The United Kingdom's black population makes up the largest minority group in the country. Their African ancestry unites them whether directly from the continent or via the Caribbean. But it's not only their roots that unites this community, they have been discriminated against and been left at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator, be it wealth, health or education attainment. And there are those who still don't feel at home in Britain despite living there generation after generation, yet this tide could be changing. This three-part documentary series explores three different generations of black British citizens who have made a change despite the racist perception and atmosphere. The pioneers were those who first set foot on the land of the colonizer. They were the ones who braved the worst of the violence and prejudice. And despite all adds they managed to survive, raise a family and build a community. The next generations were those who broke the barriers, they were the history-makers and the ones who etched a new and better life for themselves. They were in the front line in the fight for justice and equality. And now a whole new generation of proud black youth have emerged who see no limits. These young men and women appreciate the heritage and sacrifice of their forefathers but are not hindered by a legacy of racism. They embrace their identity and promise to make the future a better reality to live in.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack ‘this is always has been a stick used by racists and those of the Far Right to figuratively beat Britain’s growing black population with.
The idea was quite a simple yet biting one. This is a land for European Christians with the system ingraining that privilege at every turn.
But Britain’s sizeable black minority had something to say about that, and they have been vocal since growing numbers started making the old Empire their home in the aftermath of the devastating Great War.
Britain, finding its population decimated, needed workers. The old colonial power became a go-to destination; alongside the United States of America and Canada for thousands from the Caribbean, Africa and the Subcontinent.
My family from Jamaica were one of the many whom made the voyage and up steaks to come to this new world of supposed opportunity. The story of my family was not unique. Others came.
And they came. People like Augustine John who had already family living in England. Now respected professor in the field of education and an outspoken critic of racism and injustice, the early years in Britain left their mark. Brits would be oblivious to the fact for those outside the ‘Motherland’, the UK was its epicentre.
SOUNDBITE [English] Professor Gus John, Educationalist & International Development Consultant: “I couldn't help but in the sense that pretty much everything that we were taught we were taught at school was about England. What people in this country particularly fail to realise is that those of us who are coming from its former colonies had a life experience with Britain in those colonies before we came to have a life experience in Britain here. And that meant you existed under a colonial government. What you learnt in school, the curriculum was shaped according to English norms we studied English literature. I discovered for example literature written by Caribbean writers like Andrew Sulky and Georgia Lamming, Olive Senior Sylvia Winter and these people only when I came to this country and the church, affairs of state, pretty much everything reflected Britain. It was giving a view of Britain, which in many ways was artificial. I mean when I came here for example, the thought that they were working-class white people who were poor and destitute was the biggest shock of my life! The thought that there were white prostitutes. The thought that there were white people who were burglars, and thieves, and went to jail you never got a sense back there that ... that is how humanity was constructed in England you know.”
Narration: The lure of reuniting family who had already made the journey proved strong. Irene Sinclair, born on September 23rd, 1908 in Guyana made the trip from her island home to join her daughter. Though Irene would later go on and make history as an international beauty ambassador aged 96, her beauty provided no advantage as a newly arrived black woman in Britain.
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Irene Sinclair, Skincare Model: “I came over here in ‘57, 1957 because my daughter came here in ‘52 to do nursing. Unfortunately she couldn't carry through because she had rheumatic fever. Fortunately ,she met a man and she got married and within a year she got the first child that's the reason I came over to give her a hand because in those days you have to have a home of your own or it's a very difficult when you want to have somewhere to live there don't want you or they can't have you. So I came over in 1957, September my birth month, and I stayed of course. I was very unhappy. It was so cold I can't tell you how many pieces of garments I used to sleep on and how many blankets and I wish the morning wouldn't come because I'm looking after the child after my daughter and her husband have gone to work.”
Narration: After decades as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, it would be a chance conversation with a warden at the nursing home in which she still lives that would catapult Irene Sinclair to fame and secure her place as a standard-bearer many of her generation and background.
SOUNDBITE [English] Irene Sinclair, Skincare Model: “There is a woman who was building a cosmetics firm and she's looking for people old people in their 70s or 80s and I said to him ‘you know how old I am.’ he said ‘I do know but she doesn't know and she doesn't know what you look like and she would like to come to visit you. However he said to her I do not have a 70 or 80 I do have someone but they wouldn't fit the bill I. have a 96-year-old she said ‘do you think I want a decrepit old woman? I am trying to build a business here I borrow the money from my mother and stuff so kindly ask her to do it. He told her to come and see for yourself. Reluctantly I told him ‘no I don't like to be the centre of attraction. I like to be noticed’. He said they might not take you but other places might but do me the favour because I want to see she told me about a decrepit old woman I want her to see so reluctantly I agreed.”
Narration: But to understand the story of black people in Britain, is to understand the transatlantic slave trade and its roots in the UK. A story that goes back even further than Irene’s 108 years.
Eric Lynch is a lifelong Liverpudlian with deep roots in the Caribbean – Barbados to be precise. He is one of a growing band of historians keen to tell the unfiltered story of the UK’s tempestuous relationship with its colonies.
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Eric Scott Lynch, Liverpool Slavery History Trail: “When the slaves came to Britain they were already broken in you would have a plantation owner - we will use Barbados - he's been out to Barbados before he has a landlord there looking after the plantation for him he's back here living with his wife and children he gets a letter saying that he is needed out there. He tells his lady wife ‘I'm off to Barbados.’ she says ‘wait hang, on a minute the last time you were there by yourself this time I'm coming with you.’ when the two kids then say ‘yes we are coming as well.’ when they arrive at the plantation, the plantation manager has got all the slaves lined up. ‘for you good lady please take this young woman, she is your servant. For yourself please take this young man. For your little girl, please take this little girl. And for your little boy here is a little boy. Within five minutes of taking control of the slaves they give them stupid ridiculous sounding names. This is done deliberately to rob them of their dignity. Eventually it's time for the plantation owner to go back to England so says to his good lady wife ‘I've become quite fond of my manservant, Prince Charles. I think I'll take him back.’ and she says I've become quite fond of my maid Jemima and then two kids say we will have ours so that's how the slaves came to Britain already broken in.”
