In a timely coincidence the first Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010) is published during Black History Month (October 20, 2016 UK). The volume is a radical undertaking. It investigates the past sixty-five years of literature by centralising the work of British Black and Asian writers, writing that is incontrovertibly part of Britain’s cultural landscape. Black History Month provides an opportunity to proclaim this.
The conflating of Black and Asian into a single category has served both politics and culture at certain points in post-war British history. But as the book’s chapters and contemporary social realities show, such co-joining is now unsustainable in understanding how race, ethnicity, class, gender, and faith are experienced in Britain today.
In celebrating ‘diversity’, ‘difference’, and ‘inclusion’ as the main ingredients of the recipe for contemporary Britain’s multicultural nationhood, the arguments for BHM’s obsolescence surface annually. Likewise, the literary category ‘Black British’ faces a similar question mark. Some declare, isn’t it time to stop using the term? Hasn’t the international success of British-born writers like Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Patience Agbabi, Jackie Kay and Fred D’Aguiar proven that the ‘hyphenated writer’, (to quote novelist Aminatta Forna) is a term that diminishes a rightful claim to the status of ‘writer’? For when do we see the phrase ‘white male writer’ as a qualifier?
However, the after-effects of Britain’s colonial power still reverberate, strongly and detrimentally through many people’s lives. It is important to consider the breadth of the barriers Black British writers still face. Across the arts sector in literature, film, television, theatre, museums, and publishing, black artists in Britain can still find their lives and experiences— if represented at all— primarily filtered through the dominance of white directors, screenwriters, programmers, commissioning agents, reviewers and pundits. In 2016 the glaring lack of diversity in the arts sectors— and the personnel who comprise it— is, to say the least, perturbing. The celebration of Black History Month can remind all of us of this fact in a highly concentrated way, one that spills over the borders imposed by ‘Month’.
In an educational climate where many students are rightly asking, ‘Why is my curricula white?’ and ‘Why isn’t my professor black?, young people make it clear that their generation expect the automatic inclusion of perspectives, that often disturb the familiar white British cultural canon. As the biographer Andrea Stuart maintains, ‘We will know Black History Month is successful only when it is redundant – when our history is understood by us all’. Recognising the legacy of Black British writers in literary history is one vital step towards achieving this – as the Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010) shows.