Your research for an upcoming book focuses on a comparison of two communities with a large number of West Indian immigrants between the 1950s and 1970s: central Brooklyn and the Notting Hill area of London. Why did you focus on these two communities in Britain and the United States?
Part of what I’m trying to do is situate African-American migration in a larger context. African-Americans have not been fixed in one place; African American history is fundamentally a history of movement and migration. There was, of course, the forced African migration of slavery, but even in the 20th century, at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, people are leaving the South, going to places like Chicago, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and New York. In New York, African-Americans are encountering other kinds of black migrants, people who have different experiences with colonialism, with migration.
Secondly, I think British racial formation has a very particular relationship with the United States and American racial formation. Part of what I wanted to do is tease that out. I wanted to look at how things that were happening in the United States - the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, race riots - how those things are influencing not only the Caribbean immigrants but also British policies and ideas about race and national identity in Britain. Those are the kinds of things I’m trying to tease out.
What connections did you find between Bedford-Stuyvesant and other Brooklyn communities and Notting Hill?
On the surface there are tremendous differences between the two. Part of what I took on is to illuminate the similarities. I start with African-Americans: black southerners are coming to New York, living side by side with West Indians in Brooklyn. Many settled first in Harlem and then came to Brooklyn. I’m trying in some ways to disaggregate this mass black community. Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the largest black communities in the country with over half a million people today. During the period I look at, the population is still in the hundreds of thousands. How can we understand this community and its diversity not as a recent phenomenon but look at the ethnic dimensions, class dimensions, and political dimensions of that diversity as they developed historically? Similarly, in the U.K., although it’s a much smaller community that migrates there after World War II, it’s not possible to talk about the community that first settles as a “black British” community. They’re West Indians with strong national identities: Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Guyanese. These are the major West Indian groups who settle in England. When people eventually coalesce into more of a community, it’s in part because of the racism that they encounter and the collective actions they take to fight against that racism.
What were the immigration policies in the United States and Britain during the period between World War II and the 1970s that you are focusing on?
There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between restriction and liberalization in both countries. There was a larger number of Caribbeans immigrating to the United States earlier in the 20th century. In 1952, with the McCarren-Walter Act, the United States constricts immigration in such a way that dramatically limits the number of West Indians. At roughly the same time, the U.K. had liberalized immigration policies towards its current and former colonies in an effort to consolidate the Commonwealth. Caribbeans, then, are starting to go to the U.K. in the 1950s at a time when they’re much less likely to come to the United States. But that window of opportunity closes in less than 15 years. By the early 1960s, the British Parliament is itself restricting immigration. In 1965, the immigration reform in the U.S. opened up the possibility for folks to come here and that immigration continues to this day.
Can you describe some of the history of the two communities in Notting Hill and Brooklyn?
Bedford-Stuyvesant developed in the second half of the 19th century as a kind of suburb of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. There were single-family brownstones often owned by people who could afford to have servants. There were a lot of Italians, a lot of Jews, Germans. Over time, they moved out to Queens, to Long Island and many to New Jersey. The Depression opened up the area for African Americans, once many of the owners of these brownstones could no longer afford to heat and maintain them. When African-Americans start to move into the area in numbers in the 1930s, a lot of those buildings get divided up. What were once single-family homes become three and four-family dwellings. It becomes a neighborhood not only of middle-class homeowners but working-class renters as well. Overcrowding in Harlem and war-related job opportunities also contributed to the rapid growth of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
In England after World War II, there’s an incredible labor shortage because so many people have been killed in the war. There’s also a housing shortage in London because of the decimation of the bombings. Part of the draw for West Indians coming to England is job opportunities. In general there’s a sense of very limited opportunity in the Caribbean. There’s an expanding population and people are interested in going abroad, seeking better opportunities. Many soldiers had been stationed in Europe and were decommissioned and sent back to the Caribbean. They quickly saw that there was not much happening in Trinidad or Jamaica so they were some of the first to come back in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
What happens with the housing shortage is that because of the discrimination there are few neighborhoods where West Indians can find accommodation. They find out very quickly the places where people won’t rent to them. “No Dogs, No Irish, No coloreds.” It’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s the landlords will put that right up in the window. They tend to flock to these more working class, somewhat rundown places - including in West London. The area that’s generally called Notting Hill is one of them.
Notting Hill, which had in the 19th century itself been a fairly upper class area, by the early 20th century its northern fringes at least became a kind of somewhat run-down neighborhood - a haven for vice. Prostitution was rampant. It was an area of immigrants. The Irish were there, Cypriots, other working-class Brits were there and the Caribbeans carved out a little bit of community starting in the early fifties.
What brought these diverse West Indian groups in Britain together?
One of the things that happens in Notting Hill, Caribbean immigrants are met with low level racial harassment and racial violence that’s perpetuated by groups of young white teenagers called Teddy Boys - sort of informal gangs. They’re mainly white working class; they’re disaffected and undereducated. Despite the labor shortages, there’s a perception of too few job opportunities right after the war and they’re seeing these Caribbean immigrants coming in and they take out their frustrations on them. People are being beaten up on the street. There are fights in pubs. It finally explodes in the summer of 1958 in four days of rioting: the Notting Hill riots. At the same time, there are fascists who are drumming up anti-immigrant sentiment on street corners and in mass meetings.
