Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain

Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain

by Kieran Connell

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In 1980s Britain, while the country failed to reckon with the legacies of its empire, a black, transnational sensibility was emerging in its urban areas. In Handsworth, an inner-city neighborhood of Birmingham, black residents looked across the Atlantic toward African and Afro-Caribbean social and political cultures and drew upon them while navigating the inequalities of their locale. For those of the Windrush generation and their British-born children, this diasporic inheritance became a core influence on cultural and political life. Through rich case studies, including photographic representations of the neighborhood, Black Handsworth takes readers inside pubs, churches, political organizations, domestic spaces, and social clubs to shed light on the experiences and everyday lives of black residents during this time. The result is a compelling and sophisticated study of black globality in the making of post-colonial Britain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300682
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Series: Berkeley Series in British Studies , #15
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 912,444
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kieran Connell is Lecturer in Contemporary British History at Queen’s University Belfast.

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Shades of Black

Political and Community Groups


On 4 and 5 June 1977, as Britain was readying its street parties, processions, and Union Jack bunting for the queen's forthcoming Silver Jubilee, the Handsworth-based African-Caribbean Self-Help Organisation (ACSHO) hosted Birmingham's inaugural African Liberation Day. The idea had first been mooted by newly independent African states in the late 1950s, and the date had been set as 25 May to mark the anniversary of the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, a coalition committed to ending all colonial influence across the continent. A decade later, African Liberation Day began to be picked up across the black globality. In the United States the Black Power activist Owusu Sadaukai envisaged that it would be a means of drawing public attention to events in apartheid South Africa, as well as emphasizing "'the relationship between what is happening to our people in Africa and what is happening to us in the United States and other places.'" Drawing on a network of support that included prominent civil rights and Black Power groups, Sadaukai's 1972 Liberation Day comprised a demonstration in Washington, D.C., of thirty thousand participants and protests outside the Portuguese and South African embassies. In Handsworth five years later, events consisted of poetry readings, music, drama, and workshops, and culminated in a march of one thousand people from a local school to Handsworth Park. The ACSHO shared Sadaukai's rationale for a Liberation Day as a means of emphasizing the transatlantic connections between liberation movements in Africa and political struggles across the diaspora and, given the historic role of jubilee events as a means of generating loyalty to the British Empire, no doubt recognized the political symbolism of staging the event over jubilee weekend. In the context of recent declarations of sovereignty in Angola and Mozambique, the group pitched its Liberation Day as a simultaneous celebration of victories in the struggle against colonialism and an expression of a commitment to defeating "'the last colonial outposts'" overseas, as well as what was understood as domestic neocolonialism in contemporary Britain. The overarching theme of the event was "'Africans in struggle at home and abroad.'"

Similar events were subsequently held in London and Manchester, though by the 1980s the ACSHO had become the main organizational driver behind African Liberation Day in Britain. The group had been established in the mid-1960s to attempt to combat the racism black communities faced across British society, but it maintained a line of analysis that placed these struggles in the context of worldwide anticolonial and antiracist movements past and present. It was therefore part of a long-standing tradition of black political organization in Britain stretching back at least to the 1930s, when London in particular had become a focal point for Pan-Africanist mobilization thanks to the activities of black students, intellectuals, and other sojourners, who used the city as a base for the development of campaigns against empire and demands for the advancement of the rights of black populations within it. A more immediate influence on the ACSHO was the political associations and pressure groups that were set up to advocate on behalf of the growing black population in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the battles fought in this period were largely stimulated by domestic flashpoints, activists again emphasized a perspective that encompassed the black Atlantic. Activists such as the Trinidadian journalist Claudia Jones drew parallels between the struggles of "'Afro-American freedom fighters'" and domestic campaigns against racist violence, the British color bar, and the onset of increasingly discriminatory immigration legislation. The transatlantic nature of these currents was signified in 1965 when, following the Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths's shock election victory in Smethwick, the Indian Workers' Association (IWA) extended an invitation to Malcolm X to pay a visit to Griffiths's new constituency, two miles from the IWA's base in Handsworth. If his earlier spells in London and Oxford had contributed to his characterization of the sun finally setting on the "'monocled, pith-helmeted'" British colonialist, Malcolm X's stint in the midlands prompted him to reach for another analogy: black people in Smethwick were, he told reporters, being treated "'in the same way as the Negroes ... in Alabama — like Hitler and the Jews.'"

