Black History Month 2008
Although our eyes and ears have been bombarded with the news of a crisis in neo-liberal capital (K-punk is customarily lucid on this here), those who try to catch the trails which slip past such a monolithic media event would have noticed that the arrival of October also brought with it the launch of Black History Month 2008. BHM has now become, along with the Notting Hill Carnival, the MOBO’s and Diwali, a recognisable feature of Britain’s cultural landscape, or at least in the cosmopolitan areas. Even though the establishment of BHM signals the continued progress of a project invested in the increased visibility of race, I think it is important unsettle the frame which operates around it. We need to ask what BHM and other similar events indicate about the ways in which race has passed through Britain over the decade or so.
To produce this type of unsettling, I want to begin by taking a closer look at the manner in which BHM comes to unsettle me, the ways in which I find it unsettling, despite a wish to take part in its celebratory ‘history as democracy’ ethics. My vexations around BHM materialise through a peculiar attachment to and overinvestment in the term ‘Windrush’. As a common referent ‘Windrush’ has become an experience, it also names a generation, and I would argue that its use as a kind of default term points to a set of problems in the narrative which has been instituted around the Black presence in Britain. The first problem involves elements of basic historical inaccuracies. ‘Windrush’ feeds into a popular image of the Afro-Caribbean population’s arrival as a singular event, - a fresh off the boat story, when the reality of that movement was far more complex. Following the U.S governments heavy legislation on immigration during the 1940s, Britain, having been second preference became the primary destination for West Indians. But the arrival at the ‘Motherland’, rather than a cross-Atlantic stampede, was a gradual process dependent upon a close analysis of both the strength of the pound and the local employment market.
Secondly ‘Windrush’ as a trope for race and historicism reflects a broader desire to situate a clean, coherent, and ultimately safe narrative around the Black presence in Britain. The history of major port cities such as Bristol and Liverpool point to the fact that the Atlantic slave trade allowed Black communities to form in Britain almost four hundred years ago and there is even evidence that points to the presence of Black Roman soldiers in Britain. The tendency to overinvest in the cleanliness of ‘Windrush’ reflects an avoidance of complexity when it comes to considering the question of race. Paul Gilroy, in his revised introduction to the 2002 edition of ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ describes this as the reduction of race to a “corporate mission statement”:
“Stripped of legitimacy and effectively depoliticised, anti-racism could be reduced to empty, ethereal statements. It became equality of opportunity, was trivialised in the poetry of management science, and then in the theatrical inclusiveness that was regularly staged to create the impression of more solid shifts.”
It is that very “theatrical inclusiveness” that bothers me about BHM. The idea that an a concept-metaphor such a “Windrush” once refined and made palatable, can be placed neatly into, say, a school curriculum - the story of race can be done, box ticked, next item on the agenda please. Perhaps what we need to do is ask how race in this country has moved on from those almost normative positions of Black-British or British-Asian. Perhaps we need to shift our focus and pay attention to striking underpaid Brazilian cleaners, Fauji’s in Southall, or the Muslim schoolboy from Exeter; groups of people who are very much present and serve to upset the minority communities which an event such as BHM tries to celebrate and coerce into an acceptable ideal of Britishness.
Britain’s theatrical inclusiveness
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