The Jamaican 1970s and Its Influence on the Making of Black Britain (2019)

The 1970s was the decade that witnessed the definitive creation of black Britain, resulting in large part from the coming of age of the children of the Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants (coming to Britain between the late 1940s and the early 1960s). These youngsters came of age during a decade that was, in equal measure, as fascinating as it was fractious. A number of factors contributing to a heightened sense of racial identity among young black Britons, factors that included newly embraced narratives of history, slavery, and anticolonialism (particularly antiapartheid). In very large part, it was the large-scale embrace of Rastafari by numbers of black British youth that facilitated this racial consciousness. With many migrants professing strong Christian faith, their children, when moving away from the organized religion of their parents, retained crucial fire-and-brimstone aspects of Christianity, making them fit for purpose through the fascinating belief system of Rastafari. As Paul Gilroy notes, “Soul and reggae still reveal the primary ethical and semantic influence of the Bible on new world black cultures.” Having emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, few could have predicted that within four decades, Rastafari would have gripped black Britain, a demographic that found common cause with the Jamaican sufferer. This essay seeks to reflect on the influence of 1970s Jamaica on a particular section of the African diaspora. In so doing, I will utilize examples of British reggae music, namely, the music of Misty in Roots, collaborations between Dennis Brown and Aswad and between Johnny Osbourne and Aswad, a photograph by Vanley Burke, and the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson (with a citation from the poet Frederick Williams). Several occurrences and episodes, from postwar immigration itself through to “the New Cross Massacre” and episodes of rioting, are also considered in appraising this period of intense racial solidarity.

It is not difficult to summarize these matters as a compelling, fascinating mutation of the African diaspora, but certain complexities require us, or enable us, to go beyond this. In comprehending Jamaica’s influence on the making of black Britain, we see what is in effect the creation of a second diaspora, as a distinct transmutation of that which was a major contributory factor in the making of the African diaspora—the transatlantic slave trade and the making over of the New World as parts of the world primarily peopled by those of African origin. To much the same degrees to which linkages between the African continent and peoples of the diaspora are fractured, fractious, and contested, linkages between the Caribbean manifestation of the African diaspora and British people of Caribbean descent are fractured, fractious, and contested. But the making of black Britain could not have taken place without a complex embracing of strands of Jamaican culture. As much as we need to accept that within the influence of Rastafari on black Britain Jamaica was in no way regarded as a land of return (that status was conferred on the African continent), we need to accept that the hyperconsciousness of black Britain in the 1970s came about as a consequence of decidedly British circumstances...

Emerging into visibility in the 1970s, a far-right political party known as the National Front gained widespread popularity with its calls to stop immigration and start repatriation. Black immigration, in significant numbers, had ceased in the early 1960s, but the National Front’s mantra “If they’re black, send them back!” struck a chord with racist and xenophobic elements of British society as well as with politicians in the main political parties. The 1970s brought with it seemingly irrefutable proof that to be black and to be British were apparently irreconcilable and mutually exclusive states of being. The African American journalist William Raspberry penned a series of articles on black people in Britain for the British newspaper Observer. The most memorable of these features was the first one, published on 5 September 1976 and titled “Young, Bitter, and Black.” The piece, as with similar texts, chronicled the woes and frustrations of a generation grappling with assorted manifestations of alienation. “Young, Bitter, and Black” concluded with the pithy, dispiriting summation that for many black youth, “England [was]n’t home.”

But if England wasn’t home, where was? Finding themselves strangers in a strange land, black British youth enacted a range of extraordinary strategies in attempts to create, or shore up, a viable, robust, and dynamic sense of identity. Black youth, from the black neighborhoods of cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, and London, reached out to find common cause with the African American struggle for civil rights and Black Power; reached out to support the continent of Africa, in particular those suffering under the brutal antiblack bastions of white power in Southern Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa; and reached out to embrace the countercultural belief system of Rastafari. Rastafari in particular became a means by which alienated black youth in Britain could fashion new forms of identity. Jamaica (though in no way, as previously mentioned, cast as a land of return or promise) became central to these new expressions of identity, with black youth finding common cause especially with the Jamaican sufferer. There was a distinct creative and intellectual agility at work in the formulation of this new identity, as could be evidenced, for example, in black Britain’s attitude toward the poor-quality housing that was seemingly reserved for it. In Britain, the tower block had emerged as the dumping ground of choice for local councils wishing to deal with their housing “problems.” But black youth saw these tower blocks as having an equivalence to the decidedly ground-level living conditions of the poorest elements of Jamaican society. Rastafari offered itself as a compelling template in all sorts of ways, though it was perhaps Rastafari’s embrace of the sufferer that most struck a chord with elements of black Britain. The sufferers—those poorest, most despised, darker-skinned black people of Jamaica—were among those most convinced by, and most attracted to, Rastafari.

The above extracts are from “The Jamaican 1970s and Its Influence on the Making of Black Britain”, text for Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Journal of Criticism peer review journal, No. 58, March 2019: 134 - 149

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