“Our true nationality is mankind.”
– H.G. Wells
Some time around 1955, my parents fostered a Nigerian baby, Lawal, then his sister Bimbola, and finally, for a brief few months, another baby girl. Their father was studying at the University of London to become a barrister while their mother worked as a Post Office telephonist – this was when switchboards were still operated by hand with a network of ‘spaghetti’ to keep untangled.
Living in post-war suburban Blackheath, south London, there were few, if any, non-white people in our area. I don’t recall any overt racism, although when pushing baby Lawal in his pram to the shops neighbours would peer in and exclaim, “Isn’t he just like a doll!“
My contrary thought was that he cried and shat just like any other baby. He also suffered from asthma and eczema, which could well have been caused by the stress of not being with his biological parents.
Sue, my sister, holding Bimbola, me behind Lawal, and, inset, Lawal now.
We joined the extended Yuroba family gatherings in Tottenham, north London, on a regular basis. Our home life and this immersion with a different culture at a young age was how I acquired my staunch anti-racism and awareness of ‘world music’. It’s probable too that my anti-colonialism was engendered by Chief Enahoro, a regular visitor to the Ojikutu family gatherings, who was later to be extradited from the UK and imprisoned for treason. He was obviously a much-respected ‘elder’ in his community, and would give my sister and I half a crown each as we were leaving.
Many years later, I met Lawal on Waterloo Station concourse. He told me that he still resented his father who had recently died; upon returning to Lagos he had worked as a lawyer on behalf of poor people, rather than focussing on his family.
The history of black immigrants to London in particular goes back to 1593: his name was Cornelius. Queen Elizabeth the First was on the throne, and declared that black “Negroes and black Moors (Arabs from Spain)” were to be arrested and expelled from her kingdom.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the triangle of slave trade between Europe, Africa and America saw many Africans in London, often working as domestic servants, although they were viewed as being “less than human“. The slave trade was finally abolished in 1834 and many Africans returned to their home countries. Later in that century there are arose the theory of ‘scientific racism‘, the notion that human races could be separated into classes according to physiology, and that some, the white races, might be asserted to be superior.
Thus the rise of white imperialism. The slaughter of Australian aborigines and Native Americans, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and Hitler’s attempt to eliminate the Jewish race are all examples on a grand scale. Apart from apartheid, they were before my time.
Perhaps my first inkling of pure bigotory were the Notting Hill race riots which raged for five nights over the August bank holiday in 1958 which we viewed on our black and white television.
In 1948, the British Nationality Act gave and full rights of entry and settlement and citizenship to all Commonwealth citizens. There was plenty of work in post-war Britain and industries such as British Rail, the National Health Service and public transport recruited almost exclusively from Jamaica and Barbados in the West Indies. In spite of this encouragement, many newly arrived Afro-Caribbean people were to endure prejudice, intolerance and extreme racism from sectors of white British society.
The first two tracks in my compilation are ‘personal’ accounts of what it was like to be black on the streets of London. Tracks three and four feature Eddy Grant, the Guyanese British musician who was the chief songwriter for The Equals, one of Britain’s first racially integrated pop groups.
While the Bonzo Dog Band were asking the question Can A Blue Man Sing The Blues?, a satirical response to the popularisation of African-American blues (and soul) music by white British groups, in 1969 Blue Mink offered a ‘plea for tolerance’.
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score
(Read more lyrics here , some of which are now considered to be non-politically correct.)
Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue (1982), not included here, and Living On The Frontline (1983) are considered to be songs about Brixton, South London, scene of extensive riots in 1981 between black youths and the police who were particularly repressive there (and in Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol). I was a co-ordinating a registered charity at the time, living at the far end of the ‘Frontline’, Railton Road, and witnessed first hand incidents of ‘black youths’ being arrested under the provisions of the ‘Sus law‘)
The late Nina Simone was a strong activist for the Civil Rights Movement and Garland Jeffreys’ songs are written from his ethnic perspective. Their tracks are supplements to my two recent jazz posts, Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and Jazz Africa.
Fela Kuti was a pioneer of AfroBeat and a political maverick.
Cpt. Kirk &.The More Extended Versions were fans of Robert Wyatt, and although he didn’t write Racist Friend, one likes to think that the song would fit comfortably in his oeuvre.
The still sadly missed John Martyn was a remarkable songwriter and guitarist, and a mesmerising performer, even if he did occasionally slur his lyrics, which Ken Nordine certainly didn’t in 1967. He’s now 96.
01. Lord Kitchener – If You’re Not White, You’re Black
02. Ram John Holder – Black London Blues
03. The Equals – Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys
04. Eddy Grant – Living On The Front Line
05. Nina Simone – To Be Young Gifted And Black
06. Garland Jeffreys – Don’t Call Me Buckwheat
07. Fela Kuti – Why Black Man Dey Suffer
08. Cpt. Kirk & The More Extended Versions – Racist Friend
09. John Martyn – Black Man At The Shoulder
10. Ken Nordine – Black
The author Nikesh Shukla recently commented on her ethnicity.
I discovered I was black when I moved to Britain 10 years ago. Before that, I was happily Nigerian when it came to my nationality, happily Igbo and Yoruba when it came to my ethnicity, and happily Lagosian when it came to my urban affiliation. Black meant nothing until I moved to Winchester, and was suddenly expected to be an expert on rap.