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23 June 2021

Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

This is the seventh in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Natasha Ramnarine, an NHS programme manager who cooks up a storm on the weekend for Natty’s Saturday Kitchen. Growing up in Trinidad, Natty moved to London in 2007. This interview focuses on her deep knowledge of Indo-Trinidadian food and her experiences of migrating to England but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

‘Doubles is a derivative of the Indian dish, Chole Bhature … a flatbread with spiced chickpeas and condiments’

Doubles and Aloo Pie

Doubles are one of the most popular dishes at Natty’s Saturday Kitchen – a food business set up by Natasha to promote the flavours and history of Trinidad. As she explains in this clip, the spiced chana (chickpeas) that sit atop bara (fried flatbread), evolved from the Northern Indian street food, Chole Bhature, which is commonly eaten in the Punjab. In Trinidad, doubles became a popular food ‘for labourers that would work in the sugar plantations’ because ‘it was cheap, costing only 5 cents … and mobile, it was just put in brown paper so that they could hold it and eat it as they were going home because they were hungry.’ Natty’s description of men on bikes, fitted with a ‘huge Styrofoam cooler’ from which piles of bara, containers of chana and condiments would emerge, signifies the transportable and transient mode of serving and eating that was suited to both small businesses (with minimal start-up costs) and hungry workers (who were time and money poor).1 This spicy, tangy and filling snack – that incorporates Indian seasoning alongside Trinidadian flavours and produce – embodies the entangled history of Indo-Trinidadian food.

Legacies of Indentureship

Cover page and black and white text
D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) British Library Shelfmark P/W 31

Nana - Babooni Cheddi

Like the food that she cooks, Natty’s story is rooted in Trinidad and Tobago’s histories of indentureship. Following the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, in 1834, and the end of the apprenticeship period in 1838, colonialists sought labour from elsewhere in the British Empire – chiefly India and Hong Kong. In 1837, the East India Company set out regulations for the system of indentureship, whereby emigrants would have to provide a minimum of 5 years’ service before being ‘returned’. As Trinidad had some of greatest labour shortages, it saw the arrival of Indian men, women and children in significant numbers between 1837 and 1917, when the system was suspended as part of the wartime emergency.2 According to Notes on Emigration: India to Trinidad, 127,240 people travelled from East India to Trinidad, between 1845 and 1891. Arriving on ships from Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras), there was a strong correlation between crop failures and patterns of emigration out of India’s agricultural districts.3 As the story of Natty’s great grandmother, Babooni Cheddi, reveals, many of these ‘labourers’ did not ‘return’, they stayed and built communities. The source below shows that by 1893, 35.1% of population was of Indian origin, which is virtually identical to 2011 figures of 35.4%.4 Aside from demographics, cooking is just one of the ways that the legacies of Babooni Cheddi and thousands of other first- and second-generation East Indians lives on in Trinidad and Tobago, as an integral part of its culture.

Table from a book 'Notes on Immigrants introduced into the Colony from India during the years 1845 to 1891'
D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) British Library Shelfmark P/W 31

Grandmother's routine 

From rotis to curries, the Indian influence in Trinidadian cuisine is unmistakable. As Natty explains through her familial connection to this history and her own research, emigrants brought seeds such as okra and aubergine with them, which have become a popular part of Trinidadian cuisine. However, they also adapted – coriander was substituted for chadon beni, the green herb that ‘grows anywhere’, and Hindu and Muslim cultures blended with one another, which Natty captures in an anecdote about her devout Hindu grandmother reciting Halal prayer when she killed chickens.

Grinding spices and cleaning rice

Throughout Natty’s interview, she describes the wonders of this rich food culture, from the everyday array of breads and spiced vegetables to the festive eating of a goat or duck on special occasions. This clip evokes the aromas of whole cumin seeds, garlic and hot pepper crackling in a ladle of oil before it is thrown over a pot of cooked dal or split pea. Explaining how her grandmother and mother would rise in the early morning to prepare homegrown coffee and get started on the day’s endless chores, Natty is always attune to the intensive labour that went into making these staple dishes, such as washing starch out of rice or picking stones from split peas. This unpaid labour is one element in what she calls a patriarchal system. The legacies of her mother and grandmother’s labour can be tasted in Natty’s delicious food – these are the flavours and techniques that she reproduces and plays with at her home in South London.

