Black and White in Brixton

It is surprising how little we sometimes know about what goes on just down the road where we live. Capitalism, with its jungle law of every man for himself, tends to make social relationships impersonal and, even in overcrowded cities, to make people live in isolation. Unless there is an outbreak of violence the coloured people are left to go their own way. Although they live among us, they keep very much to themselves; they are not absorbed.

In the Borough of Lambeth (before GLC) the population at the last census was 223,763. There is no separate figure for immigrants but the Borough is estimated to have between ten and fifteen thousand coloured people. There has not been so much open hostility in Brixton as in some other areas, although many of the first immigrants came here, mainly to Somerleyton and Geneva Roads. It was here in the late 1940’s that the fascists started anti-coloured activities, which included the usual horror stories about the appalling conditions coloured people lived in. The fact that most of the places were slums long before any coloured man saw them didn’t matter, the insanitary and overcrowded conditions were easily blamed on to the immigrants.

Since those days, more coloured people have arrived and have slowly fanned out into neighbouring roads; most back streets in Brixton now have coloured families. Most of the housing is low standard but conforms to what the “white” working class have accepted for many years. In some of these roads, including Somerleyton and Geneva, the slums are as squalid as any in London. In conditions like these it is very difficult not to sink into despair and to lose the urge to struggle on. Perhaps the worst aspect of the situation is the resigned acceptance of it by its victims.

In a typical house in Geneva Road, one woman pays £5 5s. 0d. for two or three rooms; another pays £3 for one room. Electrical consumer durables have not made much headway in this district; a pile of washing goes from one plastic bowl to another and is “spun” dry by hand. A dozen or so coloured workers interviewed all said they were satisfied with their housing condition. There were the usual moans about money matters, but no apparent desire to do other than keep plodding.

Asked if they had been victims of prejudice because of their colour their answers were mainly negative. There had been cases of people sitting away from them on trains and buses but no trouble with neighbours and in the local pubs they mixed quite well.

Politics was a subject that brought frowns all round. Both Tory and Labour party met with equal indifference—alas, not the indifference of enlightened rejection.

Trade Unions were joined if they went with the job, which did not seem often. All in all, these coloured workers had attitudes which are pretty common among their “white” counterparts, and the added disadvantage that they lack the traditions and experience of working-class organisation. On the other side of the picture, if there are twenty people studying in the local library’s reference room, six at least will be coloured.

In Somerleyton Road, there is a huge wooden hut which stands on a bomb site. It is painted bright pink and is used as a church. From the doorway the ranting of the preacher can be heard ringing out in old revivalist style, while about 25 men, women and children listen unenthusiastically. A few minutes’ walk from this place, in a dilapidated basement of a house in Effia Road, there is another church. Their saviour here must be a jazz enthusiast—the singing is lead by a tambourine and has a distinct blues flavour. Prayer meetings are held on a street corner during the warm weather. It seems that in Brixton the coloured workers’ preparations for the next life are well in hand, even if this one leaves a lot to be desired.

H.B. (Brixton)

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