Black Britons and the politics of belonging: an interview with Kennetta Hammond Perry.

Author:Goldthree, Reena N.
Position:Interview
 
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This month, I interviewed Kennetta Hammond Perry about her book London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2015). The book is part of the interdisciplinary series "Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities" co-edited by Cathy Cohen and Fredrick Harris. Situating the post-World War II mass migration of Afro-Caribbean people to Britain in the context of transatlantic political movements for citizenship and self-determination, Perry chronicles how migrants "reconfigured the boundaries of what it meant to be both Black and British" while living and working in the imperial metropolis. Unwilling to accept second-class citizenship, Afro-Caribbean migrants formed grassroots organizations to protest racial discrimination, lobbied for legal reform, and repurposed popular Caribbean festivals to secure to their rights as British citizens.

Kennetta Hammond Perry is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at East Carolina University. She earned her B.A. in History and Political Science at North Carolina Central University and her Ph.D. in Comparative Black History at Michigan State University. Her research examines the history of the Atlantic World with a focus on Black politics, migration, and activism during the post-World War II era. Her work has appeared in the Journal of British Studies, History Compass, and The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights and Riots in Britain and the United States (Palgrave, 2015).

Editor's note: Reena N. Goldthree is an Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. She received a B.A. in History-Sociology from Columbia University, earned a M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Duke University, and studied at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine as a Fulbright fellow.

Goldthree: The past decade has witnessed a fresh wave of scholarship on Black Europe, including new monographs, edited volumes, collections of primary documents, and interdisciplinary conferences. When did you first become interested in Black British history?

Perry: My interest in Black British history was initially sparked during my undergraduate years at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where I took classes and was advised by some of the pioneering historians of Black Britain, Black Europe, and the African diaspora more broadly: Carlton Wilson and Lydia Lindsey. I took a number of courses with Carlton Wilson in modern European history, where we learned about figures like Mary Seacole, Robert Wedderburn, and Olaudah Equiano. At the time, Lydia Lindsey had conducted research on Jamaican women in Birmingham [England], and she was also writing a biography of Claudia Jones, who figures quite predominantly in my work. I was exposed to a type of European history that was very much connected to the history of the African diaspora in my undergraduate experience at NCCU. Therefore, when I entered the doctoral program in Comparative Black History at Michigan State University many of the seeds of this project were already planted.

The book project itself emerged from a graduate seminar paper that I wrote at Michigan State. In the paper, I posed a broad question about the experiences of Black people in Britain during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. I wanted to know more about the composition of Black communities in the U.K. and the key moments of Black political organizing in Britain.

Goldthree: Your book, London is the Place for Me, takes its title from a hit song by the Trinidadian calypsonian Aldwyn Roberts, who performed using the stage name Lord Kitchener. Kitchener famously performed the song "London is the Place for Me" in June 1948 when he disembarked from the Empire Windrush. Kitchener's song, as you note, ultimately "became part of the soundtrack chronicling the history of Caribbean migration to Britain following World War II." How does his song help to illuminate the politics of race, migration, and belonging in postwar Britain?

Perry: In the introduction, I revisit the moment of Lord Kitchener's arrival in London and I also think about the stakes of the iconic performance of the song. One of the things that's really important to acknowledge is that Lord Kitchener doesn't actually need to experience living in the U.K. for him to envision that London could be the place for him. London was a...

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