By Samuel Doku
In The Emperor’s Babe and Small Island, Bernardine Evaristo and Andrea Levy have as a subtext the exorcising of the ghost of Hitler in postcolonial Britain, seemingly in reaction to the rather dangerous reminder by some politicians, particularly Enoch Powell that prior to 1945, Britain was purely a homogeneous society. In the late 1960s, there was a nostalgically treacherous crave for a horrifying past that many would never like to be reminded of. This precarious hankering for the past was in the form of the creation of a homogeneous society, a society in which “whiteness” would reign supreme in every shape and form. This essay examines Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe and Levy’s Small Island in the context of race homogeneity and argues that the two authors symbolically use setting, excellent depiction of disparate and eclectic characters, and historical subtext to claim that the notion of Britain as a pure society before 1945 is surreal.
Tories Hankering Racial Purity
Indeed, the crave was for a pure white Caucasian society in which white homogeneity became the Order and anything outside of it was considered a Disorder, an anachronistic relic that must be eradicated. In spite of the fact that such a precarious crave for purity led to the extinction of six million Jews in Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, a claim that also took a World War to upend The Third Reich’s murderous’ desire, some Conservative politicians in Great Britain led by the amiably ethnocentric Enoch Powell, revived Hitler’s defiant spirit in 1968 and called for a homogeneous Great Britain, a Great Britain without Blacks. Those politicians argued that before the Wind rush (influx of Blacks into Great Britain after World War II), that island was a homogeneous country. In fact, that claim has since been questioned, interrogated, powerfully and humorously excoriated by Paul Gilroy in his landmark book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.
Critics Debunk Purity Claim
In his book, Gilroy argued for a society without cultural and racial boundaries as he called the white supremacist claim of purity and homogeneity illusionists’ desire. Victoria Arana also argues that the Brixton race riots of 1981 were in reaction to the call by the white supremacists politicians for a return to a pure Britain. The riots, Arana claims, led to the re-enactment of the British Nationality Act that redefined legalized nationals as only people born in Britain and their offsprings or people in Britain legally and their offsprings. What the new law did was to streamline the previous law that gave legalized status to anyone in Britain from the Commonwealth who stayed free of crime for five years. In this sense, I suggest that the British Nationality Act of 1981 was predicated on Louis Althusser’s concept of RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses) in which the British police and immigration officers are used as conduit pipes in the repression of civil unrest.
Other critics have expressed disparate opinions on The Emperor’s Babe and Small Island. For example, Dave Gunning claims that in The Emperor Babe, Evaristo deconstructs post-colonial theory to debunk an antiquated yet populist proposition that Britain was once an amalgamation of racial purity. Gunning claims that Evaristo effectively interrogates and challenges, through the creation of a Roman Britain that is emphatically multicultural in its codes and enunciations, the notion of a homogeneous white Britain that existed before the era of multiracial migration. In addition, Cynthia James claims that Small Island is a parody of the concept of Empire. She argues that Small Island is the reenactment of the Wind rush experience through Hortense and Gilbert Joseph.
Furthermore, she argues that the war of identities engaged in by the characters is set in the context of World War II and calls for rewriting dominant scripts. She claims that the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924 is the perspectival lenses through which the male characters in the novel are identified. More importantly, James argues that juxtaposing the “Before” and “1948” chapters reveals similar historical experiences between the English and their West Indian counterparts, and that, the historical experiences shape different identities because they expose so many mutual misconceptions that when the English meet the West Indians, the scripts that define the reading of each other become humorously concurrent.
Indeed, Levy’s claim of rewriting dominant meanings (postcoloniality or decolonization) advocated by James can be extended to include, suggestively, the supremacist’s definition of Britishness. Although Evaristo overtly does not give race a serious treatment, covertly race plays a crucial role in defining the book’s richness in contemporary life in Britain.
