The Practice of History

Researching race in contemporary Britain

Image from the author’s personal archive

This photograph of me (back row centre) was taken in September 1996 on my 11th birthday in a park in Sparkhill, one of the many inner-city areas of Birmingham. Sparkhill became home to successive generations of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, the Caribbean and South Asia. Most of us in this picture attended junior school in Balsall Heath, a district just down the road from Sparkhill that for decades was infamous as one of the country’s largest ‘red light’ districts.  A little over a mile east from Balsall Heath is Sparkbrook, the focus of the sociologists John Rex and Robert Moore’s classic Race, Community and Conflict (1967).  Rex and Moore described the Sparkbrook they encountered in the 1960s as ‘a coloured quarter’, a place ‘littered with broken bricks and glass’ where the presence of ‘unfamiliar cooking smells’ was an immediate signal of the neighbourhood’s fundamental difference.  A representation of Britain’s inner-cities as having rapidly become unfamiliarly alien underpinned much sociological writing on ‘race relations’ in the post-war years.  Yet from the vantage-point of a child who lived and went to school in such an area at the tail end of the twentieth century, it was difficult to view the multicultural inner city as anything other than a taken-for-granted feature of everyday life.

Although you wouldn’t have guessed it looking at this photograph, my eleventh birthday was actually an anxious time for me.  At the insistence of my father (back row left), I was about to start at a different secondary school to my friends.  This was a state school a few miles further south from Sparkhill, but one in a slightly more well-to-do part of town with a better academic reputation than the school most of my friends would end up attending.  By the time, seven years later, I began studying at the University of Bristol, I had lost touch with almost everyone in that photograph.

As I made it up each step of the educational ladder (aided considerably by the advantages of having the support of two university-educated parents), I was struck how the spaces I encountered became whiter.  At junior school, there was one other white person in my class – Kerry, whose family were Irish-Catholic migrants.  At secondary school, the ratio was more like 50-50, though the parents and grandparents of most of my closest friends came from the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent.  At the sixth form college we all attended, in the prosperous town of Solihull on the outskirts of Birmingham, most of the new people we met were white.  At Bristol, by contrast, not only were the spaces I encountered very nearly entirely white, an unfamiliar class dynamic had also come into view.  In my first year, a neighbour in my halls of residence had attended Eton College alongside Prince Harry.

Experiencing this trajectory had a considerable effect on me.  The sense of dislocation I felt at Bristol rendered my first year particularly difficult, though it also provided the initial genesis of what would become my core intellectual interests.  As the prospect of a final year dissertation approached at Bristol, it was increasingly clear that I wanted to study some element of Birmingham’s encounter with migration.  I had read The Empire Strikes Back (1982), the important study of race and racism in 1970s Britain collectively-authored by students at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.  For my undergraduate dissertation, by adopting a tight focus on Handsworth, an inner-city area of Birmingham akin to Sparkhill, Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath, I aimed to historicise the accounts of race in contemporary Britain that had been developed by Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and others working in cultural studies.  Handsworth had a particularly large African-Caribbean community, and was lodged in the national imaginary thanks to rioting that took place there in 1981 and 1985.  Given Handsworth’s subsequent presence on the front pages of national newspapers and as the object of various inquiries, I hoped this would provide my dissertation with its archival base.  It was an approach I expanded at MA level and then for a Ph.D thesis.  In many ways, it remained the guiding rationale for what has become my first book, Black Handsworth: race in 1980s Britain.

Although the rioting provided the starting-point for my undergraduate dissertation, I was much more interested in getting at a history beyond the moments of heightened racial tension that have in many ways come to characterise the 1980s more generally.  If my childhood experience of a much more ‘everyday’ sense of ethnic diversity guided this interest, the personal connections I was able to draw on in Birmingham made it more achievable. My first oral history interview, for example, was with the father of one of my closest friends at secondary school, who had migrated to Birmingham from Jamaica in 1967.  My dad also ended up being an important source.  In the late-1970s and early 80s, inspired by his move from the provincial town of Nuneaton to metropolitan Birmingham and an interest in working-class writing, he had been active in Birmingham’s ‘community arts’ scene.  And by this time, this scene had become particularly invested in a project to enable the inhabitants of Britain’s increasingly-diverse inner cities to develop multi-disciplinary representations of their experiences.

In 1982 my dad helped Norman Smith become the first British-born black novelist to be published in the UK. Smith’s Black Friday was a fictional account based on his experiences growing up in inner-city Birmingham.  Less successfully, but no less useful to me as a historian, my dad had also kept the hand-written drafts of a memoir by James Brown, a Jamaican migrant to Handsworth who was a key player in the establishment of a Caribbean cricket team in the area that remains in existence to this day.  This memoir never saw the light of day, but that it was handwritten by Brown on the back of fliers like this one (pictured), advertising a reggae ‘sound system’ event taking place in Sparkbrook, made it a doubly valuable resource.

Image from the author’s archives.
Image from the author’s archives

By drawing on sources like these – as well as photographs, reggae music, theatre productions and the papers of political organisations –  I was hoping to reconstruct a very particular ‘structure of feeling’, a concept Raymond Williams famously introduced to capture the ‘impulses, restraints [and] tones’ of everyday life.  Of course, I was an outsider to my subject.  I was trying to reconstruct a black structure of feeling as a white man who continues to enjoy a myriad of privileges that were not open either to my subjects in Handsworth, or to most of my school friends.  Above all, while I maintain steadfast determination to contribute to the combatting of racism in any context, as the African American theorist bell hooks has argued I can never truly appreciate at first hand the effects of racial discrimination and the ‘killing rage’ that its presence can induce.

But my childhood experiences in Birmingham continue to shape my research.  For my next project, I’m moving away from Handsworth – heading south through Birmingham’s city centre of modernist expressways and post-modernist shopping malls – back to Balsall Heath, the area in which I went to school.  I want to find a way of historicising the social reality of increasing ethnic diversity in the post-war inner city, and the implications that this had in everyday spaces such as the school, in housing and in the arts.  In plotting the post-war history of that area, and my own particular experiences within it, I hope to contribute to the much bigger story of what might be conceptualised as the making of multicultural Britain.

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