This week, I have an opportunity to think about how empire encounters race via the lived experience and music. What set this in motionL reading Hazel V. Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands for my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” class, and my prep work for “Music and Race and the UK,” my summer 2020 study abroad course for Alabama at Oxford.
While reading about the biracial Carby’s reclamation of her family’s story – which diverges greatly from the story many in Great Britain tell themselves about what it means to be “English” – I am thinking through how best to understand the creation of amazing music in the mid-to-late eighties in England by people whose race is not easily known.
Lisa Stansfield, a white British singer who has teamed up with the late African American balladeer Barry White, comes to mind. When Stansfield received a coveted Brit Award after sampling the music of Soul II Soul, a black British “sound system,” who were also under consideration, eyebrows were raised.
There are other opportunities to think through the uncool outcomes of the cross fertilisation of music.
The Motown Revue in London and the Beatles singing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles are just two of many examples.
Carby’s vulnerable and generous sharing about her childhood points to the difficult histories that involve Britain and her once-colonized spaces.
This daughter of a British woman and Jamaican man was taunted by both teachers and schoolmates who could not easily accept the way in which she destabilized their racial order. It did not matter if her father had served in the equivalent of the British Air Force during the Second World War. He was, as Jay-Z has rapped, still a “n.”
If only Carby’s instructors and schoolmates could look into the future and see her distinguished contributions to African American, diasporic and women’s histories and an impressive career that included her teaching at Yale University.
I will be sorting through how she and others become racialized subjects long after slavery ended. As I read her wonderful latest book, it is heartbreaking to learn about the British people’s varying stances on how the black GI’s body should inhabit their land, more than one hundred years after the supposed emancipation.
Carby addresses how her father made linkages between the unrest in Jamaica in the late thirties and unrest in England in the sixties. Brown bodies wanted more. They still want more.
So much through which to sort. But how to tell the story with music this summer at Worcester College? That is another task among many before me. The experiences of Harry and Meghan won’t be far from mind as I work through this. I promise (Everybody wants to sing our blues/But no one wants to live our blues). I say this with so many souls I love on the other side of the pond close to my heart, too.
The fear of constructed difference. When will it end?
Postscript: I will speak on a panel addressing what it means to be black while traveling abroad. I will try hard to strike a balance. It can be a good experience. But the struggle is always in sight.