I reflect on the place of If Beale Street Could Talk in the
corpus of Baldwin’s writings, and its relationship to Barry
Jenkins’s movie released at the beginning of 2019. I consider also what
the arrival of the movie can tell us about how Baldwin is located in
contemporary collective memories.
The escalation of systematic, if random, violence in the contemporary world frames the
concerns of the article, which seeks to read Baldwin for the present. It works by a
measure of indirection, arriving at Baldwin after a detour which introduces Chinua Achebe.
The Baldwin–Achebe relationship is familiar fare. However, here I explore not the shared
congruence between their first novels, but rather focus on their later works, in which the
reflexes of terror lie close to the surface. I use Achebe’s final novel, Anthills of the
Savanah, as a way into Baldwin’s “difficult” last book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen,
suggesting that both these works can speak directly to our own historical present. Both
Baldwin and Achebe, I argue, chose to assume the role of witness to the evolving
manifestations of catastrophe, which they came to believe enveloped the final years of
their lives. In order to seek redemption they each determined to craft a prose—the product
of a very particular historical conjuncture—which could bring out into the open the
prevailing undercurrents of violence and terror.
Caribbean migration to Britain brought many new things—new music, new foods, new styles. It brought new ways of thinking too. This book explores the intellectual ideas that the West Indians brought with them to Britain. It shows that, for more than a century, West Indians living in Britain developed a dazzling intellectual critique of the codes of Imperial Britain. Chapters discuss the influence of, amongst others, C. L. R. James, Una Marson, George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Claude McKay and V. S. Naipaul. The contributors draw from many different disciplines to bring alive the thought and personalities of the figures they discuss, providing a picture of intellectual developments in Britain from which we can still learn much. The introduction argues that the recovery of this Caribbean past, on the home territory of Britain itself, reveals much about the prospects of multiracial Britain.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book addresses why, we might ask, was the colonial violence deleted from Anthony Burgess's fiction, while the male bravado of the teddy boys was amplified out of all proportion. It then addresses What does this tell us about the manner in which late colonialism was comprehended by the English eye, and what also about the purview of the English novel. The book discusses the dialectic between colonial order and postcolonial disorder, for all its phantasmagoric properties, turns out to be one theme which is prominent, although in many variants from the 'invasion' literature of the postwar fiction. The memories which came to be condensed in the rituals of end of empire, the symbolics of the lowering of one flag, the raising of another served to obliterate other decisive histories.
Bill Schwarz argues that the revolutionary potential of racial equality
raised as a possibility by decolonization and, in the US, Black Power has
been largely forgotten; yet its significance at the time led to a new
politics of white ethnic populism. Political leaders in the 1960s such as
Enoch Powell and George Wallace helped whites come to imagine themselves as
a defeated people in states they believed were at risk of moral collapse.
Schwarz also considers Mary Whitehouse’s television censorship campaign.
Whitehouse felt that the BBC no longer maintained “clean” standards, and she
compelled conservative white women into activism to compensate for what they
believed was an enervated British government. These new forms of ethnic
populism that dwelled on lost national greatness and the failures of
government to maintain order influenced today’s politics of white
This book addresses the analytical consequences of the encounter between West Indian and Briton. West Indian emigrants came from societies well advanced in the prerequisites of breaking from colonialism. The West Indian presence created new possibilities within the metropolitan culture for the issues to be spoken. West Indian exiles in London played a decisive role. For West Indians to ‘become’ postcolonial they were required to destroy the external authority of the British. The Pleasures of Exile and Beyond a Boundary represent the theorisation of the migrant view of England. Through the 1960s, West Indians in Britain were alive to the cultural developments in the newly independent countries of black Africa, and representatives of a new generation of black African novelists found in the Caribbean Artists Movement a welcoming home.
George Padmore represents a particular variant on the theme of emigration which underwrites the story of twentieth-century Caribbean intellectuals. He was an intellectual formed deep in the vortex of the age of extremes, and for most of his life he espoused positions which others perceived to be both extreme and fanatical. He was also inducted into politics in the USA and through Communism, though from the outset he was fired by the injustices of race and colonialism. The main contours of Padmore's political thought from the days of The Negro Worker to the time of the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 are reviewed. Padmore showed every sign that he had mastered the culture of the colonisers, having learned to inhabit Englishness at perfect pitch. He expressed the elementary truth that colonialism has neither moral nor intellectual justification.
The term ‘West Indian’ always represented a complex of competing ideas, a resource for both colonial and anticolonial politics. West Indians were colonial Britons who experienced the civilisation of the British, in Britain, from a very particular vantage. Three overlapping and interconnected areas of thought are addressed: race and ethnicity; the project of decolonisation; and the historical imagination itself. The issue of the popular brought the cultural activists of Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) hard up against the question of British civilisation. It suggests that the work of decolonisation in its expansive register requires popular self-activity, not only on the part of the colonised but on the part too of the native citizens of the metropolis. Maybe in the future the most profound impact of Caribbean thought will be on the capacity to imagine the past, and to strive to bring it into consciousness.
In the back-streets of post-colonial Britain, in Wolverhampton and Smethwick, the language of the colonial frontier could be heard again. The frontiers have functioned not only as sociological facts but also as symbolic systems. For, despite the apparent chaos of the sights which confront us, the historical times inscribed in the city are organised by powerful logistics. Indubitably, the post-colonial city is hybrid: but it is neither random nor indecipherable. The public vistas constructed in the heart of the capital, and in the heart of Britain's other cities, provide the visible legacy of Britain's imperial past. But in a deeper sense the imperial city also carries other legacies which cannot so readily be scrutinised by the naked eye. In design and organisation London, Birmingham, Glasgow all still signify the imperial past, a past memorialised in the built environment.
The chapter explores how Richard Wright, the great American author and black radical, in his concern with the dynamics of European decolonisation, envisaged the effects of the end of British rule overseas. This brings to light some of the connections between British decolonisation and US Civil Rights. In order to do this I explain the centrality of black Paris to the making of Wright, and the influence of a generation of Caribbean intellectuals on his life, literature and politics. The chapter closes with a discussion of Wright’s reading of Nkrumah’s Gold Coast Revolution. This story highlights the transnational nature of decolonisation, as well as its intersections with Cold War politics.