25 February 2014

Babb: "They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun"

The National Archives has been posting podcasts of its events (really lectures) it holds to its site for some time. The quality of these is mixed. In some cases, the lecturer relies too much on the PowerPoint-style display for what is effectively a radio broadcast. Others are just a description of the contents of various files that might be of interest to researchers. But some are genuinely excellent. In the latter category I place 'They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun', presented by Colin Babb.
Although this podcast focuses on West Indian cricket, it really is about the immigrant experience, as seen through the perspective of the sports fan. When I did my major field in Race, Imperialism, Slavery, one of the two topics that drew my greatest interest was the relationship between race and immigration. Sometimes immigration has nothing to do with race. Sometimes race has almost everything to do with immigration. Most usually they overlap in ways that it is the historian's job to explain. (The Irishman in the lower-left corner has rather simian features.) It is a fascinating subject, especially if one avoids bringing to it attitudes strongly influenced by today's debate over immigration and sticks closely to the the perspectives of immigrant and host.
Babb's lecture does a good job, for the sensitive listener, of seeing the dilemma confronting the immigrant. In my view, if people could avoid immigrating, they would. People try to identify with collectivities, and can find it hard to leave parental ones behind. Babb describes himself as a 'British-born Caribbean'. Indeed, the very concept of 'the West Indies' makes more sense from Britain than in the Americas. He points out that his parents were, in fact, from different countries, and that it was their presence in Britain that united them. According to Babb, people from Guyana are seen as 'South American' from the perspective of the islanders of the West Indies. When he went back to the Caribbean on childhood holidays, he was treated as somehow not quite West Indian, while in Britain he was certainly seen as a non-Briton, a 'West Indian'.
In fact, if one reads about the history of immigration, talks to immigrants, or actually does a bit of immigrating oneself, one finds such situations commonplace. The immigrant, and more particularly the child of immigrants, is regarded with a degree of 'suspicion' both in the source region and in their host region. It is an awkward role that one is forced into, and is most obviously expressed in those sporting events based on countries.
I don't want to spoil the lecture, because I think it would be worth your while to have a listen, so I won't give away any more of its content. Let's just say that I found the lecture really raised a great deal of sadness in my mind that the legacy of the British Empire may now finally be dying, reflecting the gentle aging into retirement of that 'post-imperial' generation which includes Babb and myself. Also, that it is interesting how the pattern of assimilation of 'West Indians' in Britain reflects Britain's particular history on race. In the 1960s, the 1970s, and into the Thatcher years, and even today, thinking about the British experience of race and racism often seems a sort of caricature of the American one. But Britain's history of race relations is different — pace the late Stuart Hall, less toxic — and the assimilation of the West Indians reflects that. NB — I cut my finger recently, rather badly, harming my abiity to type. Posts will be erratic for a bit.

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