The Setting of The Emperor’s Babe to Contest Hierarchical Claims of Supriority
In The Emperor’s Babe, Evaristo sets the novel in the third century, which historically was part of the period of Rome’s occupation of Britain. In Britanius Londinium, a cosmopolitan space occupied by variegated and eclectic characters, there are black Africans, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, who conflate to render that society in the multicultural realm. As Evaristo points out, “Now he owns several shops, selling everything/ from vino to shoes, veggies to tools,/ and he employs all sorts to work in them,/ a Syrian, Tunisian, Jew, Persian” (4). The story revolves around a wealthy Roman senator, Aurelius Lucius Felix, his Nubian wife, Zuleika; and an African Roman General Septimius Severus. Zuleika was an innocent, virginal beauty at age eleven when she was given to Felix to marry by her Sudanese father who had migrated to Londinium with his family. Soon, the marriage proves to be a languidly vapid existence for Zuleika as she was turned merely into a sex object by Felix, the peregrine. Although Zuleika takes consolation in writing poetry, the affairs of the heart hold sway over her poetry when she meets the African Roman General, Severus.
During their storming but brief relationship, Evaristo portrays Severus as a leader with ambitions similar to Hitler’s. Classic cases of illustration abound in the text. Before Severus arrives in Londinium, Evaristo foreshadows the destiny of the British:
They spoke of the great Septimius Severus,/ Who had gone from African boy to Roman, had spent many years / traveling the empire from Germania/ to Syria, back to his hometown in Libya,/ who would surely one day visit Britannia,/ this far-flung northern outpost of empire,/ defeat the fucking Scots, Pict and Saxon/ bastards who made a steady onslaught/ on our cities and towns, spear every last man/ of them, burn their villages, castrate/ their infant sons, occupy their women,/ colonize their terra firma, make them speak/ our lingo, impose taxes, yay! (41-42)
Contextually, Severus meets Zuleika in Londinium. In that sense, could it be starkly claimed that the Roman warriors led by Emperor Severus did kill the men and castrated their infant sons even as they occupied the British women? The subtext’s possibility is inundating because at one time in the history of Britain, Latin was the language spoken. Again, Severus’s Hitleran ambition is captured and parodied by Evaristo:
I spent every night for years/ visualizing myself wearing crown of laurels./ When at last time came to wear/ what Picts call Real McCoy, it was simply/ a case of what Gauls call déjà vu./ I had dream, Zuleika, that one day all peoples/ on earth would be my subjects,/ not just nine thousand k’s of Europe, North Africa and Middle eastern territory,/ but all those far-away tribes/ of whom we know little or nothing. (141)
The Phantasmagoria of Hitler
Hitler dreamed of a grand conquest that included Europe and parts of Africa to authenticate his melodramatic crave for power. Within that space of conquest, Hitler and his Nazis murdered what was estimated as six million Jews by the end of World War II. It must also be accentuated that Hitler’s hanker to conquer and subjugate the world was borne out of an ethnocentric belief that Germans were a superior race, so they must rule the entire world. That supremacist mentality resulted in a world war that claimed the lives of millions of people all over the world. Furthermore, although Hitler was not married, he had a mistress, Eva, who died with him when Allied Forces closed in on Berlin in 1945.
In a classic parody, Evaristo paints a picture of an African emperor with similar megalomaniac drives and ambitions. Just like Hitler murdered Jews and other nationals, Severus murdered Scots, Picts, and Saxons, castrated their young boys and raped their women. Hitler dreamed of the whole Europe coming under his tutelage, and so too did Severus who dreamed of bringing not only Europe, North Africa, and Middle eastern territory under his rule but also far away tribes. Hitler had Eva, and Severus had Zuleika. During the apogee of his dictatorship, Hitler was rumored to be an Austrian who rose to lead Germany just as Severus is a Libyan who rose to become a General in the Roman army. In the grand scheme of Evaristo’s artistic ingenuity, Severus and Zuleika die just as Hitler and Eva committed suicide when they realized that the Germans had lost the war.
