Fifty years ago, Conservative Member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered what may be the most controversial speech in postwar British history; known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and delivered to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on 20 April 1968, it was an attack on mass immigration and the recent growth in that country’s minority population. For following the 1948 British Nationality Act that gave Commonwealth citizens the right to settle in Britain, and the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury, with its 492 Caribbean passengers—including calypsonian Lord Kitchener—also in 1948, Britain’s black Caribbean population had skyrocketed. The arrival of the Windrush launched a process of Caribbean demographic expansion in Britain that averaged 32,850 persons annually between 1955 and 1962, and the British Home Office confirms that the 15,301 British residents claiming to be born in the Caribbean in 1951 had mushroomed to 171,800 ten years later and to 304,000 in 1971. Despite the successive restrictions of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, its updating via the Immigration Act of 1971 (by virtue of which Commonwealth citizens lost their automatic right to remain in the United Kingdom), and the British Nationality Act of 1981 (which further restricted the right of abode in the UK), by 1991 it was confirmed that the total West Indian population claiming birth or descent in the UK had surpassed 500,000 and stood at about 0.9 percent of the population.
Such figures, as astonishing as they are, offer only a partial picture of the postwar migration phenomenon that would overtake, transform, and ultimately radicalize concepts of “Britishness.” By 1968, for example, there were 1,113,000 newly arrived nonwhites in the UK; of these, 77,966 had been admitted between 1962 and 1968, the latter figure representing in fact a drastic reduction in arrivals. Interestingly, Powell’s pedigree, so to speak, was mixed on the migration issue, to say the least; as Sally Tomlinson points out, “Originally an academic appointed at age 25 to a Chair in Classics in Sydney University[, Powell] entered parliament in 1954 [and] served as a Minister of Health for two years from 1960—during which time he oversaw migration from the Caribbean of health workers, and put himself forward as a possible Conservative leader in 1965.”1 Drawing on racialized fears of ethnic and cultural difference, which were visualized in the decade-long objectification of growing numbers of Commonwealth immigrants of color, Powell became the symbolic figurehead of a vocal anti-immigration movement that built on Britain’s fear of being “swamped” by the unknown, the unquantifiable, undefinable other.
Powell claimed that a constituent he described as a “a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” had told him that the country would “not be worth living in” because “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Powell complained his constituents were becoming strangers in their own country, that their wives could not get hospital beds to give birth in, nor their children school places. Stoking populist fears, he asserted that the country was being made subject to a “total transformation to which there [was] no parallel in a thousand years of English history,” and he evoked the specter of a looming parallel with the United States: “That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.” His conclusion was stark: “In 15 or 20 years, on present trends, there will be in this country three and a half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants.” He proposed “generous grants and assistance” so that immigrants would return to their countries of origin. The future, then, did not appear promising. “As I look ahead,” he said, “I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”2 In Powell’s view, then, this vision of a racialized civil war would be inevitable if migrants of color did not leave the country.
As Sally Tomlinson astutely points out, “The doctrine of ‘Powellism’—a combination of demand for national sovereignty and anti-immigration plus residual beliefs in an Empire—surfaced regularly over the years, although it should be noted that Powell’s anti-immigrant stance was reserved for those he perceived as ‘not white.’”3 And Powell was not alone in this position. London had been riven by growing social resentment at the rapidly increasing numbers of people of color, and particularly people of West Indian origin, in specific areas of London. Chronic housing shortages and outright rejections of West Indians and other black renters were exacerbated by overt patterns of racism and segregation. It was not uncommon to see signs in the windows of rooming houses that read, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs,” and leaflets and wall slogans that urged, “Keep Britain White.” As a result, large numbers of migrants were crowded into filthy, insanitary spaces, often sleeping six or more to a room, in grim conditions that were often worse than those in which they had lived back home; this all culminated in the infamous Notting Hill riots of 30 August to 5 September 1958, which spread as far as Paddington, Notting Dale, Shepherd’s Bush, and Marylebone, in the worst racial violence Britain had ever seen. Adrian Favell provides a telling description of the myriad tensions at work in this moment:
Powell was clearly speaking for a sizeable part of the population, when he called on a mythical discourse of dominantly English cultural unity and distinctiveness. . . . Immigrants were thus pictured as invading hordes who, with their peculiar practices and origins and predilection for crime and moral turpitude, would never be able to assimilate. In the speech he speaks of the terrified white working-class family reduced to a racial minority in their own street; and predicts the bloody outcome that will ensue if measures are not taken to repatriate the new immigrants.4
Such visions of othering are obviously grounded in a visceral fear of racial difference, a difference that was fine when kept on the periphery, objectified, and rationalized as helping to make the empire great, but that was now—as the empire re-turned to the center—skirting spaces that were uncomfortably close to home. Seen from the latter perspective, this explicit conflation of race and nationness gave rise to fears and anxieties that traced similar exclusionary themes; their insistence on excluding the “other” was grounded in a vision of self that conjoined “belonging” with notions of “long duration” that appeared at first blush to avoid stereotyped discourses of race and place because their very framework appeared to be “objective.” Their goal, however, was anything but.
