Book review - Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century

Authored by Marc Matera and reviewed by Ben Gowland

24 Oct 2018, 10:19 a.m.
Ben Gowland

Black London book cover


Book Review - Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century

Authored by Marc Matera and reviewed by Ben Gowland

Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015; 414 pp.: ISBN: 978-0-520-28430-2, US$29.95/£24.00 (pbk)


Black London is a wide-ranging and vivid examination of the lives and activities of people of African descent in the British imperial metropolis during the interwar and immediate post-Second World War period. Matera’s deeply researched history attends to the political activities, cultural expressions and life-worlds of black men and women residing and sojourning in London who were engaged in anti-imperial political action, the forging of transnational solidarities and the carving out of spaces of cosmopolitan artistic expression. The author traces the lives of intellectuals, performers and ordinary citizens in a project which spans both the public and the private in order to better develop understandings of the construction and deployment of black internationalisms fashioned in the heart of empire. Matera’s engagement with the spaces and moments of quotidian encounter in black London allows for an examination of the oftentimes tense and contested construction of black identities and subjectivities that would go on to inflect decolonial trajectories in the latter half of the 20th century.

The book owes a great deal of its effectiveness to the fine-grained and expansive approach adopted by the author in his recounting of black lives and stories and in his reconstruction of the important sites and spaces of early 20th century London. Black London is the product of over 10 years of archival study and comprehensive scholarly reading, and this is reflected in the broad cast of characters that are engaged with and in the multiple intellectual, cultural and social spheres that are attended to. Matera’s tracking of black Londoners through spaces both material and imagined takes the reader on a journey through Soho nightclubs, diasporic hostels, film sets, lecture theatres and the bedrooms and parlours of those he studies in a process which highlights the interconnectedness of diverse sites of intellectual debate, cultural production and intimate personal encounter. To this end, the book is divided into seven chapters with each focusing on one aspect of life in black London.

In Chapter 1, Matera concentrates on black political and cultural associations in interwar London and in particular the activities of the West African Students Union (WASU) and the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP). Through a study of these organisations, the author highlights how Pan-African solidarities and connections were forged by people from across the British empire and beyond via the shared experience of anti-black racism in the Metropole. What is perhaps most interesting about this chapter from a geographical perspective is the analysis of the respective hostels set up by the WASU and the LCP. The author positions the hostels as central hubs for people of African descent in London where socialising, organising and intellectual stimulation could occur in what became performative spaces of African unity. These hostels gave physical form to the African presence in the imperial metropolis and represented prefigurative models of what African self-government could look like.

Chapter 2 explores the ways that black internationalist politics in London was both shaped and facilitated by London’s position at the crossroads of numerous transnational and international connections spanning the British empire and the world beyond. In focusing on black internationalist political activity surrounding the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Matera shows how figures such as George Padmore and organisations such as the International African Service Bureau astutely utilised their position in the heart of empire to develop transnational political linkages and to disseminate information and materials on a global scale. Pan-Africanists and anti-imperialists were able to utilise longstanding imperial networks of information and circulation in order to draw localised disputes in individual colonies into larger discourses of anti-racism and anti-fascism which could then be used as a platform to promote empire-wide connections and solidarities. The author also highlights the diverse range of actors, in terms of both place of origin and political persuasion, that came together in response to the rising tide of fascism in the 1930s. London’s position as a global nodal point meant that truly international and cosmopolitan political groupings and trajectories could be developed – although allegiances developed during this time were subject to conflict and tension rooted in Left factionalism, racism, positions on appeasement, etc.

