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Koye Oyedeji

Koye Oyedeji

Oyedeji is a writer and a journalist. His short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in The Fire People (1998), IC3 (Penguin 2000), Write Black, Write British (Hansib 2005) and Tell Tales Vol III (Tell Tales 2006) and Black British Aesthetics Today (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007). As a journalist he has contributed to a number of publications including New Nation and The Nottingham Evening Post. He graduated with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies and is currently completing his PhD which focuses on writers of Nigerian descent. He is a contributing editor for SABLE Litmag.   

 The Presence of Blacks in British Literature
The elements have handed out only the last dredges of warm weather to the UK this summer. We should have known we would be taking some of this uncertain British weather with us into a panel discussion held in July of this year, in Bakau, The Gambia, at the 2nd SABLE Litmag International Festival. It is ironical and instructive that we turned to the tropics in order to return to that old icy subject of marginality and Black British Literature – the debate about whether immigrant writing in the UK has been, or is still being, left out in the cold. Certainly, the three-day SABLE festival extended its scope beyond this subject to feature notable writers such as Jack Mapanje as well as local Gambian authors. However, placement of such a discussion on the agenda is a reflection of the continuing concerns that surround it.

Critical commentary and enquiry on the black presence in British literature is challenged by considerable difficulties. From the struggle to define the subject or even to agree on the need for definition, to an understanding of the myriad challenges that black writers in Britain face – from maximising the commercial potential of the writers to encouraging literature development so as to ensure that the necessary structures are in place to carry a text well after publication – black British literature is challenged at every turn. The question is invariably asked, as it was in the Gambia: How can we push the dialogue forward?

For a multiplicity of reasons many authors and readers alike reject the terms Black British and/or Black British Literature. The reasons behind this range anywhere from general political views to ascribed notions of identity, including essentialist and non-essentialist views. As a body of work it has been dismissed by others as the product of a delimiting exercise administered by the publishing industry. As a field of study it has largely been unrecognised by the academic establishment in the United Kingdom. I would be doing black writing and the black presence in British literature a disservice to try and contain all that prodigious history and large body of work within this article. I can only provide a hasty sketch. The presence of black people in British literature stretches from as far back as, if not further than, the late 16th century and early 17th century in the work of authors such as Daniel Dafoe and Shakespeare. While the bard’s most famous Moor, Othello, is the obvious example of this, there are other works that are far more telling, including Titus Andronicus where the character of the Moor Aaron is constructed with negative stereotypes and associated with cannibalism.

The earliest records we have of writing undertaken by blacks themselves in Britain are the published accounts of former slaves. Most notable were Ignatius Sancho’s Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1782), Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787) and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). Their accounts tended to contain early memories of their lives in Africa as well polemical denouncements of slavery, by which they lent their weight to the abolitionist cause. These accounts or slave narratives also sought to record their experiences as black people in eighteenth century Britain. In the early 19th century both Mary Prince and Mary Seacole published accounts of their lives, though Seacole’s published account, the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), had a nationalistic undertone notably different from the work of Equiano and others. This was not surprising. Mary Seacole was in a relatively privileged position compared to many racial others of her time.

The pre-Second World War writings of C.L.R. James and George Padmore helped galvanise a global Pan-African sentiment and the push for the independence of the West Indies and the colonised nations of Africa. James, a cricket writer for the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s, is often credited with being the first black Caribbean to publish a novel in Britain with the release of Minty Alley (1937). He went on to write the much-acclaimed The Black Jacobins (1971), a historical account of the 1791 Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The black presence in Britain increased following the post-war migration of West Indians to the country. Writers that came out of this period brought a fresh perspective to writing in Britain. As black people continued to travel throughout the modern world they continuously came up against the racial prejudices and practices of white ‘settled’ populations. Many of these immigrants were disappointed and disillusioned very early in their experience of Britain. The works of this period include Sam Selvon’s, The Lonely Londoners (1956), written in a creolised vernacular, George Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) and E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love (1959). After the earlier literary times of tracing and longing for the ancestral African past and heritage in Black British writing, Lamming, Selvon and others mostly turned their gaze back on Britain. This was the nation that many migrants as colonial subjects had always been led to believe to be the mother country, a shining example of model behaviour, but this memorial or official view had become tainted and starkly contradicted by their experiences of Britain. The white population had an opinion of black people that was based on myth and stereotype. Blacks were still considered heathens who practiced black magic, polygamy and infanticide. Britain, immigrants discovered, was unwelcoming, opportunities were limited and they were treated like aliens.

The early 1970s brought even more writers and poets from the Caribbean. As noted with the work of Selvon and Lamming, immigrant disillusionment was already a feature of black writing in Britain, and in the 1970s the more recent immigrants began to articulate this more forcefully in their work, offering work in radically alternative cultural voices which were in direct opposition to the British canon and British opinion. Among these writers, John Agard, Beryl Gilroy and Grace Nicols sought to reflect the frustrations and difficulties that they faced as immigrants in their experiment with both form and content, challenging official and stereotypical expectations of black writing in Britain. The decade also heralded the emergence of Linton Kwesi Johnson who today is considered one of the most influential Black British poets of his generation. A pioneering exponent of dub-reggae poetry and leader of the black artists movement in Britain, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal Race Today. He has gone on to produce five collections of work including Dread Beat An’ Blood (1975), Inglan is a Bitch (1980) and Tings An Times (1991).

