‘Make of Me a Memory Once More’: Remembering Black Europe through Literature

‘Make of Me a Memory Once More’: Remembering Black Europe through Literature

Vicky Margree (University of Brighton)

In 2005 the cultural critic Paul Gilroy warned against the ‘synonymity of European and white’. He had in mind a narrative according to which there was until the recent past an ethnically homogenous Europe, prior to the mass immigration of the middle of the twentieth century. In this past, so the narrative goes, the nation states of Europe enjoyed a culture that while complex, was nonetheless coherent, and that stands today only to be disrupted by the inclusion, through immigration, of problematically diverse and even incompatible cultures. This narrative, Gilroy tells us, underpins the continuance today of an older form of racism in the ‘polite’ guise of a nationalism concerned not with ‘race’ but only with ‘cultural difference’. It is also a narrative in which ‘history goes out of the window’ and we find ourselves in the ‘frozen realm of mythic time’.

In 2015, Gilroy’s sense of a discursive landscape frozen in mythic time is perhaps more relevant than ever. Mythic time is the time appealed to by UKIP and the EDL. It is the time structuring the fearful fantasies of popular and state-sponsored anti-immigration. It is the time that is to be heard in the many responses to the crisis of migrants suffering and dying in boats crossing the Mediterranean that ‘their problems’ are ‘nothing to do with us’. Mythic time wilfully forgets the actual histories of Europe. It renders invisible Europe’s multiple exchanges with its ‘others’ of people, languages, knowledges and material goods – exchanges that have taken place throughout Europe’s known history and without which Europe as it is today would be inconceivable.

As a literary scholar I am interested in the capacity of cultural forms to intervene into this mythic time. Novels, films and television have the potential to tell different stories about immigration than the ones we are accustomed to hearing. The hugely popular BBC series Who Do You Think You Are, in which famous figures trace their family trees, discovers countless stories of migration – of the hopes, fears, sacrifices and achievements of a usually near ancestor who had chosen or been forced to exchange one country for another as home. What the public appetite for ancestry (of celebrities, and of ourselves) should reveal is that we are all migrants.

Instead, however, it somehow coincides with a political landscape in which the migrant remains resolutely ‘them’ and not ‘us’. When Michael Gove called for the history curriculum of schools to teach ‘Our Island Story’ he emphasised a Britain characterised fundamentally by the separation enforced by its natural sea borders. There is an urgent need, in this culture of mythic time, to contest such narratives which would figure Britain’s past as one of centuries of splendid isolation or one-way influence interrupted only recently with the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush boat. We need to tell Our Migration Stories, and to recognise that these do not all begin in 1948.

A writer who has consistently challenged this fictive dating of British diversity to the post-war period is Bernardine Evaristo. Born in London to an English mother and a Nigerian father, Evaristo is a poet, dramatist and novelist whose works explore the multiple lines of mutual exchange between Europe and its ‘others’ that make up British, European, and indeed world history. These are imaginative historiographies dedicated to disrupting exclusionary narratives of a once ‘pure’ Europe. Evaristo has described the influence upon her of writers Langston Hughes and J. A. Rodgers, who ‘opened [her] eyes to the historical black presence in Europe’ (‘CSI Europe,’ 2008). Citing as examples the 800 year-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the influence of Egypt upon ancient Greece, the transatlantic slave trade and the 17th and 18th century fashion for wealthy Europeans to have black pages, Evaristo concludes that ‘where there was an absence of great swathes of African immigration, there was nonetheless the pitter-patter of individuals and small communities who somehow left their footprints.’ (‘CSI Europe,’ 2008)

Her first two novels, Lara (1997) and The Emperor’s Babe (2001) both provided fictional archaeologies of these footprints: the former a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s attempt to recover the family histories of her Nigerian father and Irish-descended mother; the latter the story of Sudanese girl Zuleika, who becomes mistress to the Roman Emperor in third-century, multicultural Londinium. Evaristo’s fourth novel, Blonde Roots (2008) eschewed fictional reconstructions of known history in favour of a counter-factional imagining of a transatlantic slave trade in reverse, in which Africans enslaved Europeans kidnapped from the ‘Cabbage Coast’ of the ‘Grey Continent’.

Underpinning the witty irreverence of Evaristo’s fiction is a deeply serious intent: the challenging of precisely that synonymity of ‘European’ and ‘white’ that Gilroy complained of. This is a synonymity that requires a very particular form of forgetting, since Europe’s history is inextricably that of a continent separated from Africa at its nearest point by less than 9 miles. And yet the presence in Europe of those of African descent has proved for a long time invisible to the ‘gaze of white historians’, as British writer Mike Phillips complained in 2001. ‘Even where a ‘black’ person is unmissable,’ continued Phillips, ‘the commentaries often avoid or skate over any discussion of the fact.’ Phillips had in mind figures of significance to European cultural traditions such as Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas, whose African origins were known and yet effaced within discussions of their lives and work.

