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The “West Indian” Front Room in the African Diaspora

by Michael McMillan

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Daniel Miller’s description from his essay “Fashion and Ontology in Trinidad” echoes an iconic aesthetic found in what has been called the “Front Room.” As a social and cultural phenomenon, it resonates all over the African Diaspora: from Kingstown to Toronto, from Brooklyn to Brixton, from Accra to Johannesburg. It was usually the one room in the home where you weren’t permitted, unless it was a Sunday or a special occasion when guests visited. As an opulent shrine to kitsch furniture, consumer fetish and home-made furnishings, it was a symbol of status and respectability, announcing that no matter how poor you were, if the Front Room looked good, then you were “decent” people. The dressing and maintenance of the Front Room, therefore, reveals a form of “impression management” as in the flexible presentation of self, which throws up issues of “good grooming” among people of African descent. The Front Room was very much my mother’s room, and as a second-generation, black British person from an aspirant working-class family of Vincentian parentage, I have my own memories, reflections and meanings of the “Front Room.” Unpacking the detail of this space, therefore, raises questions about diasporic identities, intergenerational identifications and disavowal; gendered practices in the domestic domain and mis(sed) representations, struggles over meaning and authenticity in the museum/gallery culture.

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