Britain is a Country not a Race

Jamaican ImmigrantsSome people seem confused as to what Britain “is”. Today we are highlighting books that offer an alternative perspective on British history and British identity.

When a UKIP candidate recently told Lenny Henry that he should “emigrate to a black country” the mainstream political establishment was quick to repudiate his comments. The Health Secretary, acting no-doubt as the mouthpiece for the Coalition front bench, described the comments as “absolutely disgusting” and said that “Henry is as British as you and I are” – interestingly, however, he did not specifically attack the notion that Britain is a “white country” (presumably the polls are not yet in on how that would play out with the Tory grassroots; let’s not forget we’re only a generation or so removed from Peter Griffiths controversial, and successful, 1964 election slogan).

We here at Pluto abhor racism of any kind and, more importantly, reject the idea that Britain ought to be considered a country with a race attached to it – even if it is a state overwhelmingly governed in the interests of one (a fact we also abhor). The term “Britain” is geographic and when we talk about the British Isles we are talking about a history which has been, at least for the last half millennia, multi-racial. Describing it as “white” even “predominantly white” can only be exclusionary and racist.

So why do we persist in doing so?

The problem, of course, is that history is taught to us within the framework of a state system which has never hesitated to play favourites. As Maya Goodfellow argues today over at New Left Project:

‘This (mis)remembering of Empire, paired with the downplaying of other peoples’ histories, shapes the way minority ethnic people are seen in contemporary Britain. Many within British society continue to believe the folkloric retelling of Empire, which propagates their belief of Britain’s greatness, where great is equated with white people’s superiority over the ‘other’. Consequently, judged against the backdrop of colonialism, minority ethic people continue to be seen as inferior to ‘civilised’, white Britons.’

A major cause of this problem is the identity of those who teach us history. As the Observer has recently reported, “just 17.2% of black African applicants, and 28.7% of black Caribbean applicants were taken on by teacher training institutions across all subjects, against 46.7% of white applicants” and the picture becomes considerably bleaker in the field of history where “only three black people who want to be history teachers were accepted on postgraduate teacher training courses last year”.

Clearly, if we want to learn the real history of Britain, and be able to teach it to our children, we will have to educate ourselves. As a radical publisher our role in that is making books available which consider British history from a non-white perspective as a reminder to our fellow Britons of the diversity which is at the heart of what it means, and will always mean, to be British. There are, of course, too many to mention – which is precisely the point – but we can highlight just two that we think ought to be required reading for every British citizen: Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain and Rozina Visram’s Asians In Britain: 400 Years of History.

Pluto first published Staying Power in 1984 to near universal acclaim. Though Fryer himself was white, his book was widely celebrated by such luminaries as CLR James (“Fryer never loses his grip in time or place”), Salman Rushdie (“Mr. Fryer has my deep gratitude”) and Paul Gilroy, who wrote an introduction to the 2010 edition (“Staying Power is a special book. It has to be recognized as something of a historical phenomenon in its own right”). The reason for the books potency was Fryer’s close involvement in solidarity movements with Britain’s black community, which began as early as 1948 when, fittingly, he covered the arrival of Jamaican workers on the Empire Windrush.

Throughout the writing of Staying Power, Fryer attempted to give voice to individuals who had been excluded from the orthodox (see: racist) writing of history and also emphasized the necessarily internationalist dimension of radical black thought in Britain. The book’s voluminous appendix includes many previous unavailable sources reprinted in full, such as the stirring 1918 inaugural address to the African Progress Union by John Archer – London’s first black Mayor – which called not just for domestic freedoms for black people but also for African independence and self-determination decades before such notions became ‘fashionable’ among guilty white intelligentsia:

‘Too long, much too long, has the Negro race suffered. ‘Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun.’ Why should he suffer because of that shadowed livery? As the Prince of Morocco [in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice] pleaded to Portia, so the Negroes of today plead. … [The First World War was], we have been repeatedly told, for the self-determination of small nations and the freedom of the world from the despotism of German rule. The truth of that statement will be proved by the way they deal in America with Afro-Americans, in France with their Negro subjects, in Belgium with their Congo subjects, and in Great Britain with India, Africa and the West Indies. … The children of the white race to-day owe a great debt still to the children of the darker race.’

It was towards the paying of that debt that Fryer submitted his manuscript to Pluto, headed as it was with a quotation from CLR James’ equally formidable work of history Black Jacobins:

‘The blacks will know as friends only those whites who are fighting in the ranks beside them. And whites will be there.’

But, of course, it is not just black people of African and West Indian descent who are excluded from the orthodox history of Britain – the British Asian community’s independent history in Britain begins as early as 1616, a fact often neglected in those Oxbridge histories where persons of Asian descent appear only as subjects of colonial rule. A formidable remedy to this neglect is Rozina Visram’s Asians In Britain: 400 Years of History, first published by Pluto in 2002, and which was immediately recognised by the Times Literary Supplement for its “painstaking research” and force of exposition. As Visram explains in her introduction to the book:

‘Scholars have tended to underestimate the significant presence of Asians and their contributions to British society, and the perception that their settlement in Britain dates from the 1950s persists … The mass of [new] material uncovered has enabled me to trace the history of peoples from South Asia in Britain from 1600, when trading contact between Britain and India first began with the founding of the East India Company. An empirical study, the book examines the nature of Asian settlement, official attitudes to their migration, the varied reactions of the British people to their presence and the differing responses of the Asians themselves … The book also examines the anti-colonial struggle by Asians and their allies in Britain, Asian contributions to British society as well as their role in two world wars.’

If you are serious about history or about Britain then we hope you will read, or re-read, these books and the many, many others – not just those we have published but such classics as Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack or Harris & James’ Inside Babylon – which directly challenge the notion of Britain as anything other than a “country” full stop, albeit one which is arguably governed by a racist system of power that seeks to present history from an ideological perspective.

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