Watching Downton Abbey With An Historian: Race and Imperialism -The Toast

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Previous installments in this series can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road.]

37234-1-Not long after the end of season three of Downton Abbey, rumors began about a black character who would be introduced in the new season (producing one of the funniest satires on Downton, “Downton Diddy”.  So far, the plotline involving Jack Ross, the black American jazz singer, invites the viewer to imagine 1920s England as a homogeneously white place where racial diversity is linked mainly with modernization and Americanization. To some extent, this reflects cultural anxieties and tropes authentic to the 1920s; it also, though, threatens to overshadow a longer and more complicated history.

170px-Rudolph_ValentinoJack Ross has a kind of non-fictional double in last night’s episode: Rudolph Valentino. The feckless footman Jimmy takes Ivy to see The Sheik, a silent American film from 1921 set in North Africa; Valentino, an Italian-born actor and heart-throb, plays the sheik himself, whose revelation of white ancestry opens the path for romantic resolution. Even though Ivy says she prefers Englishmen to the “Latin lover” type embodied by Valentino, the outlines of the trope are clear: American mass culture brings sexualized, exotic men to England, tempting young English women through new forms of leisure like the cinema and jazz music.

The episode ends with Lady Mary finding Rose and Jack kissing below stairs; apparently remembering her own dalliance with a visiting foreigner, she tactfully ignores their transgression. Rose’s antics echo those of Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), the heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune and a rebel on a scale that makes Rose look very tame. In the early 1920s she fostered a literary milieu and had affairs with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, among others. Bored with her parents’ hypocritical world, she moved to avant-garde Paris, where she met and fell in love with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz pianist. Although she was nearly disinherited by her mother for the relationship, Cunard persisted and became an anti-racism activist after she visited Harlem with Crowder. It has been evident from her first scene that Rose is meant to be a replacement, in Downton’s visual and emotional landscape, for Sybil. The romance between Lady Sybil and Tom Branson started with shared political conviction and ended in domestic tragedy; I suspect, though, that it’s too much to hope that Rose might go the opposite direction and end up at politics via lust.

220px-Baker_BananaJazz grew out of the collisions of African, European, and American history and culture. In Britain, France, and Germany of the early post-World War I years, it was intensely novel. Its appeal was racialized, but in a generic and eclectic way: jazz bands often played in formal attire, but costumes, performances, and shows evoked everything from Mississippi steamboats and plantations to the vague ‘African jungle’ aesthetic performed by someone like Josephine Baker. The entire premise of jazz as European and British entertainment, in other words, rested on the same conceit as this season of Downton Abbey: that blackness, whether seen as appealing or appalling, is fundamentally foreign to traditional England.

According to the 2011 census, 86 percent of the population of England and Wales identified as white, with ‘white British’ the largest single group (45.1 million or 80.5 percent). “Asian/Asian British” came in second, at 7.5 percent; only 3.3 percent identified as “Black/African/Caribbean/Black British,” barely ahead of the 3.2 percent who chose “Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Groups” or “Other.” (For American readers, the strangeness of the categories is itself informative, a reminder that racial categories are socially constructed however natural they may come to seem.) Much of this modest racial diversity dates from immigration in the middle and late twentieth century, when large numbers of people from former British colonies in South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean moved to England.

At the moment when Mr. Carson pantomimes shock at seeing Jack Ross, the number of people of African birth in Britain was much lower: probably about 5,000, not necessarily including people of African descent born in Britain or the Americas. They lived mainly in London or other port cities such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Cardiff, and were frequently seamen. As both Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson acknowledge, however, Britain’s entanglement with the lives of African people is far deeper and more complex.

180px-Am_I_not_a_manAs a major imperial power in the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain participated in the slave trade and profited enormously from slave labor, particularly on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. In fact, anti-slavery activists promoted the use of ‘non-slave’ sugar, even advertising the fact on special sugar bowls: not so far removed from the ‘fair trade’ and similar labels of today’s consumer activism. Mr. Carson refers indirectly, but proudly, to the legal principle that no man is a slave on English soil: Somersett’s case, decided in 1772, found that James Somersett could not be recaptured in England having escaped the man who purchased him in Boston, establishing that principle. But Britain continued to participate in the slave trade until 1807; slavery itself was abolished (mostly) in British colonies in 1833, though slave-owners were compensated for their loss of “property” and former slaves were obliged to pass through a period of “apprenticeship” before gaining full freedom.

By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), many in Britain were proud of their relatively early abolition movement, looking with dismay and perhaps some smug superiority on the American states that continued to permit slavery. (Lord Grantham’s reference to Simon Legree prompted an interesting conversation in last week’s comments on the British popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) In Manchester, just off Albert Square, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln celebrating the decision by a meeting of mill workers in 1862 to support the embargo against Confederate cotton in spite of the fact that the resulting ‘cotton famine’ put many of them out of work.

By the 1920s, condemnation of racism and ‘Jim Crow’ in the American South was a staple of British discourse. Yet Britain itself experienced its own episodes of violent racial hatred. In 1919, a wave of riots hit British ports; white workers, including many Irish people targeted African, south Asian, and Chinese people as scapegoats for their anger about rising unemployment and hard times in the struggling seaports. During World War II, ten percent of the American soldiers stationed in the United Kingdom were African-American; their presence, and the visible segregation of the U.S. Army, occasioned considerable comment. Once again, a key issue was women’s sexuality, and in particular young women who dated black soldiers. Nevil Shute’s novel The Chequer Board (1947) presents these issues in an idealized way, contrasting vicious American racism with the tolerance and common sense of the local English people. The mixture of Anglo-American competition, race, and sexuality is a potent one; the longer history of the Atlantic world, though, casts an inexorable shadow.


Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011,” Office for National Statistics

Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009)

George McKay, Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)

Jason Rodrigues, “Lincoln’s Great Debt to Manchester,” The Guardian, February 4, 2013

Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Caroline Weber, “The Rebel Heiress,” review of Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), New York Times, April 1, 2007

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