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Black diaspora’s contribution to British culture still under-recognised

Letter from London

Black diaspora’s contribution to British culture still under-recognised

Although Black TV presenters and actors are now plentiful in the British media, representation of the diaspora’s contribution to British culture remains thin and distorted, argues Clayton Goodwin.

On Tuesday 4 October 1960, just short of my 18th birthday, I came to London to start a university course. Up to that point in my life I had not spoken to any Black person and had little knowledge of Africa.

My journey into college took me past the magazine-kiosk by the Dominion cinema next to Tottenham Court Road underground station. Then, or sometime soon afterwards, I bought a copy of Flamingo, a well-produced glossy magazine, and was astounded to see, among the pictures of pretty girls and fripperies, stories of the significant achievements attained by Africans and in the Diaspora. It opened up a whole new world of which so little was then known, to educate and inspire.

Judged by the number of Africans seen on television / stage this year, the situation seems to be much improved. Yet it could be that in the rush to achieve greater representation, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

The argument for recognition is being conducted nationally almost exclusively by academics and artists in the liberal media. A previous generation would have described it as the “beautiful people” talking to the “beautiful people”.

Let me give you a couple of examples. All the young Black female presenters who have sprung up in each sport’s commentary team in answer to the call for greater race and gender representation are so physically attractive as to grace a catwalk or win any beauty contest – but in some cases are out of their depth at the highest level behind the microphone.

We could be reassured that this tendency is not mere eye-candy, to be discarded when the fad passes, if just some of them were of more average pulchritude – and chosen solely for their expertise and presentation ability.

This censure does not apply to commentators such as former athletics gold medallist Denise Lewis, Rugby Union international Maggie Alphonsi, and others who have won their spurs in sport and in broadcasting, but to those whose greater fame lies on the ‘celebrity’ and game-show circuit.

While Black actress Jodie Turner-Smith’s television portrayal of Anne Boleyn (the second wife of King Henry VIII who was later beheaded) was well-received, an opportunity, too, seems to have been missed. Anne Boleyn was a historical figure who was white and to introduce another issue – one fears, for publicity – skews the story.

That is not the same as Black actors playing the great classic roles of human emotion and experience which enrich and belong to everyone. If the theatre/television wants Africans portraying queens, why not produce more drama about African queens? Of course, wanting something is not the same as producing something, until the whole industry has undergone revision from the ground up.

Lives of ordinary people missing

Despite the prevalence of Black participants on our screen and stage, almost the entire behind-the-camera/back-stage entourage, from technical, equipment and production specialists and operators to writers, editors and directors, is still essentially White and male. That is a matter for concern. These are the people who conceive and generate the product which the public see. Actors cannot play parts that are not coming through to them.

Therefore, I was much taken by two quotations that caught my eye even as this piece was being written.

Professor David Olusoga, the historian, broadcaster and academic, wrote in The Guardian that he was more interested in telling stories about the lives of ordinary people than the ‘elite’. Evidence of this intention and his own working-class upbringing in Gateshead, the industrial North (when employment is available), is reflected in his popular BBC television series, A House Through Time.

Then broadcaster/journalist Juliet Alexander, my media colleague from ‘the days when’, posted this very apt message on social media: “A joyful reunion of the Black Britain team of 1996. What a brilliant day seeing many of the presenters, producers and production team. I even managed to find the original T-shirt! Black Britain, like Ebony, which I presented in the early 1980s, were two iconic UK news and current affairs TV programmes reporting national and international news, breaking stories and uncovering hidden histories. Coverage which is absent now and sorely missed”.

The lives of ordinary people, breaking stories and uncovering hidden histories, rather than  the hysteria of the latest short-form cricket tournament The Hundred, is what is most needed.

In many areas, the punch has gone out of the very well-intentioned school-teaching of Black History Month, where the impact has been reduced by the repetition of the same stories. That is not to devalue either the power of those achievements or the sincerity and expertise of the teachers. Perhaps, however, it is time to take the story to another level.

A more concentrated attention on people and events within the UK Diaspora, with a direct bearing on present-day lives would establish relevance with ‘ordinary people’.

The Nubian Jak Community Trust’s excellent initiative in dedicating plaques on buildings associated with prominent Black people from Britain (New African, August 2018 – “The renaissance of Notting Hill”) is playing an increasingly prominent role in dispelling much of the previous ignorance. Children, too, would find rapport with stories of the African motherland and the Caribbean homes of their immediate forebears. Black culture/history, community relations, and much else, does not necessarily originate and remain in the US.

This past year’s televised telling of the Mangrove trial, Stephen Lawrence, and the New Cross Fire and its aftermath (in The Uprising), has had a profound impact. Young people, as well as those alive at the time, are now more aware of what happened, why it happened, and take consolation that others have shared their own predicament.

Yet it only makes for half the story. I remember well some years ago a man – perhaps he was a correspondent – coming into the New African office and declaiming that the concentration on “victimhood” and being on the rough end of society goes only so far. Where is the inspiration and exhilaration of individual and professional achievement, he asked.

That inspiration lies before our own eyes in the history of this country, including that of Africans in the British Isles – a subject which is neglected and will continue to be so if the main thrust remains on copying White actors in White historical roles.

Celebrate Black historical figures

The teaching of British history here is appalling – and not just in respect of its Black citizens and former colonies. There is no instruction in the origins of the nation itself or its own traditions, except for the endless pantomime pieces which have become the staple fare of screen/stage entertainment and political debate. The apologist for all the characters in a recent exhibition of Britain’s Roman past being White explained that it was because all the relevant Romans were White.

I am not so sure about that.

The emperor Septimius Severus, who died here at York, was African – as was the Pope (Victor) during much of his reign – and there were a good number of people of his background in his entourage. If television wants royalty – and it does love royalty and Romans – why isn’t Septimius Severus afforded greater attention? Is there any drama about him?

Or, other prominent Africans in the British story – such as H/Adrian the African who was offered twice, and refused twice, the role of archbishop of Canterbury, head of the country’s church (as well as the many ‘ordinary people’ of history)? Here is a rich vein of royalty, history, Black representation, something new, hidden histories and veracity. It’s all there.

Another October has just passed and new students have come to London for the first time, from all over the world as well as from the provinces. Some may buy a copy of New African (perhaps from the magazine-seller on Tottenham Court Road), and will be pleased by what they read.

But I hope that for them, unlike with myself, it will not be entirely new. If it is – or even partially so – there is still a lot of work to be done – whether it is portrayals of the queens of England, queens of Africa, the lives of ordinary people, breaking stories and hidden mysteries. I hope, too, that they/you will get as much enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfilment in learning about those people and their achievements as I have over the last 61 years. 

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Written by Clayton Goodwin

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