But when these novels did address contemporary life, it was not a life I could relate to; neither could I see such lives reflected in the way those around me lived. This engendered a sense of ‘literary missing’ (an absence, a longing, a disappointment).   Plus, African-American isn’t Black British. More African-British (or Afro-British); which doesn't necessarily capture the Caribbean, Asian, African net cast over the term ‘Black’ in Britain by the post-colonial or unification movements of the 1970s & 80s.

The comparison is also distorted by scale, the US has 50 States, the UK is somewhat smaller and more compact. It’s also distorted by a different history of immigration and settlement (we'll get to that later).

The Legacy of African-American Writing

I grew up reading a legacy of black authored literature (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, latterly, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and others that doubtless you’ll know also - see Forbes article 10-african-american-authors-everyone-should-read). Even though some of this material was written before my time - Hurston’s ‘Jonah's Gourd Vine’ was published in 1934, ‘Native Son’ came out in 1940 and ‘Another Country’ by Baldwin was published in 1962 - for me it was ‘live’, real when I read it - the 80s.

When I read it, in my head, the authors were still all there, still in their heyday – it was as though something was amassing, had come to ahead and was about to burst forth. Only it didn’t. My younger mind had simply concertinaed all this good stuff together and I’d just imagined it as an imminent build up, rise on the way to crescendo...

After much consideration of the sense of ‘literary longing’, I realised I was actually longing for books written by black authors that reflect the experience of being black and living in Britain. What Mark Stein’s 2004 Book captured in its title, ‘Black British Literature: Novels of Transformation’.

Four well known novels cited as making this kind of contribution are:

Inadvertently, I’d been seeking more ‘like’ this.  I’d been looking for fresh trickles of water in English droughts, seeking rivers with hard to identify sources, readying for gushing stories of Black and Blighty. I’d become frustrated. Everything was mixed up in my mind – was I seeking something that had already happened? Was my ‘just about to break’ actually a palate mixed primarily in the 20th century and now passed us by?

Arriving at Clues

It’s the rarity of the kind of book I’ve been looking for that’s behind my interest in Black British writing, I realise. The scarce comes out of the circumstances of those writers and me as an eager reader; books that reflect an experience - an experience that holds the key.

This leads me to the brief history of recent black on historic British shores. It comes about with a Windrush (Empire) in 1948, as peoples arrive in Britain ready to shoulder some of the post-war rebuilding that was required.

The 1950s and 60s mark out further arrival and settlement; realisation that a need for a work force is not the same as a welcome for individuals of colour. It is a time of necessity, coming together, working together, sticking together. There were influences from overseas, the Black American civil rights movement and momentous events, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Book mark: 'In the Castle of My Skin', George Lamming, 1953.

Book mark: 'Lonely Londoners', Samuel Selvon, 1956.

Racial tension manifested: 1958 Notting Hill race riots.

Book mark: 'The Mimic Men', V. S. Naipaul, 1967.

By the 1970s the second generation are growing up on British streets and the decade plus of being in the UK is underpinning establishment, new thinking is emerging too, through academic reflections in Cultural Studies.

Themes advanced by Stuart Hall and from a different perspective, A.Sivanadan, talk of Blacks within British Culture, A Race Relations Industry and Black Britishness.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is established in 1976.

In retrospect the 70s are labelled the ‘First Cultural Renaissance’.

Milestones: Eric Huntley’s - Bogle L’Ouverture Publishers, came on stream in 1969 representing a movement of Caribbean rooted Arts Ventures.

Book mark: 'In The Ditch', Buchi Emecheta, 1972.

Book mark: 'East End at Your Feet', Farrukh Dhondy, 1976.

During the 1980s a Black British advant-garde is perceived, there is a platform for certain unification of Black (Caribbean, Asian, African – the wave of new arrivals in the 50s and 60s) in British society.

