Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950′s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.
Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.
Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.
Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.
Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.
Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.