How did a distinct and powerful Black British identity emerge? In the 1950s, when many Caribbean migrants came to Britain, there was no such recognised entity as "Black Britain." Yet by the 1980s, the cultural landscape had radically changed, and a remarkable array of creative practices such as theatre, poetry, literature, music and the visual arts gave voice to striking new articulations of Black-British identity. This new book chronicles the extraordinary blend of social, political and cultural influences from the mid-1950s to late 1970s that gave rise to new heights of Black-British artistic expression in the 1980s. Eddie Chambers relates how and why during these decades "West Indians" became "Afro-Caribbeans," and how in turn "Afro-Caribbeans" became "Black-British" - and the centrality of the arts to this important narrative. The British Empire, migration, Rastafari, the Anti-Apartheid struggle, reggae music, dub poetry, the ascendance of the West Indies cricket team and the coming of Margaret Thatcher - all of these factors, and others, have had a part to play in the compelling story of how the African Diaspora transformed itself to give rise to Black Britain.
In Roots and Culture, Eddie Chambers offers a deeply sensitive and profoundly engaged portrait of an historically unique and distinctive cultural-political transformation, namely, the late modern making of Black Britain. Partly the knowing story of the coming-of-age of his own generation, the first generation of blacks born in Britain to Caribbean migrant parents, it insightfully shows the connection between the extraordinary creativity in the 1980s in the musical, visual, and literary arts, and the black consciousness influences of the volatile 1970s. In this sense too Roots and Culture is also the story of the internal disintegration of the pervasive assumptions about the exclusivity of “Englishness” that were at the generative center of the cultural and moral conceits of an “overseas” British empire presumed to have remained untouched by those it ruled. In a succession of well-crafted chapters—from an inquiry into the diasporic impulses of Caribbean people through the dread idioms of Rastafari and the propulsive rhythms of reggae music to the astonishing vibrancy of black visual art practice—the book aims to reorganize our appreciation of how ordinary West Indians, caught up in the displacements of imperial labor reckoning, helped to give birth to a new metropolitan cultural identity. What Chambers has in effect written is less a monograph than a memoir of his generation, one that will undoubtedly shape the way we henceforth think about the contemporary cultural and political landscape of Black British modernism.
David Scott, Columbia University
“Within the next decade or so, people so inclined will be celebrating, or commemorating, the 75th anniversary of the arrival at Tilbury Docks of the Empire Windrush carrying 500 or so Caribbean immigrants, in 1948” text written for http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk introducing Roots & Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London and New York, Series: International Library of Visual Culture, published 2017
http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/the-windrush/eddie-chambers/ published online 13 November 2017
Roots & Culture (2017) by Eddie Chambers is a fascinating read. It tells of the narrative, or more accurately narratives, of the migration of peoples of Caribbean descent to Britain. Many came, lured by the promise of a better life with economic possibilities, and uprooted themselves to make a new start in what they thought of as their ‘Mother Country’. But the reality was starkly different, and it took generations before a black British identity emerged. Many historical narratives of the subject document the Windrush experience, the arrival of several hundred Caribbean immigrants at Tilbury Docks in 1948, which transformed British society, and the precursor of subsequent waves of post-war migration that would continue for several decades. Where Chambers’s study stands out is in his ability to chronicle the detail and everyday experiences of a people in forming their cultural identity, which involved a struggle between dual impulses: the desire to assimilate and the need to resist. Integration into a host country involves these two imperatives: to fit in, if only for the sake of keeping one’s head down and avoiding racism, and the need to discover or rediscover one’s own roots and culture. Chambers depicts this battle vividly as he shows how West Indian migrants competed with white Britons for housing and employment, and how they drew on their culture, music, art, literature and inherited traditions to give meaning to their lives and to form their identities.
… Many accounts of migration focus on the fraught process of assimilation; Chambers’s narrative works from inside out, from the perspective of migrants as they formed and reformed their identity and built a sense of national pride in events such as the Notting Hill Carnival and the growing success of the West Indies cricket team.
All scholars of black cultural studies and British social history of the twentieth century will find this an immensely valuable book. In the post- Brexit climate of border controls and migration policy, this is a timely and invaluable study."
Rina Arya, Professor of Visual Culture and Theory, University of Huddersfield, UK, Visual Culture in Britain, published online, 18 November 2018,
This pioneering book explores the cultural narratives surrounding the development of black popular culture in Britain. Eddie Chambers chronicles the migrant story (“migrant” referring not only to the black people who came to the United Kingdom but also to their children who were born British) during the 1960s–1980s, insightfully showing how these people tapped into the cultural resources of their original Caribbean and African roots to challenge dominant European discourses and to re-interpret displacement in their new environments. These consciously created cultural productions—music, poetry, theater, art, and sport—embody the fragmented histories of being Black British. Chambers looks at how they are employed to recover and recreate new identities in the development of contemporary Black Britain.
The introduction and eight chapters are more or less labeled in Jamaican creole, a personal touch since Chambers was born in the United Kingdom to Jamaican parents. The chapters move widely across shifting West Indian social strategies and practices and the material circumstances in which Blacks operated in Britain to understand how culture matters politically and how politics matter culturally. The accompanying nomenclature changes constantly as Chambers describes how “West Indians” become “Afro-Caribbean” and eventually “Black British.” Central to these narratives is the discursive work—the cultural discourses and social meanings from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s that indirectly and directly impacted the structure and development of Black British artistic expression in the 1980s.
Patricia T. Alleyne-Dettmers
Book Review, New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, Volume 92: Issue 3-4, Online Publication Date: 07 Dec 2018