At the beginning of last year, Britain hadn’t come to terms with its racist past or present. If anything, political developments over the past four years suggested a sharp backsliding.
Then came the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and renewed calls for action and change. This year has also seen exciting cultural breakthroughs – from rediscovering forgotten black writing to powerful films of our undocumented past – that have the potential to positively impact social understanding.
What does it take to change racist attitudes and systemic discrimination? The truth is we don’t know for sure, because we haven’t achieved it. For one, we don’t really know how we got here. From the true story of abolition through to the history of migration to Britain, and the experience of migrants, society’s historical understanding is, at best, partial.
Today, the understanding we have for others in our society might be limited to the experiences shared in isolated social bubbles of the online, rather than the health protection, type. What can culture offer us?
Storytelling, the type, the subjects, the medium, the teller – all of these offer us the chance to really understand past experiences. To help us feel what abstract phrases like systemic really mean and foster the change that recent decades have failed to realise.
In February, Hamish Hamilton, a Penguin imprint, will publish six works of fiction as part of a Black Britain: Writing Back series. It’s a series, announced last year, loaded with meaning and significance.
Hannah Chukwu has edited the series, working closely with its curator, the Booker prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo: “We had the luck in 2019 of Bernardine Evaristo, winning the Booker Prize. She’s written for Hamish Hamilton for around 20 years and her writing has always been outstanding but she’s never really had a platform at the scale she now does. Her books sold far less than they do now. She just didn’t have the outlet for her activism, as well as her writing.”
Hannah explains how the team at Hamish Hamilton sat down with Evaristo after the Booker win to discuss what she wanted to do with this new found influence. “We’d published one of the first anthologies of its kind – IC3: The Penguin Book of Black Writing– back in 2001. That hadn’t gained much traction because at the time there wasn’t much space for these kind of books.
“We wanted it to be a remapping of the nation. We wanted it to rewrite back into history those narratives that had been lost.”
“It had been a long-term dream of the imprint to do a series like this, but we didn’t expect to have that much support. Then we were in this situation where Bernardine had this great platform and was really keen to work on a project with us, in part to bring back books written in the 1990s – when Bernardine was starting out – that hadn’t had the noise and traffic they deserved.”
Work began on the series in 2019 with an ambitious target: “We wanted it to be a remapping of the nation. We wanted it to rewrite back into history those narratives that had been lost,” Hannah continues. That proved harder than imagined. The search for novels by black writers published in the 1920s through to the ’80s yielded very little or nothing at all. The earliest published work by a black British writer being CLR James’ Minty Alley, first published in 1936 – one of the titles in the series.
Some of the debate about racism today centres around what we know about our shared history. Or, rather, what we don’t know or understand.
If we go back to school, where our history learning begins, and in many cases ends, far more could be done to build that understanding. In 2019, the Runnymede Trust and the TIDE Project at Liverpool University published a report making the urgent case for secondary school teaching to include the teaching of migration, belonging and empire. When Penguin announced the Black Britain: Writing Back series, they quoted Hannah Chukwu bemoaning the stark lack of black writers on the English curriculum.
“He realised that generation was dying and their stories hadn’t been told. As you can tell from the series, the '60s, '70s and '80s was a time of real struggle for the black community generally, particularly with the police.”
In reality, much of the history of racism and immigration, and diverse voices from that past, is poorly documented, let alone part of day-to-day school learning.
Director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series, which aired on the BBC through November and December 2020, set-out to tell the undocumented, untold stories of Britain’s West Indian community in the later part of the 20thCentury.
The process began 11 years ago. “Steve wanted to do a series about the West Indian community in London, particularly the era of his mother’s generation, says Tracey Scoffield, executive producer on the series. “He realised that generation was dying and their stories hadn’t been told. As you can tell from the series, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was a time of real struggle for the black community generally, particularly with the police.”
BBC Small Axe, episode 1 (C) McQueen Limited – Photographer: Kieron McCarron.
Having decided to work together on the series, but not ready at that point to really begin work on it, the team realised they needed to go out and “gather everybody’s stories.”
A trained-BBC broadcast journalist, Helen Bart, with a long experience covering the West Indian community in London joined the team, collecting over 120 interviews. Four years ago, a writers’ room was established to work with all of the research material gathered and McQueen’s ideas, says Tracey. A writers’ room set-up was an unusual way of screenwriting and scripting a film in the UK and – unlike in the US where the practice is common, often taking months – the team working on Small Axe wrote the material for the film in around five weeks.
“We thrashed the stories out, deciding which ones we should do and which would stand-up dramatically,” Tracey explains. “Steve also decided he wanted to tell them factually rather than fictionalise them in any way, because we were bearing witness to people’s experience.”
The stories of this community and its struggle – though not unknown and in some cases fictionalised in the past – have not been documented and brought to a wide audience in this way before.
The style, subject matter and approach of Small Axe is breaking new ground. An authentic telling of the stories of normal people in Britain’s black community, in high quality film, broadcast in a mainstream TV slot is – surprising as it sounds – new. The impact has also been different.
The first film in the series tells the story of the racist prosecution of the Mangrove Nine and the Black Panther movement in London at the time. Not only does the film bring to a wide audience this important story, it powerfully recreates the experience of the black community in that part of London at the time.
