Book Review: Black Men in Britain by Monrose

Black Men in Britain: An ethnographic portrait of the post-Windrush generation (2020) by Kenny Monrose, published by Routledge.

Kenny Monrose is a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Sociology, and a College Research Associate at Wolfson College. Kenny is also a lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice and member of the Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement at the University of Cambridge. In May 2021 he is convening a conference on The Post-Windrush Generation: Black British Voices of Resistance. He tweets @Drkennymonrose

Review by Jonathan Ilan

Kenny Monrose has produced an extraordinarily timely text that vividly illustrates the lives of now-middle-aged, second-generation Black Britons, painstakingly analysing the social forces that have shaped their experiences. As contemporary scandals, relating both to the treatment of Windrush-era migrants and to the low value accorded to Black lives, batter against the platitudes that British society (and others like it) tells itself, this book does much more than simply contextualise Black experience and racism within a specific space-time. Monrose coaxes great nuance and texture from the concepts, fluently blending insights from generations of Black sociological thought with the voices of his participants and his own memories and reflections. The prose throughout this text is thus warm and highly readable, the scholarship deep, and the ethnographic data it presents is rich and thorough.

As a work of sociology, the book can lay claim to some important contributions. It focuses on a group that is under-researched and acknowledged, compared to the celebrated (but frequently mistreated) ‘Windrush Generation’ and the perennially folk-devilled ‘Black youth’. It presents ‘Black on Black’ scholarship, that in the best of the ethnographic tradition utilises the affinity between researcher and participant to yield findings that might otherwise have never emerged. Monrose courageously wrings every ounce of value from this position by discussing topics that might be considered taboo. Whilst besieged populations are often understandably wary of airing difficult matters publicly, there is a dedication in this book to a searing honesty that allows for a profound depth of nuance to emerge. There is furthermore a commendable dedication to specificity, elucidating what is particular to the Black British experience (or as Monrose corrects – experiences), exploring how complex intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and migration-status play out. The participants are represented as rounded humans, agents seeking belonging, comfort and meaning in difficult circumstances.

Chapters 1-4 contextualise the substantive analyses provided. The reader is taken through the motivations animating the study, relevant historical, methodological and theoretical themes and introductions are made to the participants whose varied experiences and trajectories are used to explore what it means for this generation to be Black, British and male. Intricate characters like Fire, the articulate ‘self-defined roadman’ (34), expert in both hustling and powerful reflection and Pretty, a successful corporate executive who found Caribbean standards of education higher than those in the UK, defy clichés and supply illuminating analyses.

Throughout the chapters, there is a sense of liminality communicated as participants struggle with tensions between their Caribbean and British identities. In chapter 5, Monrose tackles the theme of masculinities. Whilst their fathers possessed a trilby-topped respectability, complete with colonial affection for the ‘mother country’ and an optimism for the opportunities she might offer them, the post-Windrush generation lived through the broken promises embodied by poor pay, slum accommodation and racist abuse. Their conceptions of ‘how to be a man’ were mediated by a racism that cast them as physically prodigious but lacking in sophistication: ‘eroticised and idolised but then simultaneously despised and condemned’ (71). For some of his participants, ‘the street’ became an arena in which they could perform a muscular masculinity. Monrose’s ethnographic lens peers beyond the stereotypes that attach to this pose, revealing a vulnerability and sensitivity that is too often overlooked.

Chapter 6 is a powerful riposte to racist stereotypes of Black family life, striking a delicate balance between highlighting the flaws of damaging discourses, without shying away from examining the dynamics that participants regretfully recall. Monrose and his participants mull over differences between traditionally minded parents and second-generation immigrant children who have different ideas about what constitutes acceptable behaviour and presentation of self. Participants could experience parenting as emotionally distant and authoritarian, where concern over the cleanliness of fingernails could be vocalised ahead of tenderness and understanding. Instead of harmful stereotypes around familial indifference, the reader is presented with far more conventional scenes of intergenerational tension, exacerbated by the emotional ruptures of emigration and delayed unification. The author’s exploration of corporal punishment within the family- the dispensing of ‘licks’- whilst a difficult subject, demonstrates the emotional intelligence of his participants and the high-expectations and discipline that animated Windrush-era Black households.

The seventh Chapter’s reflection on the racist and exclusive nature of British education as experienced by Monrose’s participants builds a detailed and textured account of how social structures become concrete within individual lives and life trajectories. There is a sense of tragedy as the promises imagined by immigrant parents and high-achieving Caribbean students, and those inherent in youthful potential, all smash against a hostile leviathan. Participants recall how teachers freely used racist insults, punished inquisitiveness, and poured scorn on the ambitions of Black students. Chapter 8 considers Black British religious experiences, which did much to underpin community life – whether as ‘respectable’ Christianity or ‘rebellious’ Rastafari – the choice of which could represent a further source of tension between Windrush and post-Windrush generations. Finally, Chapter nine’s treatment of crime, criminal justice and criminalisation again blends deep insight with unflinching directness. Monrose and his participants recognise the extent to which marginalisation can drive participation in crime and that racism is a key mode of exclusion. Participants recall how criminal enterprise could yield high incomes. Conversely, the complicity of racist modes of crime control and criminalisation are explored. The inherent ‘respectability’ of Windrush-era families is burnished through discussions of shame and ambition. This again marks another valuable departure from racist stereotypes.

There is much to commend this book, which deserves a wide readership for the insights it offers across a range of subject areas. Such omissions that exist are entirely justifiable. There is space, for example, for there to be reflection on the more universal experiences shared by Black Britons and immigrants of all kinds, but on the other hand the vicissitudes of racism render direct comparisons difficult. There are other varieties of Black British identity rooted in direct African immigration, for example, such that this book will not speak specifically to all experiences. Nevertheless, it is doubtless that many of the analyses here will have wider relevance and application. Certainly, the vivid detail throughout the text is one of its major strengths, grounding its powerful analyses within the texture of everyday life. This book is an implicit reposte to insidious critiques of ‘identity politics’. The reader can be in no doubt that racism is a malign social structure that urgently demands dismantling. Its scars, and indeed wounds, are poignantly visible on the lives of the participants that Monrose effectively presents.

Jonathan Ilan is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Director of Undergraduate Programmes in the Department of Sociology at City University of London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.