Barbara Blake-Hannah on racism, reparations and what it means to be British

Barbara Blake-Hannah

As Press Gazette launches the 2021 British Journalism Awards, Barbara Blake-Hannah takes stock of racism in the media, identity and what it means to be British. As with last year, this year’s event will recognise the best up and coming writer from a minority background with the Barbara Blake-Hannah Award. Entries from non-white journalists who do not have a publication to support their entry will again be free. Last year this scheme led to some 200 new entries. Entries to the event are now open and will close on 31 October.

I am African. I am Jamaican. I am British.  For the past 50 years I have been living full-time in Jamaica, the land of my birth 80 years ago, enjoying life happily, gradually becoming a well-known writer, film-maker, home-schooling mother and Rastafari Empress. My life made contact with Britain only through the news, social media and friends that help link our beautiful tropical island with the rest of the world.

I hardly remembered living a decade of life in Britain in the 1960s, which ended when I became tired of British racism and having to pretend that it didn’t matter, and returned to my early home.

I have done enough good in 50 years to be awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican Government, despite my unconventional ways.  But my quiet Jamaican life came to an abrupt end in August 2020, when the British Press Gazette decided to create the Barbara Blake-Hannah Award for Black journalists in my name, memorialising a cruel, bitter moment of my British life when the TV company at which I worked decided to obey the daily commands of racists saying ‘Get that n***er off our screens” and terminated my employment as Britain’s first Black TV journalist.

In the same year that the Race Relations Act had been passed by the British Parliament, those for whom the racist politician Enoch Powell was a hero decided the colour of my skin on British television screens was unbearable. Thames Television agreed and told me my job was over.

Fifty years later, the Press Gazette’s creation of an award in my name for journalists the same colour as me, made the same front-page news that had accompanied my TV job 50 years earlier.

But whereas in 1968 the news had created negative racist responses, the 2020 BBH Press Award did the opposite, creating 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.

I was interviewed by Good Morning Britain and Jeremy Vine, featured on the BBC Radio and website, translated into Spanish for international magazines, starred on TV programs in the USA and, of course, Jamaica where the attention came as a big surprise for everyone because few people knew about my bit of British history. “Jamaica is proud of you” was a common post on my Facebook page.

[Read more: Barbara Blake-Hannah urges media giant Fremantle to ‘repair the racist wrong’ done by Thames in 1968]

I was happy that as the spotlight continued to shine, I found myself becoming an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Rasta, anti-racism has been a major part of my life, speaking and writing about the history of British enslavement of Africans and the effects of plantation brutality and post-slavery colonialism in the land of my birth. Recognising my African ancestry and agitating for its recognition and respect have been part of everything I have done since returning to Jamaica 50 years ago, leaving behind the hated racism in the country I had been brought up to believe was my ‘Mother Country’. What a cruel ‘mother’ Britain had turned out to be. And still is.

How can it be we are not British?

My case of racism was not, of course, the only one. It was merely public, visible for all but objected to by few. Whites ignored the crime and accepted it as normal, while Blacks kept their heads down to keep their low-class jobs and even lower-class housing, sending money back to their birth countries and bringing their children to live with them in Britain.  As Enoch Powell warning that Black immigration would cause Britain’s rivers “… to run with blood” led to more racism, those who had not heeded the announcements to seek documented British citizenship soon found themselves among the tragic Windrush deportations.

Those like Anthony Brown, born in Jamaica and arrived in Britain aged 6 years, were told they were illegally in Britain? How was that?  Of course, we were legal. Britain had brought our parents to Jamaica for three hundred years and declared us and Jamaica British. But laws that existed in slavery forbidding Blacks the freedom of citizenship were still current in Britain and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher mplemented them in the 1980s with the zeal of her fellow Conservative Enoch Powell.

How can it be that we are not British? We were born on British lands, followed British rules, language, education and way of life. We know no other. How are we suddenly not part of the world that created us?

Jamaica is merely the name of a prosperous British slave plantation that provided income for the Royal family’s Royal African Company and slave traders like Edward Colston, shipping the largest number of Africans to enslavement in Caribbean islands such as Jamaica.

Jamaica is not a nationality. Britain, in its haste after Abolition to rid itself of the cost of supporting the descendants of the enslaved Africans they had populated the plantation with, arbitrarily declared the plantation a ‘nation’ and, with the help of its most willing Anglicised subjects in Jamaica, passed new laws and a written Constitution declaring the plantation ‘independent’.

Less than a month after Press Gazette created the Barbara Blake Hannah Press Award for BAME journalists, a white American policeman knelt on the neck of handcuffed Black American George Floyd for nine minutes until he died lying on the street. It wasn’t the first case of American police murder, but it was the first one filmed from start to finish and shared with the world. Street demonstrations began in America and spread across the world.

In Britain, the Black Lives Matter movement gained strength from its growth and strength in America. On the streets of Bristol, the home port of Britain’s wealthiest slave traders, demonstrators rolled the statue of Edward Colston down into the Bristol Harbour from which countless ships had sailed to carry Africans from the Continent to the Caribbean and return to collect their massive wealth from British banks. It was the beginning of an avalanche of actions that caused the slave history of Bristol and many other cities and monuments globally to be examined, criticised and discarded as unworthy of long-existing honour.