Photography of woman holding utensils while she cooks roti bread on a hotplate
Natty making roti, Natty’s Saturday Kitchen, photograph courtesy of Natasha Ramnarine

Saturday Kitchen food philosophy

Every Saturday, Natty cooks her take on a different Trinidadian dish, which customers come and collect from her home. Her most popular meals are ‘doubles, roti and curry, shark and bake, crab and dumpling,’ which are always served with a side of history. As Natty explains, ‘the point of my food is to educate’ and if you look on Natty’s Saturday Kitchen Facebook page you will find delectable photographs of what she’s whipped up that week alongside stories about the ‘evolution of dishes and how it linked back from India or from Africa.’ Rather than forgetting or minimising the complex histories that this cooking is rooted in – which can be an issue when foods are commercialised or appropriated – the explicit historical connections that Natty promotes through her food business are revealing of her philosophy, of ‘unity in diversity through our food.’

Moving to London

Roti Joupa 

Four photographs from a book, shop front, roti, menu and logo
Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020)

leaving a small island and coming to London is real shift in culture

Travelling from a ‘small island’ to another island is a common experience for those that have journeyed from the Caribbean to Britain (by choice and by force) for hundreds of years. This ‘shift in culture’, that Natty describes, is manifold, from modes of conversation to eating habits. Food is often the medium through which people recreate a sense of cultural familiarity as they navigate this island. Natty’s story of going to Roti Joupa in Clapham North when she moved to London, conveys this intense bond between belonging and food. One of the first places to sell Trinidadian roti in London, Natty says that ‘going there was just like walking into the sunshine’. This ‘walk in the sunshine’ referred to the general atmosphere of the shop, which offered Natty a chance for ‘picong’ (banter) and catching up on Trinidad, as well as the aromas and textures of familiar dishes like roti and dhal puri. This reminds me of Riaz Phillips’ essay on Roti Joupa, in Belly Full, where he describes it as ‘likely the only option close by for people craving a taste of the eastern Caribbean shores’ with ‘the constant energetic Soca music emanating from the shop’s speakers.’5 Both of these accounts echo the importance of food outlets in the creation of diasporic spaces of home, comfort and pleasure.

Thank you Natasha Ramnarine for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

References/Further Reading

  • W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) BL Shelfmark P/W 31
  • David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and Tina K. Ramnarine, We Mark your Memory : writings from the descendants of indenture (London: School of Advanced Study, University of London/Commonwealth Writers, 2018)
  • Doubles With Slight Pepper, directed by Ian Harnarine (2012)
  • Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: the export of Indian labour overseas, 1830-1920 (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1974) BL Shelfmark 74/9550
  • Natasha Ramnarine interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020) British Library Shelfmark for 2017 edition YKL.2017.b.4909
  • ‘Trinidad and Tobago’, Britannica
  1. Doubles With Slight Pepper, directed by Ian Harnarine (2012). This short film follows the family of a young doubles vendor in Port-of-Spain.
  2. D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893), p.116.
  3. Ibid.  
  4. 35.4% of East Indian heritage, 34.2% being of African heritage, 22.8% of mixed heritage, 7% did not state and 0.6% described themselves as white, Britannica.
  5. Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020), p.150.

19 June 2021

Celebrating Juneteenth

Yesterday marked the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the US, following President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law earlier this week. Today, Saturday 19 June, is actually Juneteenth, and marks the 156th anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in all the rebel states, enforcement generally relied on the arrival of Union troops. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 at locations around the city, informing Texans that all slaves were now free.

General Order No 3
‘General Orders, No. 3.’ included in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. [Operations in Louisiana and the Trans-Mississippi States and Territories; April-June 1865; Series 1, Vol. 48, Chapter 60, Part 2] (1896), 54th Congress, 1st Session, Serial Set Vol No. 3437, Session Vol. No. 70 (H.Doc. 369, pt. 2); available in the US Congressional Serial Set digital e-resource (remote access for British Library Readers)

Juneteenth was marked by African American residents of Galveston in 1866 and annual celebrations gradually spread across Texas, then the south and eventually to other parts of the country, often thanks to Texans migrating. Celebrations are typically locally organised. In the early years they combined religious, civil and community elements.

