Colin Grant, a writer, historian, and BBC radio producer, is the author of several books, including Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa (2008) and the novel Bageye at the Wheel (2012). (April 2018)
Before the 1980s, a manuscript that began, as Fryer’s Staying Power did, with the sentence “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here” would have been deemed laughable, heretical nonsense. With the exception of a handful of intellectuals like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, there were few black authors or historians, to my knowledge, writing about the history of black people in Britain. Into that vacuum walked Peter Fryer, a white journalist. But his color appears more important now than it did in 1984. It’s doubtful whether, in today’s political climate, a British publisher would be rushing to print such a manuscript by a white author.
Some seventy years after the first arrivals of immigrants from Jamaica, the “Windrush generation” has returned to the center of attention in Britain—not this time in a spirit of optimism and hope but of hurt and anger. The Caribbean-born children of those who came to England in the 1950s and 1960s are now threatened with dispossession, even deportation. Despite their having lived in the UK for decades, working and paying taxes, many of these black Britons lack the paperwork to prove their immigration status—thanks to a very British bureaucratic anomaly. As a result, many have lost jobs, as well as access to benefits and healthcare; some face losing their residency rights.
My father felt that the British, with their faux politeness—polite to the point of rudeness—were hypocrites. “Give the American what him due,” Bageye would say approvingly, “not like the Englishman, he will tell you to your face how much he hate you.” But then, on April 20, 1968, just before my seventh birthday, a stern politician from the upper echelons of British society named Enoch Powell delivered with extraordinary intensity an anti-immigration speech that shocked the nation by articulating what the black population had suspected all along: we were feared and despised.