“Reflections Cultural Voices of Black British Irrepressible Resilience” (Serendipity) – book review

“Reflections” is an anthology of essays that Pawlet Brookes’ introduction summarises, “Ultimately Reflections is an analysis of the need to recognise the Black British experience through the lens of its artistic voices… they reposition British cultural heritage, not from a Western construct, instead as one that is rich in forgotten and hidden geographies and history.” My interest is in literature so that section gets the larger part of this review. This is not a comment on the quality of the book as a whole or the other sections, which look at carnival, dance, music, theatre and visual art. The focus here is on the experiences of people from an African-Caribbean heritage whether born in Britain or elsewhere and where Black is a reference to race, an initial capital is used throughout.

Stephen Small, Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Berkley, gives an overview of “Black Expressive Culture in England and Europe”. He grew up in Liverpool, UK, and observes, “Everywhere I went there was a constant, enduring message of white superiority and Black inferiority. Intuitively, instinctively I knew something was wrong, despite British educational efforts to fully colonise my mind.” Music became a salve and education, change to learn about Liverpool’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and resistance to colonisation in Africa. The essay discusses efforts to provide counternarratives in museums and archives to racist exhibits and the colonist’s viewpoint. Stephen Small posits that Black groups throughout Europe face the same four dynamics in experience. Firstly “ambiguous hypervisibility” where stock images generally show Blacks at the bottom of the economic, political and social hierarch alongside successful singers, dancers and sports champions so someone outside these portrayals, e.g. a Black CEO is shocking. Secondly an “entrenched vulnerability”, i.e. there is no one important social or economic area where Blacks are better off than whites. Thirdly “institutional racism” which shouldn’t need any explanation. Fourthly, and a point that contributes to the book’s subtitle, “irrepressible resistance and resilience” in challenging racism and establishing Black support networks. He concludes, “Black expressive culture remains paramount in initiating fundamental advancements in education, in public discussions and in political discussions and will continue to do so indefinitely.”

Kadija (George) Sesay’s “What is Black British Literature? Where Does it Start?” focuses on the East Midlands (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire) and writers of African descent. The chief barrier is that publishing decisions were made by white gatekeepers, the imposition of prejudice and intersection of racism and sexism creating an extra barrier for women. Naseem Khan’s 1975 publication, “The Arts that Britain Ignores” led to the creation of The Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) who set up two publications, “Black Arts in Britain” and “Artrage” but was liquidated in the mid-1990s. National arts organisations were not created to specifically support Black voices so access to support, funding and networking opportunities was patchy. Spread the Word, Centerprise and Inscribe created posts specifically for Black literature workers and enabled voices to flourish, even if still on the margins. This section goes on to list current East Midlands based writers some of whom comment on their writing practice. Carol Leeming states, “A recurring feature of my work is magic realism narratives, with compelling, culturally diverse characters with distinctive voices from marginalised communities”. Momodou Sallah, “my themes cover Post-coloniality, decoloniality and critical Southern perspectives, Globalisation and Global Youth Work; Race, difference and cultural competence.” Kadja Sesay concludes, “At a regional level, the work is rich and full with contemporary voices and tackles local issues, punctuating history so it tells a more complete story. I am proud to be part of this rich and diverse landscape where we are leaving legacy.” While her essay is a thorough overview of writers and support networks, there wasn’t space to cover criticism and reviewing. The under-representation of Black authors in reviews is as much an issue as the gatekeepers who are barrier to getting published.

Tara Lopez discusses “Bringing the Carnival to Britain”, looking at Caribbean carnivals in the East Midlands and the creation of the East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network (EMCCAN) in 2011. She concludes with a plea for more cross-generational shared learning to keep the carnival alive.

