A decade ago, shortly after the publication of my first book, a biography of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, I sat at home with the phone pinned to my ear awaiting the first listener’s question to my phone-in interview on BBC radio. Eventually, the caller came on the line. But he did not have a question; he merely wanted to make a statement: “I resent…” his voice trembled with anger. “I resent the fact that the publisher got a white man to write a book about Marcus Garvey.”
“What makes you think I’m white?” I asked.
The caller paused. Perhaps he was confused. “Well, you don’t sound black!”
As a black man who hadn’t knowingly attempted to pass for white in the way that I spoke, I hadn’t anticipated the objection. But now that I thought about it: What was reason for the caller’s rebuke and sharp resentment? Why would it have mattered if the author of a book on a significant black subject had been white?
It’s an old conundrum—and one that has surfaced once more with the republication of Staying Power, a seminal work on black lives in Britain written by a white English Marxist, Peter Fryer, more than thirty years ago. The writer and intellectual Paul Gilroy, who contributes a foreword to the new edition, recalls that in 1984, upon the book’s publication, Fryer was subject to hateful treatment “dished out by resentful, lazy, and hostile community spokespeople who told him that he had no right to undertake the work because this particular history of suffering was their own special property.” But the book has endured better than the initial critiques, and more than thirty years later, the belief held by its author, an engaged and committed radical historian—that his book could be an invaluable weapon in the fight against racism—has been vindicated.
Fryer was a journalist whose interest in Britain’s black population was signaled early in his career, in 1948, when he traveled as the correspondent for the Daily Worker out to Tilbury Docks, east of London, along with a handful of other newspaper reporters, to cover the disembarkation of the MV Empire Windrush bearing, as he put it, “Five hundred pairs of willing hands from Jamaica,” and heralding mass migration to Britain.
Fryer would later excel as an independent historian whose affiliation with the Communist Party of Great Britain did not survive the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, when he wrote sympathetically about the revolution and was subsequently expelled from the party. Fryer’s moral compass, which sharpened his writing, was governed by an abhorrence of the inequities endured by the underclass. This led him in the late 1970s, without any special resources or the backing of a university, to embark on an epic research project that culminated in Staying Power. The book was a rigorous, if occasionally romanticized, “people’s history” that challenged the dominant assumptions underpinning much of the mainstream writing on Britain’s post-war “immigrant problem,” which, within a decade of the Windrush’s arrival, had morphed into the “color problem.”
The cultural life of black migrants and their descendants did not figure in the work of conservative historians. But neither did they appear to fit into the model of the working class conceived by radical historians on the British left such as E.P. Thomson in The Making of the English Working Class. This oversight was particularly apparent in the first New Left’s Raymond William’s formulation of class and extended to the researchers who descended on factories for the 1961–1962 Affluent Worker Study yet failed to include the black workforce among their interviewees. On a simple but profound level, by writing a history with black people at its centre, Fryer challenged the assumption that the working class was a homogeneous and indigenous group. But there was a caveat: in Fryer’s conception, black history was radical. His subjects, overwhelmingly men, were radicals viewed through a prism of racism; there was little room for the portrayal of an aspirational black bourgeoisie. For black critics such as Trevor Phillips, Staying Power offered “a depressingly one-dimensional picture of black life.”
A recent public conference at the University of Sussex on the book’s legacy exposed tensions between the academics (mostly white) and members of the public who were largely black. Black attendees took exception to Fryer’s “arrogance and ownership,” which they saw as epitomized by “The” in the book’s subtitle The History of Black People in Britain, as opposed to “A history…” The conference also highlighted the gulf between those for whom black history was an academic exercise and others who were living it.
Fryer’s own 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. Any publisher today would be far more comfortable (excited even), as would black readers, if the author was black. This attitude in part explains the extraordinary charge, a kind of visceral and vicarious pleasure, evinced by black readers over the title of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s recent book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Race? It’s a black thing, isn’t it?
As with many facets of race, this dilemma over proprietorship has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. Before considering whether white writers are able to write about a black story, it’s worth reflecting on whether they should.
Today, any serious African-American or Afro-Caribbean novelist seems to have to earn her or his spurs by embarking on at least one fictional tale of slavery. The growing list includes Toni Morrison, Marlon James, Andrea Levy, and Colson Whitehead. This is their prerogative. But in centuries past, the true-life stories of slaves were the only bridges that allowed prospective black authors to cross over into publication. From the 1800s onward, several hundred slave narratives were published. Early on, a number of these testimonies were dictated to well-meaning white amanuenses fired with abolitionist zeal to act as conduits for a largely white reading public, bringing to its attention a so-called “black message inside a white envelope” (in the words of William L. Andrews, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
But slave narratives operated not just as accounts of brutality and redemption; later, they served a vital role in complicating and rebutting the notions that black people were not quite human and could never master the tools of civility. Following the publication of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography in 1845, manuscripts of slave narratives increasingly adopted the subtitle that Douglass had attached to his work, “Written by Himself,” as a direct challenge to assumptions about black intellectual inferiority and illiteracy. When black people became the authors of their own lives, their white allies were relegated. John B. Russwurm fully understood and espoused this necessity when he explained the early mission of his abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal: “too long have others spoke for us [such that] our vices and our degradations are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed unnoticed.”
