Blue Flower

Author and musician Cy Grant looks at the place of multiculturalism in the arts of modern Great Britain.

by Cy Grant 

The world is an allegory of creation, it is the one and the many, the paradox of matter and energy, of matter and spirit. Britain without wishing it has become an allegory of the world- a multicultural society; and Britain can learn something from the arts of these other cultures which do not view art as being separate from life itself. As such they are intrinsically about value. I am not sure that the message has come across.


Concord (a series of multi-cultural festivals held in the U.K. during the 1980s) pioneered a new interest in multicultural arts. The trouble now seems to be that multiculturalism itself has been consumerized. A culture based on consumerism, competition and opportunism creates a materialistic and largely hedonistic society - a culture without value. Eclectic and superficial, it appropriates and devalues even those things which in themselves have value. Hence 'multiculturalism', which is essentially about cultural pluralism and respect for other cultures, is subsumed, trivialised and incorporated into the prevalent fashionable pseudo -culture.

So too, the prevalent culture devalues as 'fads' any oppositional cultural trends, as for instance those towards holism, ecology, natural healing and reconciliation, ascribing its own face value image to them. The prevalent computer-designed, global TV culture imposes its own spiritual impoverishment on everything it encounters in an effort to perpetuate itself. The role of the arts has likewise been trivialised.

And so this country has lost its best theatrical director. Peter Brook's work has been long acknowledged for its quality yet his production of the Mahabharata could not find a home in London. His long sojourn in Africa showed an openness to the cultures of that continent. In his book The Conference of the Birds, John Heilpern traced Brook's quest for something he could not find in Europe.

Although hailed as an innovative theatrical genius Brook's work has not changed the Eurocentric mould of the arts' establishment. Despite the tame gesturing of the Arts Council (e.g.. The Glory of the Garden), the arts still reflect the overall cultural bias of British society.

On reflection I now see that Concord' s work, important as it seemed to me at the time, was only a start in the right direction. It is not the arts establishment which will change attitudes which have developed over centuries. Education could play a vital role, but this will require much more that the narrow provisions of the new national curriculum.

Multicultural studies, per se, may help change attitudes but they do not in themselves challenge the racism that, sadly, is inherent in European culture. An antiracist education would be the best possible education, for not only will it confront issues like racism and ecology but could lead to a fundamental reappraisal of our perceptions and attitudes and to a true understanding of our interconnected world. It could reintroduce value into our lives and to a deeper form of knowledge showing the connections between race and ecology.

Race will certainly have to go onto the political as well as the educational agenda, and I believe that the arts themselves can play a useful role. In the West the arts have not, since medieval times, been an integral part of life. With increased specialisation taking place within our society, and reflected in the education system, the arts are being marginalised more and more. We are going further away from the role of the arts in the traditional cultures of the world, where they are related to a meaningful pattern of beliefs and values and not just 'art for art's sake' . Fortunately for us, these non-Eurocentric arts are now available to us, although they are not yet understood or respected. They are even being actively resisted.

The reason for this resistance is the prevailing view of black people, fuelled by images in the media, that they are a problem, that there are far too many of them, that they are responsible for much of the unemployment in the country, that they are lazy and live off social security, that they are not very intelligent, that they are oversexed, that they deal in drugs and corrupt the young and mug the old. These misconceptions have contributed to the racism that is now endemic in our society. But what compounds the issue, is the great reluctance of people to face up to and challenge it.

To see that racism and the real human r- v damage it causes is the product of our history. Multicultural studies and racial awareness training are a real turn-off for all those who need it most. Racism, as distinct from racialism ("prejudiced beliefs and behaviour not systemised into a philosophy of superiority" as defined by the Institute of Race Relations -- Book I "Roots of Racism") is not inherent in the human psyche but a social phenomenon which has material causes. The historical roots are based on 400 years of conquest and looting; on centuries of being told that Europeans are superior to black people and that this has permeated European culture and languages.

In order to break out of this 'culture trap'- the shameful legacy of history, it will be necessary to ensure that our children have a right to all the information which will enable them to make decisions about the future based on truth, instead of the barrage of stereotypical images constantly being projected by the media. They may then have a chance to hope for a future not founded on lies -a future where values and the survival of the planet will be more important that short term material benefits.

Learning the truth about our history and recent immigration policies will not only challenge racism, but will allow children to understand how it came about that black and Asian people now live in Britain; and that 40% of black people in Britain were born here and so are wrongly described as being immigrants; which is not the case for white people regardless of where they were born. The result of all these misconceptions is that each new generation assimilates the racism of society and, one way to counter this would be through education and the courage to face up to our past.

I do not really think that we can set about eliminating racism by treating it solely as a problem unrelated to all the other problems which beset our society. Most of the ills of society are not even perceived as such in the prevailing culture. We have to see that all our so-called problems are connected to each other -- that they all stem from the very nature of the society itself. A society in which values have been allowed to erode in the interests of the pursuit of purely materialistic goals. Racism, like pollution and sexism, is a manifestation of an uncaring and unjust system: pollution is only the most recent of these.

In the long term these issues can only be effectively challenged by questioning the very nature of the education that is provided today - what is the true purpose of education and For whom is it meant? For instance, does the national curriculum relate to the realities and genuine needs of society? Issues which so far have not been part of the core curriculum. Is catering for the 3 R's enough? And if it is, does the hidden curriculum
harbour a fourth R -- Racism?

Education for a genuine multicultural society would mean nothing less than the deconstruction of racism. It would mean implementing a fundamentally different system of values, and thus acting as a catalyst for change in the role of Education itself. Should education be solely geared towards perpetuating the status quo, without questioning the concepts underpinning class, the nature of power, industrialism and consumerism- concepts leading from racial disadvantage to the conflicts of interest between the public and those of producers and manufacturers, e.g.. the preservation of the environment against pollution, the waste disposal business, trade with South Africa, deforestation, the arms industry, nuclear power -- all such issues.

Education for a genuine multicultural society, a non-racist education, would be the very best way of analysing how this society both developed and operates -gaining insights into the true nature of present day British society and the political process itself.

It will allow children to think for themselves, to be involved in debate and ask critical questions. For not to introduce a qualitative dimension into Education will never provide a base for understanding the problems which face the world they will shortly inherit- a world which is interconnected and visibly shrinking every day. They might then be able to see their place in a system which is responsible for so much injustice and human suffering, a system which not only exploits people but also the planet without regard for the future. Most of' the so-called primitive peoples of the world had a deep sense of custodianship for the planet. The Inuit say "we should do nothing today for which we may have to apologise to our grandchildren." In other words a nonracist education would be the best possible education you could give a child.

The need to change the fragmented nature of the present curriculum must be taken on board. Any new curriculum for the future should incorporate an awareness of the concept of the inter-connectedness of all knowledge. This would entail what in medicine is called a holistic approach. A policy of integrated studies within the curriculum can be done most effectively, and indeed, cost-effectively, via the arts, particularly the arts of other cultures. There is no end to the positive insights that can be gained by inter-relating, say, African music to African geography, history and literature and then on to a more global perspective.

Educational institutions would have to develop policies capable of being implemented and monitored. Within the syllabus multicultural topics and texts would have a logical and central place. Above all the will must be there and the multicultural approach completely integrated into the life, ethos and syllabus of all the institutions concerned. It is no longer possible to act as if only our ideas and our culture matter.

Cy Grant is an actor, singer and writer. He has appeared on BBC TV, in films, on stage and in concerts. This article is an extract from his forthcoming book, Blackness and the Dreaming Soul.

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.4, No.2