"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
Journal of Postcolonial Studies.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.