Nonetheless, a century later, black writers and researchers were still jealously guarding what they considered to be their people’s stories from predatory white counterparts. In 1927, when Zora Neale Hurston sat down with Kossola O-Lo-Loo-Ay of the West African Takkoi tribe, the last African to be stolen from the continent and sold into slavery, to record his story, she was incensed by what was beyond belief: that the enslaved had largely been excised from the histories of slavery, which were often written, with the benefit of ledgers, bills of sales, and maps, from the point of view of those who benefited from the trade. “All these words from the seller,” Hurston complained, “but not one word from the sold.” Indeed, Alain Locke, one of Hurston’s mentors, counseled that she should advise Kossola “to avoid talking to other folklore collectors—white ones, no doubt—who he and Godmother [Hurston’s benefactor] felt ‘should be kept entirely away not only from the project in hand but from this entire movement for the rediscovery of our folk material.’”
But what happens in the absence of a tradition of interrogating history, when there is no rediscovery of suppressed voices on the horizon? The presence of black people in Britain, dating as far back as the third century AD with the occupying imperial Roman army, is now accepted widely; it even formed the centerpiece of a recent BBC TV series that reprised much of Fryer’s original research. But before the 1980s, a manuscript that began, as Fryer’s 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, who labored throughout the early 1980s researching and composing his monumental text. In Staying Power, he argued that race was a central aspect in Britain’s development during both the height of empire and its aftermath, and that British culture had been transformed by the presence of its black population.
For me, growing up black in England in the 1970s, there seemed little by way of literature—other than the unflattering, patronizing kind penned by white men—to illuminate the dark past of black lives. My father would often remark that the deviousness of the British didn’t end with the swashbuckling days of imperial plunder when, in his Jamaican-inflected dialect, “the Inglisman tek away the man country and give dem some beads.” Then, in those straightened postcolonial times, having exhausted their own subjects, white English writers seemed increasingly bent on stripping us of all we had left: our stories. When reading books that featured black British characters or storylines, I turned the pages in as gingerly fashion as a man opening an envelope containing a bill he knows he cannot pay.
As a teenage reader, the work of Colin MacInnes in City of Spades (at least from the uber-cool black man on the cover) seemed more promising. There was no photo of MacInnes himself, but I guessed from his portrayal of “spades” that the author must be a sympathetic white man. The novel’s protagonist, Johnny Fortune, appeared, even to my unsophisticated child’s eye, to be a caricature, but I was glad for the attention the author afforded black people. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.
In nonfiction, our presence, if noted at all, was confined to the margins of English history, which mostly seemed to exclude migrants and us, their children. But then surely others—writers, I hoped—felt the same and were busily, quietly writing literature that would one day define us. Scouring the shelves of the local library, though, was distressing; the books could not be found. It was with some trepidation, then, that thirty years ago I delved into the book that was available: Staying Power. I began, at first like a thirsty but cautious man, sipping the content; by the end, I was gulping and overcome with delight. Fryer’s care and sensitivity was uncanny; the book read as if he was one of us. The response by writers of color was one of gratitude, even though some, such as Trevor Phillips, who later became the head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, lamented its narrow focus on radicals. Because of Staying Power’s retrieval of the lost histories of black Britain, Salman Rushdie considered it “an invaluable book, which manages the rare feat of combining scholarship with readability.”
Fryer was well aware of the perils that accompanied a white writer composing a book with the subtitle The History of Black People in Britain. In his introduction, he asked: “Can such an account be written by a writer in a way that is acceptable to black readers?” He went on to justify his work stating that he would “make the effort to ‘think black’—i.e. to grasp imaginatively as well as intellectually the essence of the black historical experience.” This question of the possibility of “thinking black” is one that has been asked on both sides of the Atlantic. The US tradition of such discourse, with its inevitable fixation on its particular racial legacy, was never an ideal fit for how race might be written about in the UK; but, even as an approximation, it appeared to be more advanced than anything on offer on these shores. It was possible to be both envious and disturbed by American writers’ attempts to use their craft as a tool of repair in resolving racial conflict.
