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Transcript: How Literature Matters: An Ethical Reading of Black British Women's Writing


Paul Gilroy:

My name is Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. Welcome to our Short Takes podcast series. This Short Take has been generously provided to us by Suzanne Scafe, known I think principally as the co-author of the ground-breaking, history-making book Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain, originally published in 1985. Suzanne Scafe has been an educator at many different levels in the British system: secondary schools through to university level education; involved in supplementary schooling and with Brixton Black Women's Group, and also in the past with the Committee of Women for Progress in Jamaica. Suzanne is going to speak to us about her new work in process and soon for publication, which centres really on an ethical and political reading of Black British Women's Writing. We're really grateful to her for making the time to offer this to us today.

Suzanne Scafe:

My name is Suzanne Scafe, and I’ve been teaching at all levels, and both inside and outside of the teaching machine, since 1977. When I began full-time University teaching, in 1993, my colleague and I provided the closing line from Toni Morrison’s 1984 essay, Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation as a heading for the white boards of our literature seminar rooms. Morrison writes, in the now often-quoted line, “the best art is political … and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time” (339).  We didn’t intend this to be a literary-political slogan. We wanted her words to be a reminder that literature itself creates spaces for ethical enquiry, for troubling conventional assumptions, upturning language, for better understanding ourselves and others. So, for us, the 'you' in that quotation points to our communal responsibility to make art political, to ensure, as Edward Said made clear in all his work, that literature is situated in the world – its own and ours simultaneously. Thinking of texts as also beautiful, therefore, is to be mindful both of their aesthetics, the dimensions of Black art that are so often elided in favour of sociological readings, and of the worldly contexts of those aesthetics. The beauty and the politics of Black literature, therefore, lie in its potential to disrupt, its ability to intervene and to radically transform contemporary discourses of power, knowledge and feeling.

So, more specifically, and for this podcast, I’m going to talk very briefly about a forthcoming publication that looks at 'how' literature matters and proposes an ethical reading of Black British Women’s Writing.  I’ve returned to what I’ve perceived in the last few years as an urgent line of enquiry, one that centres on the relationship between literature and life. I’m thinking of it as a return, because my experience has been that this relationship has been under severe pressure, in academia at least, as a result of the recent decades’ emphasis on theory, distance and structures.  I look at 'how' by way of 'why', which is perhaps a more straightforward and easily answered question, and one that is often asked explicitly or implicitly. The question 'why' – why literature matters – has produced the many recent requests for, and provision of, reading, during this period of intense crisis and hope, revealing the timeliness and necessity of this enquiry. So 'why' Black literature matters is that, at its most simple, the imaginative labour of literature allows us to collapse space and time so, for example, we can see in the present the repeated brutalisation of Black bodies and our responses as a continuum that incrementally reconfigures our social and political realities, even in the dread and awfulness of that repetition.  And a connection to these continuities can be made through the affective lens of say, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1975 poem 5 Nights of Bleeding and the political response in his Yout Rebels, in the same collection, where he hails “a bran new breed of blacks/ … leadin on the rough scene/ breakin away/ takin the day,”. The degradation of Black women’s bodies is exposed and opposed in Buchi Emecheta’s novels of the 1970s, or Joan Riley, writing in the early 90s- 1990s. Their work unmasks, for example, the colonial fictions of shame and respectability, fictions within which Black women’s identities were/are enmeshed and curtailed. Black British literature of this earlier period makes it possible for us to reconsider, in conjunction with the fiction of African- American writers during the same period and earlier – in work such as Alice Walker’s Meridian, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, Thulani Davis’s 1959 – the gendered nature of the ongoing struggle for Black survival and the masculinisation of the struggle itself. The answer to 'why' is found everywhere and in the vast and diverse range of Black British writing, such as Jay Bernard’s 2019 meditation on the New Cross Massacre, January 1981, entitled Surge.

This collection, and in particular the poem Songbook, speaks to the uneven and contradictory nature of progress.  The answer to 'why' is also evident in the repositioning of an African consciousness and sensibility in the work of, among others, Delia Jarrett-Macaulay, Nadifa Mohamed, Irenosen Okojie, Bernardine Evaristo, Helen Oyeyemi; in reconsiderations of blackness in Diana Evans, Leone Ross, Zadie Smith; in the urgent intersections of race, class and gender in the drama of debbie tucker green, and so on.  

The 'why'  - why literature matters – is therefore the book’s unspoken underpinning and is the reason that I want to keep focused on the participatory and public function of Black literature, but 'why' is also the reason for revisiting and re-evaluating earlier generations of Black British women writers who, like our writers today, are in the vanguard of the struggle for justice and reparation and are, to remix Stuart Hall, engaged in the process of constructing “a bran new breed” of new subjects, and new places from which to speak. 

My 'how' – how literature matters – is addressed in the context of the 'why'. How, is to look also at language because, as Paul Gilroy has said in a recent conversation for this series, language is part of the machinery of oppression. Language, of course, also provides us with the tools to dismantle our oppression: it facilitates our survival, changing meanings, constructing an aesthetics of future possibility. 'How' is best reflected in and through the spaces in the text, the gaps between the word and its audience; it can be thought about in the complex exchange that literary language provokes. So, these spaces, or breaches – let’s say the breaches between words and meaning, between the reader and the text, the ‘real’ and the imagined – are also spaces of possibility, and of radical intervention. It is in these spaces that texts intervene into existing regimes of Black representation; they help to dismantle the ideological edifices that imprison our thinking; the toxic fictions of race, culture, gender, sexuality; fictions that disable our liberation, prohibit even the right 'to matter'.  An approach to reading our literature that focuses on the worldliness of both the 'how' and the 'why' is a form of political criticism that uses Black literature to reveal the 'non-obligatory' nature of those fictions that reduce and flatten us, that determine the shape of our realities. 'How' in this book insists on a scrutiny of the work’s aesthetic dimension; it offers new ways of reading the effects of oppression and in turn exposes the complexity and plurality of Black British lives and cultures.