The third chapter addresses black feminist internationalists. Matera is keen to develop an anti-colonial history which goes beyond a narrow engagement with male-dominated political organisations, and in doing so he has produced a study of black internationalism which avoids a devolution into the study of ‘Great Men’ (Putnam, 2013). Instead, the author seeks to foreground the stories and travels of women within the history of Pan-Africanism and black internationalism so as to avoid recreating the misogynist gender politics of the places and times these women lived in. It is demonstrated how women like Amy Garvey and Una Marson brought into focus the blind spots of Pan-Africanist politics regarding gender. Figures such as these agitated around issues facing black women and navigated racialised tensions with contemporaneous Liberal white feminism, as well as attacking the patriarchal and masculinist character of Pan-African and black internationalist politics and organisations. Indeed, Matera attends to the ways in which the WASU and LCP hostels were highly gendered spaces reflective of British middle-class expectations of domesticity, but in doing so he foregrounds the ways in which women were able to use the roles open to them in order to promote internationalism and black solidarity in ways deemed ‘reasonable’ for women at that time. Similarly, black feminist internationalists were able to link localised experiences of misogyny in London to a broader hetero-patriarchal, racist imperial order and in doing so revealed the multiple axes of oppression that black women faced, as well as developing a political terrain which could connect the struggles of women across Britain’s colonial empire.

Chapter 4 deals with London’s black music scene; its sights, sounds and performers. Matera’s analysis is heavily influenced by Paul Gilroy’s (1993) work on Black Atlantic music, and so the music of black London is seen as being produced directly from black internationalist encounter in terms of both musical style and the composition of the various bands mentioned throughout the chapter. The jazz and dance clubs of interwar Soho are positioned as spaces for black interaction outside of the normal prejudices of British society, and as such, analysed as performative sites of Pan-African unity, cosmopolitanism and internationalism. Indeed, these clubs became spaces in which new forms of black identity associated with the Modern and cosmopolitan were enacted via a relationship to the new and exciting musical forms emanating from diasporic cultures, communities and experiences.

The fifth chapter considers personal intimacy and relationships and the role of these in fashioning diasporic identities. For black Londoners, sex and relationships were not simply private affairs, but were instead highly scrutinised and politicised due to imperial racism and the highly gendered and sexualised discourses deployed in relation to non-white migration to the imperial Metropole after the First World War. As such, black London’s spaces of sociability and webs of friendship became political arenas in which sexual encounters and intimate relationships became inflected with tensions surrounding the allyship of white Britons and the praxis of anti-colonial resistance. In this context, anti-racist and anti-imperial action became intertwined with questions over black masculinity in particular, as black men struggled with questions over whether their interracial relationships represented racial equality or a re-articulation of black dependency within empire.

In Chapter 6, the contribution of black intellectuals to colonial studies is explored. Once again London’s position as a hub of international flows and connections is seen to have facilitated meetings, debates and interactions between intellectuals from across the African diaspora. Such encounters stimulated genuinely novel contributions to academia from people of African descent; however, the obstacles of racism and the colour bar in British society meant that the work of African scholars often went unpublished or was overlooked.

Lastly, Chapter 7 interrogates the role of film in the imperial imaginary and the portrayal of colonial life and race relations. Through a comparison of Sanders of the River and Men of Two Worlds, Matera charts a shift in the ideology undergirding modes of British imperial governance and strategy either side of the Second World War. The role of black actors and the reception given to both films by London’s black community are shown to have stimulated divergent and contrary opinions, thus highlighting the multiple and overlapping identities and political positions adopted by black Londoners.

The real strength of Matera’s work lies in his attendance to the transformative effects of black London’s intimate spaces of encounter and the social networks developed by black people in the colonial Metropole. In this way, genealogies of anti- and post-colonial politics that would emerge in the latter half of the 20th century are opened up to include the lives and stories of figures oft overlooked, and are enlivened through an engagement with film, music and performance.

Black London represents a useful and engaging resource for those interested in Black Atlantic history and politics that moves beyond the usual figures and organisations. However, any readers after a more detailed engagement with a given group, figure, or intellectual, social or cultural sphere may be left wanting.



  Gilroy, P (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso Books. Google Scholar
  Putnam, L (2013) Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Google Scholar


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