Stories of Black Britain in Pictures

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Author Paul Gilroy tells Brian Richardson why he hopes images of past moments of everyday life and struggle will inspire a new generation

Your new book, Black Britain: a photographic history, is a very different type of book from those that have made your name. What persuaded you to curate and write a book based around photographs?

I'd been living in the US for a number of years, and I returned to Britain and felt the environment around the politics of racism has been radically changed, on the one hand by the issue of security, and on the other by some of the things that New Labour has done. A whole generation of activists - my generation - seem to be management consultants! Even the black nationalists are busy managing the health service and the police.

On the other hand, young people are in transition from a Caribbean majority to an African majority. Many of them do not have the kind of information at their disposal to understand their predicament properly. So those young people are disoriented, and they've been abandoned by that managerial turn of the 1970s activist group.

I felt that a lot of these young people think they're African American in the way that they model their style, habits, analysis of their situation, rapping their postcode and wearing their trousers low. They've been transformed by a sort of generic blackness they've drawn from the music they listen to and the videos they watch. They don't really have a historical sense of themselves as a group. There are a few refugee families, but they are mostly kids who were born here.

I wanted to put some images back into their pathway and stimulate their curiosity, and these are people who are not reading for the most part - communication is already skewed towards the visual by video and other technologies.

In terms of your own analysis of black Britain, what do you think has changed in the period over which you have captured the photographs?

The integration of Caribbean descendants and early African settlers of the 1950s into the working class of this country has sort of happened. It's regionally complicated, but basically that's sorted.

There are still issues, but if you look at the rates of inter-marriage, and particular strands in employment, you begin to see that most of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original migrants have moved into a kind of working class life. That's something that we can afford to feel good about.

It wasn't in any sense the product of government policy. It resulted from the work done in workplaces, schools and criminal justice by people who said that the far right, the nationalists and racists had no place there. Many young people will now stand up and say, "I am British and whatever," but they don't necessarily understand how that came to be possible, and I wanted the photographs to offer some insight.

You talk about the transition from invisibility to visibility not as a smooth process but as the product of a series of bitter struggles.

I used to be against tokenism, but actually I think it's necessary to have a bit of it, so long as you don't think by having the tokens in visible positions you've solved the problem of racism.

The tokenism isn't for the benefit of the black tokens - it's for the benefit of a white public which is phobic about its proximity to the dangers and perils of blackness.

The issue of tokenism poses the question about the current debate about absent fathers, gun crime, role models and so on.

I know there are people and institutional voices who are working very hard to racialise the question of gun crime, but I don't think those are issues taking us back to 1970s arguments of black violence, with the gunman standing in for the mugger.

I don't believe that offering people role models is the answer. It's so short of what needs to be thought through and what needs to be done that it's embarrassing.

A couple of weeks ago Darcus Howe wrote a piece on the "New Nation Power List" in which he used the example of the head of the Prison Officers' Union, Colin Moses. He said, "If we are going to have lists let's have someone like that, let's deal with someone who has gone into the deepest, worst, National Front heartland of the criminal justice system and came out of it saying 'I'm a trade unionist - given that we've been given an impossible job by the government, we're going to do a humane job if we can.'"

I don't want to be starry eyed about prison officers but if you are going to have role models pick them more carefully than business people. I was ashamed to be included in all that rubbish.

How did you go about choosing the images?

A lot of the tone came through conversations with Stuart Hall who was the original co-author but whose health prevented him from playing a full role. He emphasised the need for pictures of everyday life. It was difficult. When people are at work, at play, when they're loving, when they're loose, there aren't so many photographs. It was newsworthy when it was pathology, crime and violence, but it wasn't interesting when it was just ordinary life.

I was also very keen on the military aspects. There is a lot of talk about Britishness these days. The test of any national identity is whether you are prepared to die and kill for your country. That is the bottom line. It's clear that the black population, commonwealth people, colonial subjects, were always prepared to die and kill for this country, and I wanted that absolutely in the centre.

In the earlier part of the book there are a lot of images from outside of London.

I didn't want to tell a London centred story. There is a London centred story, and it's beautiful and I know it very well. But I felt it was essential that this wasn't just a London landscape. So of course the port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool are represented, but also Scotland, Wales and what little I could find from Ireland.

What do you mean by the London story being beautiful?

Part of the organic transformation of working class life in London means that I don't see many young people being chased for their life any more.

When my mum came to England in 1952 she used to have to run for her life from the teddy boys in Brixton; when I was a teenager I used to run for my life from the skinheads. The generation of people a bit older than me couldn't walk the street with a white woman - they had to walk 30 yards behind them. So in that sense I'm happy that those things have been largely resolved. I don't say there aren't the Anthony Walkers and the Stephen Lawrences, but that doesn't happen on every street corner. There are pockets of it, but it's not like it was, when the city was saturated. Nowadays it's deaths in custody we have to worry about.

