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Colonial Intellectuals and Interwar Pan-Africanism in Britain

Marc Matera

During the interwar period African and West Indian intellectuals, university students, artists, activists, and workers established a number of organizations that facilitated the circulation of ideas and news from around the Atlantic and throughout the British Empire. Several groups in which sojourners from the colonies figured prominently – such as the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), International African Service Bureau (IASB), Union of Students of African Descent, and West African Student Union (WASU) – flourished in the late 1920s and 1930s and established major cultural centers, means of voicing social commentary and political dissent, and “home[s] away from home.” The only existing studies of people of color in Britain during this period focus exclusively on their political activities. By contrast, this dissertation examines their full lives—personal desires, cultural exchange, and social relations as well as politics.

In addition to developments in the colonies, both the relative freedom and the racial discrimination that African and West Indian students, visitors, and immigrants found in Britain, known as the “colour bar,” shaped their experiences and political perspectives. At the same time, the growing popularity of Pan-Africanist ideas and black internationalism around the Atlantic, increasing calls from educated colonial elites for political reforms in the empire, and the emergence of labor movements in Africa and the Caribbean influenced the intellectual and political evolution of colonials in Britain. They, in turn, played essential roles in the development of each, operating in a web of transnational, regional, and imperial networks from their position at the heart of the British Empire. Many in this cohort returned to Africa and the Caribbean in the years following World War II to become nationalist leaders and then prominent politicians in the postcolonial period. Thus, this project traces not only the history of interwar Pan-Africanism in Britain but also the intellectual and political prehistory of postwar nationalism and anti-imperialism.

My dissertation is a study of transnationalism and cross-cultural exchange in action. In particular, it reveals a hitherto ignored global history of the imperial metropolis, London. African and Caribbean immigrants in the city were situated at the center of an entrepŰt linking prominent anti-imperialist feminists, prominent Pan-Africanists, West African professionals and elites, African American artists, musicians, and intellectuals, British socialists and communists, sympathetic liberal politicians, officials in the Colonial Office and others of African descent throughout Europe. On an epistemological level, my project represents a new approach to history that challenges the primacy of nation-state by emphasizing the legions of connections which transcended national boundaries. The rich history of exchange around the Atlantic, in which this study must be situated, reveals a multiplicity of economic and political relations, processes of cultural mixture, and collective identities that confound a solely national approach to the past. At the same time, my project is firmly situated within the contexts of imperial Britain and early twentieth-century Europe. As historians Antoinette Burton and Kathleen Wilson have recently noted, the tendency of some British historians to avoid placing the empire at the center of the history of the British nation obscures the fundamental interdependence of national and imperial formations. Following the recent work of historians like Gary Wilder and Frederick Cooper, my project attempts reconsideration of the contradictory effects of the imperial discourse and ties, the productive tension between diaspora and empire.

Gender as well as racial difference shaped sojourners experiences in and engagement with the imperial metropolis. The disproportionate number of men within the community of visitors and the homosocial character of life within organizations like the WASU are noted in the extant literature. Yet, historians have ignored the ways in which conceptions of masculinity and ideas concerning sexuality informed the students’ political stance. Sexuality also proved to be a significant point of contention between colonial subjects in Britain and the Colonial Office, which ardently policed colonials’ activities in an attempt to prevent interracial sexual relations. At the same time, West Indian and African males’ notions of proper gender roles often limited women’s participation in organizations like the WASU and LCP to domestic and “social” functions, as opposed to their own explicitly political and intellectual activities. Gender norms and notions of sexual propriety structured the political objectives of many colonials in Britain. Most importantly, historians’ exclusive focus upon the “political” activities of colonial activists, intellectuals, students, and artists has obscured the gender component of Pan-Africanist and anticolonial discourse and activities.

Though men dominated student and Pan-Africanist organizations, individual Caribbean, African, and British women played significant roles in their development. Although men dominated student and Pan-Africanist organizations, individual women played significant roles in their development. For example, Amy Ashwood Garvey, who was originally from Jamaica and the first wife of Marcus Gervey, helped to found the IASB and the WASU’s immediate predecessor, the Nigeria Progress Union. At the same time, she owned and operated the Florence Mills Social Club, a restaurant and nightclub frequented by colonial students and activists in the mid-1930s and unofficial “office” of the IASB. Ashwood Garvey also participated in the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, contributing the sole feminist perspective in her outspoken critique of the position of black women in Jamaican society. While Ashwood Garvey, Una Marson, and Eslanda Goode Robeson are the most well-known and will figure prominently in my dissertation, I hope to disprove historian Barbara Bush’s suggestion that they were “the only black female activists of any prominence” in interwar Britain. Following in the tradition of African women like Adelaide Smith Casely Hayford at the turn of the century, Stella Thomas, Constance A. Cummings-John, Olive Johnson, Mrs. ’Olu Solanke, and others also spent years in the metropole between the wars and made significant attempts at linking feminism, Pan-Africanism, and reformist politics in their work. Thus, in addition to examining how notions of gender intersected with and informed conceptions of cultural and racial difference circulating in and produced by associations like the WASU, LCP, and IASB, this project seeks to recover the history of women’s lives within and contributions to these organizations.

My study expands the scope of analysis to include West Indian and African visitors’ social and cultural activities, which arguably had a greater impact on their everyday lives. An examination of a variety of social settings – from numerous publications to regular dances and daily life in the WASU hostel to the nightly music performances at Ashwood Garvey’s Florence Mills Social Club – reveals important sites in which new collective associations were established, enacted, and reproduced. I hope to show how these specific social spaces, which enabled transnational cultural exchange and mixture, influenced sojourners’ politics and in particular their understandings of difference and “race” in profound ways, contributing to the development of a Pan-African political subjectivity. The elite colonial intelligentsia who experienced the most direct and sustained influence of British education and culture and particularly those in the metropole were hardly passive receptacles of European racial ideology or discourses of sexual difference. Rather, they appropriated and transformed European idioms – including feminism, liberalism, Marxism, and European notions of “race, “citizen,” and “nation” – to serve their own ends and sustain their black internationalism. In general, my dissertation examines this creative tension between identity and difference in the politics, activism, art, and everyday lives of West Indians and Africans in Britain. In historicizing interwar Pan-Africanism in Britain, I hope to reveal its internal fractures, different strands, and constitutive exclusives.

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