Where Land and Tide Meet

Book review: Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool by Jacqueline Nassy Brown

Review by Jo Manby

Some of the books we acquire at the Resource Centre are new – others, like this one, new to us. Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool was published in 2005, and at the time, was heralded as revealing a new type of anthropology in which ‘place emerges with a cultural agency of its own’ (Anna Tsing).

Photograph of Liverpool waterfront

Source: Hajor via Wikimedia Commons

Jacqueline Nassy Brown, a Black American academic, back in the early 1990s, began to explore the conflation of local and global identities within the port city of Liverpool, a city which, she discovers, Liverpudlians both Black and white consider ‘a world unto itself’. She comes to understand that ‘slavery’s specter envelops Liverpool.’

23rd August is Slavery Remembrance Day, a UNESCO designated date that reminds us that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own freedom. Liverpool plays a part in this remembrance with a programme of commemorative events.

Nassy Brown was attracted to Liverpool as a place to begin her fieldwork as she started to recognise the striking difference between Black Britain and Black America. She felt that Liverpool had a sense of being treated differently because it was Liverpool, because of its particular history.

In her preface to this book, she notes that she first went to Britain to study race through nation. ‘In search of something different I went to Liverpool, where I found place as difference’. One of her guides to the city was Scott, a man born in 1932 to a Black woman originally from elsewhere in England, and a Barbadian seaman who had settled in Liverpool.

Scott takes Nassy Brown on an enlightening tour of the city. She learns how the politics of race, sexuality, nationhood and gender intersect here where the sea meets the port, picking up on both the visible and the invisible signs of the Transatlantic Slave Trade that exist around the city. As Liverpudlians are very aware, local shipping was involved in the trade and its profits went directly into the construction of the city (although, as Nassy Brown notes in Chapter 7 ‘A Slave to History: Local Whiteness in a Black Atlantic Port’, local people tend to learn late in life about slavery – there is a marked silence about it, for example in schools).

Other chapters examine dubious and contested historic texts, from Muriel Fletcher’s now infamous 1928 study, undertaken for the Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-caste Children, known as the ‘Fletcher Report’, to the 1989 report on racism, Loosen the Shackles: First Report of the Liverpool 8 Inquiry into Race Relations in Liverpool, known as the ‘Gifford Report’, a copy of which can be found on the shelves of the Resource Centre library.

She explores Pat O’Mara’s 1933 Autobiography of a Liverpool Irish Slummy, and his tour of the city, where he noted the inhabitants of the Workhouse, the Sailor’s Home, Paddy’s Market and the docks. While Nassy Brown says she scarcely mentioned it in her fieldwork, asking respondents about which of the range of race matters impacted most upon their lives, they often referred to slavery in their replies; time after time people recalled the moment they first learned of Liverpool’s role in the trade.

This is a far-sighted and detailed study, which has a humane and people-loving voice behind it. The content of the chapters ranges from Liverpool-born Blacks’ ‘positioning’ when it comes to other Black people in the city, to white Liverpudlians’ relationship to the rest of the UK, to the patterns of shifting generations and migrations.

Modern day ‘slave narratives’ are recorded; the influence of GI’s on the population; the communities that were tied to specific streets and areas. Nassy Brown doesn’t just give us a despairing aspect of what Gifford described as the city’s ‘”uniquely horrific”’ racism, but also the ironies that raise a ‘gleeful’ smile, such as one Black man’s comment to her when confronted by the situation of two Liverpool anti-racist organisations now housed in the former homes of slave merchants: ‘”They must be turning in their graves to see this!”’


From among the numerous publications Nassy Brown draws upon in her book, here is a selection from her bibliography that can be found on the shelves of the Resource Centre library:

There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, with a new introduction by the author, Paul Gilroy, London, 2002, Routledge (CU.2/GIL)

The Racial Politics of Militant in Liverpool: The Black Community’s Struggle for Participation in Local Politics, 1980-1986, Liverpool Black Caucus, Liverpool, 1986, Merseyside Area Profile Group (PO.1/LIV)

Black Atlantic Politics: Dilemmas of Political Empowerment in Boston and Liverpool, William E Nelson Jr., Albany, 2000, State University of New York Press (PO.3/NEL)

Loosen the Shackles: first report of the Liverpool 8 inquiry into race relations in Liverpool, Lord Tony Gifford, QC, London 1989, Karia Press (PO.1.2/GIF)

Staying Power: Black Presence in Liverpool, Marij van Helmond, Liverpool, 1991, National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside (HI.1.01/HEL)

The Colour of Love: Mixed Race Relationships, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Anne Montague, London, 1992, Virago Press (GE.3.01/ALI)

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