Paulette Annon takes us on journey as a second-generation immigrant in 1960s Birmingham, sharing her perspective on how her understanding of race, culture, and history took shape
I was recently reminded of a quote by the Jamaican political activist, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” On reflection, I can honestly state that this is how I felt growing up. I was definitely without roots because I had limited knowledge of my Jamaican history as well as my ancestral history. As a child of Caribbean parents, born in the 1960s, I was raised in a household that wasn’t politically active in terms of race: colonial Jamaica was only referred to when my mother recounted singing God Save the Queen during morning assembly at school. Jamaica’s Spanish heritage, slavery, and the eventual colonisation by the British were never brought up in conversation, and were therefore never on my radar. Whilst my secondary education in the 1970s taught us about the Boer War and the Holocaust, it neglected to feature the contributions of armies from India, Africa, and the West Indies during the World Wars, or the British slave trade, responsible for transporting over three million Africans to the British colonies. I was therefore completely ignorant of the struggles we had endured centuries earlier. It wasn’t until the 1977 television adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, charting the lives of six generations of Haley’s family, that I, and many others, gained an insight into what slavery was, and its impact.
Knowledge and awareness of Black history was slowly beginning to unfold for me. But it wasn’t just our history that stirred feelings of discontent. The voice of Black Britain was starting to speak out about matters like racism and the stop-and-search powers of the police under their infamous sus law, through the likes of Dub poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, whose creations, set to a background of heavy reggae, featured stinging commentary in the form of political poetry illuminating life as a Black individual in the UK.
I was getting increasingly frustrated with the absence of taught Black education, alongside the lack of representation of Black people in the media and popular culture other than in music and sports. This compelled me to devour any opportunity to access Black theatre. During the 1980s this was limited to productions by the Talawa Theatre Company, which exposed me to fresh, young UK Black actors illuminating a range of often raw, political, social, and familial themes that struck a chord with many of us growing up in 1980s Britain. For laughs, there was also Blue Mountain Theatre, which celebrated the comedic talents of popular Jamaican comics such as Oliver Samuels, whose productions were solely to entertain rather than educate. That was until I attended a performance titled Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, a musical theatre production created by the late Flip Fraser, a Jamaican journalist for The Voice, Britain’s first and only Black weekly newspaper.
We were more than slaves … We had history. We made history
The musical began as it ended, with the theme tune which roused audiences to join in singing, “We need a hall of fame, to protect our heroes’ names,” in the course, presenting me with more than 5,000 years of Black history (did we really go back that far?), featuring the contributions of Black men and women in the world of science, sports, entertainment, and politics. And what a celebration this production was! I was introduced to the eras of the African kings and queens, the days of slavery, freedom fighters, the inventors; and entertainers. I watched transfixed as the characters of Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, and Nelson Mandela debated the issues that they experienced during their own fights for civil liberties relating it to how those issues continued to affect Black people at the time (and still do). The entire performance informed me, educated me, and filled me with immense pride, illustrating that we were more than slaves, sports stars, and entertainers. We had history. We made history.
Whilst the production enjoyed national and international acclaim, with a reprise (an updated version) in the early 2000s, Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame has been archived. And that is a great shame, because now more than ever we need it. A colleague used the term ‘re-educate to self-educate’ during a conversation recently, and I made a mental note, because understanding our past can help us to shape our future. Significant changes have been made in recognising the existence and contributions of Black people: in advertisements, we are reminded that Black people book holidays, buy washing detergent, wear clothes and eat(!); in the arts, we have been privy to open and frank conversations from artists, sharing their experiences of trying to hone their craft in an environment that often did not afford them opportunities to work – uncomfortable viewing, but it had to be heard. It is easy to say that much of this is reactive and on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the demonstrations which took place during 2020. Some may argue that it is a piecemeal approach. Yes, probably, but we have to start somewhere?
Given the current environment, which has promoted the expression of the Black voice, this has also given way to Black pride, and echoes the civil rights movement of the 1960s, from celebrating natural hair, wearing Afrocentric clothing and jewellery, supporting the UK Black economy through Black pound enterprise initiatives, and encouraging us to explore our histories and viewing Africa, the Caribbean, and Egypt as more than just tourist destinations.
Sadly, Flip Fraser passed away, but his vision lives on in the foundation created to honour Black heroes as more than just a stage play, because, to quote Maya Angelou, “The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.”
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.