What does the term ‘black’ mean for historians of Afro-Caribbean & Asian activism in 1970s Britain?

Should historians of Afro-Caribbean and Asian activism in Britain in the 1970s-80s use the term ‘black’ to describe these people and their communities? Or does the term ‘black’ as a political category belong to a by-gone era?

 

Photo by Phil Maxwell

Photo by Phil Maxwell

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, many African-Caribbean and South Asian activists in Britain used the term ‘black’ to denote a political position of Afro-Asian unity in the face of white British racism. Writing in the mid-1980s, authors, such as Peter Fryer and Ron Ramdin, used the term ‘black’ to describe all non-white Britons in their histories of black people in Britain.[i] Paul Gilroy also used the term to highlight opposition to the racism of white British society, which seemed to regard ‘the racial characteristics of both “Paki” and “nigger” as being equally worthy of hatred’.[ii]

In his 1985 work, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, A. Sivanandan referred to the common experience of nearly all non-white immigrants in Britain, ‘created in the post-war years by a culture of resistance to racism in the factories and the neighbourhoods of the inner cities to which the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians had been condemned to work and live’.[iii] Located in ‘the same ghetto’, Sivanandan stated that African-Caribbeans and Asians had ‘found common cause a racism that denied them their basic needs… and brought them up against racist landlords, racist teachers, racist social workers and racist policemen’.[iv] The common problems and interests of African-Caribbean and Asian people in Britain ‘led to a common culture of resistance’ and what Sivanandan calls ‘a community’ – a black community.[v] Using the language of Sivanandan, it can be argued that these black communities of the 1960s and 1970s were defined by their struggle for political recognition and a political voice, as well as racial and socio-economic oppression by the British state, which was experienced by nearly all black people in post-war Britain.

But it is also important to recognise that there were (and are) many different experiences by different ethnic groups, classes, ages and localities within these wider communities. Since the 1990s, many scholars have been reluctant to use the term ‘black’ to include both African-Caribbeans and Asians as it was believed that the term failed to recognise the differences between the multitude of diaspora communities. It was argued that non-white people in Britain could not amalgamated into one homogenous category.

One question that arises from this is what term do historians of the period of ‘black’ activism (from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s) use? In her history of black activism in Britain, Kalbir Shukra wrote:

I retain “black” not to bestow any authority upon it, but because it is the term most commonly preferred by those who were the focus of this project.[vi]

In the past, I have followed Shukra’s reasoning, but am curious to see what other people think.

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[i] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987

[ii] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 36

[iii] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 25/4, 1985, p. 2

[iv] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[v] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[vi] Kalbir Shukra, The Changing Pattern of Black Politics in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1998, p. 125

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