Narration: There are direct links between past injustices and present issues surrounding race and inequality in Britain.
Now there are a lot of people who think, the black experience started with the Windrush you know for a fact that is not the case.
SOUNDBITE [English] Eric Scott Lynch, Liverpool Slavery History Trail: “Not true, not true. It is the fact even in slave ships they were black men they may have been slaves but they were working as seamen on the ships. Let me give you a typical example; if you’re going to the history of black people in Liverpool, many of them can trace their ancestors quite far back.”
Narration: Liverpool, a city literally built on the blood sweat and resources of enslaved people seemed the perfect location for a museum celebrating and marking the UK’s slave past. Dr Richard Benjamin is a head of the slavery museum.
SOUNDBITE [English] Dr Richard Benjamin, Head, International Slavery Museum: “Well there are many cities in this country that profited from the enslavement of Africans. Liverpool is one of those cities will Liverpool kind of took it to another level it wasn't the first city in this country that embarked on profiting from in slaved Africans it was Bristol and so on but Liverpool really took things to another level in the mid 18th century to the early part of the 19th-century there are lots of figures that are banded around but more than 1 million Africans were transported on Liverpool ships from Africa and taking to the Americas people made fortunes of that and you can see that in the landscape of Liverpool so what we try and do as the museum is say look it's not just Liverpool but since were here look outside the window of the Musial you see the dry docks you see where the slave ships were fitted out that's just in front of one of the main shopping centres of Liverpool so if you just come to Liverpool for the day so great place to go there is nothing wrong with doing that but equally we want to make people aware of the landscape there in not everybody but a lot of people who lived in the city made their fortunes of the back of the slave trade and I think it's an important point we have to get across.”
Narration: Social cohesion and integration have always driven communities forward but there was often a heavy price to pay for those who seemed to be crossing the colour line.
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Eric Scott Lynch, Liverpool Slavery History Trail: “It is very slow because you've got understand that the way in which white women were castigating as soon regards to marriage to a black man you had a situation where if I young black boy was walking along the street with a young white woman a policewoman would stop them and the policewoman would arcs the girl what she's doing what are you doing with him where do you live this was harassment. And you've only got to go to the library is getting all the newspapers out and look at the things they said about white women who are married to black men they were prostitutes this is the way in which the castigated them there was a language that they use in regards to the children who were born half caste, High Yellows, absolutely disgusting.”
Narration: And if there were any doubt that ugly racism in Britain wasn’t just a thing of the distant past, the museum in Liverpool has a educational section named in memory of Anthony Walker who was sadly – proof that this hate still exists.
SOUNDBITE [English] Dr Richard Benjamin, Head, International Slavery Museum: “Well Anthony Walker was a young black man with his life ahead of them was walking with his white girlfriend in the park in Merseyside just outside of Liverpool and for that he was murdered he got an accent his head so that's not acceptable is not acceptable to me and is not acceptable in my view in a forward thinking democratic society. His family live in Liverpool and we said to them we don't want people to forget what happened to Anthony but equally we want to work with you because there was an already Anthony Walker foundation which exist and we want to help the work that you do to work with young people and to work with people who have been victims of hate crime.”
Narration: Resistance didn’t stop at love. It was even a problem in war. Despite the shared sacrifices is made in battle -including by men like Eric’s father - who was a stoker in the navy during WW1, even the desire to fight for king and country was not met without the spectre of prejudice.
SOUNDBITE [English] Eric Scott Lynch, Liverpool Slavery History Trail: “In the First World War when the war broke out in the Caribbean Islands I'm talking about what I know. Barbados they were black men in Barbados would been educated in saying this is the mother country and so they wanted to go and fight for the mother country the plantation owners and the white government in Barbados did not want them then to be serving soldiers we can't have them using rifles so it was a no! Some of the men got together and wrote letters to the king of England. Previous to this members in the walrus knew that these black men wanted to go but they didn't want them. When the king of England receive these letters he called for a meeting with members of the war office and he insisted that they had to go and fight so they were conscripted. These men thought they were going to be trained with a rifles and be on the front line killing Germans. They were not they were put in what was called the Pioneer Corps they had no rifles, they were carrying ammunition and supplies to the front line in the trenches giving out the ammunition they never took part in it. Now some of them were actually were actually posted in Egypt where there was a big hotel where German officers were captured these black soldiers were put there are skivvies to clean the bathrooms clean the toilets and look after the German soldiers.”
Narration: “So they were lower than the enemy?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Eric Scott Lynch, Liverpool Slavery History Trail: “Yes, that's right.”
Narration: Black history is an ever-moving path and one of its trailblazers is Jamaica born Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin who made history by being appointed as Chaplain to the Queen and Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the first black person to hold both those positions.
Reverend Hudson-Wilkin, we are in such an exalted environment. Do you think about the little girl in Jamaica who had that calling to the ministry?
TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplin to Queen Elizabeth II: “I do often because that little girl is still there. I was 14 years old when I felt an overwhelming sense of being called to ministry. And it never left me. And it still there, that call is still there. So, whatever obstacles that I face I just have to be reminded why I am there that sees me through it all.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “As a young lady in Jamaica did you think about Britain and what it might be like before you came over in ‘82 to settle in to train?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplin to Queen Elizabeth II: “Well my mother came to England when I was a baby, and I was left behind with my older sister, and so England had always been there somewhere in the back of my mind. My mother was there; our whole family had grown up here, so to speak, but it had never occurred to me that I would one day be here. When I left school I worked for a year and then applied for full time lay ministry, because women were not allowed then to be ordained. Of course we were then trained for that particular ministry, we were then trained here in London, and so I made my first venture to the United Kingdom when I was 18 years old.”
