Sukhdev Sandhu: Black Britain ... A Photographic History

Roundup: Talking About History

There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of a photographic history of black Britain would have seemed an absurd proposition. What would be its contents? A picture of the Jamaican passengers disembarking from the SS Empire Windrush in 1948; a few Picture Post covers advertising shock-horror features about high birth rates among impoverished immigrants; riotous inner-city youths on the streets of Brixton and Toxteth; and then, perhaps, a few celebratory shots of Daley Thompson atop an Olympic podium or Paul Boateng being elected as an MP.

This stock archive, as likely as not, would illustrate a narrative about British racism or about the successes of an ever-more confident second generation of Afro-Caribbeans.

It's a tribute to the diligence and thoughtfulness of the sociologist and cultural historian Paul Gilroy that such curatorial clichés are absent from the volume of images drawn from the Getty library that he has assembled on this topic. Early on, he writes: "This is not a book for black people only, and the history it marks out is not held collectively and exclusively as their property."

His selection of images, many of them unfamiliar to even the most diligent scholar of black British visual history, show a day-to-day inter-racial conviviality that would have appalled demagogue politicians such as Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for Smethwick in the 1963 general election, whose slogan was: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour."

Here, by contrast, are photographs of overall-clad factory workers sharing a cigarette light; chubby-cheeked infants in Cardiff's Tiger Bay crawling in playgrounds together; amorous couples waltzing in Piccadilly nightclubs during the Second World War.

Gilroy's point is that the United Kingdom is too small for the kinds of ghettoisation and segregation that have long been rife in the United States.

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