In the aftermath of Powell’s inflammatory discourse, which split the nation and instantly became one of modern British history’s most divisive addresses, the fallout was swift and fierce. Protesters took to the streets in support of Powell’s backing for the repatriation of immigrants while newspaper editorials attacked his “appeal to racial hatred”; Powell himself was evicted from the Conservative shadow cabinet and “in 1968 and 1969 he delivered speeches in the West Midlands deploring the immigration of those he described as ‘coloured, Negro, and picanninies.’”5 But this event left perhaps its most telling impact on the black British population; by making racism officially acceptable, his words would spur the Caribbean community to assert their burgeoning black British identity in a number of ways and across a range of discourses.
This overt racialization of immigration led to the Immigration Act and Rules of 1971 and 1973. These restrictions were but the precursor to the Nationality Act of 1981, which drastically reduced and redefined the criteria for British citizenship, insisting that henceforth either the subject or her or his parents had to be of British birth. From this point on, there would be no further right of permanent entry into Britain for former colonials. In a sense, however, for those hoping for the continuation of a United Kingdom that was visibly descended from the inhabitants of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, this would be too little, too late.
Powell himself asked the BBC journalist Michael Cockerill, “What’s wrong with racism? Racism is the basis of nationality."6 In other words, Powell wasn’t merely expressing reservations about multiculturalism—by equating race with citizenship and belonging, he was saying that immigrants of color had no right to be there in the first place.
Both the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech of 1968 contributed incalculably to the resistance that coalesced in a spirit of community among the Windrush-era Caribbean people in Britain and their descendants and the construction of diasporic identity that it produced. Winston James has argued forcefully that contending with overt British racism—particularly as it was articulated through these two events—was the first stage in a process of community identification: “Race consciousness has been awakened in these black migrants thanks to the racism of the society into which they have entered. A new identity has been forged in the crucible of racist Britain. . . . This is not to suggest, however, that racism has been the sole determinant of this new identity."7 In other words, the patterns of Caribbean contestation that were engendered in the wake of these events produced a necessary but unprecedented sense of unity that faced down the rabid attacks of police and civilians alike and, in doing so, brought a historically disparate and divided people together on foreign territory to face a common foe. The commonality of background, experience, and perspective that emerged from these contacts clearly showed the potential organizational and identitarian power of their nascent Pan-Caribbeanism.
Those spaces that today are primarily associated with the Caribbean community within London—Brixton, Shepherd’s Bush, and (a pre–Julia Roberts / Hugh Grant) Notting Hill—were originally slum areas, claimed as new communities of Caribbean migrant settlement. It was this (sub)conscious struggle for social reinforcement that inscribed a post-Windrush Anglo-Caribbean identity, where communities were created from the sheer quantity of migrants in such close proximity to each other. In many cases, unable to find decent housing and barred from fraternizing with the white working class in pubs and clubs, this vanguard of Caribbean colonial subjects was still bent on making some corner of this foreign land their own. Formed by the converging axes of Britishness and Caribbeanness, they would have learned to inhabit two worlds at once, and their increasing social visibility was matched by their institution of such cultural hallmarks as the Notting Hill Carnival, which in 2019 will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary and is now Europe’s largest street festival, having begun in January 1959 in St. Pancras Town Hall as a response to the still-present social tensions that persisted in the wake of the Notting Hill riots of the previous year.
They also turned to mediating identitarian discourses of liberation in music, art, fiction, film, and theater. Stuart Hall, in particular, staged the black British experience as complex modalities of cultural identity, framing it through acts of communal agency and displacing the traditionally singular identitarian vision that is typically associated with the nation-state to mediate new sites of group resistance and communal affirmation.
The cultural analyses and positionalities led by Hall in the 1970s and 1980s generated a sense of pride in “black” culture that successfully countered the many-headed hydra of British prejudice. On the other hand, it also served as the symbolic culmination of new sites and strategies for the representation and performance of this constructed, multivalent Anglo-Caribbean identity. As we shall see, the resulting empowering transformation of the metaphors of blackness into a freely floating signifier of struggle and liberation mediated a metonymic association with agency and subjectivity, enabling a challenge to the dominant discourses of identity and difference. For Britain’s Caribbean community, performances by migrants and by descendants of West Indian migrants who were born in Britain drew on their clear-cut linguistic and cultural difference from the mainstream metropolitan population to inscribe and valorize new ways of being that embodied both their history and their experience, resuscitating the memory of island life as a defense against their current alienation, even as they extended the boundaries of Britishness.
But an important caveat is in order here. The postwar West Indian presence in Britain in fact served to catalyze a long-standing and vibrant black British community, one that, as Peter Fryer makes clear, “goes back some 2,000 years and has been continuous since the beginning of the sixteenth century or earlier.”8 The presumptive origins of this presence can be pinpointed even further, as Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina indicates: “Most historians give 1555, when five Africans arrived to learn English and thereby facilitate trade, as the beginning of a continual black presence in Britain.”9 It is this historical, multilayered, and multivalent presence, then, that frames Hall’s declaration: “The Windrush, which is often given an originary status in the narrative of the formation of a black British diaspora, was not really the origin of anything.”10 However, what the years since the arrival of the Windrush had done was to transform the values and practices of Britain’s working class, positioning a variety of new migrant cohorts in geographic and social proximity to their white counterparts. Early writers such as V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, and George Lamming laid out the paradoxes and pluralities of Caribbean culture, both at home and in their newfound spaces abroad, and they were followed by contemporary authors that included Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, and Andrea Levy. Subsequently, artistic and musical expressions appropriated Caribbean traditions of social protest and commentary inscribed in the griot- and storyteller-derived practices of carnival, calypso, and reggae that have their roots in the practice of parody and dissent that emerged among the displaced African slaves on the plantation to contest British racism and carve out a new expressive space of hybridized representation.
Hall’s key interest arguably lay in the complex changes enacted from the margins upon the character of the center, reflecting to a certain degree his early experience of England and of Oxford. This perspective enabled him to construct one of his most cogent definitions of the doubled inscriptions of subjectivity through which migrants were effectively reframing the boundaries and conditions of belonging within and between these new communities:
Such people retain strong links with their places of origin and their traditions, but . . . are obliged to come to terms with the new cultures they inhabit, without simply assimilating to them and losing their identities completely. They bear upon them the traces of the particular cultures, traditions, languages and histories by which they were shaped. . . . They are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures, belong at one and the same time to several “homes” (and to no one particular “home”). . . . They are the products of the new diasporas created by the post-colonial migrations. They must learn to inhabit at least two identities, to speak two cultural languages, to translate and negotiate between them.11
While firmly grounded in difference, the gradual but ineluctable appropriation of the ground of representation became the primary means whereby the Anglo-Caribbean British presence contested its demonization and inscribed its critical cultural and discursive doubleness. Such counter-strategies gathered both form and content into a new representative regime that sought to dismantle these prejudiced (and prejudicial) hierarchies of signification even as it introduced alternative sites and discourses of difference, in essence establishing and defining the scope and validity of the term “black British” even as it countered Powell’s view of “his nation [as] a white, mono-ethnic, monocultural one,” as Sally Tomlinson puts it.12 By adopting what was essentially a subversive strategy of decentering and defamiliarization, one that simultaneously set the stereotypes of the regime against themselves while also clearing a space and setting new paradigms for black British subjectivity in the fields of film, fiction, television, art, and music, the post-Windrush generation was effectively inscribed through the creative hybridities of black British expression.
