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As the punctuation mark in its title implies, A Black British Canon? raises fundamental questions for scholars and critics of British literature and the arts—principally, how to respond to the burgeoning rate and prestige of creative works by Britain’s blacks. Do their productions constitute a new and separate canon? If so, which of their works are to be included, on what grounds, and according to whom? The book is valuable not so much for giving definitive answers to such questions as for debating these and related issues from several significant and contending perspectives. The editors make it clear that their book “sets out, not to trace a history or highlight areas of productivity, but to challenge the way in which black British writers and practitioners are being seamlessly incorporated into the academic canon, and to problematize the consequent disciplinary institutionalization” (5). A Black British Canon? features an introduction by its editors, a foreword by Mike Phillips, nine chapters under three section heads—”Interrogating the Canon,” “New Languages of Criticism,” and “Genealogies and Interventions”—and an afterword by Alison Donnell. Only three of the eleven contributors are black (novelist and journalist Phillips, Scottish Arts Council administrator Femi Folorunso, and playwright and cultural critic Michael McMillan). All three are writer-activists prominent in the UK for their cultural advocacy. Except for one doctoral candidate, the rest of the volume’s contributors are seasoned and distinguished university professors whose scholarship has increasingly centered on the work of black British writers and artists. All of the book’s contributors live and work in England or Scotland.
In their encyclopedic introduction, Gail Low and Marion Wynne- Davies emphasize their interest in “examining the institutional, funding[,] and publishing networks that support black British culture” and that have had and will continue to have a major say in “the politics and the processes of canon formation” (5); they call for “greater self-reflexivity with regard to the choices [that faculties] make as [they] select, read and recommend texts within, what Gayatri Spivak has called, the ‘Teaching Machine’“ (6). Low and Wynne-Davies extensively list and briefly discuss important anthologies, films, art galleries, serial publications, bibliographies, critical works, authors and artists, and book titles emerging from the 1980s through the early 2000s. They emphasize that “a canon is what we produce as we make those choices about what we read or write about” (10). Low and Wynne-Davies insist that “the issues and problems surrounding canonicity are not simply academic” but “involve, of necessity, a series [End Page 909] of wide-ranging and constantly shifting cultural dialogues that have a significant impact upon contemporary society” (10). The essays they have assembled do an admirable job of mapping these current debates and their rich complexities.
Phillips’s “Foreword: Migration, Modernity and English Writing— Reflections on Migrant Identity and Canon Formation” argues cogently for re-describing English literature in the light of its newly altered “landscape,” where writers like himself have sought “constructive engagement” with a whole range of lifestyles, languages, and cultural traditions they know (19). He warns against the glib use, and misuse, of labels (such as diversity or multiculturalism) that lead to “a benign cultural apartheid” and to the view that “you [migrants] have a culture which we [old locals] will support and praise”—a view that also “crudely” implies that “we don’t have to make room in our culture for you” (21–22). Phillips affirms the need for state institutions to recognize and incorporate outstanding works by black citizens into the general canons of the arts and literature because the latest wave of creative works by black Britons, when understood historically, does indeed reflect the most remarkable transformations occurring during the past three centuries in the culture and polity of the British Isles. Phillips “signals the emergence of a new consciousness”—not merely among the migrants, but more generally—and explains the consequent “reconfiguration of selfhood, which is a necessary precondition” of the decisive process of social change occurring in England, Scotland, and Wales (29). In short, he makes it clear...