Black British Writing: The late 1970s to 2000s
In the late 1970s and 1980s, a number of uprisings in many urban locations emerged from the intolerable racism and disenfranchisement young black people experienced, such as the Brixton riots in 1981. The ensuing enquiry into the context of the riots not only focused on policing, social deprivation, housing and education policy but also made recommendations around investment in community groups and initiatives, which provided support for many black artists.
The early to mid-1980s saw an abundance of work by black British poets, many of whom were showcased at the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1982, including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Fred D’Aguir, John Agard and James Berry. Berry went on to edit the first major anthology of black British poetry News For Babylon in 1984, which also included work by Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah.
The 1980s also saw an increase in the number of plays by black writers being produced, often by black theatre companies, enabled by increased investment in arts funding. Examples include Imani-Faith, founded by playwright Jacqueline Rudet in 1983 to produce work for and by black women, Black Theatre Cooperative (1978), and Theatre of Black Women, Britain's first black women's theatre company founded in 1982 by Bernardine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall. Some of these theatre companies were instrumental in broadening the focus of black British experiences on the stage, for example centralising female characters and stories such as in Jackie Kay’s 1988 play Twice Over, or Basin (1985) by Jaqueline Rudet.
From within the generation who arrived in Britain as adults after 1945, or came as children with their parents, a wide range of writers also began to be published from the 1980s - Joan Riley, whose 1985 novel The Unbelonging is considered to be the first novel about the black experience in Britain by a women writer, David Dabydeen who won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize with his collection Slave Song in 1984, and the award-winning novelist and playwright Caryl Phillips.
The term ‘Black British writing’ emerged as a literary category from the mid-1990s. It is a term that distinguishes second- and third-generation literary voices and their British-born perspectives, from the migratory experiences and perspectives that transformed post-war literature (see blog 2).
These writers were finding ways to explore identities that had developed from being born and raised in Britain, often in city environments such as London, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield, Derby and Leicester. In searching for ways of expressing this unique cultural position, some black British writers looked towards African-American cultural politics for motivation. A number of black American women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde are acknowledged as inspirations for many of contemporary black British writers, such as Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Laura Fish, Jackie Kay, SuAndi, Dorothea Smartt, Winsome Pinnock and debbie tucker green.
Many of the black literary voices who came to public awareness in the 1980s and 1990s remain at the forefront of British literary culture today.