One of the unprecedented products of this protracted struggle for an expressive space for cultural identity was the range of pluralisms contained within the appellation “black,” a term broadly ascribed to this migrant Caribbean, Asian, and African population. Again, Hall strategically contextualized the range of resonances within the term for the complex work of cultural contestation faced by these burgeoning communities:
What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences, and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects.13
By broadening the boundaries of blackness in this way, within these metropoles that are increasingly recognized as the new postcolonial cultural contact zones, Hall showed that these overseas Caribbean diasporas were articulating a new set of possibilities that allowed all these groups—displaced as they were into a new, hybrid space marked by Englishness and Caribbeanness that was simultaneously both and singularly neither—to meld change with continuity so that, as the post-Windrush subjects proceeded to “become ‘West Indian’ in England,” it allowed other “black” subjects and positionalities to emerge and assert themselves as well.14 The implications of this phrase of Hall’s are legion; it arguably speaks to a sort of rebirth, a becoming West Indian a second time, in a different place, and even in a different way, with all the tensions and complexities that this trajectory implies. In a similar vein, the Martiniquan philosopher Édouard Glissant has pointed to the key paradox that many Antillais discover their antillanité once in metropolitan France.
As these communities continue to catalyze the dynamics of these spaces, the series of interactions and exchanges that gave rise to creolization in the Caribbean are reproduced, transformed, and extended in the metropolitan site, whose ethnic, cultural, social, and political difference(s) produce alternative networks of being and becoming. As Hall puts it, “They contract relations with the surrounding society and culture; increasingly, they are open to cross-cultural influences; over time, their historic traditions become modified to a greater or lesser extent by the persistent contacts of everyday life.” In these terms, then, “the process of transculturation is unstoppable.”15 These iterations of Caribbean re-diasporization locate its subjects within explicitly transnational and transformative spaces of change and renewal, in a process of incessant reinvention that is the hallmark of Caribbean culture.
H. Adlai Murdoch is a professor of French and francophone literature and the director of Africana studies at Tufts University. He is the author of Creole Identity in the French Caribbean Novel (2001) and Creolizing the Metropole: Migratory Metropolitan Caribbean Identities in Literature and Film (2012); a coeditor of the essay collections Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies (2005), Francophone Cultures and Geographies of Identity (2013), and Metropolitan Mosaics and Melting-Pots: Paris and Montreal in Francophone Literatures (2013); and the editor of various journal special issues.
1 Sally Tomlinson, “Enoch Powell, Empires, Immigrants, and Education,” Race, Ethnicity, and Education 21, no. 1 (2018): 2.
2 Enoch Powell, “Rivers of Blood,” speech to the Conservative Association, Birmingham, England, 20 April 1968; see “Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood” Speech, Telegraph, 6 November 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speec….
3 Tomlinson, “Enoch Powell,” 5.
4 Adrian Favell, Philosophies of Integration: Immigration and the Idea of Citizenship in France and Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 105.
5 Tomlinson, “Enoch Powell,” 2.
6 Quoted in “Enoch Was Wrong: The Attempted Rehabilitation of a Racist,” New Statesman, 18 June 2012.
7 Winston James, “Migration, Racism, and Identity Formation: The Caribbean Experience in Britain,” in Winston James and Clive Harris, eds., Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain (London: Verso, 1993), 254, 255.
8 Peter Fryer, Black People in the British Empire (London: Pluto, 1988), xiv.
9 Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life before Emancipation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 3.
10 Stuart Hall, preface to Paul Gilroy, Black Britain: A Photographic History (London: Saqi, 2007), 7.
11 Stuart Hall, “The Question of Cultural Identity,” in Stuart Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew, eds., Modernity and Its Futures (London: Polity, 1992), 310 (italics in original).
12 Tomlinson, “Enoch Powell,” 12.
13 Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1996), 443.
14 Stuart Hall, “Creolization, Diaspora, and Hybridity in the Context of Globalization,” in Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya, eds., Créolité and Creolization: Documenta 11, Platform 3 (Ostfildern-Ruit, GR: Hatje Cantz, 2003), 188.
15 Ibid., 190.