Conceptualising Whiteness in the Black Imagination

Review by Devin Grier

On 28 November 2017, Rianna Walcott rounded up our last presentation of the first semester. Rianna is nearing the end of her first year as a digital humanities PhD student at King’s College London, having completed undergraduate and Masters degrees in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.   Her doctoral research, evolving from her Masters dissertation, considers the notion of ‘whiteness’ within black spheres.  She is currently examining the use of language by black women and women of colour in closed and secret Facebook groups, and the extent to which these groups are able to provide space to critique whiteness.

28 November The WindrushThe experience of blacks in postcolonial Britain provided  the starting point for Rianna’s presentation. Whilst the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948, carrying almost 500 Jamaicans, was not the first landfall made by people of African descent to Britain, it marked the first influx of widespread migration from the West Indies to the United Kingdom. In the mid-twentieth century, the increase in Afro-Caribbean immigrants provoked a political backlash from those intent on preserving Britain’s imperial image. Rianna argued that anxieties among the white population resulted from a combination of racial and national identities. In order to differentiate themselves from the West Indians, a familiar white ‘we’ was constructed against a dangerous ‘black’ unknown. Because race and nationality became linked, being ‘British’ was predicated on white history. Rianna  argued that it was at this point that Britain was beginning to be disrupted by the black other – or more accurately by a black other that dared to enter white space.”

Postcolonial scholarship based on racial identity and ‘othering’ has tended to distinguish the non-white from the ‘neutral’ position of a white, western male. Through the window of literature, Rianna sought to invert this viewpoint by prioritizing black observation and analyzing several texts authored by West Indians and their British descendants, from the Windrush period to the modern day. In the course of her discussion, she made particular reference to Sam Selvon’s novel, The Lonely Londoners (1956), and Zadie Smith’s literary debut, White Teeth (2000).

Novels“The novels,” Rianna contended, “are linked by examination of the physical, literary and social dimensions of ‘space.’ As both the container of everyday life and an active agent or social force. The physical space of London, and how black writers conceptualize the city as a multicultural space, is central to my argument.” In each book, the black character is written into what is self evidently a white space: “Galahad walks through Piccadilly Circus while naming what he sees, and, in a metafictional gesture, White Teeth’s Samad viscerally links his colonised body with imperial space by inscribing his name in blood onto a bench in Trafalgar Square.”

In conclusion, Rianna summarized the literary representations of migrants who transform their new spaces: “Spaces are defined in relation to the self, and treated as Sadie Smithsomething to be assimilated into, creolised, or rejected from.” Presented in the form of literature, these various processes of assimilation highlight the paradoxical nature of Britain’s physical space: “The narratives show black immigrants and black Britons futilely searching for a compromise between discrete, segregated racial identities and the threat of dissolution through multiculturalism.”

Outside her doctoral research, Rianna has pursued related interests. In early 2017, she co-founded Project Myopia, a website dedicated to decolonizing and diversifying university curricula. The project crowd-sources reviews of diverse materials and advocates their inclusion in academic syllabuses.

The workshop was well-attended, with a very active and insightful question and answer session following the presentation. We wish Rianna the best of luck with her future studies.

 

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About Alastair Learmont

Alastair Learmont is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Alastair graduated in Classics from the University of Bristol in 1986 and was called to the Scottish Bar in 1993. For many years he worked as a criminal prosecutor. He returned to academic life in 2012 graduating MSc (with Distinction) in 18th Century Cultures at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. He has recently completed an MSc (Research) in Economic and Social History. He has considerable experience as an adult educator with the City of Edinburgh Council, the National Galleries of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and the Outlook Project. He is also an experienced walking guide regularly leading walks of cultural interest in Edinburgh and the Borders. He has spoken and written on John Buchan. Recent adult education work includes Scotland and Slavery for the University of Edinburgh's department of Life Long Learning. He currently holds an ESRC research studentship at the University of Edinburgh and a McFarlane scholarship at the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies where he is jointly responsible for co-ordinating the lunchtime Graduate Workshop. In 2016 he tutored Economic History at pre-honours level. He is currently undertaking doctoral research into the Scottish West Indian Planter Class at the time of the British Abolition of the Slave Trade.

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