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Mpalive-Hangson Msiska

Mpalive Msiska

Dr. Msiska is a Senior Lecturer in English and Humanities at the Birkbeck University of London. He is a Judge for The Caine Prize for African Writing. He has previously studied in Malawi, Canada, Germany and Scotland and has taught at the Universities of Malawi, Stirling and Bath Spa. He has published conference papers, Journal articles and books, including: Wole Soyinka, (1998); Writing and Africa (Longman, 1997) Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Critical Guide (Routledge, 2006) and The Quiet Chameleon: A Study of Poetry from Central Africa (Hans Zell, 1992). Forthcoming publications include, Post-Colonial Identity in Wole Soyinka, (Rodopi); He is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Southern African Studies and of the Editorial Advisory Board of The Journal of African Cultural Studies. He is also an Examiner for the Commonwealth Essay Competition.

 What is Black-British Writing?

The term “Black-British Writing” is generally used to refer to literary texts produced by writers of African, Caribbean or Asian racial and cultural origin. The category is now employed in organising courses in Higher Education, especially in the United Kingdom, and for the publication and marketing of literary as well as critical texts in the subject area. However, like other similar literary classificatory terms, such as “Commonwealth Literature,” it has not been without its fair share of criticism. Indeed, the writer Fred D’Aguiar in an essay in Wasafiri a few years ago stated that he was opposed to the term as it was reductive of the hugely diverse concerns of the literature it purported to describe, bringing together into an incongruous composite assembly writers from radically different cultural backgrounds. Salman Rushdie had expressed similar reservations about the term “Commonwealth Literature” in his book Imaginary Homelands a few years earlier. It is clear that writers in particular do feel strongly against their work being seen largely in terms of the author’s racial biological origins instead of its intrinsic aesthetic and thematic value.

Moreover, it is not the writers alone who are critical of the notion of “Black-British Writing;” Critics such as James Proctor have pointed out how the reduction of the complex variety of the texts to the idea of “Blackness” goes against the spirit of the literary texts themselves which often seek to go beyond the essentialised racial identity “implied by the concept of “Blackness.” It is argued that the texts highlight the limiting and constraining effect of the term, foreground instead the heterogeneity of what it means to be “Black-Black British.” Thus, Black-British Writing must be seen as articulating a fundamental Transnational and Transcultural formation of Diasporic identity in Britain.
However, there has been a shortage of terms which could aptly describe this corpus of writing. The problem has to do with finding a description that would replace the term “Black” and still cover the range of writers that the label currently includes. Added to this difficulty of taxonomy is the larger issue of ethnic categorisation. I recall a few years ago listening to a radio programme in which an Asian man was complaining about being referred to as Black. He did not believe that he was Black and suggested that he should be described as an “Indian or Asian. Indeed, recently, it has emerged that the terms Indian or Asian are also controversial as some members of those communities want to be known by their religious identities so as to be seen to be different from Asians or Indians who are Moslems. The desire to break down cultural forms of identity along religious lines, though with a long history on the Indian subcontinent itself, assumed its current inflection in the wake of attacks on some Hindus and Sikhs who had been presumed Moslems by White racists in the wake of the 7th July bombings in London. Indeed, a man called Ammo Singh was reported to have joined the racist British National Front (BNP) in order to work out what he described as a relationship of “mutual benefit.” Extreme as that might, it nevertheless shows the shifting nature of ethnic identification in Britain today and the continuing tendency of members of ethnic minorities to retreat to their narrower group identities when the opposition Black and White is overridden by other differences such as religious or geographical ones.

The term Black-British had been developed in the 60s, very much modelled on the African-American Civil rights movement’s re-appropriation of “Blackness” as an expression of resistance to its negative connotations in dominant discourses of race where it functioned as a term of abuse. This approach was immortalised, among others, by the singer James Brown’s famous refrain: “Say it loud: I’m Black, I’m Proud!” It was in this context that the term Black became a political slogan of struggle and self-affirmation in 1960s and 70s Britain as Racism evolved into a particularly vicious strain that brought together Enoch Powell’s high-minded and theoretically sophisticated racist ideology with an openly muscular racist practice that translated in violent and murderous attacks on Black people in the streets by gangs of white youths. Thus, it became an umbrella term of solidarity used by the Anti-racist movement in its opposition to the oppression of minority ethnic groups. (See Avtar Brah, The Cartography of Diaspora, 1995) However, it is not clear to what extent, away from the world of the committed Anti-Racist activists, this ideological stance filtered into the consciousness of ordinary people across the various communities constituting the new political Black formation.

