Capturing Black Britain in Photos From London's red hot reggae scene to the stunning jab of boxing great Lennox Lewis, blacks have made a decisive mark on British life over the last hundred years. A new book, called Black Britain: A Photographic History, aims to tell that story by capturing the life and culture of West Indian and African immigrants, as well as native black Britons.
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Capturing Black Britain in Photos

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Capturing Black Britain in Photos

Capturing Black Britain in Photos

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES. From Britain's World War I armed forces to London's ret-hot reggae scene to the stunning jab of boxing great Lennox Lewis, blacks have made a decisive mark on British life over the last 100 years.

A new book called "Black Britain: A Photographic History" aims to tell some of that story. It captures the life and culture of West Indian and African immigrants, as well as native black Britons. The collection also turns a lens on black Brits and their fight for inclusion and equality.

Paul Gilroy wrote "Black Britain" and helped compile the pictures. He is a professor of social theory at the London School of Economics, and he joins me now. Paul, welcome to NEWS & NOTES.

Mr. PAUL GILROY (Author, "Black Britain: A Photographic History"): Thank you.

COX: What is - let's start with this. What is your personal collection to the work and the images in this book?

Mr. GILROY: Well, to me this was a labor of love. I've been living in the U.S. I came back to England. It's my homeland. I came back to London, my home city, and I felt that the culture of the young black people in particular here were suffering from a kind of deficit, historically speaking.

There were younger people in my neighborhood who were bereft of history, who took their idea of themselves from watching their kind of generic hip-hop video material that they got from the video screen rather than really inquiring into the particular history and experience of our communities in this country.

COX: As I looked at the book, I was trying to find a theme, and I don't know if I found one or not. What was, in your view, the major trends or themes that you saw unfolding over the century that are depicted in these photographs?

Mr. GILROY: Well, I wanted the photographs to convey our claims on citizenship and our belonging to this country. There are a lot of images drawn from the history of our military service, for example. I didn't want the story to tell a history only of sports and music as the center of our contribution to British life.

I wanted the younger people in particular to be aware of the history of struggles, the history of protests, which had filled out our right to belong and our right to be recognized as British people, if that's what we want to do.

COX: One of the photographs that you have in there that caught my eye actually does do a couple of things. It is sports, but it also speaks to what you are talking about. It's on Page 219, and the caption reads: Fans of the West Indies cricket team celebrating their win over England at Lord's Cricket Ground, London, August 27, 1973.

Now the photo is filled with smiling, celebrating black folks. One man is being hoisted onto his friends' shoulders, with a tie around his neck and a cap on his head, and to me the interesting thing here is this. Black people in England celebrating the defeat of England's national cricket team. Why is that picture interesting to you, and what does it say about how blacks have worked out their own identity issues inside Britain?

Mr. GILROY: Well, for much of my own life, I mean my mother was a migrant to this country in the 1950s - so much of my early life, I guess we weren't really allowed to belong. One of my books is entitled "There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack." That was a chant that the white fans would sometimes raise up at the cricket games.

So I think to be here, to be in this country and to defeat England at its own game, you know, that was something which had a strong, symbolic resonance, a power, which was important to us. And it's something that's all the more significant as a historical memory now that history isn't - that cricket isn't quite as important as it used to be. You know, the tall kids don't join the West Indies cricket team now. They go off to play basketball instead.

COX: I noticed that you also had a number of American figures in photographs, and a wide range, from Paul Robeson, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali. Talk about the inclusion of the Americans there and what their meaning to Brits, black Brits, was.

Mr. GILROY: Well of course, our becoming a black people in the modern world was very reliant at certain points not just on the cultures we brought with us from the Caribbean and from Africa, but also on the impact and the guidance and the political leadership and imagination of African-Americans, and I wanted that to be part of the story that's here, as well. You know, the Jubilee Singers are here, Claudia Jones, the - I guess she wasn't African-American, but she came here from the United States after she was expelled from the country. She was someone who came in and started the Caribbean Carnivals, which have become Europe's biggest street festivals now.

So I wanted that link to be present. I wanted people to think about the idea that Martin Luther King and all the others, Malcolm, have been here, have been part of making our political community aware of itself as part of, if you like, a Diaspora of African people scattered across the over-developed countries.

COX: Along that line, did you see it as a parallel universe, American black experience and British black experiences?

Mr. GILROY: No, I think they're very - in many parts of our history, very closely interconnected. For example, there are images in the book of the African-American military presence here during World War II, something which is not, you know, necessarily part of the history of black America itself.

I mean, I wanted the people there, too, to look at these images and think wow, yeah, we did travel. Our culture had some reach in this world.

COX: A final thing is this. It is a fascinating book and very interesting photographs for people to look at. The thing about radio is you could just never show pictures really well on the radio, no matter how hard we try. But let me ask you this as my closing question. Is there a photograph in this collection that really speaks to you and speaks to what you want the reader or the viewer to get? I've got about a minute for that answer.

Mr. GILROY: Well, one of my favorite images is of the women queuing up to get into the cricket match, with their rosettes and their dress, the expressions on their faces. There's something about the fact that they're there at all, you know, that tells you that this game is more than a game, that is has an importance in terms of understanding their - well, their power in the world and their resistance to the kind of white supremacy that delimited their life chances and restricted them to second-class people here.

And all of that's in the image. It's etched on their faces. It's etched in the kind of passionate, caring glances that they give back to the camera.

COX: Paul Gilroy wrote and compiled the book "Black Britain: A Photographic History." He is a professor of social theory in the sociology department at the London School of Economics. He joined us from London. Paul Gilroy, thank you very much for coming to speak with us.

Mr. GILROY: Thank you. I'm so happy to have had that chance.

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