During this decade professional groups (Black, Asian, African) come to the fore, the media spotlight is turned on and ground is broken in the arts. There is a rise to media prominence of black artists and the emergence of a variety of artistic endeavour – by the end of the 1980s; though as ever the founding journey for recognition is a tough one as reflected in ‘The struggle for Black Arts in Britain’, Kwesi Owusu, 1986.

African literature gains prominence and a second generation come to see themselves as British and not visitors (long-stay tourists pending an ultimate return home).

In retrospect this decade is known by some as the second cultural renaissance.

It is interesting then, that I have spoken personally about the 80s seeming to hold a wealth of promise.

Racial tensions manifest: urban disturbances of 1981 and 1985 are said to lead to the formation of the voice of Black British people.

A community newspaper: "The Voice" founded in 1982 by Val McCalla.

Book mark: 'The Unbelonging', Joan Riley, 1985.

Art citation: 'Go West Young Man', Keith Piper, 1987.

Book mark: 'Memory of Departure', Abdulrazak Gurnah, 1987.

During the 1990s an academic and media elite were seen as the voice of the Black Community. Black Britain’s were beginning to be represented (and to represent themselves) in different walks of life across society diminishing difference but by contrast racism was alive and well.

In 1993, Stephen Lawrence is stabbed to death at a bus stop and the ‘Macpherson Report’ (1999) puts the term "Institutional racism” on the map – "that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions - reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn."

The transforming effects of identity in the sense of ‘belonging’ (to a society) are also making for increasing complexity in terms of a collective ‘black’; it is becoming harder to see black as African, Carribean, Asian – there are distinct identities and sub-identities being forged. (Stuart Halls, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1993).

Book mark: 'The Buddha of Suburbia', Hanif Kureishi, 1990.

Book mark: ‘Some Kind of Black’, Diran Adebayo, 1996.

Establishing Art: Chris Ofili ‘Sensation’ exhibition, 1997.

The first ten years of the 2000s (five decades on from Windrush) saw a greater sense of normalisation. The prominence of personalities, the establishment of a middle class benefitting third and fourth generations and the generality of social exclusion and legacy cultural stereo-types – having been broadly assimilated and sometimes distorted and reflected back through as mass market ‘urban’ youth culture.

A momentous States-side event also captures hearts and minds: the election of Barak Obama as president in 2009.

Book mark: ‘White Teeth’, Zadie Smith, 2000.

Book mark: ‘Brick Lane’, Monica Ali, 2003.

Book mark: ‘Small Island’, Andrea Levy, 2004.

Landmark report: Young black people in the criminal justice system – a story of overrepresentation, 2006.

Race relations change: Equality and Human Rights Commission is established 2007 (replaces CRE).

Book mark: 'Forest Gate', Peter Akinti, 2009.

Flows of ‘Belonging’ and ebbs of ‘Race’

I suppose what this exercise has made me realise is that the path from 1950s arrival through 2000s push to 'normalisation' is not a very long one historically. That the emergence and consciousness of black and British covers an even shorter period, and that the sure footed stance based on media and artistic emergence and recognition, is one that really begins to bear fruit through the 80s.

In light of this, it perhaps isn’t surprising that there haven’t been a flood of books emerging onto the market that satisfy my need for a reflection of my experience.  There are complexities too, the arrival, settlement, establishment and assimilation itself is a process of decades but this picture is complicated by pre-colonial legacy / fragmentation and straightforward colour (racism).

If we can separate the journey and the myriad obstacles, in some ways, we may see that the greatest strides have already been made en route, whilst racism – continues to prove a harder more entrenched institutional mind-set to crack.

I can also understand now, how the 80s felt so burgeoning to me, back then, and how, whilst that promise may not been met, it was really a matter of context.
Perhaps, I can re-see this time, not so much as the verge of a liberating, cultural and artistic breakthrough; more as a pivotal moment, between the generations of the arrival and the generations of the arrived.

© Khome, July 2012 (all rights reserved)