Focusing on the ACSHO, the IWA, and other local organizations, this chapter unpicks the nature of black politics in Handsworth over the long 1980s. As the ACSHO's rhetoric around African Liberation Day suggests, what Kennetta Hammond Perry has underlined as the "overlapping imperial, diasporic and global valences" of black politics in the 1950s and 1960s continued to resonate in the politics of Handsworth-based organizations in the later period. What was distinctive, however, was the extent to which this perspective was able to contribute to mobilizations across ethnic lines, as a growing South Asian population took up residence alongside African Caribbean communities in Britain's inner cities. To varying degrees, it has been argued, groups in the 1960s emphasized the importance of an inclusive politics based on mutual experiences of discrimination and a shared relationship to empire. In February 1962, for example, the newly established Afro-Asian-Caribbean Conference urged all "'Afro-Asian-Caribbean citizens'" of Britain to march on the House of Commons to protest against the imminent passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Other groups likewise adopted an inclusive outlook that was at once "transracial, multiethnic and universal," something anticipated by Claudia Jones in 1959 when she renamed her campaigning organ The West Indian Gazette so that it included the epigraph And Afro-Asian Caribbean News. By the later 1960s, influenced by the spread of Black Power across the Atlantic following the visits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and other American-based activists and the formation of groups such as the Universal Coloured People's Association (UCPA), this unity began to manifest itself among immigrant communities with a shared embrace of the semiotic power of "black." Just as Carmichael had emphasized the importance of the "Third World" jointly mobilizing under the Black Power program, so in this milieu a "peculiarly British notion of 'blackness'" was said to have emerged in which the generalizations and stereotypes immigrants faced upon their arrival in Britain were reappropriated into an internationalist tool of political unity. According to Ambalavener Sivanandan, the Sri Lankan activist and one-time affiliate of the reconstituted UCPA, black had begun to be understood as a "political colour" to which Africans, Caribbeans, and Asians could each lay claim.

This is an important reminder of the malleability of black in postwar British discourse. In order to examine the nature of black politics in Handsworth, in this chapter it is necessary to include an interrogation of those South Asian organizations that also sought to mobilize under the same inclusive banner. Indeed, the long 1980s have been identified as the period during which the encompassing notion of black fragmented, giving rise to a "community of communities" that focused on cultural differences rather than on sites of mutual solidarity. This has commonly been attributed to the state's embrace of a policy of multiculturalism in the early 1980s, in particular its monetary arm, which increasingly allocated funds to minority groups on the basis of ethnicity. Following the recommendations of the Scarman report on the 1981 Brixton riots and the lead of Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council (GLC), local authorities in Birmingham and across the country began to roll out comprehensive multicultural programs that made funds available on the basis of increasingly narrow definitions of ethnicity. The result, it has been claimed, was the breaking down of black as a political color. The cohesion that had previously characterized black politics was eroded as the state began to absorb a generation of ethnically distinct, self-professed "community leaders" into its machinery. Black politics had been taken off the streets and into the council chamber, where, divided and then subdivided along ethnic lines, it became a scramble for state resources to fund what was now understood to be primarily a salaried exercise.

This chapter offers an alternative story. While the specter of public funding has been presented as a marker signaling a shift from one form of politics to another, the relationship between a group's decision to accept state monies and its political ideology was in practice complex. In the first instance, as the opening section of the chapter demonstrates, the state had already begun to develop a pluralist conception of multiculture in the context of mid-century anxieties about decolonization and the viability of the Commonwealth, which coincided with moves to direct funds toward inner-city areas with large black and Asian populations. By the high point of multiculturalism of the 1980s, moreover, groups such as the IWA emphasized the importance of a unified definition of black and ongoing connections to global anticolonial struggles, yet simultaneously accepted state funds. The ACSHO argued vociferously against the practice of political organizations accepting state monies but subscribed to a version of Black Power as a global, yet explicitly narrow, African Caribbean identity. As shown here, the funding system undoubtedly favored those predominantly white, antiracist organizations born out of the New Left, which were often better placed to speak the state's language of multiculturalism. But there was no straightforward relationship between the proximity of a group to the state and its political agenda. Much more relevant was the expanded role local organizations increasingly sought to play. In the context of demographic shifts that saw the majority of the population of areas such as Handsworth become either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, by the long 1980s the inadequacies of the state in addressing the issues faced by these communities had become apparent. The dedication of local organizations was such that many increasingly sought to simultaneously perform the roles of social agencies and campaigners, in an attempt to develop practical solutions to the inequalities that were experienced by their constituents. The problem for those subscribers to black as a political color, however, was that at the local level these issues were often manifested in ethnically specific ways.