The unease with the term “Black-British” has not been limited to Black writers and Asian religious particularists – some leading Black politicians, especially on the right, have equally expressed disquiet over it: Lord Taylor, the Black Conservative Peer in the House of Lords, once suggested that the term “Afro-Saxon” replace the term which he thought referred more to people’s pigmentation than to their cultural origins and, particularly, their affiliation to the British nation. His proposal was evidently a commendable attempt to come up with a non-racial ethnic designation for people of African origin living in Britain today. Nevertheless, its evident quaintness would obviously exclude a number of writers of recent African origin, such as Ben Okri, who might find no particular reason to link themselves to Saxons, even though, of course, in the larger scheme of things, Saxons like other Europeans could be said to have originated from Africa! Moreover, a literature course with the appellation “Afro-Saxon” might suggest a Pre-Renaissance literary movement, perhaps attracting students more interested in the recondite aspects of the ancient forms of the English tongue than in the experience of recent immigrants of African and Caribbean descent and others.

In this context, it may be argued that in the absence of an incontrovertibly suitable equivalent, the term “Black-British Writing” remains a useful and valid category for organising a particular group of texts within British literature. Until there is another and widely accepted “ethnic label for the communities from which the writers covered by the term originate, literary and cultural critics will continue to employ it, preferring it to other less immanently persuasive contenders. Its current use facilitates curriculum organisation and development, enabling students in Higher Education, in particular, to devote their intellectual energies to understanding the key thematic and stylistic issues in this area of literary production. In turn, such courses contribute to the increased awareness of the writing among the general readership, helping in disseminating the literature. Above all, they engender ways of reading and interpreting the texts that illuminate not only this group of texts, but also its relationship to British literature as a whole and Post-colonial literatures in general. In this regard, Black-British Writing offers not only a pedagogical institutional space for the propagation and acquisition of certain forms of knowledge about this particular group of texts and its links to other literatures it is intimately connected to, but also affords the opportunity for advanced research into the literary texts and their authors. Specifically, it serves as a site from which we are able to look at the ways in which British and Post-colonial literary forms have developed into a distinct expression of a given people historically originating from other places, but whose identities are now deeply embedded within the British nation.

Examining this body of literary texts together offers a comparative approach to the ways in which various ethnic minorities have inhabited the British Isles and also how, from their new habitat, they have reworked their relationship to cultures of origin. For writers of African and Caribbean background, the memory of Africa is a central shaping consciousness. This is as evident in the earliest Black-British writers such as Olaudah Equiano in his famous book, The Interesting Narratives of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) as it is in the work of more recent writers such as Diran Adebayo. If for Equiano, Africa offered the validation of a lost humanity in the face of the dehumanisation of Slavery and the Slave Trade, for Adebayo, especially in his My Once Upon a Time (2000), it provides a cosmological source of aesthetic belief and devices. His transplantation of Eshu from the religious groves of Nigeria to the mean streets of London bespeaks an imaginative adaptation of cultures of origin for a specifically modern British cultural experience.

For Bernadine Evaristo, in her novel, Lara, Africa and, indeed the wider African Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly in Brazil, offers a template for a Transcultural formation and ontology that can be a model for not only a multi-cultural Britain, but also one that is profoundly Transcultural too. Evaristo’s interest in locating Black-British identity historically registers earlier waves of settlers, for instance, 19th Century Nigerian sailors in Liverpool. However, it is in her most daring historical novel, The Emperor’s Babe (2001), that she presents us with a Black Londoner with a difference: a veritable Black Londinium of Imperial Roman proportions in the character of her formidable heroine Zuleika.

Even so, for me, it is perhaps, Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory and Caryl Phillips, Cambridge (1991) as well as Higher Ground (1989) which offer some of the most haunting representations of the past, especially in the harrowing effects of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery on individuals and societies in Africa and the Diaspora. If Black-British Writing offers a vantage point, albeit a provisional one, from which to begin to understand and continue to study the experience of the African Diaspora and those of other communities in Britain, in its full totality of historical and cultural formation, then its efficacy as a space of critique is both necessary and worth preserving and, indeed, even struggling for.

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