The 1970s promised much for black literary relations in the UK, a period in which solidarity was forged with writers descended from other former British colonies, such as India, and “black” writing became synonymous with a fight against oppression and persecution. Independent publishing houses such as Collin Allison and Margaret Busby’s Allison & Busby and Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Bogle L’Overture emerged to support black writing. Black British critics like David Dabydeen also became prominent. By the end of the 1970s much of Africa had also emerged from the shadow of colonisation. Commonwealth legislation meant that nationals of former West African colonies were granted the opportunity to reside in Britain and many Nigerians, later joined by Ghanaians, came to the UK to seek to further their education before returning home. Buchi Emecheta in her writings In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1974) illuminated the Nigerian migrant struggle in Britain from the perspective of a woman, exploring the additional challenges she faced in a new country in terms of both race and gender and the expectations placed on her by her male counterparts and the diaspora community. The work also explored the new found social freedoms immigrant women were being exposed to.

As the awards and plaudits bestowed upon eventual Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, The Famish Road (1991) and Caryl Phillips, The Final Passage (1985) helped solidify the presence of blacks in British literature in the 1980s, the 1990s saw a lull in mainstream attention on writing from blacks in Britain. Perhaps this coincided with the recognition of Black British Literature as a distinct other, different from such postcolonial writings that were fundamentally linked to or concerned with the legacy of ex-colonials. Writing by black people in the 1990s was centred on a re-conceptualisation of the world, breaking down the “invisible borders” of the nation state. Identity, difference and representations of culture were in a constant state of re-evaluation, mediation and renegotiation. Notable examples of this can be found in the urban landscapes of Courttia Newland’s The Scholar (1997) and Society Within (1999); the experimentation with both prose and poetry and a past that borrowed from the present in Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (2001), the endless possibilities of Diran Adebayo Some Kind of Black (1997) and the hybrid creolised language used in the poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah Propa Propaganda (1996).

Some who read this will say that there were notable exceptions within my summation. Such statements emerge from the loose definitions which we ascribe to Black British literature. It is not without a degree of subjectivity that we form our criteria. As alluded to previously, there is an ambivalence which surrounds the understanding and interpretations of Black British Literature, born perhaps of a collective reluctance to embrace the term given the possible limitations of the term. But there is also at the same time a reluctance to completely do away with it given the advantages, opportunities and special support that come with such organised and defined minority cultural relationships. Ambivalence invites critique and interrogation. What we don’t understand or are uncertain of we seek to learn more about and any continuing ambiguity only intensifies our observational gaze.

But the questions then arise: Are our definitions subservient to bureaucratic processes of determining official nationality? Is a black British writer defined as such by the colour of their passports? Buchi Emecheta is a writer born and raised in Nigeria, who very much has Nigeria at the heart of her work but has spent the majority of her life in England and has located a degree of her work to reflecting the experiences of the Nigerians in the diaspora. By what terms do we define her? Other thoughts concerning definition are rooted in the origin of our publications yet Ben Okri is very much considered an African writer, with Nigeria often as the backdrop of his writing despite all his work having been originally published in the United Kingdom. Race is not the determining factor where publishers have placed noted black writers clearly in a sphere where they are seemingly allowed to “transcend” race. With these so-called “established”writers, quite often on the basis of their success, race is no longer a dominant factor. They now seem accepted into the mainstream, and it begins to sound wrong to consider them part of “black British literature.” Publishers market them simply as British literature and reviewers review them without the racial politics of the author. Criticism has either followed suit or given these texts a “rainbow glow”, championing multi-culturalism and the “we are all the same” liberalism that would suggest the problems of race belong to yesterday. As a result it seems to the casual observer as if Black British literature is something that lives in the margins, or that it has no mainstream real success stories.

If - and this has to remain a large “If” - we need to categorise our writers in order to move forward in our articulation of their body of work, or as an attempt to root it with foundation, where do we stand with major black writers in Britain like Okri and Emecheta? What has served until now is the dominant influence of post-colonialism in our critical appreciation. One thing is certain: The writers whose writings fall under the theoretical framework of postcolonialism did not choose to be identified in that way. Thirty years of post-colonial approaches have allowed us to critique the grand narratives of nation and imperialism but has emerged from the process are writers who do not sit comfortably with the term. In some ways the term and critical approach known as Black British literature might in fact stand in grand conceptual opposition to the idea of Post-colonial literature, as a kind of oppositional or “resistance” writing which is attempting to move on from the legacy of colonialism, concerned also with other tensions of transnationality and international relations such as cultural imperialism and globalisation.

Black writing in Britain has succeeded in establishing an own identity for itself, displaying degrees of “otherness” and difference in the many stories identifying with the different language and experience of a different life remembered about another home elsewhere – interrogating also the official or mainstream representations of imperial aggression, war and neo-colonialism. This other British writing offers its reader the migrant’s rites of passage, and its humour is firmly anchored on the basis of cultural difference. In the work of Evaristo and Newland, Diana Evans’ 26a, Donna Daley Clarke’s Lazy Eye and Biyi Bandele’s plethora of writings, we have a black presence in British literature that is interrogating accepted concepts of tradition, culture and at the same time illuminating the historical processes that language, the novel and cultures go through. The generic frame of the novel is still changeable, still fluid, forever evolving. Language and the novel lead a nomadic existence. Both are on a journey, remaining unfixed, depicting both identity and difference, the novel always at the junction between worlds.

The presence of black writing in Britain today enables us to dismantle dominant discourses, dominant cultures and dominant narratives that attempt to marginalize peripheral voices and their experiences, whether or not those margins are located in the black section at the back of the bookstore or in a subscribed and over-theorized idea within a classroom. The presence of black people in British literature reminds us of what we should never have forgotten, that the novel is heteroglossic, that it belongs to no one, and it belongs to the present, the moment. Now.

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