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Country People: Diaspora Aesthetics and the Rural Tradition

Ranu Samantrai

The significance of Black Europeans perhaps is nowhere clearer than in the historical formation and contemporary expression of British national identity. Originally a derogatory term for the various peoples of the empire, “Black” became a weapon of the weak in the British movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Refusing the racial divisions of British imperialism, people of African and Asian descent joined under the umbrella of the “Black British” to emphasize their experiential commonality under colonialism and their centrality to the material and symbolic history of their nation. “Black British” exemplifies the complex relationship between global diasporas and their local settings, for it at once invokes global geographic and historic routes while emphasizing their irreducibly local performances. The concept of a Black Britain has contested successfully the consolidation of a national identity predicated upon the disavowal of empire and its consequences. But the Little England that once relegated its Black population to the status of interlopers causing problems for an otherwise homogeneous and harmonious community has not simply disappeared. On the contrary, Blacks in Britain, like their counterparts across Europe, face a new attempt to contain their presence—with the very old device of the racial zone.

How does one change the emotional valence of a place? How does one look at the hills of the garden isle and hear the echo of an Urdu quawwali instead of an Anglican hymn? Or see a Black family in a village shop and not look again? How does one feel at home in a landscape? This is the project being undertaken by artists who seek to rearticulate the emotional resonance of rural Britain so that it no longer stands for nostalgia and aspirations predicated upon their absence. In the latter half of the twentieth century British cities were transformed by immigrants from Britain’s former colonies who joined an already thriving indigenous Black population. But if urban centers are celebrated as the site of experimentation in new ways of being British, in British racial discourse the national essence has retreated to rural Britain, where it is preserved from the racial and cultural mutations fostered in cosmopolitan cities. Always dependent on the aestheticization of land and people, British racial discourse is drawing again on the rural aesthetic to represent the nation as an organic and threatened geobody. Hence, for the children of the settler generation the conventions of landscape and countryside have become privileged semiotic resources for resignifying markers of national similitude and difference. The turn to rural settings in the work of artists as diverse as authors Meera Syal and Caryl Phillips, filmmakers Gurinder Chadha and Horace Ové, and visual artists Ingrid Pollard and Zarina Bhimji indicates an increasing determination to revise the affective and symbolic valence of the British landscape, perhaps the most meaning-saturated landscape in the literary universe.

This project is inherently interdisciplinary in that its research objectives span the historic, the theoretical, and the aesthetic. To understand Black British cultural practices we must revise the history of Black and white Britain, and develop a theoretical frame that interrogates the aesthetic preferences of postcolonial theory. The long historical view taken by this project demonstrates the imbrication of Black and white Britishers in the regional, class, and gender-based struggles that comprise the joint history of their nation. Those struggles extend to the land itself: the landscape considered traditional in Britain today is the result of centuries of conflict, including the enclosure movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that affected black and white in town and country. Within the past century that setting has metamorphosed in the popular imagination from the embarrassing pre-modern shadow of a rapidly modernizing nation to an easily consumable site of leisure for city dwellers. Today Britain’s green and pleasant land has become a privileged object of contestation: whether it is the Countryside Association’s ideal of a feudal estate represented by its fox-hunting gentry, or a socialist nation represented by ramblers’ rights and public land holdings, or a late-capitalist entity privatized for genetically modified crops and administered by the European Union, or a heritage site containing graves of third-century African soldiers, the countryside is the icon claimed by all who wish to stabilize the meaning of contemporary Britain. The tumultuous history of this symbolic resource and of the people who have laid claim to it provides the foundation for querying ideologies of an organic or homogeneous Britishness.

The historical reach of this project extends as well to the story told about the Black British. While scholars of the post-war migration of formerly colonized peoples into Britain understandably emphasize national settings, that broad address has obscured the details of the predominantly rural migrations to industrialized urban centers. The rural origins of Britain’s Black settlers are evident in the art of early generations, which is haunted by memories of another landscape and by a rural organization of labor and social relations. Until the present generation, the children of those settlers have celebrated the urban streets and neighborhoods re-fashioned by their presence and have shunned the countryside by re-writing the pastoral as rural horror. They have been joined in this segregationist gesture by theorists of postcoloniality and diaspora who favor the icon of the city, borrowed from modernism, as the setting for the innovations of hybrid cultures. Their joint attention to the urban leaves undisturbed the re-enchantment of landscape and countryside as repositories of racially pure, if historically impossible, Britishness. Hence, the interrogation of the historical roots and intellectual debts of postcolonial and diaspora theory forms a second and crucial emphasis of my research. My simultaneous address of aesthetic objects, the historical narrative in which they are placed, and the theoretical frame used for their analysis demonstrates the necessity of interdisciplinary scholarship. Moreover, my objects of analysis are selected without regard for the boundaries of media and genre, or the high-low, elite-popular divides that vex the study of expressive cultural practices. Finally, because I apply postcolonial theory to First World sites, my investigation also allows me to demonstrate the value of scholarship that resists the intellectual segregations imposed by national borders.

