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.footnote 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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.

For our purposes, it is instructive to compare the forces that shaped the first generation of migrants with the experience of their descendants. This procedure is not intended to imply the existence of a Chinese wall between the first and subsequent generations, but is employed merely to help historicize the analysis and to indicate the genuine differences produced by distinct life histories and cultural environments. It will be shown that—notwithstanding the opinion of many white Britons—black people, old and young, do learn, do adapt to their environment and do devise new strategies (individual and collective) with which to confront the problems they face.footnote3 Contrary to the commonly held view that a state of permanent conflict exists between the generations of Afro-Caribbeans in Britain, there has in fact developed, since the early 1970s in particular, a remarkably sharp convergence of thinking on the ‘British problem’ by older Caribbean people and their offspring.

As might have been expected, the harsh lessons of British racism have helped to create an identity among Afro-Caribbeans living in Britain commensurate with their concrete situation and historical experience. The crude binary classification of ethnic groups within Britain— black/white—has broken down the absurd and deeply offensive hierarchy of shades which has long vitiated the Caribbean psyche. To bring this and other points into full relief it is necessary to make a brief historical detour.

Colonization in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, entailed not only the economic, political and military domination of the indigenous population; it also involved a sometimes overt, but more often surreptitious process of cultural oppression, a major facet of which was the under-mining of any positive self-image that the colonized might have had. Frantz Fanon, with characteristic perception, fully grasped the implications of this process:

[C]olonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.footnote4

In the Americas, doubtless as a direct consequence of the trade in Africans and the enslavement of millions more, the image of Africa and Africans was continuously and systematically maligned.footnote5 In the eyes of the slave owners, Caribbean slave society was congenitally hierarchical, with the European in the superordinate position and the African barely counting among the human species. Not surprisingly, a complex taxonomy of human shades—what one prominent Caribbeanist has aptly called a ‘multilayered pigmentocracy’footnote6— was established to codify this world-view. Those who approximated most closely to the European type (in terms of hair texture, skin colour, facial characteristics, and so on) were accorded high status (which almost invariably corresponded with their class location), and those deemed to be without, or with few such characteristics, were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy. Thus the ‘coloureds’ (the so-called ‘mulattoes’)—products of union between Europeans (generally men) and Africans (generally women)footnote7—were regarded as congenitally superior to ‘pure Africans’, and were treated as such.footnote8