Six Stories and an Essay by Andrea Levy - a review, part one.
Back to My Own Country (an essay)
Today, “Everyone is used to a mixture of cultures”, Andrea Levy asserts. In contrast, again according to the author, many of us just don’t know about British black history and how a big part of our combined culture and society have been formed. Levy claims that “The history of the black people of the Caribbean is missing” and clearly wants to set out this history and to right some wrongs. This entails a detailed explanation of why Caribbeans came to Britain and why Britain forged links with the region in the first place. She felt the need to explore this issue when she was growing up, and still feels the need to explain it now.
The essay is also personal, and deals with her own story amongst the stories of the many. Britain is her own country. Jamaica is also her own country. Details of her family’s adaptation to London life, the way that her dual sense of belonging developed and how she became a writer are among the many fascinating insights provided.
Much of this essay is retrospective, but understanding this history is the key to a better present, to moving forward, to making sure that racism is left firmly in the past.
Levy has previously written about the sugar plantations and slavery in her brilliant novel The Long Song. She is quite simply one of the finest writers of realist fiction, and is equally compelling in this essay. Referring to the “The British Plantocracy”, Levy reflects on the impact of British government rule as well as wide-spread attitudes based on “a policy of racial apartheid” which continued into the nineteen sixties. The impact of the British was more complex and diverse than many may realise. Levy informs us that there were plenty of poor white people in the Caribbean, and hence “A social mix was created like no other place on earth”. In return, and with reference to the days and years following the arrival in London of the Empire Windrush in 1948, Levy points out how Britain has benefitted from the incalculable labour, enterprise, and creativity of black people. All of this has contributed to the development of Britain as a “sophisticated multiculture”.
The Empire Windrush, photo via Getty
So, why do people not know about Caribbean history ?
Levy is convinced that this is “A lost history for many of us”. This is, she believes, partly because it happened 3000 miles away, but more so because we are not taught enough in schools about slavery. We are taught more about William Wilberforce and abolition. There is still a need to understand what took place and what it meant. Even “bright, university educated people” have interviewed Levy and shown ignorance of Britain’s use of slaves in the Caribbean. Levy thinks this ignorance is commonplace, and that it is just too easy (presumably for white British people) to forget.
Racism and colour
This ignorance of history became apparent to Levy at an early stage in her life. She recalls one of the most basic forms of racism in being asked the question “why are you here ?” Levy adds that at the time she felt she owed an apology to the National Front, and that this led to self-hate. But Britain was her home. This was where she was born. Levy also refers to England as the Mother Country. There are echoes of Small Island here.
Levy talks a lot in this essay about the colour of skin and particularly the different shades of black, though notably avoids using the American term “colorism”. Early on in life, Levy was scared to call herself black and saw herself as white, continuing to do so until a surprisingly advanced age, when she was shocked and hurt on being obliged to join the black half of the room during a race awareness class. This is reminiscent of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on not knowing that she was black until she went to America.
Writing and self-discovery
Having identified her complex relationship with colour as a problem that was stopping her from understanding herself and her place in society, Levy found a channel for self-development. “Writing came to my rescue”. Initially she benefited from writing about what she knew (i.e. her life in Britain) and exploring her background with words. But she also knew that “Being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions”.
Levy was helped here by visiting Jamaica and discovering more of her family and her roots, and feeling at home there too. Through this, she developed a greater understanding of her skin, her race and her culture. With this increased knowledge of her ancestry and the mixing of peoples, Levy became able to say “I can now happily be called a black British writer.” She knows that she and her family are “products of Britain” just as much as the white people in Britain are, and states “My heritage is Britain’s story too.” This is her story, and one that she draws on in her novels, stories, and essays.
Through her writing, Levy responds to the need to both express herself and to inform others. She is on a mission. “It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history”. In this essay and beyond, Levy affirms and celebrates the fundamental links between peoples and nations, and firmly sets out what it means to live together, however difficult their joint history has been.
Andrea Levy, photo via The Independent
Implications for Britain today
Quite simply, there is so much for modern Britain to consider. Perhaps the best place for us to start is for all of us to seek to better understand how dependent we are, and have been, on others. We also need to know how this dependence has led to insularism and cruelty. Levy calls on the historian Stuart Hall to make this plain : “Euro-scepticism and Little England nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth”. Disturbingly, not only do certain groups of people in England / Britain not know about Black British Caribbean history, they do not want to know. This ongoing, often deliberate ignorance is damaging within society and across the globe. The truth must come out.
Like millions of other British black people of Caribbean extract, Andrea Levy has more than one country to call her own. The journey suggested in the title does not have to be made. The journey, instead, has been one of learning and self-discovery. A journey to find and claim one’s rightful place in society in the face of challenging and oppressive circumstances. Levy calls on us all to realise that we are both the contributors to history and the products of history.
Important questions remain. Exactly how do we move on from here ? Knowing where we come from and establishing what links us together is not the same as eradicating racism. It is part of that process, and frustratingly we are not as advanced here as we need to be. Moreover, how do we measure progress ?
Levy is reflective and self-analytical in this essay, and combines the personal with the universal. In telling us about her own story and the story of her family, she also relates to millions of other people and to their experiences of Britain and the Caribbean. So many of these experiences have been shared, and there is so much that will help to join us together still.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015