It is an effacement that Evaristo’s 2005 novel-with-verse, Soul Tourists, sets out to address. Set in the late 1980s, the novel charts the road trip around Europe of two black Britons: Stanley, a high-flying City worker with a pristine flat and carefully ordered life, and impulsive, messy, garrulous Jessie, who bursts into Stanley’s like a breath of fresh air and persuades him to travel with her across Europe to Australia in her rusty old Lada. Barely have the pair’s travels begun, however, when Stanley makes a momentous discovery: that he is able both to perceive and to communicate with the ghosts of dead African Europeans. Among these are 16th century brothel-owner Lucy Negro, who some scholars have suggested was the inspiration for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets; Louise-Marie, the illegitimate daughter of Queen Marie-Therese of France, and the black dwarf Nabo who was rumoured to be her father; Queen Charlotte Sophia, wife of George III; Mary Seacole and Pushkin himself.

That the ghosts have alike suffered erasure through historical amnesia about Europe’s past becomes particularly clear in the Café des Fantomes in Paris, where Stanley meets Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the so-called ‘Black Mozart’ – the son of a slave from Senegal and a white French plantation owner, and virtuoso violinist, composer, and swordsman in the court of Louis XVI. Joseph is arguing with Hector, his would-be biographer, about Hector’s reluctance to include in his biography Joseph’s experiences of racial prejudice and his views on the evils of the slave trade. Turning suddenly to Stanley, Joseph reports that ‘Hector died of gout a few weeks after our meeting’ and ‘I fell prey to national amnesia.’ ‘I beg of you,’ Joseph exhorts Stanley, ‘make of me a memory once more / Let me be known.’

The line is perhaps the dominant motif of the novel, expressing its plea for the erased and hidden histories of black Europeans to be recovered. Once, in a university workshop on Soul Tourists, when we had read the scene of Lucy Negro pleading futilely with a self-obsessed Shakespeare to protect her from Queen Elizabeth’s round-up of Africans, a student recalled being told by her English teacher that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady could not possibly have been really a black woman. It is a recollection that echoes that of American academic Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, who recalls searching in a London bookstore for a history of black people in Britain, and being informed ‘sternly’ by a saleswoman that ‘“there were no black people in England before 1945.”’(Quoted in Keita 2012).

By giving the lie to this, Evaristo’s work contributes to the contesting of mythic narratives of a pure Europe prior to mass migration that Gilroy regards as an urgent political imperative. It also highlights how the cultural memory that frames conceptions of who ‘we’ are – of what is Europe, or Britain, and who does and does not have claims upon it – is maintained not only by academic histories but also through works of popular culture and literature, and that these latter are as such potentially sites of intervention into dominant political narratives. At one point in the novel Jessie tells Stanley (City banker and protector of the spoils of Empire): ‘Think you’ll find, Stanley, that slavery and the colonies were a pipeline of liquid fertilizer pumping away into the British soil for four hundred years so that the money trees on this fair isle could grow big and strong. Think that gives us land rights, don’t you?’ It is a question with potentially huge implications given the thousands currently risking all in the waters between North Africa and Fortress Europe.


References / Further Reading:
Evaristo, Bernardine (1997) Lara. ARP. [New edition published by Bloodaxe, 2009].
Evaristo, Bernardine (2001) The Emperor’s Babe. Penguin: London.
Evaristo, Bernardine (2005) Soul Tourists. Penguin: London.
Evaristo, Bernardine (2008) Blonde Roots. Penguin: London.
Evaristo, Bernardine (2008) ‘CSI Europe’ Wasafiri 56: 2-7.
Gilroy, Paul (2005). ‘Cat in a Kipper Box, or the Confessions of a “Second Generation Immigrant”’ in Migrant Cartographies: New Cultural and Literary Spaces in Post-Colonial Europe, eds. Ponzanesi and Merolla. Lexington: Oxford.
Gerzina, Gretchen (1997). Black London: Life Before Emancipation. Rutgers University Press and John Murray.
Keita, Maghan (2012). ‘Race: What the Bookstore Hid’ in Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, eds. Chazelle, Doubleday, Lifshitz and Remensnyder. Routledge: Abingdon and New York.
Phillips, Mike (2001). London Crossings: a Biography of Black Britain. Continuum: London and New York.


Victoria Margree is Course Leader for the BA (Hons.) History, Literature and Culture on the Humanities Programme at the University of Brighton.

Image: Alexander Pushkin, Mary Seacole, and Alexandre Dumas