Breaking Ground – An Introduction

When we first envisaged putting together a Black British writers’ tour of the USA, we had serious doubts that the project might work. For, we thought, there are many Black British writers who live and teach across the pond, from the award-winning Caryl Phillips to latest recruit Aminatta Forna, from poet and novelist Fred D’Aguiar to the most recognisable of them all, Zadie Smith. Moreover, some Black British writers have made notable incursions into US space through sell-out individual tours, such as the reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, or through work which has catapulted them onto the international stage, as was the case with Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize winning novel The Famished Road. What need, then, to showcase Black British literary talent in America?

In 2013 Speaking Volumes organised the fourth Afroeuropes conference in London, a multi-disciplinary gathering exploring a range of subjects concerning Europe’s black populations. Combining a traditional academic forum with diverse cultural events, it was a revelation to discover that many conference delegates did not know any of the Black British (or European) artists who performed over the four days. These leaders in their field, pioneering and groundbreaking in their own research, had not discovered the depth and breadth of black European creativity. Whilst it can be argued that the language barrier has prevented many English-language readers from gaining access to black European writers, speaking to the North American delegates made it apparent that even the Black British writing on offer had also not crossed the Atlantic. And, if that was true of people who were most able to discover these authors, what was the awareness of the general reading population in the USA?

The situation in Britain regarding the publication of Black British writers is far from perfect, as recently acknowledged in the 2015 Spread the Word report Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place, which documents how there is still a lot to be done to achieve parity with white writers or employees in the publishing industry. Moreover, as Black British actor and comedian Lenny Henry has made clear, black artists from the UK have often had to go to the USA and achieve success there first before the UK cultural sector will take them seriously or give them a fair shot; names like Idris Elba and Marianne Jean Baptiste easily come to mind. Despite these hurdles, Britain has produced a great number of black artists over many generations, from actors to writers, from filmmakers to photographers, from dancers to poets — as well as some visionary independent grassroots structures that allowed that to happen, whether black arts organisations (eg Creation for Liberation), publishers (eg Bogle L’Ouverture Publications) or theatre companies (eg Talawa).

In her powerful interview for Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing (issue 79, 2014), cultural critic and writer Bonnie Greer makes the point that the Black British experience is not the same as the Black American one; that the UK’s black populations are massively diverse, mainly coming to Britain via the connecting chain of Empire and arriving in waves over many hundreds of years. The Windrush generation, arriving in the UK to meet the post-World War Two need for workers, were those who led the way in creating a Black British consciousness through their activism, protests against racial inequality and grassroots organisation; the archives of the George Padmore Institute have a wealth of information on these movements, including those of Britain’s first black bookshop and publishers, New Beacon Books, (founded in 1966). Fifty years on from the launch of this pioneering publishing house, it is more than timely that Black British writers start to make their presence felt in numbers far beyond the UK’s shores. To show the country with the biggest number of English-language readers the diverse and multi-faceted work that Black British writers produce.

The Breaking Ground tour, then, developed in a way to highlight this as much as possible and therefore includes people who write novels, poetry, plays, graphic stories, travelogues, non-fiction, essays, articles, short stories, reviews and more. It also includes people whose backgrounds may be Black British born and bred, Caribbean, African, African American, mixed race … women and men of various generations and at different stages of their careers. All of whom have had little access to American readers and audiences — until now. Taking that theme one step further, this brochure is just the tip of the iceberg of Black British literary talent, naming only fifty out of thousands of writers. We have deliberately included people you may not have heard of before; some have yet to publish a book but command serious attention through their performance. We hope that Breaking Ground, the tour and the brochure, will both excite US audiences as they discover this hidden world of quality literature from just across the Atlantic and awaken the UK publishing sector to the wonderful world of writing that Black British authors are creating in all its myriad forms.