In spite of the similarities, the parody also has its differences. Hitler was a European whereas Severus was an African. Severus was married with children, one of whom was a transvestite. Hitler was unmarried and he hated transvestites. Indeed, Hitler was a homophobia who killed gays and transvestites in Germany. In Londinium, transvestites, like Venus and Caracalla (Severus’s son), had the liberty to live, according to their wishes. Toward that end, any claims of purity and homogeneity in Britain could only come from those who have been declared as recent patients of amnesia and dementia.
The Setting of Small Island
On the contrary, Levy’s Small Island is set in 1948, but some of the narrations predate 1948. In fact, the narration is quintessentially centered on the 1924 Wembley Exhibition to showcase the greatness of the British Empire as such. Such is the fixation of Queenie Bligh on the 1924 Exhibition that her encounter with an African potentate never left her subconscious, even after her father had taken her to the top of the scenic railway and loudly proclaimed: “See here Queenie. Look around. You’ve got the whole world at your feet, lass” (6). The fixation becomes a Gaze in Queenie’s memory as she could not take her mind off the African. Therefore, when Queenie meets Airman Michael Roberts for the first time, her mind quickly reverted to 1924, and she fell for Roberts. After the war, Roberts returns to spend three days with Queenie. He impregnated her, and she gave birth to a baby boy, Michael in spite of the fact that Queenie is married to Bernard Bligh who also fought in the war.
The conversation that ensues after the baby had been born and the Blighs were about to move to the suburbs reveals the tension existing between whites and blacks in Britain, even as it exposes white supremacist’s mentality of some British. In this sense, Bernard Bligh is a synecdoche of the white supremacists, and the intelligent manner in which Gilbert Joseph reminds him of the fact that the only difference between them is the color of their skins cements the reality that color is only skin deep.. As Levy points out, “Mrs. Bligh lifted her hands and placed it on Gilbert’s arm. With the vigour of a blast, the delicate touch was enough to see Mr. Bligh on his feet exploding, ‘Get your filthy black hands off my wife’”(434). When Gilbert wanted to know if it was his black hands that petrified Bernard Bligh, he retorted: “How dare you, you savage?” (434).
Dignity Adulterated in Small Island
Clearly, Bernard feels his dignity as a white man has been given a groveling treatment by Gilbert Joseph, so he resorts to racist diatribe, and seemingly, with the symbolism of the ‘noble savage” in his mind, he wasted no time in telling Gilbert his piece of mind. However, in spite of having been called a savage, Gilbert refuses to allow his id to take hold of him, a situation that could have resulted in violence. Instead, he schools Bligh in lessons of egalitarianism and collateral unity indicative of the immanent concatenation between white and black British. “You know what your trouble is, man?” said Gilbert. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you power to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make it you? It make you white. That is all, man” (435).
But Gilbert is not yet done. “You and me,” he said, “fighting for empire. Fighting for peace. But still , after all that we suffer together, you wan tell me I am worthless and you are not….No, stop this, man. Stop it now. We can work together, Mr. Bligh. You no see? We must Or else you just gonna fight me till the end?” (435). Apparently, the supremacist mentality of the likes of Bligh (Powell) did not see the need to curtail their racist attitude toward black people, a condition that presumably exploded into the Brixton race riots of 1981.
Intellectual Historicity in The Emperor’s Babe and Small Island
However, Evaristo takes the minds of readers further back to 1800 years ago when historically, it was proven by Peter Fryer that blacks back then, were living in Britain. In “Origins of Old English to 800 A.D.,” Robert S. Hughes writes that it was not until 43 A.D. that the Romans under Emperor Claudius seriously attempted to occupy Britannia. As Hughes points out, “Between 78 and 85 A.D., the Roman governor of Britain, Agricola, completed the conquest of the southern and midland Celtic populace” (60). However, because of sporadic “attacks by the northern Celts, Emperor Hadrian came to England and constructed Hadrian’s Wall, which was seventy-three miles long, from Wallsend on the Tyne River to the head of the Solway Firth around 121-27 A.D., a line of fortifications which helped the Romans defend themselves later against the Picts” (Hughes 60).
