How we got here Gary Younge

Peter Fryer’s Stay­ing Power changed the story for black Bri­tons – and speaks to the cli­mate of prej­u­dice to­day

The Guardian - Review - - Opinion -

The very se­ri­ous func­tion of racism is dis­trac­tion,” Toni Mor­ri­son ar­gued in a lec­ture in Port­land, Ore­gon, in 1975:

It keeps you from do­ing your work. It keeps you ex­plain­ing, over and over again, your rea­son for be­ing. Some­body says you have no lan­guage and you spend twenty years prov­ing that you do. Some­body says your head isn’t shaped prop­erly so you have sci­en­tists work­ing on the fact that it is. Some­body says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Some­body says you have no king­doms, so you dredge that up. None of this is nec­es­sary. There will al­ways be one more thing.

For the long­est time the cen­tral dis­trac­tion for black Bri­tons was in­sist­ing on our ex­is­tence. That we were black was unar­guable. That we were in Bri­tain was ac­knowl­edged if only to be con­tested. But the no­tion that we could be black and British, both from this place and in our bod­ies, con­founded many, if not most.

Bri­tain, we were told, was an es­sen­tially white place in which we had only just ar­rived. We had no his­tory here. The colo­nial con­nec­tions that ex­plained our ex­is­tence were at best opaque and at worst un­known to most, even as they were mythol­o­gised in the very stat­ues and mon­u­ments that sur­rounded us. Our past did not come up in cur­ric­ula or me­di­ated con­ver­sa­tion. To the un­in­formed, ill-in­formed and mis­in­formed, which in­cluded those who charged them­selves with cu­rat­ing the na­tional nar­ra­tive, we came from nowhere and for no good rea­son.

This had an im­pact on both our pol­i­tics and our self-per­cep­tion. “The be­lief that we have come from some­where,” wrote his­to­rian EH Carr, “is closely linked with the be­lief that we are go­ing some­where … our view of his­tory re­jects our view of so­ci­ety.”

Pub­lished in 1984, Peter Fryer’s Stay­ing Power starts with the sen­tence: “There were Africans in Bri­tain be­fore the English came here.” It serves as the ba­sis for a trans­for­ma­tive un­der­stand­ing not only of the past, but the present and fu­ture, too. Fryer’s schol­ar­ship es­tab­lished in de­tail our pres­ence here over the cen­turies as a fact, and rooted that pres­ence in a tra­di­tion of strug­gle with a par­tic­u­lar and or­ganic re­la­tion­ship to Bri­tain.

That a new edi­tion should emerge in the year that marks the 70th an­niver­sary of Win­drush, the 50th an­niver­sary of Enoch Pow­ell’s “rivers of blood” speech and the 25th an­niver­sary of the mur­der of Stephen Lawrence mat­ters. For Stay­ing Power pro­vides us with the nec­es­sary tools to un­ravel the morass of self-con­grat­u­la­tion, myth, me­lan­cholic nos­tal­gia and hol­low, nar­rowly tai­lored re­morse that tends to un­der­pin sched­uled mo­ments of racial com­mem­o­ra­tion.

With Fryer as our guide, we know that what­ever mul­ti­cul­tural bon­homie we en­joy now is a prod­uct not of Bri­tain’s in­nate ge­nius and sense of fair play, but of bit­terly fought strug­gles in which the po­lit­i­cal and me­dia class have of­ten re­sisted progress. We know that in those strug­gles black peo­ple have had al­lies, as well as en­e­mies, among white Bri­tons and trade unions. And that these strug­gles were not fought in a vac­uum, but were al­ways part of the broader eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial land­scape. Fryer shows us that black British his­tory is not a sub­genre of British his­tory but an in­te­gral part of it. With suf­fi­cient imag­i­na­tion and sol­i­dar­ity all sorts of Bri­tons can see them­selves in this book and spark their own trans­for­ma­tive reck­on­ing with who we are and how we got here.

In­deed, had more lib­er­als read it they would have un­der­stood events since the fi­nan­cial cri­sis as con­sis­tent with Bri­tain’s racial his­tory rather than aber­rant from it. The rise of the xeno­pho­bic hard-right in a pe­riod of eco­nomic cri­sis, en­sur­ing a steady flow of ar­senic in the wa­ter sup­ply of our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, is not new, even if the im­pe­rial fan­tasy in our for­eign pol­icy and a do­mes­tic agenda guided by aus­ter­ity, war, closed bor­ders and a per­ma­nent state of ter­ror have cre­ated a cur­rent frame­work in which it might fes­ter. The na­ture of dis­crim­i­na­tion may evolve – from race to re­li­gion and colour to cul­ture and even lan­guage – even as the na­ture of the re­sis­tance and re­bel­lion will evolve with it. We can­not know the des­ti­na­tion of those strug­gles; but thanks to Fryer we are far more aware of their source • Em­pire Win­drush mi­grants ar­rive at Tilbury in 1948

Stay­ing Power: The His­tory of Black Peo­ple in Bri­tain by Peter Fryer is pub­lished by Pluto.

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