“Up until the time of broadcast, I wouldn’t have been able to describe the films as ground-breaking. Its exceptionally high-quality filmmaking that you don’t normally see on television, and this type of anthology is different as a TV event. But the relationship the audience had with that first film was something I’ve not encountered in my broadcast career and I worked at the BBC for ten years,” Tracey continues. “The BBC Duty Log had dozens of calls on the night of the broadcast and the following morning. These weren’t complaints, but intensely personal statements from the public, calling to say thank you.”
“The BBC Duty Log had dozens of calls on the night of the broadcast and the following morning. These weren’t complaints, but intensely personal statements from the public, calling to say thank you.”
One caller was in their 70s and had lived in London all her life. “She called to thank Steve McQueen for educating her, that the film had left her speechless,” says Tracey. “It’s like the films have filled a gap that had always been there.”
Part of the power of the story is in the telling. Tracey explains that the long process to make the film was partly about Steve McQueen being ready to tell what are personal stories linked to his own past. “He’s quite fearless. When he decides to do something, he takes on the pain.” The pain, frustration and pressure of the people in the Mangrove story comes to life on film. “That sense of tension is very much a hallmark of Steve’s work. In Mangrove, when the defendants are waiting for the verdict in the case, the focus is on Frank, the owner of Mangrove. The sounds you can hear are waves going in and out over shingle. It’s a breathing noise, with a rasping quality. It’s almost subliminal. Steve doesn’t tell you what the character is feeling, he makes you feel it.”
That’s also part of the promise of a series like Black Britain: Writing Back. Powerful, authentic storytelling has the potential to create a level of understanding about historical and present-day experiences like nothing else.
The search for black British writing found a number of titles published in the 1990s, no longer in print, that could be included in the series. The 90s was the era of multiculturalism, embracing globalisation, and perhaps the beginning of society’s acceptance and battle with racial disadvantage, which could explain the publishing interest in the decade.
But that interest, along with diversity schemes of that era, seemed not to have led to lasting or fundamental change. Look at the #publishingpaidme threads. Will it be different this time?
The focus of the Black Britain: Writing Back series was on editorial quality and originality. It was about finding stories that will resonate today. Hannah explains how the curating and editing team looked for a range of voices from Africa, the Caribbean, the Windrush era, and immigrant stories, rather than one narrative, focusing on one time in history. The vision was for books that felt “surprisingly original, or cutting edge for their time.”
“It was exciting to be able to tell that tale of black British writing, encompassing a much wider range of authors and more of an inclusive picture than if we had selected a specific type of book.”
“I feel very hopeful that the series isn’t just about Britain wrestling with itself, but more of a ‘this is who we are’ statement to the rest of the world.”
Beyond individuals discovering and engaging with the series, following the announcement of the coming series, teachers, professors and tutors got in touch, interested in including Minty Alley on reading lists or teaching Incomparable World (another title in the series) but being unable to locate copies.
“That wasn’t something we considered when we started out on the project but is now a really exciting core tenet,” Hannah continues. “Some of these books could become part of reading lists and the curriculum, and help to balance what has been an incredibly unbalanced curriculum in the past.”
The series is also garnering interest in Europe where culture consumed from black writers is largely derived from the US and the British or European perspective is refreshing. “I feel very hopeful that the series isn’t just about Britain wrestling with itself, but more of a ‘this is who we are’ statement to the rest of the world.”
Small Axe’s stories of Britain have also gone global, with Amazon buying a license to stream the series in the US and distribution elsewhere. Through these stories, we can address a lot of our missing shared culture and history and in doing truly understand how we got here, and the entrenched disadvantage and attitudes still being unravelled.
The actress Letitia Wright who gives a stunning performance as UK Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe in Mangrove didn’t know anything about her character.
A young, pregnant black woman who defended herself in a 57-day racist trial at the Old Bailey in the 1970s – Jones-Lecointe is someone we should all know about. These are people that should be celebrated and studied, not unknown and forgotten.
For Black Britain: Writing Back, bringing these stories back into print is shining a light on perspectives lost from our understanding of not only our country, but our world. Five of the six writers in the series are alive, some still writing, This is perhaps another marker of the progress we can make in this decade. Will these writers get the recognition and the sales they missed out on in the past?
Will Small Axe help change the kind of films made for the mainstream? Tracey believes the targets the broadcast industry has set for greater representation will lead to more diverse storytelling. “If people want to see these films, which they do, and there is that audience, then it will sustain itself.
“It follows that if you introduce new faces into the industry from all different backgrounds then those are the stories they want to tell: the stories of ordinary people from different communities and experiences, not a black heart surgeon in a secondary role or films about stabbings. It won’t happen overnight.”
As 2020 came to an end, and 2021 begins, it could be a moment when we make genuine progress in the discovery of our true past that will help us better understand each other in our present. If stories of forgotten black writers are read, taught and discussed, if the experiences of all our communities are brought to life – then we can begin to know what it feels like to be supressed, marginalised, shut out and targeted.
Our culture has the power to inform a better, more equal future. Here’s to the film makers, the writers, the editors, the artists, and the curators making our culture provide what we lack and what we need.
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