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New Left Review I/193, May-June 1992


Winston James

Migration, Racism and Identity: The Caribbean Experience in Britain

It is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates négritude.

Frantz Fanon

Although much has been written on the forces behind Caribbean migration to Britain, and on the social and economic conditions in which black people in this country live, little work has been done on the national and ethnic identity of these people and their descendants. [*] This text is a shortened version of an article that will appear in the anthology, edited by Winston James and Clive Harris, Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain, Verso, forthcoming Spring 1993. It also forms part of a larger study in progress on the economic and political trajectories of Caribbeans in Britain. Thanks are due to Robin Blackburn, Barbara Fields, Cecil Gutzmore and Clive Harris for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of the article. Ethnicity and ethnic identity, it is now widely acknowledged, are not static and eternal in their constitution but profoundly dynamic, always in the process of being made and remade. It is evident, moreover, that the experience of migration and the challenges of a new environment often accelerate the pace of such change. [1] For a valuable discussion of some of the conceptual confusion that surrounds ethnicity, see James McKay and Frank Lewins, ‘Ethnicity and the Ethnic Group: A Conceptual Analysis and Reformulation’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 1, no. 4, October 1978. Eugeen E. Roosens’s Creating Ethnicity: The Process of Ethnogenesis (Newbury Park 1989) is a particularly illuminating and wide-ranging study of the dynamics of ethnicity. See also the fine work of Mervyn Alleyne: Roots of Jamaican Culture, London 1988. Yet, although the issue of identity, including that of ‘black identity’, has become something of an intellectual cottage industry of late, there is still a virtual absence of concrete work on identity formation and change. [2] For a representative sample, see Institute of Contemporary Arts, eds., Identity: The Real Me, ica Docs, No. 6, London 1987, and Black Film, British Cinema, ica Docs., No. 7, London 1988; Raphael Samuel, Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity, Vol. 1, History and Politics, Vol. 2, Minorities and Outsiders, Vol. 3, National Fictions, London 1989; Stuart Hall, ‘Ethnicity: Identity and Difference’,Radical America, vol. 23, no. 4, October–December 1989; J. Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London 1990; Lisa Kennedy et al., ‘Black Like Who? Notes on African American Identity’, The Village Voice, 17 September 1991; Ilene Philipson et al., ‘What’s the Big I.D.? The Politics of the Authentic Self’, with responses from Henry Gates, Ellen Willis, David Biale, and Arthur Waskow, Tikkun, November–December 1991; Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Cambridge 1991; Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge 1991. See also my own earlier formulations (Winston James, ‘On Black Identity and Nationalism in Britain’, paper presented to History Workshop Conference, Patriotism: Myth and Ideology in the Making of English National Identity, Oxford, II March 1984; ‘A Long Way from Home: On Black Identity in Britain’, Immigrants and Minorities, vol. 5, no. 3, November 1986; ‘The Making of Black Identities’, in Samuel ed., Patriotism, Vol. 3) upon which this article draws. This article, an analysis of the experience of African Caribbeans in Britain in the postwar period, is intended as a contribution to such work. It explores both the relationship between migration and racism, and the formation of ethnic identity. In striving to lay bare the dialectics of this latter process, it confronts the political implications of the new identities being forged by black people in Britain. As I endeavour to show, the exploration of aspects of black identity is by no means a merely academic exercise: the way in which black people identify themselves within British society has a direct bearing upon their political capacities and practices. Consciousness and action are bound closely together.

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