Narration: Those early days in the UK shaped the experience of many of the newly arrived. Professor John’s first impressions of the UK came back to him as if it were yesterday.
SOUNDBITE [English] Professor Gus John, Educationalist & International Development Consultant: “Yes absolutely 20 August 1964 off a BOAC airline - British overseas Airways Corporation. I remember it well Heathrow airport and coming off there were my mother and my brother coming to pick me up in a spanking Austin Cambridge full of chrome and well-polished and things and I remembered how vast everything was, as compared to Grenada. The roads were wide, the buildings were large and I couldn't understand what these funny things sticking up on the top of the buildings were, not a lot of smoke coming out of them in the middle of August and then people explained that they were chimneys and so on and so forth. I thought England had the ugliest buildings on Earth and it took me some time to get used to the architecture of London.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplin to Queen Elizabeth II: “It wasn’t what I expected, it all seemed grey, very grey. The houses were not as beautiful as the houses that I knew in Jamaica. In Jamaica the houses looked very different, everyone had their own unique collars. It was all the same and it had these chimneys, and I immediately thought that they were factories. I stayed in Victoria actually, for a few days before the college was open, and I noticed that people were running and I’m thinking “I can’t see a fire, why are they running?”, and I actually asked someone if there was a fire. They said “no, we’re running to get the train”, and I thought how weird, in Jamaica the trains wait for you, when we did have them anyway. So it was all very different and it took some getting used to.”
Narration: Despite the difficulties settling in had brought new arrivals to Britain, a return to the islands was out of the question for most of them.
SOUNDBITE [English] Professor Gus John, Educationalist & International Development Consultant: “From the moment I arrived I had a nostalgia for the Caribbean. I found a place cold not just in terms of weather, temperature, but the way people communicated with one another and generally speaking, it seemed to me that there were a whole range of codes of behaviour that one needed to learn if you were going to get through daily living in this country. And by and by you learn from others around you, and what they did, how they adapted to situations, and you brought yourself to many situations too.”
Narration: Irene has seen the changing face of Britain; she’s survived its ebb and flow and has a message for those following in her slipstream.
What’s your advice to the younger people now?
TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Irene Sinclair, Skincare Model: “To the young ones just don't give up, don't say “never” and impossibility might present itself. It’s very difficult as it was for me in midlife but don't give up. It rains today, it does not always rain tomorrow. You have time when the garden is beautiful, there are times, so you have got this, you have to accept it and then you have bad days so just don't say “never”, keep on going on if you fail today you'll hardly fail determination, and do not say “I would never, I can’t”. I want you sitting there to be honest, please answer honestly did you ever think that you'd ask someone at 96 to be a model? No, thank you. The highest they would ask is 30/40 and modelling clothes and so you go on a little longer, but you're quite right. So how can I say “never”? It was done to me. Well as I keep telling myself I seem to forget my age and I must be forgetful, I must be weak I must be hard of hearing, losing my sight, because as I say I do not know anyone 100, let alone 107. Life goes by and all because I’m always with “ever”, not “never”.”
Narration: Despite decades of settlement of people from the old Empire, Britain can still feel like a foreign land for those with a heritage outside the White Cliffs of Dover.For people of colour in Britain, the odds are still stacked against them in everything from crime and policing through to the criminal justice system, education and beyond. Recent national flashpoints like the murder of Stephen Lawrence at the hands of racists in Eltham, London and the subsequent failures of the police in dealing with his killers to the shooting death of Tottenham man Mark Duggan and the riots that followed. Being British was a very complicated affair with race still very much on the agenda.
For historian Tony Warner, conversations around race and equality in Britain can feel very much like déjà vu. As the founder of a company that provides historical tours of London, highlighting places significant to the black experience, he’s well placed to fill in some of the gaps in black British history, including the story of the man who became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords – Sir Learie Constantine.
SOUNDBITE [English] Tony Warner, Black History Walks Tour: “In the 1940s he was as famous then as Usain Bolt is now. During the forties, of course World War II was going on and Learie Constantine was employed by the British government to look after the welfare of the thousands of African Caribbean people who have left the Caribbean to come and help the war in England. As a person who travelled a lot, he’d often protect himself by asking if it was okay for him to stay in a certain hotel and by the way I'm black.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Well why did he have to say “by the way I’m black”?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Tony Warner, Black History Walks Tour: “It was typical to be refused accommodation as a black person and when it came to private homes or hotels so to avoid that problem he'd ring ahead and say ‘I’d like to book a room and by the way, I’m a black guy, is that cool?’ so he booked in to the imperial hotel and he came with his wife and daughter and he was supposed to stay for four nights but when he got there he was told he couldn't stay there because he was black. He called his manager who is a white guy, he came down to discuss the issue with the hotel and the hotel told his manager the same thing that he could not stay in a hotel because he was N-I-G-G-E-R, and white American troops who were staying there didn’t like it, therefore he was forced to go to the hotel around the corner from theimperial hotel. So of course that was very embarrassing for him being a big star here, helping the war effort, fighting for Britain basically and then being refused accommodation so he actually sued the hotel and at this time there are no laws against race discrimination, so he sued the hotel for breach of contract and he won his case so he becomes a part of the civil rights movement in this country as he successfully sues this hotel for race discrimination and that sets a trend across the entire nation that you can actually win your case for discrimination in England and it inspires other people to do the same thing, so it's a major landmark but most people don't know about Learie Constantine or the hotel, or where it is or anything like that.”
TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Sir Learie Constantine was not alone in those early days. Before him in the 1930’s a Jamaican studying medicine in London, Dr Harold Moody formed the first notable civil rights organization, the League of Coloured Peoples.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Why was the civil rights organisation necessary at that period?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Tony Warner, Black History Walks Tour: “Because in 1930s Britain black people were blocked from getting decent jobs, or jobs full stop. They were blocked from getting a good education but also there was a colour bar in the military so one of the things Harold Moody was campaigning for was an end to the colour bar because as a black person you were not allowed to become an officer, and this was another issue he was campaigning against. He also campaigned for the proper care of mixed race children because during the war years there were lots of black personnel from America based here, they had relations with local White woman and they had mixed race children but because the children were mixed race they were often then given up for adoption. So Harold Moody with the group was trying to find places to look after this mixed race children who had been abandoned because of the colour of their skin. It was a big issue at the time it's been forgotten now but it was a big issue at the time.”
Narration: Privileges many enjoy in the UK were hard fought for by people like Billy Strachan, Claudia Jones and Dame Jocelyn Barrow, yet these are not names that immediately roll from the lips of most Britons.
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Why is it that young people in schools and not necessarily aware of seminal moments like this of the individuals that you're talking about?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Tony Warner, Black History Walks Tour: “Well it's really weird because you find that in English schools we are taught about American black history so we’re literally taught chapter and verse about Luther King, Rosa Parks the bus boycott in Alabama in 1955, but we’re not told anything about the bus boycott in Bristol in 1963 and that can't be an accident, it can’t be an accident that people like Learie Constantine are left out of the curriculum and it seems to be that there is a drive to show that racism occurred in America and they had problems like that in America but there was nothing like that here and that of course is not true but that's the impression you would get from looking at the curriculum in that it doesn't teach you about what happened in this country from the thirties to the 60s it concentrates on what happens in America as if the problem was over there and not over here.”
Narration: For Lemn Sessay the poet, writer and now Chancellor at the University of Manchester, the British brand of racism was insidious and got its claws into all areas of life. It served as a barrier to not only success but to fully experiencing aspects of growing up that white counterparts may never have to consider.
SOUNDBITE [English] Lemn Sissay MBE, Poet and Author at TED: “It’s kind of easy to patronise the past, to forgo our responsibilities in the present.
I was told under no uncertain terms by being stopped by the police in my car every week every two weeks once every two weeks for a year this happened and longer that that wasn't somewhere that I should be. Who was I to be driving? I wanted to go to clubs. Now the bouncers in the club of Manchester at the time they didn't like many of these people like me so there was girls- if I went out with a white girl that was, hey, that's not for me. What I'm trying to say is that all of the rites of the passage to going to adulthood were guarded by gatekeepers who would use racism as the primary weapon without even realising it themselves.
The point is all of those natural places that you're born to shine in, to shine into adulthood, to shine into education were guarded by a group of, unconnected to each other than one thing, general distrust of who I was going to become. This society has a fear of the black man. It’s been around for a long, long time and it's a deep-seated fear. We will steal their women we will overbear, we will cause trouble we will mug. We will fight, we will be aggressive and I saw this on the micro-level in my own life growing up in a white community.”
TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00
Narration: Gallery boss Jos Brient is at the forefront of the British artistic movement, using his art connections both in Britain and in Africa to forge new paths, but even this knowledge has not prevented his feeling sometimes under the cultural microscope.
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Every time I travel and it's pretty much often, every time I come back to the UK I've been stopped at customs and I'm a British-born citizen. Stopped at customs with no reason okay you can call it random, but happens a lot to me so that sort of entry point I'm always thinking something is going to happen. When I get off the plane and I'm coming on the steps, that’s in the back of my mind. Nothing is ever going to be found on me, I'm not that kind of person but the fact is I must have a face or a walk or a look or whatever it maybe. I am always aware that I'm not white when I reach Heathrow or Gatwick or wherever that might be which I never ever experience when I go back to Ghana as I say I just blend in.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “So racism in Britain now has a different face almost?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “It does.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “More people are in the firing line?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Absolutely I mean when I grew up I remember it being no blacks, no dogs, no Irish that kind of thing and then obviously we had that boom when it was all about Asians and that kind of took the heat off of black people for a little while and then of course we had the riots and so on and so forth, and that all sort of highlighted again but now we’re coming to a different place where you don't have to be a person of colour, you’re white until you open your mouth and then all of a sudden you're not accepted. So that's kind of a different dynamic that I haven't been parted to but somebody who comes from Eastern Europe has told me that that's actually happening.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Lemn Sissay MBE, Poet and Author: “I don't think that racism is only committed by white people I think black people are racist, I’ve travelled all over the world, I have seen it in my own community in Ethiopian Eritrean I've seen it in the Gambia towards the Senegalese and vice versa. I've seen racism and seen that it is in every community, this isn’t a black white thing for me, but in particular in this country it's prevalent.”
Narration: Despite the hurdles and the obstacles, it seems the former colonies were very good at sending some of their most talented people. As a ten-year old from Guyana, Sherry Ann Dixon who became one of the UK’s most well-respected make-up artist and writer on beauty, culture and identity, contributed to some of the industry’s most well-known publications.
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “I always had a vision that I was gonna grow up and be somebody in England. I was told by my sisters that I told my grandfather that I'm going to be somebody I'm going to be somebody and I don't actually know what the somebody would've been but apparently that's what I said to them.”
Narration: The path ahead was still unclear on that overcast day in May when a young Sherry Ann Bollers arrived on the BOAC aircraft to live with her aunt and uncle.
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “On that train which was quite exciting I remember the train being exciting coming in from Heathrow and my head was spinning from side to side because I really wanted to take in everything. I think I thought I was on the way to a place where there was going to be gold lined streets. I always remember that because they used to say Britain is the place where the streets were lined with gold and honey, and as a child I thought somewhere on the way to going home that I would see something Royal. I remember that. I remembered my uncle giving me a coat and even with the coat, I was still cold in it and we arrived at Clapham North because we lived in Chelsham Road in Clapham.”
