There is a long history of African-American struggles inspiring black Britons but this moment feels newby Colin Grant / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
Black Lives Matter protesters in Britain have shown themselves to be a rainbow coalition. It is, though, surprising to me how many of them have been black. Despite a tradition of white activists casting black people as radical agents of change, historically speaking black Britons, at least the Windrush generation and their children, have been notably cautious about joining such protests.
Black Caribbeans who came to Britain were the inheritors of a strategy of resistance to authority dating back to slavery, characterised as “playing fool to catch wise”—cunningly disabusing those with more power of the notion that you constituted a threat to them. That stance evolved over centuries into the recognition that if they protested, they would be in greater jeopardy than their white allies; black protesters were likely to be treated more severely by the courts and marked down as troublemakers by future employers.
“There were streets I couldn’t go down [in Bristol] because I was black,” recalls Paul Stephenson of the turbulent 1960s. “I was arrested and thrown in jail for refusing to leave a public house. We couldn’t work on buses. Couldn’t be a policeman. Couldn’t be a fireman.” At the same time, 4,000 miles away across the Atlantic, black Americans led by Martin Luther King and others were putting their bodies on the line in their fight for freedom. When black people were refused jobs as bus conductors and drivers in Bristol, Stephenson felt something had to be done. Emulating the Montgomery bus boycott, he went on to organise a successful boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company in 1963.
From as early as I can remember, as the child of Jamaican migrants to the UK, there was always a kind of raw glamour attached to African-American lives. We might have been “under heavy manners,” oppressed by the police and state, but our own privations seemed attenuated versions of those endured by African Americans. We looked on with horror in the 1960s and 1970s at news footage—of defenceless black marchers being spat on, bitten by snarling Alsatians and pummelled by water canons; of sombre mourners of assassinated civil rights leaders; and then American cities on fire. All were terrifying and pitiable. Though the stoical pacifism of King’s followers was ennobling, to most of my black British peers the unflinching defiance of the Black Panther Party was more attractive.
Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Black Power movement, wowed audiences when he came to London in 1967 with his…