Review: Sugar And Slate And Encounters Essay, Research Paper
The Congo boys of CardiffSugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams 192pp, PlanetEncounters: How Racism Came to Ireland by Bill Rolston and Michael Shannon 108pp, Beyond the Pale PublicationsIn the mid-19th century William Hughes left Llangollen Baptist College in Wales and headed for the Congo to civilise, evangelise and proselytise in the name of Christian ministry and Caucasian might. He returned not long after with sickness in his body and two young men in tow. In the years to come, N’kansa and Kin Kassa would tour north and south Wales with the reverend, preaching and singing in English, Welsh and their native tongue. The reverend sold pictures of “the Congo boys” for a few pennies apiece, and the Welsh snapped them up. “I once read that diaspora peoples without a collective historical event to refer to invent one in order to define their presence in their inherited country,” writes Charlotte Williams in her autobiographical work Sugar and Slate. “It took me a long journey to understand why the Congo boys are part of my Elmina.” In its exploration of geographical, racial and cultural dislocation, Sugar and Slate is in the finest tradition of work to have emerged from the black diaspora in recent times. Like France’s Mehdi Charef, Britain’s Andrea Levy or America’s Edwidge Danticat, Williams examines what it feels like to long to belong, to balance difference and indifference and to map out both the potential and pitfalls of accessing many identities while feeling unable to lay full claim to any. The themes are similar, the journeys radically different. But Williams’s voice is her own. “Truth is,” she writes, “you just can’t become something you have never seen or can’t imagine. I was a lost spirit.” Williams had seen few like herself in the small seaside town of Beit-eel on the northern fringes of Wales. Her father was an artist from Guyana; her mother was Welsh and worked in a book warehouse. They met in Mrs Dovaston’s boarding house in Kilburn, London. Both had British passports; but for both, in different ways, the crest was a mark of their alienation from a Britishness that was, at the time, synonymous with whiteness and primarily associated with Englishness. It is this experience – of being racially marginalised within a predominantly white, national community that is itself marginalised within the UK – that gives Sugar and Slate its edge. Its arrival is timely. With devolution in Scotland and Wales, mixed-race peoples have both the opportunity and the necessity to reappraise their own racial histories and identities. The more they have control over their own affairs, the more untenable are attempts either to subordinate issues of racism to issues of nationhood or, worse, simply to refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism. Any contribution that facilitates a greater and more honest understanding of their own layered, multi-racial self-image is vital. In this regard, Wales is probably best known for the warm welcome its miners gave to Paul Robeson. Less well known is that it is the home to one of the first recorded mixed marriages in Britain in 1768, and some of the earliest racial disturbances, too. In 1911, 23 of the 24 Chinese-owned laundries in Butetown had their windows smashed by an angry mob who returned the next day to finish the job. In 1919, a spate of attacks on black seamen led to a brawl in which a white man was stabbed to death. In the week of rioting that followed, black people’s windows were smashed and their homes ransacked. A decade later the chief constable of Cardiff proposed a ban on miscegenation. “Poor mixed-up Wales,” writes Williams. “Somehow as mixed-up as I was; confused about where it had been, what it was and where it was going, rapidly rewriting history to make sense of itself as some kind of monolithic whole and it just wasn’t working. I love its contours and its contradictions.” It is from these contradictions and contours that we see the importance of an equally timely work, Encounters by Bill Rolston and Michael Shannon, which traces the relationship between black people and Ireland from the Vikings to the present day, with the subtitle, How Racism Came to Ireland . In a short but comprehensive overview, the authors cover both Ireland’s participation in the slave trade – “Irish beef was the largest single West Indian import until well into the 18th century” – and the occasional power reversal, as when black soldiers marched under the banner of the empire to help suppress Irish revolts. We learn not only that “with the exception of London, Dublin had the largest black population of any 18th-century European city”, but also about the support that came to the Irish republicans from black Americans such as Marcus Garvey, and the involvement of many Irish-Americans in the most vicious racial disturbances in America during the early part of the last century. From this complexity emerges an ambiguous relationship between racial and national liberation. This ambiguity produced passionate abolitionist speeches from Irish MP Daniel O’Connell: “I want no American aid if it comes across the Atlantic stained in Negro blood.” There is also much hardened bigotry from the likes of John Mitchel, one of O’Connell’s contemporaries, who was more radical on republicanism in Ireland, just as he was more reactionary on race after he moved to America before the civil war. “I consider Negro slavery here the best state of existence for the Negro and the best for his master,” he wrote from Tennessee. “To the casual observer, either within or outside Ireland, the rise of racism north and south appeared not only unexpected but also somehow unnatural,” the authors write in the book’s conclusion. “This was, after all, ‘Ireland of the welcomes’. Yet the racism did not come out of nowhere.” Both these books tell of rich and varied histories. Yet, with the exception of Leonora Brito’s Dat’s Love, the literary voices of blacks and Asians in Wales are rarely heard. The same is true of Ireland. These absences are particularly noticeable when compared to Scotland, which has seen Luke Sutherland’s Jelly Roll (shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award), Leila Aboulela’s The Translator (longlisted for the Orange Prize), and the brilliant, award-winning works of Jackie Kay. It is Williams’s Welshness that makes her examination of her mixed-race identity distinctive; but it is the humour, candour and facility of her style that make it exceptional. Hers is an engaging and perceptive voice describing an engrossing and particular personal story. Her father found work in various parts of Africa and for several years his family dutifully followed. “It was movement that was home,” writes Williams. “Home was not a particular place for us in the very early years. Home was Ma. We arrived into an exile; into a state of relocation that was both hers and his. And the journeys were more than physical journeys.” Like most diaspora tales, its narrative structure is fractured both in time and place – much like the experiences of the narrator. Past and present, Wales, Guyana and various parts of Africa blend within the page and at times even within the sentence. They arrived in Beiteel when Williams was a young child. “We were classless, clubless and groupless,” she writes of her childhood. “Kids, drunks or some disgruntled old person might occasionally let the side down but in our town we all colluded in the wonderful deceit of what I suppose you could call ‘polite racism’.” As an adult and expat she moved to Guyana, which by then had become the home of her now estranged father, where her partner found work in development. “History and attachment don’t just flow into your body like the deep breaths of warm air blowing across the black creek waters. That part of your identity can’t automatically fit you like the ‘I love Guyana’ T-shirt you can buy anywhere on Main Street.” Unwilling to settle for simplistic formulations, Williams is at home in her own contradictions. Her journey may have been inward, but it was not self-indulgent. She returns not with answers but with a sense of agency. “It occurred to me that if I wasn’t going to be claimed by either country then I would have to do the claiming myself. It would be up to me, and if I was going to adopt the country that seemed so reluctant to adopt me, I had to make some sense of myself within it.”· Gary Younge will be appearing at Hay on June 1.