Wednesday, April 27, 2011

African-American influence on the African-British

From pages 30-31 of King’s The Internationalization of English Literature, the chapter “The End of Imperial England 1948-1969”:

“The late 1960s and part of the 1970s continued the importation of American black culture and Black Power. A major influence on the new black British writers of the next two decades was African American writing, an influence from which they would liberate themselves as the contexts were unlike those in England. Ferdinand Dennis recalls reading such books as Stokeley Carmichael’s Black Power, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time. When studying for his A levels at a college of further education, he listened to lectures by John La Rose and Darcus Howe and heard Linton Kwesi Johnson in performance with a band. Dennis himself adapted the manner of a black revolutionary. He spoke with black American idioms, and wore a black beret, a black leather jacket, and black trousers. Although born in Jamaica and brought up in England he had, along with others, become a mimic black American. While this gave him historical knowledge and a conceptual vocabulary that as a black British youth he lacked, it applied to a land where there had been slavery and where racial discrimination had brought the United States close to a race war. England was filled with imitation Malcolm Xs, some of whom were idealized by white progressives. The best known was Michael X. This infatuation is the subject of a long critical essay by V. S. Naipaul. Michael X progressed from con man to murderer. Dennis was later to write in Voices of the Crossing (2000), ‘I have often thought just as the world is increasingly dominated by American culture, so the small population of people of African descent in Britain have become victims of African-American cultural imperialism, mimicking styles and taking on concerns which sit uneasily in the British context.’”

COMMENTS: It looks as King is saying Frantz Fanon was an African American. Yes Dennis undoubtedly read Fanon, but King should at least have qualified the inclusion of Fanon in the above, and he would have been best off leaving him out entirely. Stokeley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale were American but Frantz Fanon was French.

It strikes me as reasonable that African-British youth have taken their cues from African-Americans. British had no slavery on their island it is true, but plenty of English gentlemen made their fortunes selling slaves to the English in southern America and elsewhere. Furthermore, those receiving slaves in America were largely British until the States won their independence which wasn’t really won to Britain’s satisfaction until after the War of 1812. Were any slaves sold to Southern Americans after 1812? Can King think of no equivalent British context for the complaints of African Americans?

Wikipedia tells us “Only a fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in British North America – perhaps 5%. The vast majority of slaves shipped across the Atlantic were sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies, Brazil, or Spanish America.” King has already by this point in his book discussed Caribbean immigrants. In fact Dennis is such a one. Is there no justification for these Caribbean immigrants to identify with African Americans? In the Caribbean “the lack of proper nourishment . . . and poor health” prevented Africans from increasing in number as they did in America. “Of the small numbers of babies born to slaves in the Caribbean, only about ¼ survived the miserable conditions of a sugar plantation.” Perhaps the Caribbean-Africans, malnourished, overworked and miserable as they were had no chance to develop their own voice, but what was the harm in their listening to the African-Americans. Dennis at one time felt the resonance even if by 2000 he recanted.

And what is the “cultural imperialism” Dennis refers to? Does it comprise “cultural imperialism” if someone from Britain is attracted to some idea of fad or political stance in America? Imperialism implies force of some sort, but what force is in play in this situation? Does the African-British youth have no choice when he reads Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, or sees certain portrayals in American movies? I think Dennis has been carried away by the term “dominated.” Maybe American culture has captivated the youth in Britain, but there is neither Captor nor Dominator. Force was not used. Maybe Dennis was dominated by the British predisposition to view as many things as possible in terms of Imperialism. And maybe he grew ashamed of the extremeness of his own earlier imitation.

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