No one is killed (in the riots) but there are injuries, significant property damage. Storefronts are broken up, cars are broken up, and people are attacked on the street. The West Indians fight back. They organize themselves and take a stand against these white supremacists. It becomes a seminal moment for the community. Where there are clear divisions between Trinidadians and Jamaicans, and the like, some of these differences start to recede in the face of these attacks.
Not long after the riots, Kelso Cochrane, a West Indian immigrant coming home late at night, is confronted by five or six white youths and is stabbed and killed. In a country where there’s not the kind of deadly violence it’s a moment that galvanizes the West Indian community in London. There is a massive funeral, delegations to the Home Secretary, and rallies and marches. It’s a symbolic moment where people said, “Let’s come together, let’s close ranks.” It’s the beginning of a black British politics that is different than the anti-colonial politics that had already existed.
Is there a parallel to those events in Brooklyn?
One thing I look at is police brutality in New York and Brooklyn. There are a couple of high profile police murders of black suspects in the early postwar period. I look at the ways that the black community is organizing around those events, particularly through the NAACP, but also other types of organizations that come in, including the Communist Party. There are also a number of prominent ministers involved in that issue.
What were the divisions among black people in the Brooklyn community?
There are class divisions between more middle-class, well-established blacks and poor blacks. There’s some division between those folks who may themselves have roots not that far back in the South and yet who see the more recent immigrants as a threat. There are also frictions between native- and foreign-born blacks.
You also discuss how some of those differences between members of the black community center around the carnival in both Brooklyn and Notting Hill. Can you explain the role of the carnival in both communities?
The West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn is very much a Caribbean event and African-Americans have, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward it. The carnival actually originated in Harlem in the 1940s. African-American newspapers are writing about the embarrassment of the carnival: “these women are scantily clad, they’re too loud, they’re buffoonish.” But it’s well attended and it eventually moves to Brooklyn in the late 1960s. But, again, it’s primarily about the Caribbean community.
In Notting Hill, the neighborhood itself changes quite rapidly over a period of two decades. By the end of the 1950s it’s starting to become a bohemian enclave: hippies come in. Eventually it starts to gentrify and by the 1970s people are talking about Caribbeans being pushed out. Meanwhile, the carnival grows exponentially. For many years attendance was in the low thousands, but it quickly grows to upwards of a million and the neighborhood feels like it can’t contain this massive gathering of people. There are questions about how the carnival should be policed. What occurs are some very violent confrontations between the Metropolitan Police and young men. There are essentially carnival riots in 1976, 1977 and 1978. These conflicts engender huge debates both over whether the carnival belongs in Notting Hill as well as the larger question of relationship between the police and black Londoners. There’s a whole debate about whether the carnival should be moved, not only among residents who live in Notting Hill but also on a national scale. Should the carnival happen in Notting Hill or should it be moved to Hyde Park? There’s a proposal to move it to a football stadium and the Caribbean community kind of fights against that.
Can you explain how the Black Power movement manifests itself in Notting Hill?
It’s kind of a thread that ties back to the issues of police brutality and relationships with the police. The policing of the carnival is happening at the same time that there are conflicts with police in other spaces in the city. There are a series of police raids that happen in particularly black establishments. Community leaders organize a protest march. They’re writing letters to Parliament, to the home secretary, saying this is part of a wider pattern. They organize this protest march going by the three main police stations around Notting Hill. It’s a time when the Black Power movement is flourishing in the United States. Now it’s starting to coalesce in England. Police and the media characterize this protest as a “Black Power” march. Some of the organizers are people involved in Black Power and the march has the rhetoric and symbolism of Black Power in terms of dress, in terms of slogans, that kind of thing. A bunch of people are arrested and eventually nine of them are put on trial. From the prosecution standpoint, there’s an effort to put Black Power on trial. From the defense standpoint, it’s an opportunity to put the police on trial. Eventually the nine are acquitted of the most serious charges and it’s a great rebuke to the police.
What else do you plan to explore in your research?
I’d like to do some research in the Caribbean, focusing specifically on the issue of return migration. Many of the Caribbean migrants in the U.S. and particularly in London, went with the idea of returning quite soon. Five years becomes ten, then it becomes fifteen. Nevertheless, many of the Caribbean immigrants hold onto this hope of return. Then it becomes about retiring back home. Some do, some travel back to the Caribbean, whether it’s Jamaica or wherever, to find that it’s changed so much since they were children, not always for the better. But also African Americans returning to the South has become a more prevalent phenomenon I’ve noticed anecdotally.
Another area where I’m hoping to do more work is the area of music. I want to explore more explicitly, although I do this with carnival, the ways in which music helps people to orient themselves in different kinds of communities. I talk about this project being about a diaspora of lived experience and the diaspora of imagination. The imagination is about all the ways that people envisions themselves in these larger communities – connected to the Caribbean but also a larger black diaspora of African and African-American communities. It’s about how people envision themselves connected through politics but also through cultural forms such as music. I want to look at music in terms of its content and the various kinds of music people are listening to at different junctures. I’m particularly looking at African-American soul, Trinidadian calypso and Jamaican ska and reggae. I look at these three broad forms of music, forms that travel with these migrants and become part of the community formation process. Finally, I’m also interested in the spaces where the music gets heard; dance halls and nightclubs are part of how people come together and experience a sense of community.
What is it like doing living history?
For the most part it’s exciting, but it can also be daunting. There is, I think, a particular pressure to get the story “right,” so to speak, in using oral histories and writing about experiences that are still within living memory of some of my subjects.