Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool

By Nadel-Klein, Jane | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool


Nadel-Klein, Jane, Anthropological Quarterly


Jacqueline Nassy Brown, Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool. Princeton University Press, 2005, 312 pp.

In Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool, author Jacqueline Nassy Brown produces a brilliant and nuanced account of how race and place inform and construct one another, not only in Liverpool, but in England more generally. Her account is propelled by an informant's assertion that, "To understand Black people, you have to understand Liverpool." Brown's political, place-based analysis confounds more typical approaches to race discussions that have focused exclusively either on ideas about descent or on culture/ethnicity.

Liverpool, she tells us, occupies a singular place in the English imagination as a site of danger and of unfamiliar, shifting and ambiguous diversities. Its "indelible association with interraciality" (188) crystallizes the ironic consequences of Empire for a country torn between its status as an island not even fully committed to being part of "Europe," much less the globe, and as a colonial métropole. Nothing could be farther from Miss Marple's "village England" than Liverpool, or so it would seem. And yet, Liverpool is inextricably a part of England. Those of its inhabitants who do not fit the Agatha Christie's Marplean paradigm of whiteness must find their own way to situate themselves in English modernities.

As we know from twentieth century English race riots, reports of "Pakibashing," skinheads, National Front activities, the notorious 1981 British Nationality Act requiring a British-born parent for citizenship, and other evidences of racism-state-sponsored or otherwise-Britain is finding its changing face somewhat hard to accept. Not that Britain has ever been a homogeneous or especially tolerant society, as any Irish person or Traveler would attest. And yet, long before race became a subject of popular interest or widespread tension, Liverpool had a well-established Black community.

Liverpool was for many years one of England's premier international seaports. It (along with Cardiff and Bristol) also housed one of Britain's first Black communities. The Black population of Liverpool began in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of West African sailors who had been recruited as cheap, though highly skilled labor, to the Empire's merchant marine service. These widely traveled men married (or established less formal alliances with) white English and Irish women in Liverpool. Thus, as Brown points out, the local in Liverpool must always be understood as entangled with and constructed by the global. The far less well-traveled descendants of these seafarers formed the nucleus of what would ultimately become a very localized, even insular community, situated in the district known by its postcode as Liverpool 8. Nonetheless, Brown tells us, today's Liverpool-born Blacks, or LBBs (as they often call themselves) take great pride in what they see as a seafaring ancestry. They also recall their service-particularly in wartime-to the British nation. They wax nostalgic over the stories and places they remember or have heard about. They distinguish themselves from other Black residents (notably the Afro-Caribbeans) in these terms.

Liverpool-born Blacks embody the politico/cultural tension of race. They have only recently rejected their appellation as "half-caste," a term imposed upon them by Whites but adopted as well by their African fathers, many of whom apparently regarded their mixed-race offspring with considerable ambivalence. Indeed, Brown tells us that many LBBs criticize their African fathers "for withholding African culture from them" (148). Some of this tension stems directly from an infamous, eugenically-inspired study known as the Fletcher Report, released in 1928. The report examined Britain's "color problem" in considerable detail. Its author, Muriel Fletcher, argued that West African men were migrating to Britain both for economic advantage and for sexual access to White women. …

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