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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The Establishment of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and its influence on the Ukrainian Diaspora in Scotland

Review by Devin Grier

Peter Kormylo, from the University of Glasgow, joined us on 14 October 2017. Recently retired from a career in public education, Peter now dedicates his time to researching the history of the Ukrainian community in Scotland.  His aim is to fill a wide gap in knowledge, as the literature on the Ukrainian diaspora in the United Kingdom is lacking. Since Scotland’s Ukrainian community has a relatively low profile, it tends to be forgotten.

During the workshop, Peter identified  four distinct waves of Ukrainian migration to Scotland:

Wave 1. Late nineteenth, early twentieth century: migrant laborers who intended to find

Ukrainian Bear

Travelling Ukrainian with his dancing bear outside the Hole in the Wall Pub, Dumfries, 1907

work in the Americas. Many from Ukraine who were destined to cross the Atlantic  stopped off in Scottish ports including  Leith. At this point in their travels, some migrants had already run out of money and decided to disembark in Scotland. Referred as the ‘Little Russians’ by British natives, this small stream of Ukrainians  disappeared into Scottish society.

Wave 2. 1905-1917: political refugees of the Russian Revolution. During this period, the UK government implemented the 1905 Aliens Act which controlled the level of immigration from eastern Europe. The main requirement for entry was that an individual had show  a means of support. As a result, the elite classes made up the majority of this second migratory stream.

Wave 3.  1939-1947: WWII and post-war immigrantsThis period contained four main  elements:

  • 1939: Royal Canadian Airforce: second generation Ukrainians from Canada.
  • 1942: Polish Armed Forces.
  • 1946: Ukrainian displaced persons who refused Soviet Union repatriation, and Ukrainian European voluntary workers.
  • 1947: Surrendered army personnel of the Ukrainian Galicia Division. This wave consisted of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered on the Eastern Front following Germany’s defeat. The division was removed from its internment in Italy in order to prevent the nearby Soviet Union from repatriating the Ukranian POWs. During peace arrangements, thousands of Ukrainian POWs were transported to workers’ camps in Britain, many of which were in Scotland. Peter’s research is now focused on identifying the Scottish camps that contained sizable Ukrainian communities.

Wave 4. Mid-1980s onwards. After Mikhail Gorbachev became head of state in 1985, the political system of the Soviet Union underwent extreme liberalization. As a result, the number of Ukrainian immigrants to the UK increased. Furthermore, the subsequent fall of the USSR in 1991 ignited an even greater wave of migration to the UK.

14 November Ukrainian play in Edinburgh early 1950sPeter also presented a handful of extraordinary historic photographs of the Ukrainian community in Scotland. Much of Peter’s research has been coloured by the response to his ongoing photo exchange project. His photo exchange holds a wealth of material for those interested in the Ukrainian community.  Anyone  wishing to add to the collection, or inquire about specific images, can email Peter at nasharchiv@btinternet.com

 

Black Douglas: the Bushranger and the Man

Review by Devin Grier

On 31 October 2017, the Graduate Workshop welcomed Meg Foster of the University of New South Wales. Her current PhD research examines the legacy of Australia’s infamous bushrangers. Her focus on Black Douglas, a bushranger of African descent, challenges the identity of  the bushranger in Australian myth and folklore.

Buah

McFarlane & Erskine, Gold escort attacked by bushrangers, 187-, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an842045

The legacy of the bushranger in Australia is often associated with the vigilant white man, a figure who challenged law and authority, and blurred the distinctions of those who ruled the land. As with the Californian Gold Rush, the gold-seeking communities in Australia experienced disorder and crime.

In May 1855, reports circulated that a gang, led by a black man, was terrorising the small  mining community of Marybourgh in Victoria. The locals responded with an uprising; a group of vigilantes succeeded in capturing the notorious black outlaw, known as ‘Black Douglas”.The capture of Black Douglas was widely celebrated by the press as a outstanding example of vigilance at work.

Douglas’s physical features soon became synonymous with crime in the goldfields and in the bush. The colour of his skin represented trouble — ‘black’ was enough to label  him as a criminal. In turn, Black Douglas became a celebrity. Not only was he blamed for every unsolved crime in the gold fields, but it was even considered a mark of distinction to have a run-in with the man himself. With a focus on Douglas, disorder during Australia’s Gold Rush became  colour-coded.

Meg’s research has attempted to dislocate the myth from Douglas’s reality. While his exact origins are unknown, it is suspected that he was American-born and sailed to Bristol  in his early twenties. After a short stay in Britain, Douglas was subsequently shipped to Australia as a convict for shoplifting two woolen coats.

Although he was accused of murder, robbery, and trespassing during his lifetime, Douglas’s criminal record does not convey violent man.  Rather, as Meg revealed,  contemporary sources portray him as a drunkard, a depiction far removed from the dangerous dark figure who haunted the gold fields.

In the goldfields of Australia, it was easy to forge new identities. Miners and bushrangers disassociated themselves from their past and reinvented  themselves. But on closer examination, the  myth and reality of Douglas’s  identity are almost inseparable. He was ‘a symbol, more than a man’;  his skin colour had everything to do with it.

 

Graduate Workshop 2017/2018: Call for Papers

19th Century Swedish Immigration to the US

We have now come to the end of our 2016/2017 programmme of Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshops. Many  thanks to all our speakers who have made such a valuable contribution to this year’s series.

The Graduate Workshop will recommence in October 2017.  If you would like to contribute a paper on a diaspora related topic to the 2017/2018 programme, please contact Alastair Learmont or Devin Grier ( see Contact)  by 14 August 2017.  You can find further details at Call for Papers