Black British Literature: pre-war to 1970s
In the port cities of the United Kingdom, communities of black and mixed heritage families have been a longstanding presence throughout British history. However, there is no identifiable body of creative literature that was written by these British born citizens. What survives are letters, diaries, memoir, song lyrics, political pamphlets and journalism.
Authors who might be described as pioneers of Black British writing prior to World War II were often from abroad, and resided in Britain (often London) for various periods of time in the 1930s and 40s. These include the Trinidadians C.L.R. James, whose 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel by a black West Indian to be published in England, and George Padmore, renowned writer, Socialist, and campaigner for African independence. Jamaican Una Marson was also influential, not only as a writer, feminist and activist, but also as the first black woman employed by the BBC during World War 2.
The trio individually and together provided vital cultural platforms, which were to remain influential long into the post-war years – although until recent decades, their presence was ignored or marginalised in British literary histories.
A significant moment in British national memory is the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948. This moment now serves to identify mass migration from former colonies in the Caribbean and other regions as Britain embarked on rebuilding its war-damaged cities and infrastructure.
The ‘Windrush generation’ contributed significant voices to the post-war British literary landscape, such as Sam Selvon, VS Naipaul, George Lamming and Michael Anthony. From 1966, the Caribbean Artists Movement, founded by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey, was particularly influential and is recognised as having helped bring the work of a considerable number of Caribbean writers, poets and dramatists in Britain to wider public attention.
The racism and hostility of the post-war decades was fuelled by increasingly restrictive immigration policies and the racist rhetoric of right-wing MPs such as Enoch Powell in the 1960s and 70s. During this period, many writers used their work politically - such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, the originator of dub poetry, in his 1978 collaboration with reggae musician Dennis Bovell: Dread Beat An’ Blood - or experimented with form, such as in Beryl Gilroy’s novel/memoir Black Teacher (1976) recounting her experiences as the first black headteacher in London.
The 1970s also saw the emergence of a number of influential dramatists such as Mustapha Matura, the first British-based writer of colour to have a play in the West End in London in 1974, and Michael Abbensetts who, in 1978, became the first black British playwright commissioned to write a drama series for television Empire Road.