You should look at the resolutions from the TUC conferences of the late 1950s. The nurses' unions were saying, "We don't want black nurses to have special treatment: they're being given heaters when we don't get heaters." On the buses Sikhs wanted to wear their turbans. People talk about the veil now but don't remember the battle over turbans. The white women conductors in the union said, "If they've got their turbans, we want to be able to wear our headscarves."

It's not just the way racism works, although that's part of it. The general temper of postmodern life isn't friendly to recovering any history.

When you talk about US culture, do you mean hip hop culture?

When I say hip hop culture it sounds like I'm saying the cultures of the black working class but that's not what I mean. 50 Cent isn't that - he's a corporate projection. It's the entertainment business, which has a strong commercial interest in circulating an official version of defiance while piling up large amounts of loot and voting for George Bush.

Even the tension between 50 Cent and Kanye West, it's all ritualised. But don't get the idea I'm blaming black culture because how much that's got to do with black culture I can't even see. I went to see Get Rich or Die Trying with my daughter. Everyone else in the cinema was Polish, so that should be telling you something too. Thirty years on it's mainstream.

A few years ago the role models debate was being turned round. Some argued that black boys didn't have low esteem, they had high esteem because of the dominance of all these images, but the problem was it wasn't focusing on academic achievement.

Why would it focus on academic achievement in a situation where to be educated is to be in debt? There's no mystery in that. People say, "It's a corporate good to train people up for our great and glorious industry; it's a private good because you can earn more money than others, so it's appropriate for you to make a contribution."

The idea that it might be a social good to have people who can read and write and communicate at a high level - not to someone else's specification of what a docile worker might need to know - is never discussed. We're all better off if people are more highly educated. I've never said this before, but in my little core of Orwellian English patriotism, my heart breaks when I see the generation of people coming up learning less than we learned, and the next generation will learn even less.

There are really difficult issues in how all these people are "managing change". They were activists. Now they are complicit in the privatisation of whole layers of social services and local government.

I get a letter a week asking if I would sign up for some consultancy "reforming" the NHS or the army and I reply saying that I don't believe in privatising these things and I don't want any part in it. The consultancy hustle is really out of control. I know it isn't just something black people do, but it seems to have a specific sort of appeal to us and helps to explain the emergence of this black middle class, which isn't really middle class at all; it's an insecure group.

I think there was a real sense of that in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry when the government laid itself down and admitted there was institutional racism.

They've rolled back quite a distance since then. Not only are we not supposed to talk about racism any longer, but in a number of areas there has been a very extensive fightback from people who understood that was going to take away a large degree of their power, not least in education where the number of black students and academics is pitiful.

The London School of Economics always seems to do very well in being able to show there are black and minority ethnic people here. But they are not local - they are sons and daughters of an international class. They help to buffer the institution from accusations that they don't serve the needs of local people.

When I was working at Yale in the US they had a substantial number of minority students, but most were one generation away from migration - Caribbean or African. For the most part they were not African Americans in the sense that they had historic attachments to that place.

What's interesting is that the pressure to integrate culturally arises at a moment when people don't really know what British culture is. If you ask people what it means to be British you'll get a range of answers. If there was football going on you'd get a lot of answers about sport; you'd probably get answers about monarchy. You might get arguments about the Second World War as a place people like to revisit as a source of national pride - "We stood against fascism and we won."

This is another reason why I want to put some black people in that story into my book. But for the most part there wouldn't be a consensus over what it is to be British. English, maybe. They might say that's beer, cricket, fish and chips. A lot of it is imported, of course. But British culture? Something that brings together Welsh and Scottish and Scouse and Geordie and the protestant Irish and the Cockneys? It doesn't make sense. They want to make a statement of British values, and beat up the incomers as a way of telling themselves who they are.

Did you have a particular audience in mind for the book?

No. My ideal reader would be someone under the age of 25 with a curiosity about the past, people who aren't content with having 50 Cent as the measure of blackness. Maybe people can develop a different kind of appreciation of their grandparents and the things that they suffered, the things they gave up, to make life habitable now. That's really what I wanted to do.

Some of those pictures really transmit that. There's the guy demonstrating by the roadside with homemade banners about house prices, inflation, "Britain invaded", "White Britons - who's taking care of us?" and so on. It's all the same stuff that the BNP are still coming out with. Now you've got New Labour people - many of them migrants - saying, "We can migrate to this country but other people can't." They pull up the ladder behind them.

But that sort of defensive, white, nationalist, racist eruption of feeling - and the anxiety and the fear that drive it - is not something that comes out of the present, not something that actually comes out of having refugees and asylum seekers competing in your labour market.

The fact that this picture's 40 years old shows that it isn't just something that's growing out of present conditions. There's a historical weight to it that ties it to past experiences. That's important for people to realise.

Paul Gilroy's Black Britain is published by Saqi, £19.99.