Em/Immigration

Just as the literature and history of the settler colonies needs to be differentiated from the colonies of intervention, voluntary migration also raises its own related, but different issues. There are certainly the same issues of feeling dominated by another culture, of course, but the emphasis differs because the migrants have voluntarily placed themselves under the influence of that culture. In connection with this, the concern with displacement and the associated issues of rootlessness and identity are often very important. One of the responses to displacement and the separation from the original culture is often a desire to build up the nourish the culture within the new environment. There is therefore a key question of appropriation and abrogation which besets the migrant – complete abrogation of the dominant culture is impossible, but wholesale assimilation of its values can be welcomed or resisted.

Many of these issues are directly relevant to the settlers colonising Australia and New Zealand, though of course there was initially little sympathetic engagement with the cultures the settlers found already established in those countries. However, our prime concern here is twentieth century immigration into Britain. While the expansion of the European Union has in the last couple of years seen large increases in the immigration of eastern Europeans, the diversity of cultures which now make up the United Kingdom is largely the result of immigration by people from the countries which were formally colonised by Britain, predominantly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (all part of India at the time of Empire), Africa and the Caribbean. Of course the further voluntary migration of black Caribbeans is yet another stage in their journey away from their beginnings in Africa. Equally, though, there has been the immigration of Asian-descended people from Africa and the Caribbean, who are descendants of indentured labourers and other workers which Britain brought from India to further its work in those colonies.

One of the key social and political questions for Britain in the late twentieth century has been about its response to immigration, and this remains an inflammatory issue. Immigrants have not always been welcomed and racism has been a clear problem, while on the other hand Britain has in many ways comfortably assimilated a great deal of its incoming cultures. On the one hand, the government has decided in 2006 that the Commission for Racial Equality has done its job so well that it no longer needs to exist as a separate entity, but on the other hand racist killings still happen, the British National Party have made great strides in local elections in some areas of the country, and after the New York Twin Towers attacks, there has been a rise in tension with the Islamic community, culminating at the moment in the London transport bombings and the protests about the caricaturing of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper.

Some of the difficulties faced by new arrivals in Britain are explored in ER Braithwaite’s novel To Sir With Love and in Wole Soyinka’s poem ‘Telephone Conversation’:

Telephone Conversation
Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey – I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurized good-breeding.

Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
“HOW DARK?”… I had not misheard….”

ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?”

Button B. Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar.
It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis –
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT” Revelation came
“You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted
I chose. “West African sepia” – and as afterthought.
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece “WHAT’S THAT?”

Conceding “DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.”

“Like brunette.” “THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?”
“Not altogether. Facially, I am brunette, but madam you should see the rest of me.

Palm of my hand, soles of my feet.
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused –
Foolishly madam- by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black- One moment madam! – sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears – “Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth does not deal with racial tension, and indeed has been criticised for failing to do so (article in The Sunday Times, 26 February 2006), nor is it, she insists, a novel about race (interview in Los Angeles Times, 26 June 2000). However, in a story firmly set in multicultural London society at the end of the twentieth century, it naturally raises concerns with immigration, racial identity, culture and assimilation. Since the three families on whom the novel focuses trace their roots to Bengal, the Caribbean and the dispersal of the Jews, these concerns and the issue of displacement are unavoidable. They are all part of “the great ocean-crossing experiment”. Within this, there is also the comparison between the first generation of immigrants, who have crossed the oceans themselves, and the second generation immigrants, who are born and raised in Britain by their ocean-crossing parents. The ways in which these families’ roots can be traced back to the influence of colonialism itself, the tensions between assimilation of British cultural values and the maintenance of original cultural values, the shifts and changes in language, the problem of identity are all touched on by following up the links suggested in the other sections of this course.

Back to Settler Colonies :: Post Colonial Course Index