The revolution wasn’t supposed to be televised, but the American Civil Rights struggle certainly was. People were watching all over the world. In the Cold War context, the violent racism hobbling American democracy was a telling propaganda point for the Soviet Union in the competitive wooing of the Third World. And American race politics—especially the emergence of Black Power—were also very influential in Britain, as scholar Rob Waters reveals.
“Television was a critical site for the construction of racial knowledge and racial experience in postwar Britain,” he explains.
American images and personalities “offered new sites of identification, community, and solitary in the formation of new cultures and politics of blackness” in Britain. Waters quotes historian Mike Phillips—who helped gather oral histories of the “Windrush Generation”—who said that the news from American meant “we could watch [B]lack giants walking the earth.”
Particularly memorable was the Black Power salute by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Writer and director Hanif Kureishi, who’s father was born in Pakistan, remembered the salute as “a great moment,” suggesting its appeal across non-white Britain.
But at the same time, Waters argues that British TV coverage of America’s race issues contributed to a “‘re-racialization’ of national identity and citizenship in Britain.” Large-scale non-white immigration from the former colonies, coinciding with the rise of television usage, was seen by many white Britons as a threat to British identity.
“Scenes of urban unrest in the United States held substantial political weight in Britain,” feeding white anxiety and racism. Blackness was transformed into a “sign of violence and impending social disorder.” This was viscerally expressed in Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 speech against immigration and civil rights legislation. Looking to the “other side of the Atlantic,” Powell fantasized that Britain’s future would see rivers “foaming in blood” in race war. (Polls revealed substantial support for Powell among white Britons, helping to contribute to the surprise victory by the Conservatives over the reigning Labour government in 1970.)
By 1965, 91 percent of British households had television sets. With three channels (BBC1, BBC2, and Granada/ITV), television became “a central site for the imagination of community.” This imagined community largely excluded nonwhite Britons, except when it came to social problem documentaries and news from the US.
In particular, British TV thrived on hyping and stereotyping Black Power. Waters details how the BBC current affairs program Man Alive, for example, designed its approach in 1968. The “interviewing team pushed for predictions of violence” and transcripts show that the most violent statements were chosen for inclusion. (A voluble sixteen-year-old’s prediction of “war,” which was used to advertise the program, had to be scraped from the show itself when it turned out the kid was talking about combat between Britain and Jamaica.) A year earlier, the BBC had changed the name of its documentary on the “global trajectories of black liberation” from The Negro Challenge to The Colour War.
The 1967 visit to Britain by Black Panther Stokely Carmichael was thus both a “watershed” in the “growth of culture of radical blackness” in the UK and in the “construction of the folk-devil figure of the Black Power militant.” (Raised in the Bronx, Carmichael was born on Trinidad, which gained independence from Britain in 1962.) ITV intercut footage of Carmichael’s London speeches with footage of the concurrent Detroit uprising.
“Television collapsed these spaces together,” writes Waters, who notes that Carmichael was promptly banned from returning to Britain.
As signs of pride—Afros, dashikis, black berets, Free Angela Davis buttons—became transatlantic, so too did white paranoia and police repression. Cops militarized the white formulation Black pride/Black Power=“kill whitey” terrorism. Carmichael’s African exile was monitored—and interfered with—by both British and American intelligence services, another effect of the “transnationalization of race politics” by television.
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