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

 

Crisis, Migration and Precariousness: The New Galician Diaspora as a Case Study

unnamed (1)On 28 February 2017, we were delighted to welcome Dr Maria Alonso Alonso to the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop.  Maria obtained her PhD from the University of Vigo in 2014 and is currently based at the University of St Andrews where she holds a a Xunta de Galicia International Postdoctoral Fellowship.  Her work focusses on the Galician diaspora. She has published widely in academic journals; her output also includes short stories, poetry and a novel in the Galician Language.  Her most recent book entitled Transmigrantes Fillas de Precareidade (“Transmigrants , Daughters of Precariousness”), published by Axourere in 2017, challenges an over positive image of migration in order to highlight  the feelings of vulnerability experienced by her own, younger generation.  In a stimulating paper Maria, explored the interconnected themes of crisis, migration and precariousness.

Traditionally, Galicia has been a migrant community.  As Maria observed, it is difficult to find a family unaffected by migration.  In the 19th century, Castile was a popular destination for migrants; at the time of the Spanish Civil War, Latin America, notably Argentina and Uruguay, provided a popular draw.  More recently, it has been Europe.  Factors have included poverty, political instability and unemployment.  Statistics, eloquent of a social crisis, reveal how Spanish unemployment has soared since the beginning of the millennium, rising from 8% in 2006 to 26% in 2012. The trend is most pronounced in the younger generation.  In 2015, youth unemployment (representing the  under 25s) stood at 51%; in the same year graduate unemployment stood at 30%; in Germany the comparative figure was 3%. Over the past five years, over one million Spanish citizens have emigrated; a significant number have come to the UK.  In 2015, on the basis of Spanish Government figures, 45,000 Spanish nationals were formally registered as living in the UK; most were between the ages of 25 and 35, and approximately 20% Galician.

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Maria’s family like many others were affected by migration.  This photograph includes a number of family members including her mother, aunts and uncles, and grandparents

However, as Maria argued, it is important to recognise the presence of a push and pull factor. In the late 1990s, Galicia became a host country.  Spain, which was undergoing a period of political transition, became part of the Euro zone.  It opened its borders to foreign labourers including Africans, Europeans (particularly the Swiss and Germans) and first and second generation emigrants to Latin America (the so called retornados).  Many of the new immigrants were employed in the construction and service industries; at the same time many professional Galicians emigrated to north Europe and the USA.   In many respects, the boom proved transient as images of Castellon airport and Santiago de Compostela City of Culture testify.  As much as nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever expected the Spanish Crisis.

The New Galician Diaspora is characterised by a sense of precariousness as the title of Maria’s recent book suggests.  The Galician Government has promoted an official narrative based on a sense of Sentimentality for the home country from abroad.  Thus Galicians, in the words of Helena Miguélez-Carballeira, “are a nostalgic people…. (who) live in harmonious communion with their landscape…yearning for its beauty”.  According to this received view, emigration is not as traumatic as it might seem.  In fact, emigration is the equivalent of success.  However, this rigid agenda blots out stories of precariousness.  New narratives have developed to challenge the official line. The  stereopytoes and metaphors commonly associated with Sentimentality have been analysed and challenged in the work of Carballeira.    Since 2015, a flurry of publications have provided a critique of Sentimentality. Eloy Domínguez Serén, although comparatively unknown within Galicia, has demonstrated on the basis of his own experiences, how feelings of alienation become important in the context of migration.  The concept of Saudade, almost untranslatable into English, captures the vital angst of living abroad. Manuel Forcadela goes further.  For Forcadela, Saudade is like a form of castration.

Somewhat surprisingly there is nobody currently working on Galician Studies at the University of Edinburgh.  Maria concluded by suggested that important comparisons might be drawn between her native Galicia and Scotland, i.e. as communities existing within hegemonic powers.

This well attended paper provoked interest and debate.  Maria’s scholarly approach was enhanced by the authority of personal experience.  We look forward to welcoming Maria at future graduate workshops and research seminars.

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