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
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