“Among the many humiliations of the American Negro,” wrote the novelist William Styron in 1963, “not the least burdensome has been the various characterizations he has had to undergo in the eyes of the white man.” For much of American history, black people had been oppressed by their white compatriots, but four years after writing this assessment, Styron believed that the condition, at least as it related to him, had been reversed when he lamented: “the whole Negro population has been on my back.” His novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was to blame. Black people seethed over Styron’s fictional depiction of the slave rebel leader. In 1831, Turner’s bloody insurrection in Virginia had resulted in the killing of sixty white people before his capture, confession, and execution. Styron said he conceived of Turner as a hero, and that he attempted “to portray an era of history which we are now beginning to understand, to our enormous heartbreak and misery was the most crucial era that America possessed.” It was bold of a white author to intervene in that fractious history by suggesting in his fiction to many African-American readers chagrin that Turner had been in love with a young white woman, the one person whom he personally killed in the rebellion.
Styron was vilified. Ten black authors issued a harsh collective critique of his work. “The whole thing soured me in being a friend of black people,” Styron complained, “and I hate to say that.” This hostile reception served as a lesson for how things might go horribly wrong in writing about race and black history, even with a presumption of empathy and good intentions.
A fellow Southern writer, John Howard Griffin, had gone even further a few years earlier in his determination to put himself in the shoes of the “other.” Griffin set out to impersonate a black man and so explore the segregated South undercover. This sounds like a bizarre act of minstrelsy, but the subsequent book Black Like Me, written from the point of view of a participating observer, was motivated by earnest good will. Aided by a sun lamp and a course of oral medication usually prescribed for vitiligo, Griffin transformed himself in appearance into “a fierce, bald, very dark Negro.” Finding work on a shoe-shine stand in New Orleans and later steeling himself to spend time in Mississippi, Griffin was exposed to the glaring “hate stare” and the kind of daily humiliations he’d never have experienced if not for adopting black-face.
Ten years ago, a month or so after my BBC radio phone interview, I agreed to give a presentation on Marcus Garvey to a group of Pan-Africanists who met regularly in South London.
My daughter, Jazz, accompanied me to a draughty, near derelict tenement building in Brixton for what turned out to be a rite of racial sacrament. At the start of the meeting, we joined hands with twenty or so others and conjured the ancestors—pouring libations on the floor for those stolen from Africa but who had not made it to the other side—lest we forget. I gave my presentation and, at the end, the host called for questions. A young woman, whom I’d noticed had remained at the back, huddled in a thick coat and slightly detached from the proceedings, was the first to speak. She shimmered with intensity, battle ready.
“Are both your parents, black?” she asked. There was a collective intake of breath from the brothers and sisters, and one or two whispers and sighs of “shame.” But no one intervened.
I could not betray my irritation. “What do you mean?”
“You know, ’cause there are some light-skinned voices that are allowed to come through. And certain others aren’t.” She smiled, satisfied. “So are they?”
I felt suddenly as if I was being called on to audition, to show my bona fides. I found my thoughts turn to Fryer, to my early admiration of his work and the tangled debates about race, writing, and authenticity. Fryer would have accepted, as I did in Brixton, that there were others whose experience of blackness was more acute, and that they carried more intense feelings of anger. “Massa day done,” the slaves had shouted on emancipation: “Is our turn now.” And yet, the clock had turned slowly; their descendants were still not heard—at least in the UK, where others, whether brown like me or white like Fryer, acted as privileged intermediaries.
The woman tried again: “Your parents. Both black?”
I did not answer, refusing to be led down the rabbit hole of a manufactured dispute. I had devoted a number of years to researching and writing a five hundred page book on Marcus Garvey and that is what mattered, not whether I was a shade or two lighter than her. A century ago, Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois had rehearsed the familiar argument over whether the so-called undiluted disadvantaged black population had greater moral authority on questions of race than their semi-privileged brown compatriots. It was time to put an end to the kind of thinking which Freud characterized as “the narcissism of minor differences.”
I felt aggrieved, both for myself and for my daughter who had enthusiastically come along to the meeting. Jazz, then seventeen years old, was even lighter-skinned than me. Was she black enough? The meeting came to an end and we stacked away the chairs. As my daughter and I walked out into the cold, drizzly night, she argued that I should have told the young interlocutor that my parents’ color was unimportant. I agreed.
Back in the 1980s, Staying Power offered people like me an invaluable intellectual resource for a turn away from the separatist and divisive politics of race that many then indulged in—and that has resurfaced in recent years and even found a home in some mainstream publications. But color does not confer privilege in writing; neither is experience alone enough.
As Fryer had shown, skill was required, hard work, luck, and, finally, empathy. “Thinking black” cannot take anyone the whole way, to the full experience of “being black.” But there is no singular black experience. And a great creative leap is necessary, no matter what your color, when interpreting the past—whether tales of a “division of Moors” in the Roman imperial army stationed in the northern Britain, or the history of enslaved Africans transported to the West Indies. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power is still the gold standard in writing about black people’s history in Britain. He supplied a vision of history that was underpinned with compassion and extraordinarily deep research, even as he acknowledged the limitations of his perspective. “All who venture into this field,” wrote Fryer, “must sooner or later ponder the West African saying: ‘Knowledge is like the baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.’”