This academic year, I'm using the AIP book review series, On My Shelf, to revisit the books in my personal library. Over the course of the next ten months, I rereading my collection of ethnographies and popular science books and to share some thoughts with you.
Brown, Jacqueline Nassy (2005). Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail. Princeton: University Press.
Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail opens with the author’s admission of naiveté concerning race and place that is perhaps reflective of the naiveté that native New Yorkers may have held about racial politics of space before race came to dominate so much of the national discourse. Brown writes, on the first page of the preface no less, that she as a Black American “had never been forced to think about race through nation precisely because in the United States there is no discourse about Black Americans’ Americanness. Blacks get swept into (and away by) American nationalism rather than cast on the other side of it; as has been the case in Britain. Is there anyone in the United States who seriously believes that we are out of place? That we all really belong elsewhere? Or that we are not central to the national community even, ironically, in our marginality?” This seems to be the stance of someone comfortably encased within a diverse metropolis—essentially, how could the world be different elsewhere when the norm within your relative context tells you otherwise? While she also maintains that the answer to her question on marginality may have been different at other points in history, we’re certainly at a point in history when that answer does differ and race is at the forefront of many discussions of belonging and nationalism. This book, however, is not a dissection of current events, but about being Black in Britain and the degree to which this label is constructed and permitted to exist both within and beyond Liverpool.
Anchor opens with the author being told that to understand Black people (in England), you have to understand Liverpool. Over the ensuing pages, we chase invisible spaces, memories, and forgotten purposes. Once a thriving port, Liverpool cannot escape its legacy within colonialism and the resulting racial tensions. Prior to 1925, colonial seamen had free entry into British ports because they were British subjects. Shipping companies tended to hire these men from West African ports for journeys that ended in Britain where they would have to wait and reside until they could be hired onto another ship. Often the wait would drive many African sailors into poverty as they often could not find other work while waiting for another ship. This worked to the advantage of the shipping companies, who could then hire these men more cheaply than white British sailors.
These tensions would be heightened by the 1919 riots where Blacks throughout Britain were targeted by mobs who were often spurred on by unemployed white servicemen. In May and June of 1919, Blacks in Liverpool were randomly attacked. Charles Wootton, a seaman originally from Barbados who resided on Upper Pitt Street, fled one such mob and died after jumping into the River Mersey to escape. The crowd is said to have chanted “Let him down!” Wootton’s death has become the legacy of Blacks in Liverpool for whom this story is an integral part of their oral history.
Part of the issue of British Blackness for Liverpudlians is the way race and place has been recognized and deployed by Britain. Place is a fundamental component for Britishness, creating the basis for subjecthood for the nations of the United Kingdom. An important aspect of situating Britishness in place means that a citizen can be British without being English.
This worked from medieval times through 1981: one could be a British subject through the “law of the soil.” Essentially, if you were born on British soil, you were a citizen of the Crown.This became problematic when colonial and postcolonial nations began to claim British nationality within Britain. British nationalists from the 1960s had begun to argue that Blacks could not belong to the nation or share the culture of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England. These nationalists maintained a distinction that was formally and legally recognized by the passage of the British Nationality Act of 1981. The terms of the Act mandated that British citizenship required having at least one parent being born in Britain. This was problematic for Black residents of Liverpool for whom this would not apply. It meant that after 900 years of recognizing a territorial principle for British identity, Britishness was now determined by genealogy. A racial divide had been legalized.
There are some interesting discussions in Anchor about interracial couples and the ways in which they were perceived that echo the commentary about women’s agency in What’s Love Got to Do With It? As in Love, there is talk about breaking from one’s countrymen to find a partner because others are better mates—for the Dominican women of Sosúa this meant looking for marriage with the European tourists who come to the island for sex tourism, while white British women this meant a relationship with a Black seaman—who could better their lives through migration. In both cases, their agency is minimized, although in the case of Liverpudlians there is the added element of the ways in which the children of these unions are treated and the displacement of identity they suffer as well.
I struggled with this book, reading it in fits and starts which is distinctly different from my normal voracious style of consuming printed words. It’s not that I was unusually reflective of the material—I collected a number of notes that pointedly marked a viewpoint that stands in contrast with the American sense of nationalism today. And perhaps that is why this was so difficult to read. It was a challenge to divorce the narrative from so many current events. As a child of immigrants, the understanding of displacement and the connection between place and identity is real and close to home for me. This is not a story of West Indian identity. It is specific to Blackness in Britain so the absence of representation of other Liverpudlian ethnicities is not problematic, but that does not mean the parallels can be ignored by the reader.
Overall, Anchor provides an interesting foundation to discuss some of the issues unfolding in the United States with regard to race and its colonial relationship to the Caribbean, but be warned that it requires a great deal of unpacking and close reading to aid that discussion.
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Also in this series: