Songs and Verses of New Ethnicities: Resistance and Representation in Black British Culture
The essay stems from an analysis of Handsworth Songs, a ‘documentary’ directed by Black audio Film Collective in 1986 inspired by the riots that inflamed Birmingham in 1985. Mixing History, stories and archival material, it tries to show a new perspective on what official media defined as ‘looting’, without investigating (often denying) its political and social causes. Presenting itself as a consideration on the present of the black communities’ revolts in Britain and at the same time as a stylistic and aesthetic research, Handsworth Songs represents a seminal moment for the beginning of a critical tradition finally black British.
Its screening unleashes a series of controversial reactions, in particular the publication on The Guardian of comments by Salman Rushdie and Stuart Hall. The polemic highlights an attempt to identify a different way to represent the riots, as a form of resistance and affirmation, as well as the black Briton, as a British subject and not anymore as the ‘other’, alien to the geographical and cultural national borders.
Rushdie’s and Hall’s opposed positions question the ‘official’ discourses and regimes of representation, in order to find new autonomous practices of representation, far from marginalisation or ‘mythical criminalisation’ (Paul Gilroy).
Not by chance, after this polemic and debates, two texts, central to the black British cultural history, are published: Stuart Hall’s “New Ethnicities” (1988) and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988). The considerations generated by the vision of Handsworth Songs flow into them, bringing to a fundamental re-definition and re-vision of blackness.
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