The cultural politics of race and nation: thirty years after Paul Gilroy’s There ain’t no black in the Union Jack

Session Abstract : This panel brings together scholars working on twentieth-century black British history and the histories of race, colonialism and citizenship, to discuss the state of their field on the thirtieth anniversary of Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987).

Thirty years ago, Gilroy’s book offered a stinging critique of British race politics, and a call-to-arms for a change in how we think and write about race, politics and culture—a call that anticipated many of the later moves in Gilroy’s own work, and that changed the fields of black British history, histories of race, and conceptions of the (trans)national. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack showed how race worked at the centre of the volatile shifts of late-twentieth-century British politics, and called attention to the slippages between racial and national identity in this period. Gilroy traced the politics of race and racism across the political formation, left as well as right, and as it extended from the corridors of Westminster to the intimacies of everyday life. He argued for recognising the vibrancy of black literary, artistic and expressive practices, practices which provided a means for thinking through the challenges of modern British racism.

This panel will assess the making of and continuing influence of Gilroy’s book, and how our responses to it today can inform the future directions of black British history and histories of race in Britain. Kennetta Hammond Perry refocuses Gilroy’s work on criminalisation by bringing it into conversation with welfare, showing how racialized state violence in 1960s Britain could operate at the intersection of the carceral and the welfare state. Marc Matera and Rob Waters return to Gilroy’s critiques of race relations sociology. Matera traces the longer histories of race relations sociology in late-colonial Africa, complicating the critiques of Gilroy and his contemporaries who saw this sociological literature primarily through its responses to postwar Caribbean migration. Waters uses Gilroy’s 1980s work on race relations sociology to reconsider historians’ recent returns to the sociological archive, asking how Gilroy’s critique might continue to raise questions for how we analyse the ‘evidence’ of this archive.

Session Chair: Camilla Schofield, University of East Anglia

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘David Oluwale on Trial: The Welfare State, Race and the Criminalization of Poverty’

Kennetta Hammond Perry, East Carolina University

On 4 May 1969 authorities pulled the body of a Nigerian-born vagrant named David Oluwale from the River Aire in Leeds. The initial inquest into his death concluded that Oluwale had been “found drowned.” However, less than two years later, a Sergeant and former Police Inspector with the Leeds City Police stood trial on a host of charges in connection with David Oluwale’s death and a series of malicious attacks that amounted to a conspiracy of police terror waged against him in the year leading up to his death. It is within the context of the investigation and trial of the two officers that David Oluwale’s archival footprint is most clearly discernable. In this domain, his historical existence as a pauper, ex-offender, asylum patient and unemployed homeless Black man emerges largely as a result of encounters with the intersecting junctures of the carceral state and the welfare state.

This paper returns to There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’s formulation of “lesser breeds without the law” as a point of departure to explore how David Oluwale’s relationship to the welfare state heightened his exposure to the forms of racialized violence that he experienced during his repeated confrontations with local police. Building upon the foundational work of a cohort of cultural studies scholars, Gilroy called for a historically-grounded analysis of the making of Black criminality as a conduit for understanding the organization and execution of state power. Whereas Gilroy focused upon historicizing the relationship between representations of blackness and the law-breaking, this paper takes some of his arguments about the making of Black criminality in a different direction by employing David Oluwale’s archive to unpack some of the levers of state power that helped to cement his condition of poverty in ways that made him more vulnerable to being in violation of the law and subject to violent forms of policing.

Paper 2 Abstract :‘The African grounds of “race relations” in Britain’

Marc Matera, University of California, Santa Cruz

Taking Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987), especially its attentiveness to “the richness of cultural struggle in and around ‘race’” which “cannot be contained neatly within the structures of the nation-state” (154), as a point of departure, this paper points to horizons for historical inquiry not directly explored in Gilroy’s work. Both the popular imagination and the sociological and historical literature continue to focus on Caribbean migration and African American influences in assembling historical black Britain and tracking the histories of race, racism, and anti-racism. This paper foregrounds Africa, especially southern Africa, as an imagined and actual (re)source in these intertwined histories. It focuses specifically, on the one hand, on the roles of Africans and African settings in shaping understandings of in the social life of race and, on the other, on the circuitous routes by which African cultural producers and practices moved to and through (post-)imperial Britain.

Since the early 1970s, a succession of activists and intellectuals have criticized the sociology of race relations studies for stigmatizing and pathologizing Commonwealth migrants and their British-born descendants as cultural aliens in a putatively homogenous Britain. These incisive critiques, however, have obscured the origins of British race relations in late colonial Africa. The Colonial Office and key actors in the crafting of a discourse of race relations first deployed the concept in relation to colonial Africa, especially southern, central, and eastern Africa. The first section of the paper briefly sketches the early history of the race-relations concept into the 1960s, suggesting some of its implications for the ways it was deployed in Britain subsequently. The paper, then, turns to a concurrent influence on understandings of racism and blackness in 1960s Britain, the presence of exiled South African intellectuals, artists, and musicians in London, tracing key nodes in their social world; the complex entanglements that it entailed amidst Cold War geopolitics, decolonization in Africa, and the escalating struggle against apartheid in South Africa; and its contributions to black cultural production, more broadly, in Britain.

Paper 3 Abstract : ‘From race relations sociology to black cultural studies: reading the politics of “evidence” through the history of race’

Rob Waters, University of Sussex

This paper returns us to Paul Gilroy’s 1980s critique of race relations sociology. It considers how this critique, and his advocacy of black cultural studies, might allow us to rethink the use of social science research as historical evidence.

The paper makes two related arguments. First, it uses Gilroy’s contribution to debates over the practice and role of social science in the politics of race relations to complicate the picture of the development of social science provided by Mike Savage and Jon Lawrence. While recognising what Savage terms the ‘creeping rise of social science apparatus’ as among the most significant changes in the organisation of social knowledge in late-twentieth-century Britain, I underline how unevenly this rise was experienced. Savage and Lawrence’s reading, prioritising the sociology of class and emphasising the production of shared sociological identities in low-stake social-science encounters, looks remarkably different if we view the expansion of social science through its equally meteoric rise in the field of race. Here, as critics like Gilroy argued, the social-science encounter was much more likely to be bound up with the state, and experienced as an unequal, high-stakes encounter.

Secondly, the paper focuses on the alternative strategies of social analysis developed by Gilroy and his colleagues, and traces the development of black cultural studies as an oppositional academic practice aiming to destabilise the culture of ‘expert’ social science, problematising its claims to knowledge. Focusing on Gilroy’s close engagements with black expressive cultures, I place these in the context of contemporary projects for ‘secondary decolonisation’, and argue for the continuing relevance of such approaches for historians today.

Gilroy’s approach to black culture can unsettle our re-engagement with the social science archive, and further draw out its silences. Putting historians’ recent turn to the production of the ‘expert’ and the privileged position of social science in late-twentieth-century social life into dialogue with approaches that emphasise imagination, fantasy, and the ineffable, the paper contributes to debates over the politics evidence and explanation in modern British studies.