The Black and White Museum, 15 short stories written over five decades, confirms Ferdinand Dennis as an urban stroller and philosopher exploring the territory he began to map in his now classic novels.
The epic Duppy Conqueror (1998), artfully republished by Small Axes last year, was a black British response to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Loneliness. Spanning two centuries, the odyssey travels from Paradise, Jamaica, via Liverpool and the London blitz to the fictional ex-settlement of Kinja in West Africa. It combines plantation Gothic, the mythological quest of a reluctant hero and an ancestral curse, aimed at redeeming the painful collective journey of the post-war Caribbean amid a legacy of slavery and family breakdown. Dennis arrived in England from Jamaica at the age of eight in 1964. For a second generation under pressure in British city centers, his novel claims rich global ancestors, as well as a modern, skyscraper Africa. sky and artistic scenes.
His debut album, The Sleepless Summer (1989), is nonetheless a classic. In the midst of the heatwave and the police “heat” of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, the partially autobiographical bachelor, in a sabbatical year with a difference, learns his own history of the Rastafarians and the Garveyites, but also not to see in black and white. Nourished by Dennis’s travelogue Behind the Frontlines: Journey into Afro-Britain (1988), his fictional cameos – like the monologue of a sacked machinist – provide a deeper insight into the anger behind the British uprisings of 1981 than reams of committee reports.
At the Black and White Museum, ghetto blasters, bus drivers, cell phones and flats shining “like stacked shipping containers” mark some of his largely London sketches as period pieces, others as 21st century. Extending the land of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, tales slide from villas in Holland Park and hotels on Park Lane to hair salons in Hackney and “kiosks selling Nigerian food, Ethiopian coffee, Jamaican jerk chicken.” in Newington Green. The characters range from an African prince in exile and a Lithuanian laundress to a Venezuelan art lover bonding with a Jamaican around a shared love for Neruda’s poetry. One key image is that of a youth on the top deck of a No 36 bus, wiping the fogged window to get a view, “like a ship’s window.”
The dark and satirical title story, written over 20 years ago, is both modern and topical. At a department store in east London, the caftan-clad Papa Legba is touting a “Middle Passage Weekend” for visitors of all races to spend 48 hours stacked in a fake basement. a foul slave ship, pitched about mechanically and fed “foul-smelling worm-infested oatmeal” amid iron chains “encrusted with dried blood.” Some experience trauma, others catharsis, sparking arguments over forgiveness and repairs – and a vogue for rival sneakers named “Plantation” and “Runaway.” The burlesque was inspired, the author notes in a preface, by his life in a “town in southwestern Ireland. England with a strong slave trade history “(presumably Bristol), facing” ubiquitous and oppressive reminders of its history. “Its targets extend beyond chains under Britain’s former slave ports to the commodification of the style urban black as he walks from the pavement to Gateway.
Dennis’ second musical novel, The Last Blues Dance (1996), was a farewell tribute to West Indian pioneers who dreamed of returning. In the stories here, it’s the second generation weighing in on the thwarted sense of home with a sense of the passing of time. In Only for a While, a woman’s ‘dream of a Caribbean retreat has become as sour as sour milk’, the islanders ostracized her as an ‘English lady’. Yet growing friction with her son in London confirms her feeling of not being home anywhere. In The Unfinished Tapestry, a woman is torn between retirement in Jamaica, where she could “smell the scent of ripe mangoes, smell the warm sea breeze,” and “the laughter and cries of children … the scent of new great-great-grandchild that she had cradled in her arms ”. This mental shift, at home being where her children and grandchildren are, also applies to friendship. Among old friends, “with music and flowing alcohol, bathed in their fruity laughter”, a retiree feels “if not at home, then certainly close to home”.
In Turning White, a man horrified by the thinning of his silver locks discovers an unexpected benefit of aging. Almost overnight he ceased to be perceived by some white Londoners as a “savage” threat, avoided by crossing the street. The title acquires a double meaning as it becomes worthy, to its perplexity, of common courtesies. Among the refreshing first-person voices is the indignant protagonist of The Dinner Lady, censored for firing a religious convert who refuses to handle pork: that no dogs, no Irish, no nonsense for blacks – me the anti-Muslims?
Wendell Clarke, a poet whose “muse had abandoned him”, attends the wake of a former classmate in Nine Night, written for this collection. Edgy about using fancy words, he was materially poorer than other mourners, whose “professional lives as telephone engineers, auto mechanics, and manufacturers were drawing to a close.” Yet their respect, and the memory of a brawl in a playground when he “stumbled into the library and found peace in his silence,” is an optimistic affirmation of the path he has chosen.
“In my mid-50s, my regrets are a big part of who I am,” says one character. Yet, as befits these elegiac snapshots with their subtle epiphanies, his subsequent resolution to declare his passion, long after the moment has passed, frees him from regret, to love again.