In the second of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh discusses the importance of the representation of Caribbean writers and artists. She is an Associate Professor and Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. You can read her first blog post here.
I think it is fair to say that the nationalist agendas of Caribbean writing and the role of black writers and thinkers in mid-twentieth century independence movements are much less well known than the American civil rights movement of the same era, even though there are some parallels between the two. Even such intellectual giants of the Anglophone Caribbean tradition, writers and thinkers such as Guyanese Wilson Harris (1921-2018) and Trinidadian C.L.R. James (1901-1989), are little known outside of specialist academic circles. Yet Harris, a former land surveyor who had worked in the Amazonian rainforest was writing about environmental issues and conceptualizing new ways of thinking about space, time and memory in relation to pre- and post-Columbian contexts as early as the 1960s. Even earlier in the century, in the 1930s James wrote a play performed on the West End and starring African-American actor and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson which reflected on the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Its subject, which James returned to in his 1938 text The Black Jacobins, was the first successful overthrow of a European power (France) in the Caribbean, all the more remarkable for being led by a former slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Moreover, both Wilson and James lived and worked in Britain, including London, for much of their lives and considered Britain their home. But we hear so little about them. And so the constellation of voices which get included in BHM events and displays gets more and more repetitive and self-referential, unless we are careful to do our research and to reach further (the kind of recovery work my research has also engaged in).
In my view BHM needs to address a wider range of global voices. It needs to address, for example, black British histories and their legacies in contemporary Britain. As a Caribbeanist, it still seems strange to me that the British sometimes have this kind of cultural amnesia when it comes to the long black Atlantic relationship between Britain, and America and the Caribbean as slave-holding societies and an equally problematic (because idealised) notion of centuries of British Asian entanglements through trade routes and then over a century of colonial rule in India. We remember and teach certain events and voices but not others. Mary Seacole is in but what about Una Marson or Amy Garvey or other important early Caribbean figures such as Nanny of the Maroons? We are vague and woolly in our knowledge of great tranches of our shared global history and unaware or unaccepting of just how closely entwined our colonial and post-colonial histories are. Oddest of all, we often remember Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean but not so much its role in setting it up in the first place. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and today’s climate of ‘cancel culture’ and the ‘war on woke’, these crucial questions of what is remembered and/or commemorated and how, and what is not, are even more urgent. At York St John in Literature, students are given opportunities to debate these writers and issues in informed and relevant ways. Curricular reform at GCSE and A Level is moving in the right direction (for example, I’m thrilled to see poems by my old university friend, the hugely talented British-Guyanese writer, Fred D’Aguiar, included for the first time on the National Curriculum for English, alongside fellow Guyanese Brits John Agard and Grace Nichols.) However, there is a long way to go if these are not to become token voices.