Narration: Writing in vogue, appearing on the BBC and doing the make-up for luminaries like Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, Dixon was able to play a big part in changing the perception of black women in the mainstream.
TIME CODE: 40:00_45:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “I Always wrote what I felt especially when I got into editorial. I would write -if I look back on articles in Cosmo or Bella it was always a basic article then I would get into it about how Black Women also have good skin, and we don't all have oily skin or our skin is not thicker. I tried to change the misconceptions about what they thought what a black person's skin was like, our hair being wiry like steel wool they would sometimes talk about it like. I would change the concept. Later on I changed my hair when I went through quite a few different hair styles and I went for locks, I started to twist and I remember when Morris Aberdeen of Morris Roots said Sherry’s locks are the back what do you wanna do and I said leave it and I started to grow locks. And that one was quite hard because although I was fighting because I'm now going to events, where I remember the editor of Vogue at the time she and I got on and she looked at me and kept on looking at me then she didn't even say ‘you’ve got a different hairstyle’ she just decided not to speak to me again because they saw that as radical.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Like that.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “Just like that. I was radical without even realising that I was. It's only now that I look back on my life that I realise that all throughout my life, even the first job that I had I lost that job indirectly because I had to make a decision, and the decision was to put back my hair straight or keep it as an Afro. The Afro came about because of Angela, it was the souled out brothers, the black and proud days and we were now learning about our brothers and sisters the struggle that was happening in the United States.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “As Sherry Ann Dixon sits amongst the exhibits at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, the historical heart of the black community in London, she remains a very proud Brit but one who will shout her Caribbean connections to the rafters.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “I'm beginning to think that I worked hard that I might have worked hard at keeping the Caribbean because quite often people think that as you move up the ladder that you have to lose your Caribbean dialect or that you can't say a little patois or something. I don't see why, because the man who comes from Scotland will refer to something Scottish or Welsh or where ever he would say that, or French. Nobody ever judges that the person they actually embrace it. I remember one publisher that used to talk about one of the girls being Spanish or something, and he'd say oh she's got that fieriness of being Italian or Spanish, I can’t remember what she is, well hello I'm Caribbean an I've got that fieriness as well but we had to keep it subdued because we were coming from a different time frame we were coming from slavery but I was fiery so I made a point of even in my profile in saying Guyanese. I say it, it says Guyanese award-winning, when I speak I tell I'm from Guyana so it's in print it's giving back to the country of birth although I embrace the country that I live and quite often when I speak and - I do public speaking now - and I’ll bring out that Guyanese dialect I remind people of things that auntie or whoever used to say ‘watch your mouth girl.’”
Narration: As many decedents of the generation that came after WWII, having a foot in both cultures was almost a prerequisite, even if embracing this dual reality took time.
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Well as I said I'm born in Britain so I don't know another way to live as I was raised in this country and I adopted the British way of life but in the house both my parents spoke Fanti - the local dialect, so we always had that connection with the fact that we are British but we also have another storyline within us, and when we go back to Ghana we feel very comfortable in the fact that we are home. We don't feel like we're on holiday. We have a home, we settle down and we just get on with life the same way we do when we come home.”
TIME CODE: 45:00_50:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Do you think that’s a new thing for maybe your generation?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “I think it's happening a lot more now people are now looking at their identity whereas beforehand, if I go back to my school years, it wasn't the coolest thing to be called an African and we used to tell people we’re from Ghana and they would either misunderstanding or they wouldn't understand there was a Ghana and a Guyana and when people used to say Guyana, we would just say yes because it was easier for us. It wasn’t coolest thing to be African when I was a child, it wasn’t the thing that you wanted to associate yourself with. It was okay in your circle my parents friends and within that circle with their children that was fine, we would all be the same but when you were spreading out a wider audience- and I must say in some instances it was Caribbean guys that would not sort of accept the fact that we are all one and there was that distinctive line that we're West Indian and you're not.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “But now I think you’ll find a lot more people, especially of my generation who start to realise that there is another story line that needs to be told and they're looking into their ancestry a lot more which I champion.”
Narration: With black heroes emerging every day, there are still worries about how inequality and race rear their ugly heads in Britain. Lemn has a position on challenging that aspect of life for many Britons.
SOUNDBITE [English] Lemn Sissay MBE, Poet and Author: “What I wanted to say about racism is that we are not defined by it and that actually the beauty of having such a formidable enemy is that you have to find your inner resources and find out who you are so that you can you can fight it into invisibility.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Sherry Ann Dixon, Lecturer in Confidence & Assertiveness: “I am sure there were changes for the better but at the moment I wonder if we’re going back around in a circle again because I don't understand why we are discussing colour. I still don't understand colourism and it's not colourism or prejudice from the point of view of black-and-white its black on black that confuses me. Because I'm going to be 63 soon and I’m talking about 11, we started talking about me from the age of nine or 10 to now being 63, I would've hoped that we're not talking about colour so that we not talking about straight hair, that we’re not saying we like girls who look a certain way I would've thought that with all the education that we have, using source of different media now that we would be at ease with ourselves that we wouldn't be talking about the size of somebody's nose or we wouldn't be talking about a shade of colour. Or you wouldn't be using certain words that start with “n” because we would be educated enough to know that that wasn’t a nice word that was used in the days of slavery. There should be educated enough to know what we've gone through and not be derogatorilytowards each other and embrace all shades and all nationalities. We should be more educated.”
Narration: The black British journey is an ever-marching, evolving, shifting sand. Despite the challenges and sacrifices of those who made the journey to the old Empire or were born and raised here with a unique duality, it was always about striving, pushing on and doing better. One generation makes waves for the next. Jos and his family’s experiences speak for tens of thousands who think maybe, just maybe it might have been worth it.
