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Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain written by Ashley Dawson

 

Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain written by Ashley Dawson

Overview:

Mongrel Nation surveys the history of the United Kingdom’s African, Asian, and Caribbean populations from 1948 to the present, working at the juncture of cultural studies, literary criticism, and postcolonial theory. Ashley Dawson argues that during the past fifty years Asian and black intellectuals from Sam Selvon to Zadie Smith have continually challenged the United Kingdom’s exclusionary definitions of citizenship, using innovative forms of cultural expression to reconfigure definitions of belonging in the postcolonial age. By examining popular culture and exploring topics such as the nexus of race and gender, the growth of transnational politics, and the clash between first- and second-generation immigrants, Dawson broadens and enlivens the field of postcolonial studies.

 

Mongrel Nation gives readers a broad landscape from which to view the shifting currents of politics, literature, and culture in postcolonial Britain. At a time when the contradictions of expansionist braggadocio again dominate the world stage, Mongrel Nation usefully illuminates the legacy of imperialism and suggests that creative voices of resistance can never be silenced.Dawson

 

“Elegant, eloquent, and full of imaginative insight, Mongrel Nation is a refreshing, engaged, and informative addition to post-colonial and diasporic literary scholarship.”

—Hazel V. Carby, Yale University

 

“Eloquent and strong, insightful and historically precise, lively and engaging, Mongrel Nation is an expansive history of twentieth-century internationalist encounters that provides a broader landscape from which to understand currents, shifts, and historical junctures that shaped the international postcolonial imagination.”

—May Joseph, Pratt Institute

 

Ashley Dawson is Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. He is coeditor of the forthcoming Exceptional State: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the New Imperialism.

Synopsis:

Mongrel Nation surveys the history of the United Kingdom’s African, Asian, and Caribbean populations from 1948 to the present, working at the juncture of cultural studies, literary criticism, and postcolonial theory. Ashley Dawson argues that during the past fifty years Asian and black intellectuals from Sam Selvon to Zadie Smith have continually challenged the United Kingdom’s exclusionary definitions of citizenship, using innovative forms of cultural expression to reconfigure definitions of belonging in the postcolonial age. By examining popular culture and exploring topics such as the nexus of race and gender, the growth of transnational politics, and the clash between first- and second-generation immigrants, Dawson broadens and enlivens the field of postcolonial studies.

 

Mongrel Nation gives readers a broad landscape from which to view the shifting currents of politics, literature, and culture in postcolonial Britain. At a time when the contradictions of expansionist braggadocio again dominate the world stage, Mongrel Nation usefully illuminates the legacy of imperialism and suggests that creative voices of resistance can never be silenced.Dawson

 

“Elegant, eloquent, and full of imaginative insight, Mongrel Nation is a refreshing, engaged, and informative addition to post-colonial and diasporic literary scholarship.”

—Hazel V. Carby, Yale University

 

“Eloquent and strong, insightful and historically precise, lively and engaging, Mongrel Nation is an expansive history of twentieth-century internationalist encounters that provides a broader landscape from which to understand currents, shifts, and historical junctures that shaped the international postcolonial imagination.”

—May Joseph, Pratt Institute

 

Ashley Dawson is Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. He is coeditor of the forthcoming Exceptional State: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the New Imperialism.

Excerpt:

MONGREL NATION

Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain
By Ashley Dawson

THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS

Copyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09991-7


Chapter One

"In the Big City the Sex Life Gone Wild"

Migration, Gender, and Identity in Sam Selvon's

The Lonely Londoners

On a Friday evening in late August 1958, a Swedish woman named Majbritt Morrison fell into an argument with her Jamaican husband Raymond as they left the Latimer Road underground station in London's Notting Dale neighborhood. People congregated as the Morrisons' dispute grew more heated. The conflict was suddenly transformed when a man in the crowd began shouting racial slurs at Raymond Morrison, apparently believing that it was his duty to protect a white woman from a threatening-looking black man. Majbritt Morrison stopped arguing with her husband and began defending him from this attack, leading some members of the crowd to turn on her, calling her a "nigger lover." A group of the Morrisons' West Indian friends arrived as the shouting escalated and a fight broke out. Although no serious injuries resulted from this scuffle, it was the initial spark in the first major racial conflagration of postimperial Britain.