For example, the IWA and the Asian Youth Movement (AYM), another group made up of South Asian activists, increasingly found that their time was spent attempting to help Handsworth residents deal with the threat of deportation — something that, following changes to the law in the 1980s, particularly affected South Asian communities. The ACSHO, in contrast, focused on the provision of alternative education for African Caribbean youth in the context of a growing awareness of the acute disadvantages this section of the community experienced in mainstream schooling. This was undoubtedly part of a wider story of the fragmentation of political identities in Britain. In Handsworth, women activists were also positing their own demands for a modification of black politics that would recognize — in opposition to what could often be the masculine organizational structures of many groups — the critical importance of issues such as domestic violence and the gendered, as well as raced, inequalities that black and Asian women faced. For all groups, it was the practical experience of black Handsworth — conflict with the police, racism in schools, a lack of suitable housing, the threat of deportation — that rendered the black globality both intelligible and, in the eyes of many, a political necessity. In Handsworth, the local facilitated the global. But it was also at the level of the local that ideas about an encompassing black political color weakened, particularly as the provision of ethnically tailored services increasingly took center stage. The issue was not so much the rise of the community leader, but rather the extent to which by the long 1980s the political activist was in many ways also compelled to perform the role of the dedicated social worker. Whether groups accepted state funding or not, in the context of the long 1980s a unified notion of blackness was becoming difficult to maintain.


Both local and national governments had played a limited role in black and Asian community relations prior to the turning point of the 1981 urban unrest. In Birmingham the local authorities took the lead. In 1950, for example, Birmingham City Council established the Coordinating Committee for Coloured People, which consisted of representatives from local religious and voluntary organizations, and four years later it was the first authority to create the post of liaison officer for colored people, with the aim of acting as a bridge between the council and black community representatives. Such initiatives were undoubtedly modest, and they also demonstrate the extent to which this fledgling approach to race relations was shaped by the legacies of empire; there were no black representatives on the Coordinating Committee, for example, and the post of liaison officer was initially held by a white former colonial officer who had served in Africa. Nationally, the gathering pace of decolonization saw community relations manifested in other ways. In the early 1960s, influenced by the ongoing shock caused by the Suez Canal crisis as well as concerns about the viability of the Commonwealth in light of racial atrocities in South Africa, the British government agreed to sponsor an arts festival as a means of articulating a renewed vision for the Commonwealth. The festival took place in 1965. The aim, as Radhika Natarajan has shown, was to curate it in pluralist terms, as a means of generating cross-Commonwealth respect for diversity and difference. Planners often presented a nostalgic representation of Britain's imperial past, however, and virtually ignored the by now substantial Commonwealth populations actually residing in Britain. Moreover, the contrast between the festival's emphasis on equality and the government's concurrent, discriminatory attempts to restrict immigration was widely noted. It was indicative of the then Labour government's ambivalence on the issue of race that the festival also coincided with what might be seen as the genesis of the multicultural policies that would be adopted on a much larger scale in later decades.

Nationally, the key marker was the 1965 Race Relations Act, which although limited in practice nevertheless for the first time formally outlawed racial discrimination in public places. The Local Government Act of the following year also represented the moment the state began to play a significant monetary role in intercommunity relations. The act included a funding package for local authorities with large numbers of immigrants, which was primarily used to employ teachers with the relevant skills to teach English to Asian pupils in schools. By 1969 the central government was contributing £15 million under the terms of the act, and there was a more general recognition among policy makers that inner cities — with their vastly disproportionate levels of unemployment, poverty, and immigration — were in a state of acute crisis. Initially, wider policy responses were ostensibly concerned with structural issues such as unemployment and housing, though local authorities in particular often used these issues as a de facto way of dealing with race. The Urban Programme, influenced by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs in the United States and introduced in October 1968, signaled a more explicit focus, with the channeling of resources to areas where more than 6 percent of the school population was pupils from immigrant backgrounds. By the mid-1970s and the passing of the 1976 Race Relations Act, which made it a statutory duty for local authorities to legislate to end racial disadvantage and encourage equality of opportunity, the program was explicitly being aimed at ethnic minority organizations. However problematically and incoherently, then, the vision of pluralism and equality ostensibly articulated at the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival had also begun to inform both local and national government in the shaping of a domestic multiculturalist agenda — increasingly in monetary terms.

Because of a lack of clear direction from the central government, the period following the passage of the 1976 act was characterized by diverse and sometimes confused responses from local authorities. In Birmingham, this largely continued into the 1980s. If the GLC took the lead in establishing the multicultural model, the Birmingham council embarked on a more cautious path. In 1984 the Labour administration created the Race Relations and Equal Opportunities Committee, but rather than implement the GLC blueprint it made a conscious effort to avoid being identified with the "looney Left." The committee focused on the process of defining the council's equal opportunities policy; even as late as 1985, it claimed it did "not have a specific fund for supporting organisations of ethnic minority people." Two years later, because of concerns that its work could harm support among Labour's electoral base, the committee was abolished and replaced by the Personnel and Equal Opportunities Committee.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

     Introduction: Black Handsworth
1. Shades of Black: Political and Community Groups
2. Visualizing Handsworth: Th e Politics of Representation
3. Dread Culture: Africa in Handsworth
4. Leisure and Sociability: Th e Black Everyday


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