Forging a black British identity

I recently read about a book from historian, curator and artist Eddie Chambers (who was born in the UK to Jamaican parents) and I wanted to post about it here because it’s all about black British identity and its emergence over the decades from when black Caribbean people began emigrating to England in larger numbers from the 1950s until the present day.

Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain‘ (published at the end of 2016) explores how black people who came to the UK and their children who were born British, used various influences from the Caribbean and Africa to shape their UK identity, and in so doing created their own version of ‘British-ness’ which merged music, art, food, sport, fashion and all other aspects of life.

https://art.utexas.edu/about/people/eddie-chambers

Eddie Chambers. Copyright: University of Texas at Austin

According to Mr Chambers’ website the book “chronicles the extraordinary blend of social, political and cultural influences from the mid-1950s to late 1970s that gave rise to new heights of Black-British artistic expression in the 1980s. Eddie Chambers relates how and why during these decades “West Indians” became “Afro-Caribbeans,” and how in turn “Afro-Caribbeans” became “Black-British” – and the centrality of the arts to this important narrative.

“The British Empire, migration, Rastafari, the Anti-Apartheid struggle, reggae music, dub poetry, the ascendance of the West Indies cricket team and the coming of Margaret Thatcher – all of these factors, and others, have had a part to play in the compelling story of how the African Diaspora transformed itself to give rise to Black Britain.”

Regular readers of this blog will know about my own struggle with being black and British so I think it’s a fascinating topic. As a child of Caribbean immigrants born in the UK I’m always happy to learn about the background to issues which probably impacted me during my childhood years, in some cases, without me even knowing.

I’m also always interested to discover how black people who came to the UK when there were not that many of us here, fought against the tide while creating space for their children to ‘fit in’. No doubt this would’ve been a difficult balancing act for many as they strove to remember where they had come from and what they had been through but also ‘assimilated’ into UK life.

I think at these times especially, when homegrown terrorists are attacking the UK and Europe, it’s essential that more people examine and delve into the complex relationship between being born black in Britain and what it means to develop an identity which fits with who you are and makes you feel accepted.

It’s also valuable to move the conversation surrounding race so that it goes beyond the ignorance of racism and hatred of bigotry, and demonstrates exactly how much we have achieved in a relatively short space of time.

Hopefully this book and other efforts will help us and others to fully understand the battles that have been won, while lauding the positive contribution black people (and other races) have made, and continue to make, to the development of the UK’s cultural landscape. That, of course, is also one of the main reasons why I started this blog.

Further reading:

The rise of black British identity – in pictures (The Guardian)

A review of ‘Roots and Culture’ by the Voice newspaper

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