As was the case with my previous book, this project takes a long historical view to situate the contemporary moment, and considers the theoretical implications of a British history revised to account for the Black presence. In my previous book, AlterNatives: Black Feminism in the Postimperial Nation (Stanford University Press, 2002), I analyzed the Black British women’s movement of the 1980s as an exemplary instance of the value of dissent and conflict in political communities. Characterized by a dramatic rise in fictional and non-fictional publications, the formation of independent publishing houses, writers’ collectives, study groups, and activist organizations, the movement lent itself to literary analysis as a discursive community of interpretation. Thematically, its intersections of feminism with transnational ethnic, cultural and religious diasporas made it a peculiarly postcolonial phenomenon.

Questioning the settlements between majority and minority groups favored by liberal and communitarian theorists, I proposed a theory of change derived from poststructuralist critiques of individual and collective subjects. I traced the formation of racialized communities in an innovative reading of the nationality and immigration laws that re-defined England as a postimperial nation in the post-war period. Black British feminism emerged in response to the national privileging of race as a marker of collective identity and to the consequent containment of gender as an internal communal matter. Its multiracial constituency and anti-communal politics interrupted the consolidation of the nation as an ethnically stratified, consensual community. At the same time, because the movement was subject to substantive critique from within its own ranks, participants relinquished the quest for internal consensus and instead articulated an aesthetic of conflict. I put the efficacy of their strategies to the test in case studies of seemingly intractable disagreements between cultural traditionalists, antiracists and feminists regarding the continuity of troubling sexual and gender practices.

In AlterNatives I argued in favor of a pluralism grounded in the historical knowledge that the democratic nation owes its political being and future hopes to its most marginalized members. This remains the broad purpose of my research today, an aim that is all the more urgent in light of subsequent developments in Britain and across Europe. As evidenced in this spring’s general election, race and culture continue to serve as boundary markers for gauging legitimate membership in Britain. Through my attention to Black Britain, I hope to contribute to those elements in Europe that look to the continent’s historic heterogeneity to imagine its future possibilities.

For the workshop I would seek to develop a collaborative agenda, but as an initial gesture I propose the following general research directions. I have designed these to be broad questions that cross disciplinary boundaries. My aim is that they might serve as umbrella categories that draw together disparate scholars, in the hope of fostering conversation and collaboration.

  1. Histories of nation formation in Europe refer to external contact with other races through colonialism, but do they account for the impact of indigenous Black populations? One way of asking this question would be to consider how certain differences have come to matter and others have ceased to matter. How have wildly disparate individuals come to believe themselves to be one people? In the case of the nation, for instance, how are people persuaded to de-emphasize multiple similarities and differences (a potentially infinite list that includes region, kinship, class, guild, education, race, religion, and gender) in favor of the rather abstract notion of national identity?

  2. Is that process paralleled today at the supra-nation level with the formation of the European Union? Can we take the history of the nation as a model for the emergence of a supra-national identity? In what ways does that historical model obfuscate important differences?

  3. Racial and cultural heterogeneity are thought to cause trouble for otherwise harmonious, because homogeneous, nations. But if the Black European presence pre-dates the migrations of the twentieth century, then might it be possible that the problems encountered in already plural societies in fact result from attempts to produce, rather than defend, an impossible homogeneity?

  4. Is it possible that far from causing trouble, heterogeneity, with all its dissension and conflict, is valuable for the political collective?

  5. Blackness in Europe is generally defined with reference to whiteness, so that each racial/ethnic minority group is imagined as existing in vacuum that contains only itself and its reference point of the white majority. Absent from this picture are other minorities and the question of relations between minority groups. How might we develop a more complicated model of the emergence and functioning of European racial identities?

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