Since Agricola completed the conquest of the southern and midland Celtic population, he could probably be Evaristo’s Severus. Even, if he is not, historically, it has been documented that the Romans occupied Britannia for a long time, for about 300 years. Subsequently, as Gilroy asseverates, claims of purity and homogeneity in the idea of being British are illusionist’s ideals coated in the realm of fantasy.
Although, Levy’s Small Island is set in a different time frame, the era of the Wind rush, to be precise, a scene in the novel (the 1924 London Exhibition) that predates the wind rush is the fulcrum on which the entire book spins. In that sense, part of the setting might affirm the supremacist mindset of Powell and his cohorts, but the 1924 London Exhibition where Queenie Bligh was fascinated by an African potentate is vividly drawn upon after she becomes the mother of Michael Robert’s child.
Indeed, characters such as Severus and Zuleito in The Emperor’s Babe and Queenie Bligh, Michael Roberts in Small Island and the African potentate at the 1924 Exhibition all suggest that long before the influx, Great Britain could not lay claim to homogeneity. Gunning claims that in The Emperor Babe, Evaristo deconstructs post-colonial theory to debunk an antiquated yet populist proposition that Britain was once an amalgamation of racial purity. Tracey Walters affirms Gunning’s suggestion that Evaristo’s engagement with history comes in the form of interrogating the cosmopolitan in order to create a space where she can re-envision and re-imagine some historical certainties that have informed some philosophical fallacies. Pilar Cuder-Dominguez argues that in TheEmperor’s Babe(2001), Evaristo “subscribes to a new politics of representation of Englishness to address the concerns of imagined communities other than white Anglo-Saxon Christians” (176).
Re-Ordering and Re-Imagining Historical Absurdities in Small Island
Indeed, Levy continues with the idea of re-ordering and re-imagining of historical absurdities in Small Island. Maria Helena Lima adds that “after reading Small Island, readers will not be able to see ‘home’ and ‘empire’ as two separate spaces, leaving unchallenged the fiction of a preexisting England, herself, constituted outside and without imperialism” (56-7).
Through British imperialism and colonialism, Winston Churchill was able to garner and harness colonial nationals from Africa to Asia and the West Indies to help the Allied Forces deliver a crushing blow to Hitler and his dream of empire building. Imbued with the somatic impression that if Hitler had won the war, the gamut black race would have been enslaved, black people everywhere rallied around the Allied Forces in defeating Hitler. Consequently, it is ironic that some British white supremacists would resort to an ideology of exclusion and separation in a frenetic drive to rid Great Britain of its black and Asian populace. Levy’s description of the men enlisted to fight in the war depicts men as disparate as the fingers but united as the hand to fight for a common cause, a cause that saved the entire human race. Levy points out:
But close to this fighting machine was merely composed of line after line of familiar strangers. Fresh young boys who had only just stopped larking in trees. Men with skin as coarse as tanned leather, whose hands were accustomed to breaking soil. Big-bellied men who would miss their plantain and bammy. Straight-backed men whose shoes would shine even through battle. It seemed all the dashing, daring and some of the daft of the island walked there. (59)
And, when some of the men wanted to know why they should go and fight in the war, Celia tells them why. “You must understand,” she said, “if this Hitler man wins this war he will bring back slavery. We will all be in chains again. We will work for no pay” (59).
With that motivation, the men went to war in defense of England even as the women suffered casualties; they lost their husbands, their sons, grandsons, nephews, and cousins. Why then should some have the temerity to preach exclusion and separation when inclusion and integration saved them from the snarl and snare of Hitler? Obviously, that came from the uninitiated about the salience of empire.
Clearly, Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe and Levy’s SmallIsland, through the authors’ use of historicity, parody, and setting made an incredible contribution to the discourse concerning the fantastic notion that before the Wind rush, Britain was a homogeneous society. Indeed, we have seen through the artistic lenses of Evaristo and Levy that obviously, England was not a homogeneous society by any stretch of the imagination. Hopefully, with their works, they have assisted remarkably in exorcizing the ghost of Hitler from the minds of white supremacists in England and have also helped in dispelling the myth as such.
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