"A State of Perpetual Wandering": Diaspora and Black British Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, University of New Hampshire

Copyright © 1999 by Bronwyn T. Williams, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. As a way of describing this space, "Black" was initially used in the Seventies and Eighties to encompass the common experience of racism and maginalization (Hall, "New Ethnicities" 163). It allowed groups who were heterogeneous to respond in a collective and overtly political way to their exclusion by the dominant culture and to their representation as Other. Such a term, however, quickly raised its own problematic uses. Okwui Enwezor notes that the "employment of a possibly homogenizing signifier like Black British for so many ethnically and culturally diverse communities and geographies invites, on the surface, the possible disavowal of the plurality of identities within this body" (87). The differences and heterogeneity--including with ethnicity factors of class, gender, and sexuality--that such a term obscures became notably obvious in the furor over the publication of The Satanic Verses when the vast differences in non-white English cultural values were uncovered in the glare of the dominant culture's media. Much to the consternation of some members of both the White British and Black British elite, there was no longer the possibility of considering an elusive, homogenous Other or of reaching consensus among the Black British population.

  2. More to the point, what events surrounding The Satanic Verses illustrated was that diaspora and globalization produce not simply corporate homogeneity, but cultural heterogeneity. They create not simply polyglossia--a happy multicultural carnival of voices--but heteroglossia in which the works produced in a contact zone are often not fully comprehensible to those on either end of the continuum.[2]

  3. In the realm of nation/state politics, those constructed as Other by the dominant discourse attempted to challenge the narrative of a fixed and identifiable English culture in a British nation. If the creation of the narrative of nation requires a forgetting of the violence necessary for the nation's construction and the exclusion of the cultural practices of the marginalized, then what is necessary is a re-reading and re-writing of that narrative in an attempt to uncover what has been under erasure. It is the project that Phillips has in mind when he talks about the political importance of describing himself as a "British writer" rather than a Black or Caribbean writer because to do otherwise "let's people off the hook, because they don't want to then reconsider, to reconfigure, Britain in their minds" (interview).

  4. Such a position is both a recognition that one cannot stand outside the stage on which one is performing, and that the scope of the play is not only in the hands of the playwright. Even as the performers give voice to the words--as Bhabha sees the performative nature of the daily accumulation of culture--the nature of the play and its message changes. What Phillips advocates is a more overt re-staging of the play, a re-writing of the script, even as it takes place on the same stage with some of the same performers provided by the dominant discourse. It is an attempt to critique what one inhabits and to open the performance to the polyvocality of the inhabitant. Such a move is not a rejection of narrative, but of a single, foundationalist point of view. Black British criticism, with its emphasis on unpacking the counterhistories of modernity and the immanent critique of knowledge and representation in the development of British imperialism (Baker, et al. 6), would seem to be an ideal framework through which to embark upon such a re-staging of the dominant cultural narrative.

  5. Yet this very emphasis on the phenomenon of diaspora in the home of empire and its subsequent foregrounding of the doubleness of the national subject, raises significant questions as to whether "Black British-ness" displaces the modern concept of nation to the point that it is no longer a meaningful way to consider these writers. To engage questions of diaspora is to focus on the instability of the signs of national identity, the disruption of the idea of the "mother country"--of the nation as well as the empire--as well as the disruption of a "homeland". Rather than being a dangerously essentializing ethnic and nationalist term, "Black British" actually becomes more useful because of the shifting nature of what each word signifies. The ambivalence of the phrase opens up the possibilities of narratives and identities that are, as Hall writes, "constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference" (Cultural Identity" 402). To see these possibilities it is useful to consider each word.
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