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Black modernism, racism and the making of popular British culture in the inter-war years

Ivy MacKusick, Portrait of a Man in his Shirtsleeves. UCL Art Museum

In 1919, Ivy MacKusick, an art student at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art, completed a Portrait of a Man in His Shirtsleeves. We know nothing about the man of African descent depicted in this portrait. It was painted during the inaugural year of the Harlem Renaissance, which was also a year of violent race riots in the United States and Britain. The evocative painting makes it hard not to speculate about the thoughts passing through the man’s mind as he sat for the Slade students.

Had he lost a child or other family members in the recent Great War? Perhaps he was a dockworker and had experienced the extreme racial violence on the streets of East London during 1919. Or one of the many students of African and Asian heritage at University College. Perhaps he was linked to the presence of American performers in London’s West End? Either way, he may have joined the audiences at those theatres to see the popular African American performer Florence Mills.


If he was still in London in 1926 it would be surprising if he hadn’t. Mills was then the star of Blackbirds, a series of musical and dance numbers interspersed with comedy sketches that, following a successful run in Paris, enthralled audiences at the London Pavilion on Piccadilly Circus. For a time Blackbirds mania took hold of popular British cultural life.

The show turned Mills into a celebrity. Her recipe for a New Orleans Christmas Loaf was included in a compilation of yuletide recipes from famous stars in the Nottingham Evening Post. She combined this celebrity lifestyle with a commitment to anti-racist politics and ordinary people. She took part in special performances for wounded servicemen, charity performances for the Hackney Children’s Hospital and North London Jewish schools. She became an inspiration to black Londoners.

Jacob Epstein, The Little Negress, 1928. Tate

But things weren’t always so. Born in Washington DC in January 1895, Mills was considered one of the leading performers of the Harlem Renaissance – and was one of the few African American vaudeville performers to achieve international success. But when she came to Britain for the first time in 1923, the news that an all-black cast was going to be performing in London outraged the actors’ and musicians unions, which complained to the London County Council.

The compromise the authorities settled on reflects well the hardening and officially endorsed racial prejudice of the colour bar in inter-war Britain. Mills and her African-American colleagues did perform, but unions successfully insisted that an all-white British cast performed in the first half of the show. Mills and the rest of the cast were only allowed in the second half. This ruling didn’t quite have the desired effect, as most reviewers preferred the performance of Mills and her company. The energy and talents of the American cast upstaging their fellow British performers.

Harlem in London

A decade later, celebrities like Mills weren’t quite so few and far between. In March 1936 Rudolph Dunbar wrote his essay on the influence of Black America on London. He reported on the presence of black performers, students and actors and the world of Soho’s Shim Sham club, where you could experience a slice of “Harlem in London”.

Edward Burra, Harlem, 1934. Tate

New York’s Harlem and its articulation in the bars and jazz clubs of Soho infused their social lives and inspired the work of artists such as John Banting, Barbara Ker-Seymer and Edward Burra.

But this “Harlem in London” scene was romanticised for many. For the Jamaican born activist Claude McKay, whose despairing response to the race riots in 1919 was poured into his poem If We Must Die, the inequalities of imperialism, racism and class struggle remained insurmountable hurdles for a black man in early ‘20s Britain.

Barbara Ker-Seymer and Burra wrote about trips to Blackbird shows in their letters to each other, as did many ordinary fans. Among them, a “Madame Davis”, who wrote to Mills in 1926 from her home in Holborn. In her letter, Davis shared her pride at having seen a black woman on stage singing like a nightingale and proving that black women, like her, were able to perform as well, indeed better, than their white peers. Mills was among London’s first celebrities to challenge racism.

These fan letters, although brief, speak to a number of broader themes explored in Tate Britain’s current display Spaces of Black Modernism. The hardening of racism and “the colour line” in Britain between the wars are explored, along with the importance of the arts, particularly popular culture, in the formation of black identities and challenges to racism. What is also made abundantly clear is the important role of black cultural expression in the making of British popular culture in its broadest sense in the 1920s and 1930s.

Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39 is at London’s Tate Britain until March 29 2015.

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