If you would like to hear Barbara talk about her book and more, tune in to Radio Jamaica tomorrow (Sunday, September 11) at 1:30 p.m. on Gerry McDaniel’s show “Palav,” where she will be special guest.
A young, middle-class Jamaican woman, tired of the limitations of island life, arrives in London, England, to seek her fortune as a trained journalist in the 1960s. As a teenager in Jamaica, images of England from books and movies had suggested to her that it was “a magic place.” Jamaica, by contrast, was “small” and “repetitive.”
Magic was not quite what Barbara Blake Hannah encountered on arriving in London. A series of confusing and uncomfortable discoveries awaited her – beginning with a humiliating body search at the airport, shared toilets in her accommodation, and much more.
And above all, the blatant racism. It was a severe case of “culture shock.”
Nearly half way through her lively, frank and provocative memoir, the author pauses to address her readers. This is a conversation, as if you are chatting over a cup of coffee. It is Barbara’s natural self – energetic, engaged, always with a humorous twinkle in her eye. Half way through her description of her life in London, watching colour (!) television and cooking for her friends at home (“Not a very ‘black’ life, I can hear you criticise”) she pauses to address such criticisms. At the same time, she discloses the purpose behind her writing:
Please, shhh, I pray you.
If any reader’s judgements are so harsh, then I beg only patience to allow my humble story to unfold. My only arrogance, perhaps, is to truly believe that the telling of my story can tear back even one veil off the eyes of my fellow Black people and allow us to stand, free and strong, and fulfil the great dream of our great Prophet and Leader, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and our God.
And the reader will be patient. This account will carry you irresistibly along, at a snappy pace, to the last page. You will chuckle and groan and heave a deep sigh – just as you would if you were enjoying that coffee with the author. As her experiences unfold and she bravely and boldly navigates the complexities of 1960s English society, you are increasingly enlightened.
I always wonder: Were the “Swinging Sixties” really that cool? As a Londoner myself and a teenager during those years, I can relate to Barbara’s depiction of London society as one of considerable inequality; conservative mindsets and practices; entrenched class distinctions; and the aforementioned racism. West Indian immigrants were, noticeably, among the sad ones, down at heel, dragging along the streets, hopeless and poor. My own teenage years were protected and comfortable – I had a truly middle-class upbringing in south west London – but I do recall glimpses of poverty and deprivation, which startled me. Even the “council estates” – state-funded, working class housing – seemed a different world to me. And the dirt and pollution – smoke and smog from all those coal fires! What a contrast that must have been for a West Indian, coming from an island with breezy, blue skies.
So, who were the “swinging” ones? They were those who were more privileged, with a little more money in their pockets, those who were a little “different,” and certainly with more daring, to boot. They were in the world of fashion, theatre, the media. Barbara mentions how skinny she was in her youth; but in London in the 60s it was very fashionable to be skinny. These fashionable ones, such as those who became part of Barbara’s circle, were mostly in London. The provincial towns carried on much as usual, so far as I can recall. Youth culture became more aggressive, and this perhaps pushed the country towards a more open society. But attitudes don’t change overnight. The rebellious seventies hadn’t got under way, yet.
Anyway, for our intrepid young Jamaican, there followed a series of dull jobs and shabby bedsits – and true moments of “magic,” such as her first sight of snow. Barbara made friends, moved into public relations, and continuously pushed for more work in media, as a writer. Opportunities grew.
Just four years after arriving in England, she auditioned for a job at Thames Television – and sailed through. The rest, as they say, is history; at age twenty-five, Barbara’s became the first black face to appear on British television screens, reporting and reading the news on a daily basis, in 1968. At this point lots of name-dropping comes in; she interviewed famous people (Jack Benny, Michael Caine, Ken Kesey). She covered a huge range of stories, from the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to the frantic scenes when the Beatles gave away the contents of their Apple store (no, not that Apple) on Baker Street. It must have been enormous fun and Barbara took to it like a duck to water.
Meanwhile, the hate mail surfaced, and multiplied. And Barbara was out of a job, nine months later.
The racism was persistent, pernicious. However, Barbara had a “name.” Undeterred, she went into film, and socialised with creative people such as the wonderful filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory); rubbed shoulders with big stars like Robert Redford at the Cannes Film Festival; and politely declined dinner invitations from the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Stevie Wonder. My goodness!
Now, where does the black pride and the black hair come in? Barbara’s thoughts on black consciousness and her belief in an Afrocentric view of life began to take shape in England; and along with the crystallisation of these thoughts, she decided to have the shiny smooth hair she had been quite proud of cut short – to the horror of her more conservative friends.
“I had made up my mind. I had made a decision to stop trying to be White. Inside me, I was being to understand what being Black meant.”
The key word here I think is “grow.” The “growing out” of Barbara’s hair, releasing it from its heavily processed, chemical state to an unfettered, natural one, is a metaphor not only for self-discovery but also for liberation and independent thinking.
On her return to Jamaica, Barbara quickly realised that the stultifying middle-class world that she had left behind had clearly changed little, continuing to ape the culture and lifestyle of the former colonisers. Alongside that, the rising radicals of the 1970s did not appeal to her either (despite her earlier close friendship with Beverley Anderson, who had since married the charismatic, firebrand Prime Minister, Michael Manley). Aside from Manley himself, his crowd of acolytes was “truly boring” in her view, spouting words and slogans they did not fully understand the meaning of. Enough of all that.
So, not for the first time, Barbara “struck out into the unknown,” as she puts it in the closing pages of her book, into the Rastafari religion and way of life (a religion is a way of life, isn’t it?) That was in 1972. She has never looked back; and she is still “smiling, smiling, smiling.” A specific moment arrives, sometimes, when one senses that transformation to come. Barbara Blake Hannah embraced that moment.
This is what Barbara’s stay in England – astonishing, jarring, enlightening, dismaying as it was – had helped to create within her, and we see hints of it in her book. She is not going to leave the drab, grey skies of England as the same Barbara who arrived there. She might not have seen this as a spiritual process of awakening, but it turned out that so it was, at quite a young age. A sea change took place in her life. When the tide turns, there is nothing one can do to stop it. One just moves into it, and with it.
In the end, it’s all about growth. And we should never stop doing that. This book beautifully depicts that process, with energy, openness and wry humour.
And talking of growth: Barbara has been growing out her locks for twenty-four years, now. She concludes:
Let your beautiful Black hair be a sign that you are aware of the greatness of your race, your history, your culture and your future potential.