Thursday, January 10, 2013

Black Skin, Blue Books

As its title suggests Black Skin, Blue Books employs a comparative approach to African American and Welsh cultural identities at various points over a hundred year period. Given the choice of subjects up for comparison (and the titular echo of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks) there is inevitably a postcolonial context to this work. But author Daniel G Williams is wary of the pitfalls of such methodologies. He is keen to point out that this is no cheap attempt to appropriate or misrepresent black culture. Or to 'glamorize' by association. He is aware also of the limitations of overly simplistic binary arguments and consequently adopts a more nuanced approach.

For his comparative Transatlantic study Williams favours those moments where African American and Welsh culture have actually intersected. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass's visit to Wales during the Victorian era of the Blue Books, for example. And the pre-WW1 links between WEB Du Bois and Welsh feminist Frances Hoggan. He also deconstructs our cosy image of Paul Robeson and his cherished relationship to Wales. In addition he examines the significance of Ralph Ellison's stationing in Swansea during WW2. Other, sometimes unlikely, figures make an appearance. Joseph Goebbels, for instance; and James Baldwin, who noted that: "much of the tension in the Basque country and in Wales is due to the Basques and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed."

The full list of themes and areas of debate that arise from these intersections are too numerous to mention but amongst the most salient are: racial uplift; the choice between assimilation and separation; canon building; the decline of the Welsh language; minstrelsy; abolitionism; double consciousness; Louis v Farr; the Harlem Renaissance; race and the Welsh industrial novel; Paul Robeson; and the presence of black American soldiers in Britain during WW2. This wide range of investigation is further enriched by the author's ability to speak Welsh, which gives him access to Welsh-language abolitionist newspapers of the day and the means to evaluate Welsh translations of such works as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Revisiting the Blue Books controversy is a particularly jolting experience for the modern reader (well, this one anyway). The conflation of a supposedly barbarous tongue ("the language of slavery") with a supposedly dubious sexual morality seems an especially crude expression of cultural imperialism. Matthew Arnold further stuck the boot in by arguing for cultural homogeneity - just so long as it was of a distinctly English variety, of course. The Welsh response was interesting. Some folk became more nationalistic in outlook and even attempted to set up Welsh colonies abroad. Many Nonconformists suffered genuine agonies of religious conscience over whether they should ditch their native culture for the greater, universal good. Others, suffering post-Blue Books anxiety, went out of their way to show by example that they were as morally correct as their English neighbours and thus a particular self-righteous Welsh stereotype was born. Along with more comforting stereotypes such as the 'good collier' and the 'stoic mam'.

But let's be clear here, Black Skin, Blue Books is no indulgent wallow in a shared sense of victimhood. Williams' critical approach reveals conflicts and differences as well as correspondences. Frederick Douglass, for instance, thought that Welsh-speaking Wales lagged behind England in law and learning. And recalling his own upbringing on a Maryland plantation he noted that it was "situated on the Wye river - the river receiving its name doubtless, from Wales, where the Lloyds (his slave masters) originated." More controversially perhaps Williams problematises the love-in between Paul Robeson and the Welsh. The selective way in which he has been perceived in Wales suggests that the mythologising of the singer has been an agenda driven appropriation - one in which his internationalism has been favoured over his black cultural nationalism. And then there is the question of Robeson's "ethnic two-timing" evident in his affiliation with the Welsh... and Irish, and Scottish, and Russians, and Egyptians, and the Jews.

The section of this book which deals with Welsh and African American responses to modernism reveals some interesting parallels. The lectures and writings of WEB Du Bois famously encouraged the development of a black middle-class elite - 'the talented tenth'. Meanwhile in Wales Saunders Lewis was busy fostering the notion of a nationalist bourgeoisie. Both, it seems, had a certain disdain for the working-class. Lewis disliked mass culture because he viewed it as an anglicising force but also, one senses, because it was all a bit common. The modernism of poets Langston Hughes and Idris Davies took a more consciously proletarian and vernacular form. I have to admit that I've never really considered Davies to be a characteristically modernist writer but Williams lays stress on his use of the discourse of mass commercial culture, particularly with reference to music and sport. Yet another strain of literary modernism - one which valued primitivism - arose out of rural folk culture and is here represented in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Margiad Evans.

Readers might be surprised to learn that Ralph Ellison's seminal novel Invisible Man (1952) had its gestation in Swansea. It was while stationed there during WW2 that Ellison wrote his short story In a Strange Country. It is the tale of Parker an African American seaman ashore in Swansea who is assaulted by some white Americans. Rescued by a group of Welshmen they take the "Black Yank" to a club where they sing various anthems in his honour: the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, a noticeably less enthusiastic rendition of God Save the King, followed by the Internationale. Parker then finds himself belting out, to his own surprise, the previously alien Stars and Stripes. Therefore the 'Strange Country' that he suddenly finds himself in, having stumbled upon an American identity of sorts, is actually the USA. Williams uses the story as a starting point from which to explore African American and Welsh cultural identities in the context of WW2.

Although primarily an academic study and one expressed in the relevant language and terminology that such an undertaking demands there is much here to engage the general reader. The sheer breadth of topics covered in Black Skin, Blue Books and the uncovering of new and pertinent material ensures that it is a fascinating read. Those who are interested in the history and culture of Wales and African America during this period will find it indispensible. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, Williams navigates his subject matter skilfully and without ever straying into polemic - in the process he has with this volume made a significant contribution to cultural studies in Wales. I was left wondering how the subject would pan out post-1945. Hopefully the comparative Transatlantic critical approach will be further explored over the coming years.

*Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales, 1845-1945 is published by the University of Wales Press.