Black Britain: Histories of Race and Immigration in the United Kingdom

Dr Natalie Thomlinson

When you think of a stereotypical Brit, who do you see? A tea-drinking aristocrat? A beer-swilling lout? A cockney ragamuffin? The queen? Chances are that, whatever or whoever you think of, the figure in mind is probably white. And yet, Black people have been present in Britain since the times of the Romans; Black people from all over the empire fought in World War One and World War Two; and, since the late 1940s, immigration from across the globe has rendered the contemporary United Kingdom a truly multi-cultural society. Indeed, in 2011, the census revealed that less than half (45%) of Londoners identified themselves as white British. This course will investigate the history of multi-cultural Britain, and trace the legacy of successive waves of immigration. It will ask questions about the experiences of migrants, many of whom found Britain to be far from the ‘tolerant nation’ that it so often imagined itself to be. It will ask how a Black British identity has developed and explore the concept of political Blackness in Britain, where, uniquely, many in the Asian community identify as Black.

Multi-cultural Britain is a legacy of empire; hence the cry of Black activists that ‘We are here because you were there’. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of empire that it was at the moment of its dissolution that the indigenous population of Britain became most aware of its effects. Emigration from all over the empire occurred after the 1948 British Nationality Act that established the principle of ‘Civis Britannicus Sum’: that anyone born in the empire had the rights of British citizenship. Partly because of the post-war labour shortage in the UK, and partly because of the poverty and lack of opportunity in many of Britain’s colonies, migrants first from the West Indies, (1950s) and increasingly from the Indian subcontinent and Africa (1960s) came in significant numbers, although from the 1960s onwards, a succession of increasingly restrictive immigration acts limited the amount of people arriving.

Alongside this came an increase in racial tensions.1958 saw race riots break out in London and Nottingham; in 1968, prominent Conservative politician Enoch Powell give his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’; the 1970s saw the rise of the overtly racist political party the National Front;  and 1981 saw riots in Back communities across the country. The Black community in Britain, however, were not simply passive victims but organised against racism and formed their own Black Power Movement, which wil be investigated during the course. The apparently more harmonious race-relations that characterised the UK at the turn of the millennium were undermined by the Islamophobia that grew after the London bombings in July 2005. This module will also pose difficult questions about how a country that is often viewed to be amongst the most integrated and racially harmonious in the world nevertheless saw rioting break out on a massive scale in 2011 after a white police officer shot dead an unarmed Black man in London, and will ultimately finish by asking: what does it mean to be Black and British today?

This course is aimed at: Humanities and social-science undergraduates (particularly those majoring in history or critical race studies), although it will be accessible to students without a background in these subjects. It is also designed to be of interest to those with an interest in contemporary racial justice and activism.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None. Some knowledge of modern British history would be an advantage but is far from essential.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: This course will help you hone your skills in both oral and written presentations and debates, and develop your abilities in interrogating primary source documents, and analysing and weighing historical evidence.

Core Reading:

Peter Fryer, Staying Power: Black People in Britain Since 1504 (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1984).

Colin Holmes, A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain (London: Faber and Faber, 1991)


Bryan, Beverley, Dadzie, Stella, and Scafe, Suzanne, Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain Today, (London: Virago, 1984).

Bunce, R.E.R, and Field, Paul, ‘Obi B. Egbuna, C.L.R. James, and the Birth of Black Power in Britain: Black Radicalism in Britain, 1967– 1972’, Twentieth Century British History 22:3 (2011), 391–414.

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (ed.)The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, (London: Hutchinson in association with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1982

Paul Gilroy: There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation , 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2002)

Laura Tabili,  We Ask For British Justice: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, Race and National Identity, 1945-64 (London: UCL Press, 1998)


  •  1 Final Exam: 50%
  • 1 Final Essay: 50%


Lecture hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)