Divided into four chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, Black Handsworth sets out to ask poignant questions, namely ‘How did [particular manifestations of race] consciousness impact Britain’s key sites of postwar black settlement, of which Handsworth was only one prominent example? And what can an exploration of the specifics of such a locale tell us about the nature of postcolonial Britain?’ (p. 2). Chapter 1, ‘Shades of black: political and community groups’, looks at the ways in which Handsworth’s communities of African Caribbean and South Asian descent sought, at different times and in different ways, to forge alliances, unifying around particular notions of ‘black’ identity. At other times, a range of factors and pressures mitigated against multi-ethnic black unity and agendas predicated on a variety of specificities won out. Connell asserts that this latter stratagem dominated, and that ‘People began to see their ethnic identity – as opposed to the more inclusive identity of black – as the only way of obtaining either influence or money’ (p. 26). Chapter 2, ‘Visualizing Handsworth: the politics of representation’ looks at the ways in which Handsworth has been visualized, primarily through the work of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose seminal work Handsworth Songs offered a compelling reflection on Birmingham’s unrest of the mid 1980s, and regional photographers Vanley Burke and Pogus Caesar. It is Burke’s photographs that, on occasion, appear in the book, as well as one of his celebrated pictures that graces the cover of Black Handsworth. Connell puts the work of such image-makers as existing in contrast, or to contrast with, the sorts of images of dysfunctionality, poverty, criminality and other deviances favoured by sections of the mainstream media. Within this chapter, Connell makes what some might regard as an outlandish claim, that a celebrated/infamous photograph used extensively during the disturbances of the mid-1980s – of a young man closing in on his quarry with a lit petrol bomb – was taken by John Readon (p. 86), a photographer whose work (alongside others such as Derek Bishton) had done an enormous amount to create more affirming images of inner-city Birmingham.
The above extracts are from a review by Eddie Chambers of Kieran Connell, Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019) for the journal Urban History 47 (2), May 2020, published by Cambridge University Press. ‘Review of Books’, 360-362