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Well I mean both my parents were academics so it was encouraged back in the sixties to come to the UK and so on, education was here, they were able to put themselves through school and so on, so for them it was always a journey to make a better life for the family, that was paramount. But they always always had it in the back of their minds that they wouldn't stay, they always had that view of going home and I use the word home again.”
TIME CODE: 50:00_55:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Unfortunately my father died here in the UK and probably out of the two of them, my father was quite western, he was very political and he thought his best work would be done here. My mum was a bit more adventurous and she did what she did to raise the family. She took early retirement, went back to Ghana and she started trying to do this six months here six months out. So in a lot of her later years we were missing mum, because she was there building a home and preparing the way for us basically. So it's a shame they're both not here right now but I know they would be shining down on us going look guys you've done it and that really means a lot to me.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “That was the dream? That was the vision?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “That was the vision, my mum always wanted us to do something and we always wanted to do something that made our parents proud always and we’re almost there.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Almost.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Jos Ampah-Brient, GDA Collective London: “Almost.”
Narration: Battle-scarred, bruised but not bowed, Britain’s black community continues to make in-roads in both asserting their right to be considered a part of a country they have contributed to with blood, sweat and tears and re-defining what it can mean to straddle multicultural identities.
For many Brits born outside the shadows of Big Ben there remains a steadfast resistance to complete assimilation. Trailblazers like Eva Tarr-Kirkhope who founded the London Latin American Film Festival alongside her late husband after spending her formative years in Cuba. The shock of Britain from the sunshine of the Caribbean was a familiar tale.
SOUNDBITE [English] Eva Tarr-Kirkhope, Founder, London Latin American Film Festival: “It was amazing because the first impression was that there was a total obscurity, it was like 2 o'clock in the afternoon or something and it was dark and then was grey. As soon as the plane was descending in this horror film of complete darkness.”
Narration: Like many who would come after her, Eva’s ability to see Britishness and the story of black people in the UK through more than one lens has set the scene. Her work with the film festival and how it aids integration and understanding.
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Did you think about being a pioneer for Latin and British integration at that time?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Eva Tarr-Kirkhope, Founder, London Latin American Film Festival: “I think so I think I didn't do it per se, I just did it because I wanted to show that kind of difference and also to show that it was interesting and vibrant and all that, but at the same time I pushed, pushed, pushed to the limits and now look how integrated it is. Now we see how many other festivals there are, you have the Argentinian festival the Colombian festival, I mean, the Brazilian festival, so we are competing but I like this competition. Because it's fresh and it’s good, I find it fantastic. I find it very, very open. I like that diversity, because I mean you also have the possibilities of knowing all the cultures.”
Narration: Chrissa Amuah of AMWAH Designs embodies the new spirit of what it means to be British…and other. This renewed sense of duality is something today’s black brits are more at ease with.
SOUNDBITE [English] Chrissa Amuah, Creative, AMWA Designs: “My family is from Ghana although there is heritage there also from Benin and Togo but it's Ghana where my most immediate family live and reside so I get to travel there very often and every time that I was going to Africa is being celebrated as the last frontier and each time I went I would see oh wow, there's a shopping mall oh there is a new store here, etc. It seemed the country's development or the culture was heading towards a very western template of success if you like and the more I learnt about the heritage and the culture of Ghana, which is so diverse there are so many different cultural and ethnic groups that you can't just whilst there is a similarity that applies to all there are so many differences that are each very unique and very exciting to learn about and I was learning more and more and I thought actually there is a culture here that should be really celebrated and not to say it has been diluted at all but I thought that there was more to shout out about.”
TIME CODE: 55:00_01:00:00
Narration: Having a foot in each culture is not something this bold new global Brit generation actively considers. It could be seen as an act of resistance against the old norms when assimilation was everything; where members of obvious ethnic minorities could be British... well or never both co-existing without obvious conflict.
SOUNDBITE [English] Chrissa Amuah, Creative, AMWA Designs: “It’s conscious and subconscious actually. It's something that as a child of parents who came to the UK 35 or so years ago to create a new life here and having had a family here I guess you could say we were raised with a sense of duality. So at no point and I think anybody who meets me now very quickly soon learns that my family is from Ghana, I'm very proud of that fact. When you go home and dinner is an option between eating pizza and salad and Banquo and Okra soup there is that sense of duality so your feet are naturally in both environments also when you go back to Ghana you do realise the Britishness if you like of your upbringing or who you are as a person and there is no getting away from that so why not embraced the two? There is no conflict for me at all I very much see myself as a daughter of Ghana, a daughter of Africa but also as I'm very British as well.”
Narration: The generational difference in this approach to life in the UK can be most stark when parents who may have come to the UK as immigrants remain to raise families who see Britain as their home. Marketing and promotions guru Daren Dixon considered himself British first and foremost and that sense of accepted duality came later.
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “Being first generation, do you ever think about the significance of what that means? You’re the first person in your family to be born and raised in this country.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Daren Dixon, CEO, Above & Beyond Creative Agency:
“Now that I’m a little bit older I do think of that but I think when I was younger I didn’t, this London is my town, this is where we are it’s fully integrated. It was only until I just sit down with my mum or dad and think about the struggles that they had or moreso the struggles my grandmother and Grandad had and I feel very fortunate but then it did drive me on to succeed. But I’m very much a Londoner, I’m a South Londoner so I get it, and obviously growing up I had kids and other friends that were born in Jamaica or born in Nigeria or wherever, and they would call that place home, they would call Jamaica home, or they’d call Trinidad home or they’d call India home. And then I’m like... born here. And you feel a little bit lost, or a little bit like you don’t have the right identity and the very few racist times, the racism that I’ve encountered, when people say “go back home” or things like that, it does hurt and then you start thinking well they said “go back home”, am I actually not from here? That actually drove me to research where my family is from and why they said those things. And my parents were very good at helping me understand that hey you belong here, but this is why they said that.”
