52 red pepper oct/nov2007
Black, bold and British
Children in Bute Town, Cardiff, 1954
According to an old skinhead chant, ‘Thereain’tno blackin theUnion Jack.’ PAULGILROY reclaimed thatphraseas thetitleofhis classicworkon race and culturein Britain. In theseextracts from his newbook, BlackBritain: A PhotographicHistory , Gilroydocuments thechanging images ofblack Britishness in thepost-warperiod. Thesebeautiful, angryand startling photographs showglimpses ofthestruggleand everydaypractices ofblack Britons throughoutthecountry’s difficultprocess ofbecoming post-colonial
The post-war settlement The context for most of the post-war images of black life was created by their news value in the period when immigration became the substance and the limit of Britain’s racial politics. However, as the community of immigrants cautiously adapted to long-term settlement, the visual record of its progress began to serve different purposes and interests. Even the most newsworthy photographs could reveal the settlers’ determination to get the damage done by racism recognised officially, as well as their need to record exactly how it had circumscribed their life chances and diluted their hopes of upward mobility. The effort to force a grudging acknowledgement of the continuing social and political costs of British racism was now being balanced against other more positive obligations. Undermining racist common sense and loosening its grip on political thinking meant presenting black life in its complexity and dignity as something more than a reaction to adverse circumstances and a political agenda set by others. In this new frame, documentary photography did not just manifest the enigmas of injustice. The images repeatedly summoned up the unthinkable idea of black humanity and conveyed the equally disturbing suggestion that the lives of blacks in Britain involved more than just a series of answers to exploitation and pressure. The country’s sense of its own worth, and its moral stature, were felt to be at stake in the unpleasant way in which the immigrants were being treated. A tension between grasping the uncomfortable fact of shared humanity and giving due attention to the injuries wrought by racial hierarchy comes across strongly in the images from the 1960s. It is evident in photographs of immigrants’ familial and domestic lives, where care and tenderness characterise intimate interaction under the difficult conditions created by poverty, harassment and the accumulated impact of prejudice. The same affirmation of black humanity can be detected in photographs that convey the emergent community in more public settings. Arrival was no longer the moment under repeated scrutiny. Black people could now be seen in daylight, on British streets, going about their business, at play away from the world of crushing work, busy building institutional spaces that would furnish them with some compensation for their exclusion and marginality. White borrowers First mods and then skinheads thrived on the borrowed elements of black culture they could mimic or just purchase over the counter. Records, haircuts, shoes and clothing associated with the incomers redefined the content and style of working-class life. Even masculinity and femininity were reworked around imagined or observed glimpses of black interpersonal interaction. However, these youthful white borrowers and copyists often remained deeply hostile to the producers and architects of the racial subcultures that fascinated and inspired them. This striking ambivalence would persist.
MrFreedom fashion range, 1973