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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Imaging Home
Wendy Webster

(London: UCL Press, 1998) Distributed by Taylor & Francis.
240pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 1-85728-350-3. Pb.: 12.95: 1-85728-351-1.



This book deals with an important 'moment' in British history, one in which the government purposefully recruited principally black labour from its former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean to help 'kick start' its ailing economy in the post war period. A time when the consolidation of the construction of home as white and alien as black even when many migrants were, or had been, British subjects. The latter category was not exclusively defined by the colour of a person's skin but essentially included Irish migrants, most from Northern Ireland, who themselves might contest their status as British citizens. Interweaving a complex web of oral narratives and life writing, the author discloses the significance of multiple racism and its impact on the lives of black women migrants. Moreover, she considers the disempowerment of all women in the post war period when the reconstruction of gender relations involved new representations of the 'good' woman, wife and mother to which all women should aspire. In the revelation of a poignant and inspired oral history Webster explores the ways in which these representations reinforced categories of black and white reflected in race discourse in Britain at that time. A discourse in which black women were the other, alien and thus by inference 'bad' and as such would could never really 'belong' and achieve full citizenship in Post War Britain.

Webster, by allowing the women to 'speak' through her, offers a rare insight into the struggle of black women in British society to empower themselves in a "hierarchy of belonging which was not only raced but also gendered"(p. 27). These female migrants had been 'chosen' to migrate to Britain as workers and the majority of them were also mothers. In the post war period 'good mothers' stayed at home but for all immigrants finding a home at all was a Herculean task. The long journey in finding a home of one's own began in city streets where bed and breakfast establishments and property rental agencies proudly displayed their signs declaring that 'No coloured, No Irish need apply'. The socio-economic 'apartheid' existing in Britain at this time conspired against black women who, with their families, endured living in cramped conditions, low status, low pay employment hovering on the boundaries of the poverty line. In Chapter five, for example, Webster considers perceptions of the 'good home', the official scrutinising of black women as mothers and home makers using 'white' standards, and the motherhood mandate which was concerned with facilitating white 'indigenous' women's reproduction while limiting black women's reproduction. The good home, as all else, was raced. Throughout the book the personal narratives of women reveal the extent and nature of their struggle to claim a new identity and a sense of belonging in a classist, racist society that used all the means at its disposal to deny immigrants full citizenship. It was under such conditions that Webster argues:

Home was thus important in black women's resistance to the range of meanings of 'you couldn't get places to stay' - that there was no place for black people in Britain, that they were rootless and transient., that black women were required as workers but had no domestic or familial identity or life.(p. 181).

This book demystifies many aspects of black women's experience in Post War Britain but its major contribution, in my view, is the underlying critique of the construction of a British national identity and its implications for race relations in contemporary Britain. That Webster deals with the now famous 'rivers of blood' speech of Enoch Powell in 1968 in the Epilogue reminds us of the nexus between past and present, knowing and understanding and tolerance and hatred in a raced society. The rich textured canvas of the narratives of Webster and her subjects in the journey from personal disempowerment to relative empowerment becomes a sad but fitting reminder of the legacy of history. In its own way, a tribute to the untold stories of the thousands of 'dusky problem babies' that, in the immediate post war period, 'were shipped to America in a specially chartered liner...[to] save them from growing up social misfits and from possible stigma' (p.19).


Yvonne Corcoran-Nantes, The Flinders University of South Australia



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