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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Growing Out in the Swinging Sixties by Barbara Blake Hannah

Barbara Blake Hannah was Britain’s first black woman television news reporter on Thames Television in the 1960s.

She was harassed and thwarted by racism.

She decided to leave Britain to return to her native Jamaica to enjoy a more congenial career in promoting the island’s film industry.

In Jamaica for the fifty years that followed she became a well-known writer, film-maker, home-schooling mother and Rastafari Empress.

She pursued an influential career in politics becoming the first Rastafarian representative and independent senator in Parliament.

She’s been awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican Government, and serves as executive director of the Jamaica Film Academy, which organises the Reggae Film Festival.

She could have been one of Britain’s icons of broadcasting such as Sir Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart. Why she did not, is comprehensively explained in this memoir first published in Jamaica in 2016.

It’s taken the cultural enlightenment of ‘Black Lives Matter’ consciousness following George Floyd’s terrible murder in America to retrieve its quality and significance and put it into the mainstream of journalism history.

The online Press Gazette industry news service has also inaugurated a UK journalism award in her name.

She has written about how the award created: ‘a flurry of positive press stories about me that included scores of TV, press and radio interviews in British media. After 50 years in which I had been remembered only as a paragraph in British Black History Month stories, I suddenly became the centre of a massive British media spotlight with Zoom interviews becoming a feature of my daily life.’

Barbara explains that ‘I am African. I am Jamaican. I am British.’

She came to Britain in 1964 with all of the advantages of her private education, personal beauty and talent, and her rich heritage of experience and tradition in journalism.

Her father, Dr. Evon Blake, was a key and central figure in Jamaica’s journalism industry having founded the Press Association of Jamaica.

His daughter writes: ‘He was best remembered for having de-segregated the pool of the city’s leading hotel – the Myrtle Bank – simply by going for a swim there one day and refusing to come out despite the unwritten rule that forbade Black Jamaicans from enjoying the water. “Call the police, call the manager, call God,” was his only comment when they told him to come out.’

Her substantial experience as a published working journalist and television newscaster in Jamaica should have provided entry into the business in Britain.

In reality, her first job was as an extra in a feature film.

To pay the rent and make ends meet over a number of years, she had to use her shorthand and typing skills as a Temp.

While in Britain she did freelance for The Caribbean Times, West Indian World, The Sunday Times, Queen and Cosmopolitan.

It would take four years before the full-time job breakthrough came her way.

Her memoir is an unrelentingly depressing and grim account of how nearly a decade in Britain exposed her to the multi-faceted phenomenon of racism.

People of all classes and indeed ethnicity (she experienced what she described as ‘reverse racism’ from Asians) challenged her human rights and dignity as a British subject.

Her life in the Britain of the so-called ‘swinging sixties’ ended when she ‘became tired of British racism and having to pretend that it didn’t matter, and returned to my early home.’

Reading ‘Growing Out’ is also an educational experience for anyone hoping and striving for racial equality and harmony.

It confirms in no uncertain terms what it was like to be Black in Britain at that time:

‘”Hello, I’d like to inquire about the flat you have advertised,” I’d say in my best English. The person at the other end of the phone would explain details of size, fittings, and location. “I’ll come and have a look at it. There’s only one thing – I’m West Indian.” There would be a silence at the other end while the person thought. Then they’d say: “I’m sorry – I’d forgotten it’s already rented.” Or: “Well, I wouldn’t mind, but it’s the owner…” or…”the neighbours”…or plain simply: “No, we don’t rent to coloureds.”‘

Barbara made many friends; particularly with the up and coming creative and media stars of the period such as David Frost, Germaine Greer, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Richard Eyre, Lord Patrick Lichfield, and Daniel Topolski- all white liberals who would help change British society and culture for the better.

But at the same time they were not enough to prevent her finding that in Fleet Street, the home of British journalism, ‘all doors I knocked at were so firmly closed that I gave up trying.’

One frightening experience in her book leaves a lasting impression:

‘This was the time of Ian Smith’s Declaration of Independence for Rhodesia, and I remember well the day it happened. The bus I took home passed from Fleet Street towards Trafalgar Square, where South Africa House occupied one entire block overlooking this most central and important of English landmarks. In the block just before it stood Rhodesia House. Outside it was a demonstration of English people in favour of Smith’s actions.’

Barbara remembers: ‘I was terrified to see, as I sat on the top deck of the bus looking down, that all the White people on the bus turned on me and snarled…yes, that’s what they did…they snarled at me, as if I was personally one of those damn Black people who wanted to over-throw the White rule in Rhodesia. At that moment, I have never wished more that I was not black. At least invisible, please God.’

In 1968 she joined Thames Television’s evening news programme Today as a reporter which was then presented by Eamonn Andrews.

It was a high profile role. She interviewed Prime Minister Harold Wilson, round-the-world yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, film star Michael Caine and covered the first Notting Hill Carnival.

She lasted only nine months. There was no official explanation as to why her contract was not renewed. But her producer confided to her that Thames had buckled to viewer complaints about employing a black woman on screen.

There was racist hate-mail and abusive callers often using the terrible ‘N’ word.

At the time BBC Television’s main on-screen representation of black people was the Black and White Minstrel Show.

She tried working as a reporter for ATV’s local news programme in Birmingham.

She had to commute from London each day because no hotel would give her a room until the YWCA was more welcoming. ATV deliberately kept her away from the studio on the day Enoch Powell was being interviewed.

Desmond Wilcox at the BBC employed her as a researcher on the prestigious documentary series Man Alive.

She describes in her book how her more prescient ideas on what should be given focus in programme projects were not respected.

At the Cannes Film Festival she recognised and recommended coverage of the significance and importance of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s film Savages but was ignored.

She was researching for a ‘pasha-like’ male director who:

‘At the same time … felt uncomfortable around me, and was constantly challenging my Black attitude, trying to tear down the Black cushion behind which I tried to protect myself from falling back into the world from which I was successfully dragging myself. He resented this effort. But the falseness of the world we were in, not to mention the one he was creating, was precisely what I wanted to remove myself from.’

In 1972 Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, and Perry Henzell realised she would be the best person to promote the first Jamaican feature film, The Harder They Come.

She returned to the West Indies. In future years, Barbara Blake Hannah would be Jamaica’s gain and Britain’s loss.

More importantly, the rebounding and recoiling from all the ugliness of what was wrong about her British experience accelerated the journey to embrace and celebrate her Black identity.

She turned away from the suffocation of feeling obliged to emulate whiteness, and conform to the negative and demeaning aspects of the culture around her.

The republication of Barbara’s book is part of a new Penguin series ‘Black Britain Writing Back’ which is curated by the Booker prize winning novelist and academic Professor Bernardine Evaristo.

It has the aim of correcting ‘historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation.’

Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties is certainly an education and inspiration for all kinds of readers.

Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties by Barbara Blake Hannah is published by Penguin RRP £9.99