Think Back: Foreword to ‘Staying Power’ by Paul Gilroy #blackhistorymonth

Staying Power is recognised as one of the definitive histories of black people in Britain, an epic story that begins with the Roman conquest and continues to this day. Its 2010 edition contains a foreword by Professor Paul Gilroy, author of ‘The Black Atlantic’, ‘After Empire’ and ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’. In his introduction, reproduced here, Gilroy pays testament to Fryer’s immense intellectual achievement, whilst also attending to the political significance of a ‘white, communist Englishman who had not only dared—against the strictures of identity politics—to take possession of this subaltern history but was also prepared to render himself accountable for his choices’.  ‘Staying Power’ is an act of allyship with BAME people; a disruption of hegemonic histories; an attempt to answer questions about belonging in multicultural Britain. It remains as a prescient and worthwhile contribution to British historiographies:


Staying Power is a special book. It has to be recognised as something of an historical phenomenon in its own right. After the original publication in 1984, access to the history of black settlement in Britain would never be the same. Peter Fryer’s unique breadth, ambition and political integrity established the basic orientation point for historical scholarship on Britain’s black communities. Its honesty, clarity, depth and acuity made that insurgent historical narrative available in usable form to a wide and eager readership. Amidst the political and economic debris of the early 1980s riots, Staying Power answered the widespread hunger for a historical narrative which could anchor hopes for more just and more humane treatment of Britain’s racialised minorities. In retrospect, it also signaled a decisive step away from the influential African American scripts of race and politics which had been so important in the preceding phase of struggles when ideas of civil rights and black power had enjoyed a global impact.

maxine-walkerBy showing where the labour and imagination of diverse black people had contributed to the making and re-making of Britain, shaping its radical traditions, social institutions and political habits, Staying Power answered the nationalism and racism that obstructed the paths to authentic inclusion and belonging. In the spirit of that now distant period, the history that Peter Fryer excavated with such evident care was a politically motivated one. It synthesized the life experience of several black settler populations: pre and post 1945. If that appears to be a simpler task today, its obviousness is a measure of his achievement. His book also added substantively to what we knew about our past. The main text, which flattened as it drew closer to the present, consolidated a constellation of key personalities, problems and events. And then, there was another whole world in the book’s challenging footnotes and appendices which had unearthed enough material to fuel a library of new monographs. A smaller, companion volume which related Britain’s internal history of conflict around race to an account of its colonial crimes appeared a few years later.

Fryer’s intervention was no dry scholastic exercise. His approach was rigorous and neil-kenlockdetailed but never idly contemplative, disinterested or dispassionate. After all, its courageous author was a libertarian leftist whose political sensibilities had been shaped by reporting on the post-45 experience of Britain’s postcolonial settlers from the Caribbean
and then refined by the world-historic 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. He would not object to being called an antiracist though it is only fair to add that his humane and worldly, revolutionary wisdom could not be contained under so narrow a heading. Staying Power seems to have been a labour of that cosmopolitan, revolutionary love—an ethically infused effort designed to articulate its author’s hopes for an internationalist variety of class politics in which the damage done by racism had been thoughtfully acknowledged and then repaired—with an eye on the future. This was no trivial undertaking and Fryer showed that it would only be possible if the colonial and imperial history of Britain could be completely re-worked on a different scale. Staying Power was the cornerstone of that reparative project. If Britain could face up to the blood-stained past that had made it the world’s dominant power and work that history through, it could become a different, better place. More than that, the struggle against the racism which had grown from slavery could then be recognised as a strategic battle, fundamental to the health of the country’s ailing democracy.charlie-phillps

For Fryer—as for Eric Williams, whose amiable ghost is present in this text—racism was determined by the imperatives of exploitation. Fryer moved beyond Williams with the suggestion that there was no significant sense in which the problems created by racial hierarchy and division could not be solved by the overthrow of capitalism. These views are less fashionable today than they were thirty years ago. But it would be wrong to see Fryer as a prisoner of deterministic thinking. His emphasis falls repeatedly upon the world-changing agency of brave people who would not accept their own dehumanization or the reduction of others to infrahumanity.

It is significant that, James Walvin aside, the path-breaking authors who laboured alongside Fryer in the British Library and at Colindale, trawling the archives for a counter-history that could guide and strengthen the emergent voices of black British political culture were, like him, not academics. Unencumbered by banal, scholastic considerations, Rozina Visram[i], Ron Ramdin[ii] and the others formed a vibrant, liberationist cohort intent on offering this potent history to anyone prepared to wield it in pursuit of human dignity. All of them were inspired by the prospect of an insurgent, alternative pedagogy. They shared a commitment to what would now be airily dismissed as “multiculturalism” and targeted their work at educators for whom these documents, characters and dissenting perspectives were an invaluable classroom resource.

As a white, communist Englishman who had not only dared—against the strictures of charlie-phillip2identity politics—to take possession of this subaltern history but was also prepared to render himself accountable for his choices, Peter Fryer was sometimes treated harshly and unfairly. I certainly witnessed the destructive, hateful treatment which was dished out by resentful, lazy and hostile community spokespeople who told him that he had no right to undertake the work he did because this particular history of suffering was their own special property. It is easy to grasp why the defeated and the powerless might have been tempted to discover a form of compensation for their injuries in taking exclusive possession of the past, even imagining its restorative potency might be owned: held and appreciated exclusively in the private space where races sometimes became political actors. Peter Fryer’s imagination and example, like his pioneering work suggest a different conclusion. He gave us all this lovely gift which, among other things, demonstrates that history is neither private nor ethnic property and can never be.


All images are taken from the Staying Power exhibition, held at the V&A. The photographers (in order) are Pogus Caesar, Maxine Walker, Neil Kenlock and Charlie Phillps. 


Paul Gilroy is the Professor of American and English Literature at Kings College, London and has held posts at various universities in the UK and the US. He has written widely on race, culture, nationalism, music and literature.

Peter Fryer is the author of the classic Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain and, more recently, Rhythms of Resistance: African Musical Heritage in Brazil, also available from Pluto Press. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary who recognised his “continuous support of the Hungarian revolution and freedom fight”. He died in 2006.


[i] Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, Pluto Press, 2002

[ii] Ron Ramdin, Reimagining Britain: 500 Years of Black and Asian History, Pluto Press, 1999

Paul Gilroy is Professor of American and English Literature at Kings College, London

[1] Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, Pluto Press, 2002

[2] Ron Ramdin, Reimagining Britain: 500 Years of Black and Asian History, Pluto Press, 1999

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