Continental drifters

One of the great cultural shifts of the 20th century was the influx of black American intellectuals

In June 1950, the black American writer James Baldwin wrote a piece entitled "The Negro in Paris" for a journal called the Reporter. He had arrived in the French capital two years earlier, on a one-way ticket and with no intention of returning to the US (though the articles he filed home, especially those published in the Partisan Review, would soon make his name in the country of his birth).

Baldwin had been welcomed in Paris - at Jean-Paul Sartre's favoured café Les Deux Magots, to be precise - by the novelist Richard Wright, who had himself left America for Europe in 1946, a little over half a decade after the publication of his landmark novel Native Son, the tale of a wretched inhabitant of Chicago's "Black Belt" who goes to the electric chair for the murder of a white woman.

Baldwin and Wright would subsequently fall out when the former, in one of the articles that he sent back to the PR, criticised Native Son in the strongest terms for reproducing a debilitating and distinctively American "fantasy" of "Negro life". Because Wright saw novel writing as a form of "social struggle" - rather than a means of transmuting the motley of personal experience into art, as Baldwin regarded it - his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, lacks any "discernible relationship to himself", let alone other people. He is, instead, an entirely "mythic" creature - mythic because Wright abstains from any treatment of the complex reality of African-American life, with its shared traditions as well as its internal differences.

What Wright's portrayal of Bigger misses - because it is smothered by the character's inarticulate rage - is any sense of the endless "paradoxical adjustments" that are required of the black American. The essays that Baldwin wrote in Paris (later collected in an anthology entitled, in deference to his former mentor, Notes of a Native Son) attempt to register the complexities he found so catastrophically lacking in Wright's novel.

In his Parisian exile, Baldwin came to see that he was "a kind of bastard of the west". The monuments of European high culture - Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt - were not really his; yet, he wrote, there was "no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use. I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe." The predicament wasn't peculiar to Baldwin, however. As a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows, it was the situation in which many of the most important artists and writers of the black diaspora found themselves from the early 1900s onwards. "Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic" takes its cue from Paul Gilroy's groundbreaking work of cultural history The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, which argues for the importance of that black diaspora to 20th-century art and literature.

“The Negro in Paris" offers a particularly vivid account of one African American's fraught identification with western modernity. He distinguishes there the situation of "Negro entertainers" (jazz musicians and singers) in Paris from that of their "non-performing coloured countrymen", most of them former servicemen studying abroad thanks to the provisions of the GI Bill. The latter tended not to enjoy the "comradeship" of other black Americans, but lived in a kind of unsplendid isolation. "The American Negro in Paris," Baldwin writes, "is very nearly the invisible man."

On the rare occasions that he is noticed, it is by Frenchmen who see America - and all Americans, black or white - through the prism of its own self-aggrandising myth-making. Thousands of miles from home, the "non-performing" black American "finds himself involved . . . in the same old battle: the battle for his own identity". And it is a battle that is made more intense still by his encounters with black Africans from France's colonies, who, for all their bitterness at their condition, at least have an unambiguous relationship with their homeland. The black American, whose bitterness is more likely to be "turned against himself", feels an alienation from his African counterpart so complete as to induce in him the recognition that he is a "hybrid" - not a "physical hybrid merely [but] in every aspect of his living".

“Someone, someday," Baldwin would write later, "should do a study in depth of the role of the American Negro in the mind and life of Europe." Although he didn't live to see it, his wish came true in 1993, when the The Black Atlantic was published. Gilroy treats the European exile of writers such as Baldwin and Wright, as well as the transatlantic journeys of the father of black nationalism and pan-Africanism, W E B Du Bois, as the crucible of a notion of black identity that renounces the temptations of ethnic separatism and nationalism, and sometimes even the idea of "race" itself.

The subtitle of The Black Atlantic emphasises the influence exercised on Gilroy by Du Bois's theory, developed in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), of "double consciousness" - the "unreconciled striving" inside the breast of every black American that Baldwin had felt so keenly by the banks of the Seine. In Gilroy's account, Du Bois's work is a complex, sometimes incoherent, skein of racial particularism, black nationalism and something at once richer and more unresolved. And one of the vehicles for this latter mode of black self-assertion was the work of art, now understood not as a kind of compensation for the African American's "internal exile from modernity", but rather as a privileged form of his engagement with it.

This is borne out by one of the rooms in the Tate Liverpool exhibition, whose curators, Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter, have used the theoretical framework of Gilroy's book as a prism through which to consider an extra­ordinary parade of 80 years of art from the black diaspora (not to mention work by non-black giants of modernism such as Picasso and Brancusi, who themselves explored the "transcultural space" that Gilroy would later scrutinise in his book). Under the banner of "Black Atlantic Avant-Gardes", visitors encounter the work of the painter Aaron Douglas, one of the prime movers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and a protégé of Du Bois.

In the murals that Douglas painted for Fisk University in Nashville, as well as in the gorgeous, delicate relief prints he made for Du Bois's journal The Crisis, forms derived from African art collide with a sensibility informed by European modernism. The Guyanese-born painter Frank Bowling, who contributes a red, gold and green slab of abstract expressionism to the show, once said, perhaps with half an eye on Du Bois, that the "black soul, if there is such a thing, belongs in modernism".

This remark is as cogent a summary of Gilroy's outlook as one could wish for - not least because it tells us something new about modernism, as well as about black identity. It resonates, too, with the work of the "post-black artists" displayed in the final room of the exhibition - for instance, with Glen Ligon's Gold Nobody Knew Me #1, on which is reproduced a line of Richard Pryor's with which, you suspect, Baldwin would have sympathised: "I went to Africa. I went to the motherland to find my roots! Right? Seven million black people! Not one of those motherfuckers knew me."

“Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic" is at Tate Liverpool until 25 April (tate.org.uk/liverpool)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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