Maureen Salmon’s “Coming Home: Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble 1984 to 2005” starts with a quote from Germoine Acogny, “African dance comes from the villages – but there is now the Africa of cities, of skyscrapers. We cannot preserve dance purely as museum culture, IT MUST GROW.” This point echoes Stephen Small’s contribution where he talks of museum displays presenting African figures in tribal dress showing an Africa of savannahs and mud huts rather than a parallel culture of cities and urbanites. Maureen Salmon discusses the need for training and development of dance companies, “there was no ecosystem to support African people’s dance, particularly the professional training of artists and choreographic development” and the responsibility of funding organisations to take development seriously, concluding that there is a collective responsibility to “cultivate visionary collaborative and transformative leadership… to innovate so that we remain relevant in an international arena.”

Eddie Chambers, Professor of African Diaspora Arti History at the University of Texas, who splits his time between the US and UK looks at “Black British Art”. Although Black artists do get recognised in the Queen’s Honours Lists, getting exhibition space remains a challenge. An exhibition of Frank Bowling’s work in the mid-1990s secured a national tour but failed to get a London venue or press review. This is significant because, “with the capital being the ultimate site of artistic validation, the failure to secure a London venue was telling”. Archiving is also important. Currently there are archives at The African-Caribbean, Asian and African Art in Britain Archive and Stuart Hall library, both in London, and the Centre for Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. At attempt to set one up in the South West (Bristol) had initial success but then suffered poor leadership – a similar point made by Maureen Salmon that professional development and leadership is key. Eddie Chambers ends on a note of hope detailing scholarship projects archiving Black Arts.

Carol Leeming MBE FRSA identifies two major problems in “Black British Theatre – A Case Study”, white gatekeepers and the concentration of Black British theatre organisations in London or Birmingham so how does Black talent based in the regions get on their radars? Moreover, how do new Black actors, producers and writers get into theatres if they don’t see work by people like them? Austerity encourages theatres to focus on plays and shows that draw greater audiences rather than supporting new voices. Decibel was set up as a national BAME/Culturally Diverse Arts Showcase with two full-time white producers, one based in Birmingham and the other in Manchester, neither of whom could begin to support Black theatre in the regions. Another initiative, Sustained Theatre East Midlands, didn’t fulfil its promise and withered away. This creates a further problem that any new initiatives are viewed with scepticism and suspicion. The case study concludes that a map of Black British Theatre is needed and access to fundraising needs to be urgently opened up and simplified so artists can focus on creative work. It is “time to recognise over six decades of Black British Theatre that showcases emerging artists alongside mid-career and high-profile artists.”

Philip Herbert, composer, contributes “Mapping Musical Exchanges of the African Diaspora. What Does the Future Hold for Black Artists Following On From These Exchanges?”. He discusses the influence and fusion of music from classical to popular, “there needs to be a greater sense of urgency in eliminating the barriers to access to music-making amongst Black aspiring musicians. There is a need to open up the criteria for funding, so that it makes it a fairer process, to enable Black artists to access funding to broker their creative and aspirational output.” Without this, “a fundamental building block is missing.”

Normally I would not mention the production values of a book, however, “Reflections” uses either a dark grey type on white paper or a white type on grey paper. The contrast on the latter combination – white on grey – isn’t strong enough for the type to be easy to read.

Overall “Reflections” underlines the significant contribution Black artists have made and continue to make to Britain’s cultural heritage despite the barriers. The obvious barrier is racism, but there are also problems with Britain’s arts being London-centric and so expensive and difficult to access for regional artists, and also the problem of white, middle class gatekeepers. Access to funding is discussed: it needs to be simplified and support is needed for marginalised groups. While Black support networks have been created, their creation and development has largely been down to the artists themselves rather than organisations created to develop arts. The book does not cover wages but it’s clear that precarious, short term contracts and development through internship programmes tend to exclude working class artists and hence indirectly exclude Black artists.

“Reflections” satisfies two aims: firstly, highlighting the barriers faced by Black cultural voices and secondly celebrating the achievements of Black cultural voices of the East Midlands. Its reach, however, is wider than the East Midlands and I would recommend anyone invested in Black voices either directly or from a desire to learn more start with “Reflections.”

“Reflections” is available from Serendipity.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

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