30 Years since Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Saima Nasar

Saima Nasar

In December the University of Sussex hosted a workshop to mark thirty years since the publication of Peter Fryer’s landmark book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Staying Power is recognised as one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the history of Black Britain. Fryer’s comprehensive yet accessible text begins in the third century, and maps stories of slavery, chattels, pageant performers, early black organisations, Asians in Britain, racism, black music and so on. The exhaustive, wide-ranging examination concludes with the rebellions in the old slave port cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol during the 1980s.

Among others, speakers at the workshop included Bill Schwarz, Madge Dresser, Gavin Schaffer, Clive Webb and Tony Kushner. The workshop discussed the enduring influence of the book, as well as past, present and future directions in the study of ‘race’. This blog summarises some of the conversations that took place, and highlights some of the pertinent issues raised by the workshop for anyone working on, or interested in, matters concerning ‘race’ today.

Bill Schwarz started the workshop by applauding Fryer’s democratic sensibilities, which Schwarz asserted ultimately ‘served to unlock new dimensions in Black British history’. Describing the book as an ‘anti-colonial epic’, Schwarz recognised the text’s marked shift from orthodox Marxism to libertarianism. Breaking from the kind of radical history commonly associated with the likes of Rodney Hilton, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Schwarz positioned Staying Power within a gradual awakening to the significance of ‘race’ and empire, as also found in the works of C.L.R. James, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.

Madge Dresser further probed the occlusion of ‘race’ among those who considered it a distraction from class analysis. She persuasively argued for a reassessment of traditional histories. For Dresser, one of the lessons Fryer teaches us is the need to untangle the history of black populations from slavery alone. Tony Kushner’s paper on ‘Getting the Windrush Right’ complemented this line of thinking.

Despite the ‘marginalisation of ‘race’ in the academy today’, Clive Webb and Gavin Schaffer’s panel on ‘race’ and sex neatly demonstrated the active retrieval of occluded histories by contemporary scholars. Webb’s paper dealt with issues of intermarriage and the internalisation of mythologised narratives, particularly in the context of Britain’s perceived progressiveness. Schaffer, evoking the sociological shift in ‘race’ studies, presented on two TV sitcoms: Rainbow City (1967) and Empire Road (1978-9). As tokens of the anti-racism struggle, Schaffer argued that these shows depicted an aspirational relationship of British race relations rather than an accurate reflection of reality.

Overall, the workshop pointed to a number of interesting issues. A common theme running throughout the day was that of positionality and ‘thinking black’. As Fryer was a white journalist, discussion turned to who is best equipped to do black history. In relation to my own work, it questioned both the usefulness and limitations of being of Asian heritage and working on contemporary Asian identities. It also highlighted the importance of seeking to tell the story of non-white Britain by using the voices of non-white Britons.

The workshop also raised questions about ‘the historical moment’. Staying Power was published at a time when the study of Black British history was at the margins, but how much has this changed in the last forty years, and how can those of us in the academy ensure that the history of marginalised populations – be that due to ‘race’, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, disability etc. – are accurately and appropriately documented?

One way to do this is by following Fryer’s masterful approach. Staying Power demonstrated how recovering a history of black people in Britain is not necessarily about visibility, or indeed something that is separate from ‘white history’.

Rather, Fryer showed that the history of the rich and nuanced peopling of Britain should be concerned with the interactions between connected histories. This lesson of connectivity, I feel, is not only testament to the legacy of Staying Power, but it is something that has real practical value for contemporary researchers working on Modern British Studies.