The night after the Morrisons' fight, crowds spilled out of local pubs in Notting Hill, brimming with beer and antiblack feeling.Spotting Majbritt Morrison on her way home down the high street, a crowd chased her to her house, volleying taunts of "black man's trollop!" and throwing milk bottles. When Morrison stood her ground outside her house and refused police orders to go inside, she-rather than the members of the marauding crowd-was arrested. The mob made off down the road, smashing windows in a side street and preparing to attack a house party organized by one of Britain's first sound-system operators, Count Suckle. The police, arriving just in time to stop this attack, dealt with the conflict by escorting Count Suckle and his friends out of the neighborhood. This apparently confirmed the impression of many in the crowd that their actions were helping purge West London of blacks. Mobs numbering in the hundreds roamed the streets of Notting Hill during the following nights, attacking any West Indians they could lay their hands on. Despite the eerie calm that reined over the rest of London during the rioting, groups of primarily young working-class men flooded into the streets of Notting Hill from surrounding parts of the city and began wreaking havoc. Although a few members of the white community defended their black neighbors, during the rioting the majority of the neighborhood's whites kept a complicit silence as lynch mobs roamed their streets. Neofascist organizers were quick to capitalize on this quiescence. Oswald Mosley's Union Movement circulated leaflets and held public rallies in the area. The perils of miscegenation featured prominently in the propaganda disseminated by such groups. For instance, National Labour Party leader John Steel was quoted as saying: "We will be a nation of half-castes. The result is that the nation will possess neither the rhythm of the coloured man, nor the scientific genius of the European. The only thing we will ever produce is riots, just as do the mixed races of the world."

The Notting Hill riots, as this week of violent mayhem came to be known, were a watershed for Britain. They shattered the long-standing metropolitan illusion that racial conflict was un-British. It suddenly seemed that Britain was destined to face unrest on a scale not so different from that experienced by former settler colonies like the United States and South Africa during the late 1950s. Moreover, the riots established some of the fundamental themes of racial antipathy that would characterize postimperial Britain. The gender of immigrants (until 1955, 85% were male) was a pivotal issue in this regard. As the conflict over the Morrisons' interracial marriage and the propaganda disseminated by neofascist leaders demonstrates, anger over sexual relations between black men and white women was a crucial catalyst of the riots. Agitators such as John Steel played on fears that sex between Englishwomen and black male immigrants from the Caribbean would create a mongrel population in Britain. Notwithstanding their formal rights as British subjects, in other words, black migrants were viewed by the neofascists, by many members of the political establishment, and by much of the populace in general as a threat to racial purity and, consequently, to national identity. White women such as Majbritt Morrison who consorted with black men were likely to be stripped of their racial identity. As they had been in Britain's colonies, black masculinity and sexuality became the subject of lurid interest and concern during the initial decade of mass migration from the Commonwealth, with particular alarm concentrating on the charged erotic relations of black men and white women. The profound anxiety created by the blurring of boundaries separating the metropole and the colonies that characterizes postimperial Britain is, in other words, displayed in particularly stark form in the arena of sexual relations.

