Historical research into black power in Britain

This article in The Guardian today caught my eye, arguing that the history of the black power movement and radical black activism in Britain was in ‘danger of being forgotten’. The article was referring to a new biography of Darcus Howe, the black activist and editor of Race Today during the 1970s and early 1980s, by Robin Bunce and Paul Field. Bunce and Field argue that the history of black struggle has been overlooked in recent British history and it is true that scholarship in this area is not large, but I’m not sure that it is deliberate as Bunce and Field make out.

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Narratively, the history of black activism has been subsumed into the wider history of anti-racism in Britain and the story of radical black activism/black power, which rose in the late 1960s and waned by the late 1970s, often forms part of a longer narrative. Similar to the history of the wider anti-racist movement, radical black activism may have had victories in the 1970s, but the narrative arc ends with the implosion of radical politics in the 1981 riots and the crushing defeats under Thatcherism. (I have written about the convergence and divergence between black activists and the ‘white’ left in the 1970s and 1980s here)

Practically, researching the history of radical black activism and black power is made difficult by the (scarce) amount of resources that can be obtained by historians. Publications produced by black activists in Britain remain rather difficult to find and archival material of their campaigns is only recently been compiled. Collections such as the Black Cultural Archives in Lambeth, the Race Relations Archive at the University of Manchester, the Sivanandan collection at the University of Warwick Library and the Institute of Race Relations Library are important for helping historians begin to write this history. Although Bunce and Field have made use of archival material from the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police’ Special Branch, files relating to black power and radical black activism in the National Archives are rather few. A quick check of the National Archives’ catalogue shows that there are about 10-15 files on black power in the UK publicly available. (I am sure there would be much more available through FOI) The next step for historians interested in this area is to conduct oral history interviews with people involved in black activism during this time – something which the Organised Youth project have been doing lately.

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Before Bunce and Field’s recent monograph, there have been other studies on black power and radical black activism in Britain. The most recent would be Anne-Marie Angelo’s work on the British Black Panther Party (based on her PhD on the internationalism of the Black Panthers in the UK and Israel). But the others are now over a decade old. Another PhD from 2008, by Rosalind Wild, looked at black power in Britain and its origins from 1955 to 1975. Colin. A Beckles published an article in 1998 on the black activist bookshops in the UK, describing them as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’. Kalbir Shukra and Brian Alleyne have both written about black politics, including black radicalism, but their books were published in 1998 and 2003 respectively. A. Sivanandan’s collection of his works from the 1970s to the present, Catching History on its Wings, has some material on radical black activism reproduced from Race & Class journal, of which Sivanandan was the founding editor.

In the period being discussed (the late 1960s to the early 1980s), the use of the term ‘black’ was a political term and often encompassed both Afro-Caribbean and South Asian people. In this period, there was significant crossover in activism between the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, as well as with white activists, but there was also divergence, and activism that focussed on the problems specifically facing certain communities. There have been two books on radical activism within Britain’s South Asian communities. Anandi Ramamurthy has recently published Black Star which is a fascinating account of the Asian Youth Movements that started in Southall and spread across Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2003, Rahila Gupta published a history of the Southall Black Sisters, a South Asian feminist organisation that emerged out of the anti-fascist protest against the National Front in 1979 (where Blair Peach was killed). While differing from ‘black power’, this shows that research into radicalism amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities does exist and is growing.

I look forward to reading Bunce and Field’s book and I hope this spurs more research into the history of radical black activism in Britain.

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5 comments

  1. If the authors feel that this is a history that has been overlooked then sadly a book about black power which costs £55 is unlikely to alter this state of affairs. Few people without access to an academic library will be able to read this.

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