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  • Britain's Brown Babies
  • Mary Chamberlain (bio)
Lucy Bland, Britain's Brown Babies: the Stories of Children born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019, pp. 271.

'That's my dad. I know who I am and it just wipes out all the pain. All the emptiness and all the sadness. Full circle, just peace and joy. . .'1

Monica was one of the forty-five people interviewed by Lucy Bland in her study of Britain's 'brown babies'.2 Born to white British women during the Second World War, and fathered by African-American GIs stationed in the United Kingdom, estimates of the total number of such babies vary from between 1,800 and 2,000.3 The number is relatively tiny, the ramifications huge. Lucy Bland's study of this small demographic throws light on far wider issues of black history: on individual and institutional attitudes to race, gender and illegitimacy, on personal stories of belonging and rejection.

The history of the black presence in Britain has been partially obscured by what David Olusoga refers to as the 'Windrush myth',4 the assumption that black history in the United Kingdom began with the postwar migration of West Indians. There were black people in Britain before even colonialism and the enslavement of Africans, while communities of African, Caribbean and mixed-race peoples have long existed in port cities such as London, Liverpool or Cardiff. The 1919 riots in Liverpool and Cardiff, for instance, were directed at seamen of colour and their families. Even though the aggressors were white, the police arrested and charged a disproportionately high number of black victims, many of whom were deported to the Caribbean.5 Although London, before the war, was not the destination for large-scale migrations, there were, nevertheless, significant numbers of West Indians and Africans living there. They included any number of radicals who agitated for independence and the end of imperialism or, like the Jamaican Harold Moody and his League of Coloured Peoples, against racism in the UK as well as its colonies. The numbers of black West Indians were augmented during the Second World War by many Caribbean people [End Page 262] volunteering for the British armed services and finding themselves on British soil albeit, more likely than not, in service rather than combat roles.

After the Americans joined the war in 1941, US troops were also stationed in the UK, the first arriving early in 1942. The US army was segregated but between eight and ten percent of its servicemen were black, serving in their own units and, like many of their Caribbean counterparts, primarily in support rather than fighting roles. Around three million American servicemen passed through Britain en route to continental Europe in the course of the war. By Lucy Bland's estimate, some 240,000 were African American. Billeted across England and Wales they lived among the local, white population and socialized with them. For many British people living outside metropolitan areas, this was their first encounter with people of colour.

Although the Ministry of Information propagandized a policy of welcome, concern was raised in the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the War Cabinet about the presence of black GIs on UK soil– and with it the threat of miscegenation.6 Miscegenation, it was thought, could lead to violence between white and black men (as the 1919 riots appeared to testify), sexual promiscuity, and racial degeneration. This position was endorsed by the US military who feared, in addition, that inter-racial mixing would create tensions between white and black army recruits– and aspirations among the African-American GIs for racial equality.

But socialization happened. For many British people, segregation was abhorrent, particularly for those who met, and entertained, the black GIs, whom they found courteous, grateful and generous and who put them in touching distance of the glamour of Hollywood, via American music, culture and dance. These were young men, abroad for the first time, encountering a welcome from white people unimaginable in their own country. And these were young women, restive with rationing, longing for a good time and emotional escape, even if only temporary. For...


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pp. 262-266
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