Stereotypical images of black men's potent sexuality and concerns about white women's potential infidelity to the race-nation had a direct impact on state policy during this period. The war against Nazism and fascism, with their overtly biological constructions of racial hierarchy, had rendered explicit racist appeals illegitimate in post-1948 Britain. However, notions of sexual conduct helped blur the line between biological and cultural notions of difference. Parliamentary opponents of immigration from the Commonwealth nations could avoid overt racism by alluding to supposedly insuperable cultural differences between postcolonial subjects and native Britons. Hoary stereotypes dating back to antiquity that represented non-Europeans as given over to sexual abandon so excessive that it bordered on the bestial permeated public discourse in surprisingly frank terms. Sexual mores were seen as a vital index of broader cultural differences, with critics objecting to the "completely promiscuous method of breeding" that "tropical peoples" imported into Britain. Through this focus on the sexual, the "culture bar" was substituted for the color bar. In the process, the image of Britain as an embattled nuclear family replaced that of imperial Britannia as the mother of a geographically dispersed extended family of colonial peoples. Racist violence such as the Notting Hill riots was viewed by many mainstream commentators and legislators as the logical outcome of aversion to the foreign cultural practices of colonial subjects. The deplorable racist attacks that took place during the riots could only be prevented, it was argued, through the diminution of Britain's black population. By 1962, when an immigration act that effectively transformed postcolonial migrants into second-class citizens was passed, such arguments had largely prevailed.

The evident continuities between colonial and postcolonial subordination in Britain ensured that heterosexual self-assertion was a crucial component of the immigrant experience for many West Indian men. Moreover, Britain offered male migrants occasions to assert their self-worth in the arms of white women, opportunities for experiences of sexual and emotional intercourse that were far more severely policed on colonial terrain. As Frantz Fanon put it, "When my restless hands caress those white breasts, they grasp white civilization and dignity and make them mine." This urge to self-realization through sexual entanglement was particularly strong for Anglophone Caribbean male migrants, who had been exposed to the powerful assimilatory pedagogy of the British colonial education system without encountering the full panoply of racial terror to which African-American men were regularly submitted. For Fanon, however, this strategy of revenging oneself on the colonial apparatus through sexual conquest, predicated as it was on the desire to merge with or at least be validated by whiteness, is animated at bottom by dependency and deep self-alienation. Like many recent critics of metropolitan racism, however, Fanon largely neglected to consider the impact such attitudes would have on women.

To what extent is Fanon's gloomy portrait of mental colonization borne out by the experience of migrants to Britain? Published contemporaneously with Fanon's work and two years before the Notting Hill riots, Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners depicts the first generation of overwhelmingly male immigrants from the Caribbean struggling to cope with the stereotypes and prejudices they encountered in Britain. Of late, Selvon's work has been celebrated for its account of West Indian resiliency within the urban metropolis. Recent critics have argued that British cultural hegemony was significantly unsettled and undermined through the postimperial encounter with migrants from the colonies. Selvon's work is certainly noteworthy for the confidence with which it draws on the creolized forms of Caribbean vernacular culture, calypso foremost among them. Yet celebratory readings of Selvon's work in particular and of the impact of early waves of migration in general tend to underemphasize the forms of institutional racism and structural exclusion faced by migrants to Britain. The Lonely Londoners depicts the impact not simply of racism in housing and the workplace but of racial fetishism in the sexual arena. Selvon thereby underlines the damaging effects of racism on immigrant cultures on both a material and a psychological plane. Moreover, Selvon's jocular accounts of the escapades of "the boys" in the face of such racism encouraged his overwhelmingly British readership to empathize and even identify with West Indian people such as those found in The Lonely Londoners. To stress the hybridizing impact of migration alone is therefore to miss the role of Selvon's novel as an intervention in an increasingly racist public sphere in Britain during the mid-1950s.

In contrast with the relentlessly misogynist writing of the so-called Angry Young Men, Selvon's depiction of the pathos of macho values among the black immigrant community prepares the ground for a critique of black men's complicity with structures of patriarchal subordination in Britain and its colonies. As is true at present, popular culture was the most important site for the articulation of such attitudes. After World War II, calypso music became one of the dominant forms of popular culture on a global scale, fostering pan-Caribbean exchanges, rejuvenating the recording industry in both the United States and Britain, and catalyzing the growth of Hi-Life music in colonial West Africa. This chapter therefore begins with a discussion of representations of black male identity in calypso music of the 1940s and 1950s. My discussion of the specific historical roots of the extravagant braggadocio of the period challenges pathologizing assumptions of a timeless black machismo. When calypso artists and their audiences traveled from the Caribbean to Britain, they brought their attitudes about gender power with them, values that Sam Selvon represents with great clarity and pathos in The Lonely Londoners. Selvon's work foreshadows many subsequent texts that deal with issues of masculinity, sexuality, and identity fragmentation, including George Lamming's The Emigrants and The Pleasures of Exile, Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North, and Andrew Salkey's The Adventures of Catullus Kelley. Through its exploration of racial inequality and gender power, Selvon's The Lonely Londoners offers a powerful call for an egalitarian and postimperial Britain.