I realised that Britain will never grant reparations to any of its former colonies, because reparations will cost Britain too much and is a debt that can never be repaid.

What then of compensation? What then of the necessary apology?  The word ‘reparations’ is uttered more frequently nowadays.  I myself established the Jamaica Reparations Movement in 2001 on my return from the UN World Conference Against Racism, that declared in its Final Document 19 Forms in which Reparations could and should be paid to victims by countries guilty of the worst form of racism, slavery.

After seven years of trying to drum up support for the J.A.R.M., I realised that Britain will never grant reparations to any of its former colonies, because reparations will cost Britain too much and is a debt that can never be repaid, so I handed the work over to the government.  Twenty years later hardly one of the UN’s 19 Forms of Reparations have been implemented by any country, least of all Britain.

Jamaica is merely the name of a prosperous British slave plantation that provided income for the Royal family’s Royal African Company and slave traders like Edward Colston. (Photo by Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

Thinking about Reparations, and with the renewed publicity of the racism and economic damage I suffered in my job with Thames TV, I contacted Freemantle – the wealthy international company that has bought out the remains of the broadcaster and re-established it as four companies – and asked them to consider compensation. Freemantle’s response offered neither compensation nor apology.  “It’s difficult to acknowledge firmly that your contract was not renewed for racist reasons without any evidence beyond your own account, nor that this de facto ended your career as a TV journalist here” replied Freemantle’s CEO Simon Andrae in a letter following a Zoom meeting with him.  And that was that.

I was interviewed for The Guardian, to whom I said on the topic of reparations: “The Queen is a nice old lady, but she will have to say something about reparations for slavery. And if not her, then Charles or William.” The published article only carried the first seven words of that comment, leaving me – a lifelong avowed anti-Royal – to appear as a loving, bowing subject of Elizabeth II. When I asked the journalist about it, she replied that her story had been edited by three different persons.

The Royal family could help cure poverty in any of the lands of our birth

The British Queen, in her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, announced that I will be able to vote in the next British election as a citizen who has lived outside Britain for more than 15 years. I got my British citizenship in 1968 and have travelled on my British passport many times to the USA, Europe, Africa and Canada, but being able to vote makes me now see myself as British with new eyes. I know which party I would vote for as a British citizen. Almost certainly Labour.

Of course, I am British. Have been since I was born in 1941 on that British plantation Jamaica with British citizenship. I came to Britain because I was British. I and all the Blacks in Britain are here because Britain was there, in Africa and in the Caribbean. I would still be an African, not only by race but by residency, if Britain hadn’t been there.

No apology is necessary from any of us for being in Britain, nor deportations.  We are British. It’s our birthright and it’s the only thing Britain has given us as reparations for the cruel history of slavery.  That’s obvious.

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But we Black British don’t act with this in mind. We Black British don’t know our own legacy and our history. We have swallowed the version fed to us by our education and the media that we are inferior beings who must be glad to be tolerated by and allowed to live with white Britons. We don’t realise that most of the precious stones in the Crown jewels were dug up in our countries, countries still so poor that the jewels in the crowns and tiaras and necklaces and jewellery worn by the Royal family could help cure poverty in any of the lands of our birth.

I asked a Black British journalist on a recent Zoom call which of the famous Ethiopian Empresses she knew. She laughed, embarrassed. Cleopatra?, she asked. She knew nothing about Empress Taitu, who fought with her husband Menelik to win the Battle of Adowa against Italy. Nothing about Empress Zawditu, who gave up her throne to appoint Ras Tafari Makonnen as Regent, later to be Crowned Emperor Haile Selassie, and then retired to a monastery. Nothing about Empress Menen who donated her crown to raise funds for Ethiopia during her exile in Jerusalem. Nothing about Empress Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, who journeyed to Jerusalem to meet Solomon and learn the source of his wisdom, then returned to Ethiopia pregnant with his son Menelik who became the first Emperor. All she knew of African royalty came from a Hollywood movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. I used to be that ignorant too.

I see so many Black female TV interviewers these days. They tell me I am the pioneer who opened the door for them. Am I? Is the door really open, or are they just figureheads given a spot to alleviate the guilt Britain pretends to feel for the racism it continues to practice in jobs, housing, policing and opportunities?  Which of them spoke out in support of our Black sister Meghan Markle at the abuse she continues to suffer at the hands of racist media organs?

In 2007 Britain hosted a Bicentennial celebration of the end of the slave trade in Westminster Abbey, a major event attended by the Queen, Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and people of all colours. In the middle of the event a Black man stood up shouting:“I want all Africans here who are Christians to walk out with me. Think about the Middle Passage. If you are going to hold this event in the name of my ancestors, you don’t have the decency Mr Blair to make an apology. If the word ‘sorry’ is so hard to say… you and the Queen are a disgrace, you are a disgrace to our ancestors. Millions of us died in the Middle Passage; millions of us died across the ocean without a burial. Not a mention of Samuel Sharpe, not a mention of Nanny, or Queen Nzinga.”

As they hustled him out, he shouted: “I expected this from the English, but you Africans are still sitting there watching, leaving me alone to do the work you don’t have the courage to do.”

We Black British must get the courage to do the work that will call white Britain to acknowledge and compensate us all for what has been done, and is still being done. I am using this Press Gazette Award as my turn to speak up and speak out.

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