'The Black Peril': Race, Masculinity and Migration During the First World War

Title'The Black Peril': Race, Masculinity and Migration During the First World War
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsSmith, Richard
EditorRyan, Louise, and Wendy Webster
Book TitleGendering Migration: Masculinity, Femininity and Ethnicity in Post-War Britain
CityAldershot, UK

The First World War gave rise to an increasingly visible black presence in Britain. Employment prospects for black seafarers improved and African and Caribbean men arrived to seek work in war industries or to volunteer for military service. Wartime circumstances produced contradictory depictions of the black male subject in Britain and the wider empire. As white masculine ideals were undermined by the martial performance of white men, some portrayals of black men offered hope of renewed masculine vigour. However, although faced with rising casualties, declining voluntary enlistment and concern about the physical and mental condition of recruits, the military were reluctant to consider the enlistment of black men. Instead, misrepresentations of inferior black character were re-articulated to exclude black volunteers from the front line in an attempt to restore diminishing white hegemony. 

Charting how these contrasting depictions of black men impacted on the home front this chapter offers complementary readings to economic explanations for an increase in anti-black feeling and greater understanding of wartime racialized, sexual anxiety. The study focuses on dock communities in East London, home to a significant black population between the wars, and the north-western city of Manchester, which attracted black migrants seeking employment in the munitions factories. [Author]

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