Calypso, Masculinity, and Power

Calypso music has its origins in the stick fighting that accompanied the canboulay festival in colonial Trinidad. Centering on the ritual burning of cane fields during the era of plantation slavery, canboulay also included fights between rival groups of slaves using long sticks or staves. These street skirmishes were propelled by secret African martial societies as well as by the plantation-based fraternities that succeeded them following the Middle Passage. Indeed, the most frequently cited derivation for calypso is kaiso, which is in turn a corruption of an expression of approval similar to "bravo" in the West African Hausa language. Stick fights were preceded by ritual boasts in which a griot-like figure called a chantwell taunted members of the opposing band with stories of his leader's physical prowess. The fights themselves were accompanied by kalindas, bitingly satirical songs sung by the chantwell and a chorus that belittled their opponents and promoted their own band. The by turns outrageously boastful and wittily barbed verses of the kalinda were traditionally composed extempore by the chantwell. This tradition of improvised bravado and satire remained a core of calypso music following emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century, becoming known in Creole as picong, from the French term piquant (stinging, insulting). The calypso is thus grounded in hyperbolic assertions of masculinity that were forged in the context of the systematic emasculation administered by the institutions of racial slavery.

After emancipation, calypso songs became an integral component of the carnival tradition, which consisted of a mas' band or group of revelers wearing masquerade costumes. These bands paraded through the streets accompanied by a chantwell and chorus singing the band's praises and mocking rival groups. British colonial authorities, who repeatedly sought to suppress the Creole institution of carnival during the second half of the nineteenth century, not surprisingly became the butt of the chantwells' satirical verses. Calypso songs increasingly addressed topical and potentially inflammatory subjects such as the difficulty of life for the denizens of the urban slums known as barrack yards. In 1883, for example, the colonial government passed a ban on drumming, an Afro-Creole practice on which kalinda depended, in an effort to abolish practices associated with carnival. Kalinda singers subverted this proscription, however, by substituting bamboo instruments that provided rhythmic accompaniment to the kalinda for traditional drumming practices. By the end of the nineteenth century, the calypso tradition had become a central venue for the expression of popular discontent with colonial subjugation, often using forms of satire and indirect insult to challenge British cultural and institutional power.

At the same time, calypso songs gained increasing autonomy from the carnival itself with the establishment of the tent, an informal arena set up so that a mas' band could practice its songs prior to the annual carnival parades. Just as pioneering figures of the Trinidadian literary scene such as Alfred Mendes and C. L. R. James began writing about the barrack yards, calypso singers expanded the topicality of their material by focusing in more detail on the everyday lives and vicissitudes of the poor. Calypso singers, or calypsonians, were by this time singing mainly in English, reflecting the Anglicization of Trinidadian society in general, although the English spoken in the tents was a highly creolized form that included many elements of French and West Africa patois. One of the greatest of these calypsonians, Chieftain Douglas, was also responsible for the transformation of calypso from impromptu sessions held in mas' camp tents to formalized, programmed, and commercially sponsored events. Competition among the calypsonians, deriving from the days of the chantwells, was institutionalized in 1939, when the first island-wide Calypso King competition was held. Although the British colonial population and the small black middle class remained aloof, French Creole intellectuals began supporting calypso, seeing it as a genuine expression of indigenous national identity.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from MONGREL NATION by Ashley Dawson Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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