Black London: Two New Books on the Postcolonial British Capital

Marc Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 414 pp., $29.95 / £22.95, ISBN: 9780520284302

Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 336 pp., $49.95 / £22.95, ISBN: 9780190240202

Reviewed by Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin

If there is a specific date on which Britain became “postcolonial,” many would opt for June 22, 1948. On that day, a former Nazi naval vessel that the war’s outcome had Anglicized, now sailing by the name Empire Windrush, docked at Tilbury on the Thames Estuary. It carried around 500 West Indian labor migrants, who in the popular imagination represented the vanguard of larger numbers to come. Among them was a 26-year-old Trinidadian orphan who in London achieved world fame as the “grand master of calypso.” As the young man’s stage name, Lord Kitchener, testified, a good part of this generation of colonial immigrants was infatuated with the British Empire. “My residence is Hampton Court, so London, that’s the place for me,” he hummed in one of his most celebrated songs, first recorded in 1951.

Two marvelous new books, one of which takes its title from this song, deal with this history from very different angles. Marc Matera’s Black London serves as a corrective to the myth of Windrush origins in that much of the book concentrates on an earlier generation of migrants in the 1920s to 1940s. The two central threads running through his narrative are the local associationism of students, intellectuals, and artists as embedded in London’s cityscape, and its links to a wider pan-African anticolonial imaginary. Kennetta Hammond Perry, by contrast, opens her account with an engaging rereading of the Windrush episode, which sets the stage for what is essentially a social, political, and cultural history of Afro-Caribbean immigration in postwar Britain. In spite of the reference to London in the calypso title, Perry does not deal with the British capital alone, but her reconstruction of the everyday lives of migrants accidentally turns her book into a sort of urban history, too. Historians of cities, therefore, will find much to their delight in both books, which in terms of their topics and arguments complement each other nicely.

Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush Docks at Tilbury, 1948

Perry, who repeatedly refers to Matera in her introduction, does not present her work as revisionist, but rather as an attempt “to fill in some of the gaps in the existing scholarship on transnational race politics in Britain during the twentieth century” (11). She achieves this goal through a nuanced and pleasantly written interpretation of understandings of Britishness and an evolving language around citizenship that black activists exercised. She thus persuasively interprets the calypso song of her book title less as a sign of imperial deference than as an instance of “claim making” about civic belonging.

Kennetta PerryAs she goes along, Perry also offers a rich tapestry of urban life, delving into the experiences of Afro-Caribbean newcomers to London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Nottingham. She never loses sight of the nationwide and imperial framework that shaped immigrants’ lives, whether in the form of laws (such as the 1948 Nationality Act) or less tangible notions about empire and race. But, drawing on a wealth of detailed municipal sources, her focus on employment and housing also brings to the fore the politics of place. This is true both of her fascinating chapter on the Notting Hill Riots of 1958 and her compelling narrative about the 1960s campaign of activist Claudia Jones against legal stipulations prodding landlords not to let to tenants in violation of immigration laws; a provision that became heavily racialized in practice. Not given to grand overblown claims, Perry offers urban historians new insights about settlement and segregation by way of compelling examples.

George Rodger Black Family Waterloo 1964 Magnum

Arrival at Waterloo Station, 1964. One of the photos (by George Rodger) that Perry analyzes

Although London is the Place for Me lacks the one catchy thesis for which everyone can cite it, the book’s lean prose and solid craft make it perfect introductory reading for students interested in the topic. The subtle way in which the author employs the archive of a Brixton photographer of Afro-Caribbean families in order to counterbalance prevailing public discourses about blackness will also be of great interest to historians of cities, of migration, and of race more generally.

Matera deals with an earlier period and his protagonists are mostly intellectuals, students, and artists. They hail not only from the Caribbean, but also from Africa. Some of them, like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, later became statesmen. This trajectory ties Matera to coverthe scholarship about decolonization and nationalism in Africa and the Caribbean, although he states that his work “challenges long-standing characterizations of black nationalism as a movement of national self-determination” (2). He also cites Gary Wilder’s work on French-speaking black intellectuals approvingly, claiming that Anglophone activists in London likewise wanted “to institute forms of non-national colonial emancipation” (4). Remarks of this kind, scattered over the entire volume, turn the book into more of a history of pan-African ideas than an urban history of black London.

On the other hand, his actors are all chosen for their temporary residence in London and Matera devotes great attention to where they lived, in which clubs they met, and what the activities of their student associations consisted in. Hence, like Perry, he treats the people that populate his pages as migrants, notwithstanding their different social composition. The painstaking detail that Matera has collected on them makes Black London a goldmine for biographers of pan-Africanists as well as urban historians of the British capital. It also means that parts of the book are dangerously close to becoming an inventory of individuals and organizations, leaving some interpretive work to the reader.

Still, Matera has a pretty clear overall argument. Resembling similar books, such as Aitken and Rosenhaft’s Black Germany and my own Anti-Imperial Metropolis, Black London makes the point that the experience of exile was intimately tied to the rise of anticolonial and pan-African politics. The persuasiveness of this argument here hinges on harnessing the urban history of black London to the intellectual history of a cohort of pan-Africanists. The case for such a link is perhaps not fully convincing for Paris, but it is even harder to make for London, where colonial communities before WWII lacked the large numbers and the working-class component that they had in France. Very few of Matera’s actors seem to have campaigned on the kind of local social issues that later mobilized Perry’s labor migrants. There thus remains a certain rift between the history of pan-African ideas, which (convincingly) appear as rather global here, and the very local stories about black expats in London, leaving behind a frustrating feeling that intellectual and urban history are no more than anecdotal to each other.

Claudia Jones Ladbroke Grove 1963

March Organized by Claudia Jones, Ladbroke Grove, 1963

Both books nonetheless have much to offer for urban historians and should be on the general reading lists for graduate students of postcolonial Europe. Eventually, they also implicitly raise an entirely different, yet important, question for global urban history: How do biographical experiences in a faraway city impact on the place of origin? For Aldwyn Roberts alias Lord Kitchener, London after all did not turn out to be the place. In 1963, he went back to his native Trinidad, where he died in 2000. Countless other migrants returned, too, or moved back and forth, so that their stories did not necessarily end in London. Alas, a historiography of returnees remains the exception in migration studies.

Michael Goebel is Professor of Global and Latin American History at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Argentina’s Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool University Press, 2011).

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