Narration: Vegan cook and media professional Susan Kirlew understands this new concept of belonging to more than one place perfectly. Born in the UK to Jamaican parents, the family moved to the Caribbean for five years. Like many with family connections in the old Empire, moving comfortably between these spaces comes naturally.
SOUNDBITE [English] Susanne Kirlew, Vegan Cook, Presenter and Author: “Somebody says go back home I'm not even, I just tune right out because I think you know what, the reason I'm here is because you destroyed a lot of things in my home and the opportunities that I should have in my home are not there because of the things that other generations that look like you have done, so I’m not even listening to that.”
TIME CODE: 01:00:00_01:05:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Susanne Kirlew, Vegan Cook, Presenter and Author: “When I go back to Jamaica sometimes people say ‘oh English lady you're English.’ And I say you know what I'm not English because if you look at me you can see I'm not a native English person that’s quite obvious and they say ‘but you were born in England’ I said ‘yes Jesus was born in a stable but that does not make him a horse.’ so I am who I say I am not who people tell me I am. So I have to be firm in my head about who I am and yes there is a duality there is a plural kind of thing there but you get used to it, so you know how to, I know how to behave when I'mhere and how to tune in and set my mind so to speak when I'm in England and then when I'm in Jamaica I don't consider that I'm the British person who is come home I just think of myself as a Jamaican. Okay they can pick up that I live in England but I can drop the accent enough so it confuses them.”
Narration: The times, they are a changing and the acceptance of minority culture by the mainstream is becoming more fashionable.
SOUNDBITE [English] Chrissa Amuah, Creative, AMWA Designs: “I remember as a child it not being maybe so cool to be African in the UK but that is something that I think in later years we've seen a turnaround be it through Afrobeat music and culture or be it through art. African art is experiencing an amazing renaissance at the moment as is African inspired design.”
Narration: Self-acceptance and a wider sense of equality can still be a way off.
SOUNDBITE [English] Susanne Kirlew, Vegan Cook, Presenter and Author: “Yeah I did go through a stage of wanting white hair white girl hair and you know sometimes I think well is my nose is too wide, wouldn’t and I look nice with green eyes and that was in my teens and then I kind of came to a stage where I thought I'm fine being me. Most people I know are fine with me being me; there are some people who are not fine with me being me and you meet those anywhere in the world I suppose. But you have to be happy with who you are within yourself.”
Narration: This feeds into the idea that minority cultures still are viewed with suspicion and hostility. Even now.
SOUNDBITE [English] Susanne Kirlew, Vegan Cook, Presenter and Author: “I don't think Britain has a race problem. I know Britain has a race problem. Part of my degree is media and cultural studies and a couple of the modules are called Studies in race and culture, and what I unfortunately learnt is since the 50s/ forties/50s to now things haven't really changed as they should. They have got less obvious and they've kind of shuffled sideways and the law has changed but the law can't change hearts and minds. And I can't change everyone's hearts and minds so all I have to do is think am I doing anything that’s a racist thing? Am I being prejudice against somebody because they don't look like me and I have to keep bringing it back to myself. The only persons behaviour I can change is my own and I have to remember that as a Christian we are all Gods children; black white, Jews, Greek, short, tall, fat, thin, and I really try to see that everyone is a person and there is only one race and that is the human race and there's only politics and ignorance thatmakes us want to be divided, but for me it is one race the human race and Britain could do a lot more, a lot, lot more.”
Narration: It might be more difficult to be accepting of the slow pace of change when you’ve faced direct prejudice. Artist Morris Thompson is proud of the artistic journey he has made from a young man living in the Midlands to the big Smoke of London but even his journey to the nation’s capital held its own surprise.
SOUNDBITE [English] Morris Thompson, Portrait & Caricature Artists: “The first day I came to London I had set up a place to stay and that was in Barking East London and got to the house and the woman wouldn't open the door we called her me and my friend he was studying at the same college for photography. We got to the house, the woman wouldn’t open the door so we knocked again, walked away came back saw the lights on she wouldn't open the door. We couldn't see her but we saw the lights on and they were off before. So we went to the police station and I said look listen I have a place we had it all set up we came on the way to London we start college the next day and the woman won't open the door and they said well she hasn’t committed a crime so we called her again. In the end I just stayed in the police station with my bags and slept there and then the next day went into college and got set up with another place in Romford.”
TIME CODE: 01:05:00_01:10:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Amina Taylor, Host: “What this one of the first times you’d been presented with this kind of bigotry, or was this something that was new to you?”
SOUNDBITE [English] Morris Thompson, Portrait & Caricature Artists: “I never expected it, it was a shock because the woman was fine on the phone with us and I've never been anywhere trying to get a place and experience that. I've heard of it my parents are told me certain things but I've never experienced that type of racism but I have experienced some blatant racism in other ways, definitely.”
Narration: Had Morris checked in with Eva, he would have been reminded that though the incidents were decades apart, those who oppose equality in the UK have done so with a frightening level of consistency. It only takes something like Brexit to reignite some of those painful memories.
SOUNDBITE [English] Eva Tarr-Kirkhope, Founder, London Latin American Film Festival: “I could not believe that this Brexit will have this side, I mean I was used to how it was, now it seems to me they are getting as worse as in ‘79 oh my God I can't believe that I mean because I remember when we first came here there were places that we didn't to go to live, my first husband and myself.And we were looking for rooms to let and as I say at the beginning we were together and then after a few refusals I used to hide so he went and then he went alone and then he negotiated so they couldn’t see me.”
Narration: The black British experience has not been a singular one. Within every smaller community will be those for whom the concept of identity, racism and struggle have been background noises. Never quite at the forefront of their daily experience.
