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There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack by Professor Paul Gilroy

Professor Paul Gilroy is one of the world’s most influential academic intellectuals with a distinguished career of Professorships held at leading universities in the UK and USA.

He was first appointed Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London in 1997 and in the absence of any corrective information from other sources it could be posited that he was the University of London’s first black professor. He is currently Professor of the Humanities and Founding Director, Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation at UCL (University College London).

The front cover of his first monograph has a striking portrait photograph by the Observer’s legendary photojournalist Jane Bown. A proud black British serviceman stands to attention at a Remembrance occasion wearing seven Second World War medals, but the title: ‘There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack’ strikes the discordant and critical note- for the subtitle of the book is ‘The cultural politics of race and nation.’

It was first published by Unwin Hyman Ltd in 1987 and reprinted by Routledge from 1992.  At the time Paul Gilroy was Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths’ College. He had taught at South Bank University and the University of Essex and held a Visiting Professorship at Yale.

The book has also been published by University of Chicago Press in the USA.

Professor Gilroy was picking up the mantle of Professor Stuart Hall in exploring the relationship between race, class and nation in contemporary British society.  This seminal text recognised the enormous complexity of racial politics and examined the relationship between racism and nationalism.

He argued that racial prejudice transcends the left-right political divide. He analysed the ways black expressive culture challenged prevailing racist attitudes. He said there were political failings of the then ‘current sociological approach to racism and the ethnocentricity of contemporary cultural studies.’

This book was ground-breaking because it rethought the position of black communities in terms of the theory of urban social movements and sought to be an original perspective in order to cut through ‘the old orthodoxies’ and provided a new direction for race relations theory.

The research and writing took place in the wake of the Battle of Lewisham of 1977 when the community living around Goldsmiths’ College halted the march of the National Front, the terrible New Cross Fire of 18 January 1981 in which 13 young black Londoners died,  and subsequent Black People’s Day of Action” through London on 2 March 1981, followed by the Brixton riots and uprising in other parts of Britain.

Professor Gilroy was very self-deprecatory in his acknowledgements thanking ‘friends, teachers and associates’ including Richard Johnson and Stuart Hall, who had ‘played a part in its development.’ He added ‘If I was truthful, I’d admit that all I have done is cobble their ideas together.’

Many said he had done much, much more. The Times Higher Education Supplement said ‘This is a provocative and stimulating book which deserves wide attention from all those in the broad area of “race” in contemporary society…This is not a book which can or should be ignored.’

Professor Paul Gilroy’s profile at UCL in 2021. Image: UCL.

Colin Prescod, when reviewing for Race and Class published by the Institute of Race Relations in 1988, said Paul Gilroy had written ‘a hugely ambitious book’ with laudable aims. While the review was critical about the tendency to place ‘black social action in the mainstream of European progressive intellectual discourse’ it acknowledged that he had started to map out the terrain.

Contemporary cover of ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ published by Routledge.

David Edgar in the BBC’s no longer published periodical The Listener wrote: ‘Gilroy demonstrates effectively that cultural traditions are not static, but develop, grow and indeed mutate, as they influence and are influenced by the other changing traditions around them.’

David Okuefuna in the Chicago Daily Tribune said the book was: ‘A fascinating analysis of the discourses that have accompanied black settlement in Britain. . . An important addition to the stock of critical works on race and culture.’

Critical Social Policy described the text as ‘a stimulating and thought-provoking set of insights into the position of “race” within British society.’ It was a ‘brilliant discursus on expressive black culture..excellently written book’ which deserved ‘to be widely read and discussed.’

It can certainly be said that all came to pass.

Paul Gilroy explained his approach in the core chapters.

Chapter 1. ‘Race’, class and agency- Some of the most influential formulations in this area are accorded critical scrutiny and it is tentatively suggested that class analysis should be substantially reworked in the light of its encounter with ‘race’  (Page 13).

Chapter 2. ‘The whisper wakes, the shudder plays’: ‘race’, nation and ethnic absolutism- In addressing the relationship between contemporary notions of ‘race’ on both sides of the colour line, and the ideas of nation and national belonging. He argued these give the new racism a substantial part of its newness. By defining ‘race’ and ethnicity as cultural absolutes, blacks themselves and parts of the anti-racist movement risk endorsing the explanatory frameworks and political definitions of the new right (ibid).

Chapter 3. Lesser breeds without the law- Analysing representations of the law as a national institution. In this context, black law-breaking comes gradually to be seen as proof of the incompatibility of blacks with Britishness. Ideologies of legality and of blacks as a high-crime group are also identified as constitutive of the new racism (ibid).

Professor Gilroy’s Inaugural lecture which I attended at Goldsmiths, University of London in March 1997.

Chapter 4. Two sides of anti-racism- further clarifies the relationship between ‘race’ and nation as well as to highlight some of the difficulties in developing a popular anti-racist cultural politics (ibid).

Chapter 5. Diaspora, utopia and the critique of capitalism- Analysing the expressive culture of black Britain. He argued culture does not develop along ethnically absolute lines but in complex, dynamic patterns of syncretism in which new definitions of what it means to be black emerge from raw materials provided by black populations elsewhere in the diaspora (ibid).

In 1987 Professor Gilroy concluded ‘”Race” must be retained as an analytic category not because it corresponds to any biological or epistemological absolutes, but because it refers investigation to the power that collective identities acquire by means of their roots in tradition. These identities, in the forms of white racism and black resistance, are the most volatile political forces in Britain today.’

The test of the relevance and significance of any seminal academic text is whether something written 34 years ago resonates and engages today (26th September 2021).

There is no doubt at all There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack more than meets that test.




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