Confrontation, Self-Discovery and Black Britain In Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams
By Nalisha Vansia, Zarah Yesufu, Eleanor Bowskill and Hannah McWhinnie
Over two decades later, Charlotte Williams' thought-provoking and beautiful memoir Sugar and Slate comes back to the fore to retell an ever-pertinent tale of twentieth century multi-ethnic Britain. Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series publishes their 2023 edition of Williams’ family tales of a mixed race, post-colonial family grappling with their complex, and often constraining, personal identities. Both intimate and exposing, Williams highlights the Black history of Wales, and her unique experience growing up in a small town there, as well as Africa and the Caribbean.
Despite her academic background, Charlotte Williams wanted to approach Sugar and Slate "without a conscious reflection on all the theory" behind race. Although well-versed in the famous work of scholars on race and racism such as Stuart Hall, Patricia Williams and Paul Gilroy, Williams’ ambition was to write for a broader audience – "I wanted to write a book that my mother-in-law would read, that my sisters and family would read. I had something to say to Wales and Welshness." Williams does not deny the influence theory had on her, however. A large inspiration for the book was her father, Denis Williams, whose 1963 novel Other Leopards emerged out of a realisation that "the Eurocentrism of the British art scene at that time was stifling, not only the authenticity of his work but more deeply his consciousness of himself."
In exploring her own sense of self in the book, Williams had to reflect on and unpick the internalised racism of her younger self by confronting "the dominant ways of thinking that had characterised [her] education." In doing this, she was able to "exemplify the extent to which we are all subject to racism." She describes the writing process and her reflections on the book in interviews since as a "learning process." Whilst she found her mother’s Welsh idioms as a teenager irritating, now she looks fondly on them, treating them as a linguistic "treasure."
Born to a Welsh, white mother and a Guyanese, Black father, Williams’ cultural heritage is saturated with complexities and cannot be defined in straightforward terms. As a mixed race individual, Williams refers to a binary “imposed” on herself and other mixed race individuals. Her aim with the memoir was to demonstrate that racial and cultural indenties are much more “fluid” than anticipated. Indeed, the extent to which individual choice can influence these perceptions are often understated. She explained that “particular categories and choices” are imposed from the outside, but “no person of mixed heritage” perceives of themselves like this. For Williams, a lot of the “thinking and theories” behind mixed identities have become “better understood” through sociological literature and academic research. These “liminal” positions reveal alternative articulations of complex interconnected identities, each of which is “nuanced,” referring to unique reference points and “shifting locatedness.”
Williams wanted to use the structure of her book to illustrate her aforementioned ideas about “shifting identities, locatedness, multiple references and liminal positioning.” The non-linear narrative elements, along with the inclusion of poetic verse and song also made “a clear reference” to the crossings of the transatlantic slave trade, the UK’s involvement in which implicated Wales. Anecdotal and historical references also helped Williams tell her tale of “becoming and identity building” as each aspect added to “the sense of scrapbook-self” she wanted to create. However, the book was never intended to be inward-facing, or about her, Williams selected stories that would make a “political point” and speak to the “wider collective positioning.” Moreover, the memoir is fundamentally one “about Black Britain writing back,” asking the questions that were “missed” and “uncovering” the histories that have been “overlooked or lost” about “a national story with missing pieces.”
The multiplicity of the Black British identity is uniquely explored through Williams’ father, artist and archaeologist Denis Williams. His contemporaries and critics seemed to always want to define his Blackness, and the words used were, as Williams says, in alignment with "classic Victorian perceptions of Black intellectuals as fitting the mould of ‘a proper gentleman." Williams shows the nuances of identity, in which her Guyanese father was more British in this way than her Welsh mother, and, despite their different experiences, Williams through interviewing them began "to understand what they both in their respective ways were rallying against" as "colonial subjects." In one interview, her father recalls the extent of his feelings of restraint against these moulds, where he’d look at himself in the mirror and "rip off his clothes as the gesture of freeing himself from the trappings of that constraining European trope."
Sugar and Slate ends unresolved, with Williams shifting from thinking about her past and present to asking questions about the future and its interaction with race. More than two decades later, Williams sees in some respects "considerable shifts" in how we see "mixed identity", "the significance of Black history," and "race and racism." She makes it clear she had no desire to "pre-emt" the future but to think about the personal stories of her daughters and the future generations in regard to race, quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr to remind us that "these are not simply personal stories but narratives pitched to enable a change to cultural meanings and understandings, to address social injustices, rework and reformulate realities, demonstrate agency, renegotiate dominant representations of ‘the other’ and reconstruct hidden, dismissed or discarded knowledges."