SOUNDBITE [English] Daren Dixon, CEO, Above & Beyond Creative Agency:
“I've got friends that have been stopped for non-sensible reasons but I think it's about your upbringing my parents have always been to speak to people in a certain way and you get that reaction back or know how to handle yourself in situations if you get stopped by the police. Get out the car speak in an eloquent way. It hasn't affected me in the ways that I've heard, however I'm not one of those blind people that lives in a bubble I know what the problems are and the problems are education from both sides.”
Narration: As Britain’s new generations navigate the intersectionality of their lives in a country that still has a way to go in both its institutional and personal racism, geopolitics and domestic political tremors like Brexit have exposed another target.
Meet Halimat Shode, writer and editor with entrepreneur Dalilah Baruti, CEO of Hug My Hair. Two young women who’s very public presence is usually enough to provoke strong reactions.
SOUNDBITE [English] Halimat Shode, Writer in World Affairs: “I feel like I should feel that sense of almost like a burden, I never see it as a burden but I've heard it talked about as a burden especially for Muslim women with the veil or the headscarf and the various names. And being a black woman and the different issues of race and being a woman all these things about gender, but I think from a very early age I realised my identity and I appreciated my identity and only when I went out into the world and experience different things that I realised people had a problem with the identity, that it was marginalized. I was somebody that was born Muslim and I've been wearing the headscarf for about seven years now and people will still ask me if I'm Muslim or what religion am I because for them they've never come across- or they've never interacted or are just generally ignorant about the wide range of races in Islam. So being a black Muslim woman, I think being in university was my turning point in realising my identity and how complex and how marginalised it is and it was from that point especially being an English student that I said to myself first I want to see myself in mywriting and then whatever platform or whatever industry I want to get into I want to see myself there and that will be my race and you'll see my headscarf along with it so that's my race and my faith. Those parts are always with me, that is my identity.”
TIME CODE: 01:10:00_01:16:00
Narration: Tanzanian born natural hair business woman Dalilah shares a story that is both different but eerily familiar.
SOUNDBITE [English] Dalilah Baruti, Founder, Hug My Hair: “Early days of feeling different I was quite oblivious and naive as a young person so any times I felt different was because someone pointed it out. So it be like ‘oh you're hair feels like cotton’ or someone pointing out 10 years after I left primary school that I was one of only three black people there. I didn't even notice and the other two were twins so it was very much other people pointing it out and making me become conscious of it now so when I'm walking around I'm conscious that people are seeing what these other people said they see. I went swimming with my sister once when we were two young girls, and there were these girls inside who were also taking showers at the same time as us and they said very loudly but again I didn't hear “there is no point scrubbing it won't wash off” and these are things that I don’t know if I've consciously built up a block to or if I've just been oblivious naturally and now the veils are starting to come down.
If I were to explain it from my experience more of my experience has been a lot more positive than negative so I wouldn't even highlight the race issue if I was trying to explain Britain to someone. I think what's happened recently with Brexit for example has made it a lot more obvious to the rest of the world how maybe how much we suppressed our intolerance of other people and people who are other and it’s almost given people a license to be openly expressive about how they feel so much so that they are telling people to leave in the streets.
Even though they might have seen a different Britain based in the media, I’d still encourage them to come and experience it for themselves because I know so many people who love being here especially in the diverse areas like London. It's so diverse, you’re sitting in the train and there are so many different cultures around you and I only ever feel like I stand out or isolated when I start to move outside of London, into the country. I was with someone once and I think we were travelling so we were stopping at a service station on the way and they pointed out ‘you're the only black person here’ and I was like ‘great thanks.’ I hadn't even noticed but it just tends to happen as you go further out and I think a lot of the frustrations and prejudices stem from fear of the unknown and not putting yourself in the position where you can learn from that other person and get to know that other person on a human level and realise actually what’s outward isn't what matters, it’s not who they are, you know?”
Narration: Whilst the fight for equality can take many forms, there are those who are happy to literally put their bodies on the line to be counted. With deaths in custody, incidents of official brutality and state sanctioned prejudice still an issue, Halimat is happy to stand up and make a visible protest.
SOUNDBITE [English] Halimat Shode, Writer in World Affairs: “We are the minority in the country but we still are a part of the country and this is affecting us and if you don't care, we’re going to bring the issue to you regardless of what your reaction is and even as I left the protest someone walking past it just called out saying that we have it better than even the white people in the country do and I just laughed at it because I thought that is so funny and if I was to ask that man about police brutality he would probably give me a blank stare and say not in the UK that doesn't happenhere. And I’ve found that a lot of British white people have said that quite often and I posted a video on my Twitter page of footage from the protest and I had a few responses of this is very unnecessary this is very stupid and I thought that was enough for me to know that people don't care because if you care about something you're going to listen to the issues that people are having and you're going to try and empathise I'm not saying that’s all British white people of course there were quite a few in attendance and that are other supporting the black lives matter movement in general in the US and the UK, but it is about being empathetic to the issues that all of us are facing and it might not be a class issue, it can be a race issue it's a police brutality issue, these are various issues and they are affecting people in their day-to-day lives and people are dying because of it.”
Narration: Be it faith, art or pragmatism, today’s black Brits have redefined what it means to simply exist in their own skin.
SOUNDBITE [English] Dalilah Baruti, Founder, Hug My Hair: “In the Qur’an there is this principle in this faith that is be in the world as if you are travelling so don't really set up a home and get too comfortable because you have to prepare yourself for the next test, for the next challenge for the next phase of your life so that's very much how I view my business and what I'm going through is that it is very fluid and anything could happen and being open to change and possibilities but in everything that I do, trying to make that as positive as possible.”
Narration: There are many who lived, worked and died in Britain who would be shocked at the strides that have been made by subsequent generations, generations who still acknowledge there is a long, long way to go.