In 1895 the community of Parsons, Kansas, a railroad town which would have had many black residents with connections to Texas, held its first community Juneteenth celebration. The ‘Local and Personal News’ column of the Parsons Weekly Blade, an African-American newspaper, reported that:

Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fair grounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies […]. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day.1

There were songs, including ‘Hold the Fort’, a gospel hymn inspired by a Union victory in 1864, which melds martial and Christian imagery, and ‘John Brown’s Body’, a popular song commemorating the executed abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Both songs had been popular with the Union army during the Civil War. (They still held currency in 1895 and would continue to have a place in the gospel and folk traditions, as well as within protest and workers movements in the 20th century: you can find Pete Seeger, for example, performing both songs on YouTube if you’d like to hear them.)

Following the music and speeches by religious leaders, ‘an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves as highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.’

Well into the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations continued to have a regional flavour and were generally still associated with Texas. In 1941 The Negro Star, a black newspaper from Wichita, Kansas, ran an Associated Negro Press story, ‘Texas Preparing for “Juneteenth” Celebration’. Reporting from Houston, Texas, the item noted that, ‘This city, together with the rest of Tan Texas is busily preparing for the annual “Juneteenth” celebration, most colorful and all inclusive holiday celebrated by Negroes in the Lone Star state. Held on June 19th, civic, social and fraternal organizations join hands in celebrating their day of deliverance from slavery.’2 The article went on to explain that ‘most people use [the day] as a means of being excused from work. Few if any of them can be found on their jobs on that day. White employers have found it expedient to overlook their colored employees’ absence on Juneteenth.’ The main events were to be held in Emancipation Park, an area of the city originally solely used to mark Juneteenth but later donated to the city, and which, from 1922 to 1940 was the only park for African-Americans during segregation.3 There was to be ‘a traditional program of speaking and singing of spirituals […], and guests were to include ‘World war vets, Spanish-American war vets, and the few remaining ex-slaves.’ The inclusion of the formerly enslaved in an event taking place during the Second World War is a stark reminder, even now, of how near the experience of slavery is in human terms.

The popularity of Juneteenth celebrations dipped during the Civil Rights era, when campaigning energies were put towards integrationist efforts and making space for black Americans within existing social, political and cultural structures. However, with the rise of Black Power and renewed interest in African American history and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s, Juneteenth saw a resurgence across the US. This revival saw large celebrations take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 1970s.

It Happened June 19  Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee  Wisconsin)  June 27  1974 (p.5)
Celebrations in Milwaukee in 1974, ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star, June 27, 1974 (p.5), via the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource.

In 1974 the Milwaukee Star, an African American newspaper, reviewed the inner city Juneteenth celebrations of the previous week, giving a sense of the vibrancy of the event with people ‘dancing, laughing and singing’ in a heavily-illustrated article.4 Black arts and culture had taken a larger role in the celebrations by this point: the article noted ‘on one side street a poet stands speaking to a small crowd on Black love, while next to him a local DJ tries hard to drown him out with a very loud James Brown record.’ The journalist, Michael Holt, also noted the political tensions encapsulated by the day, describing a pull between those who felt the anniversary should be a solemn occasion and those ‘who look at the festivities as a vehicle to relieve the inner frustrations, if only for a day.’ Holt quoted a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who had told his class the previous year that the ‘so-called Juneteenth Day celebration “was nothing but a modern day version of the practice in slavery days of masters giving slaves the day off to get drunk and release tensions upon themselves.” But despite the explanation by the professor, many of his students could be seen roaming the streets on the so-call Black Fourth of July celebration.’

The connection to the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations has often prompted reflection on the broader significance of Juneteenth. A thoughtful editorial by Paula Harris-White in the Afro-Hawaii News in July 1991 noted that the Fourth of July holiday ‘often serves as a reminder of the position that people of color have held in America. They have been slaves, coolie workers, “savages”, foreigners, in spite of the fact that this was their place of birth. For many Americans, actual independence came long after July 4, 1776. Sometimes people who thought they were free, could have that freedom arbitrarily revoked, even in the 20th century, because their name was Wantanabe or Yamada.’5 Harris-White went on to explain the origins of Juneteenth to her readers and observed, ‘I share this information with all of you because sometimes we need to put our history in perspective. While I do acknowledge those leaders who chose to liberate the thirteen colonies from England, as a woman of color, I can quite never forget that their act of declaring freedom did not include people like me.’

As Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, noted in the New York Times on 18 June 2021:

What Juneteenth and other Emancipation days commemorate is both the promise of freedom and its delay. For June 19, 1865, doesn’t mark the day enslaved African Americans were set free in the United States but the day the news of Emancipation reached them in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a holiday ringed, like a good brisket, though not in smoke but irony. Out of such ironies Black people have made the blues, made lemonade, made good. The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.6

For those interested in researching African American history at the British Library, the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource from Readex is an excellent starting point, and is available for registered readers to access remotely. You can find out about the range of remote access e-resources here, including the US Congressional Serial Set, American Broadsides and Ephemera, and Early American Newspapers.

-- Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre
June 2021

1. ‘Local and Personal News,’ Parsons Weekly Blade (Parsons, Kansas), June 22, 1895 (p.4)
2. ‘Texas Preparing for "Juneteenth" Celebration,’ The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), June 6, 1941 (p.3)
3. ‘Emancipation Park, Written Historical and Descriptive Data’, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. TX-7, HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (available here)
4. ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), June 27, 1974 (p.5)
5. Editorial, Afro-Hawai'i News (published as Afro-Hawaii News) (Honolulu, Hawaii), July 31, 1991 (p.3)
6. Young, Kevin, ‘Opinion: Juneteenth Is a National Holiday Now. Can It Still Be Black?,’ New York Times, June 18, 2021 (accessed online)

09 June 2021

Anselm Berkeley: From Field to Shelf to Plate

This is the sixth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Anselm Berkeley who was born on the island of Grenada in 1936. Moving to England in 1960, Anselm worked at Macfarlane Lang, the biscuit company, for 22 years before setting up a shop that sold West Indian produce in Shepherd’s Bush Market. When rent increases pushed him out of the market, he returned to Grenada in semi-retirement where he exported fresh produce to Britain. This blog focuses on Anselm’s memories of Grenada, his shop in Shepherd’s Bush market and his extensive experience of working in the business of supplying food, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Spice Island

grow … and sell nutmegs all his life

Family Land

Colourful drawing
'Myristica Fragrans' Hout. (Myristicaceae). Nutmeg Tree. From an album of 40 drawings made by Chinese artists at Bencoolen, Sumatra, for Sir Stamford Raffles. Watercolour. 1824. British Library Shelfmark NHD 48/23

The small, brown, hard balls that we buy at shops in Britain, and grate into marinades and cakes, were once luscious greeny-yellow seeds growing on a tree, most likely, in Grenada or Indonesia.1 Known as ‘Black Gold’, nutmeg (which appears on the national flag) denotes Grenada’s identity as the ‘Island of Spice'. The largest producer of nutmegs in the Western Hemisphere, this nutty and aromatic spice features heavily in Grenada’s histories of flavour, imperialism and revolution.

Anselm Berkeley’s grandfather owned 15 acres of nutmeg land and before school, Anselm would ‘go up in the mountain … and pick up nutmegs and tek it back down to the village’. Later in the day, his parents would ‘go to the association and sell our nutmegs’. The ‘association’ refers to the Grenada Co-operative Nutmeg Association that was set up as the sole exporter of nutmegs from Grenada in 1947.

Brought to Grenada in 1843, nutmeg required ‘less land, capital and labour’ than sugarcane.2 As the price of sugar fell, abandoned plantations, that were ripe for ‘cultivation and settlement,’ were bought, leased or squatted by ‘Emancipated Africans and former indentured migrants.3 By the late 19th century, nutmeg had replaced sugar exports in Grenada. Perhaps Anselm’s ancestors were some of the original ‘Black Gold’ farmers on the island.

Book cover with photograph of Maurice Bishop and a crowd people
Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402

In 1979, When the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) came to power in Grenada, this small yet potent seed became a symbol for imperial control that extracted profits from the region:

‘A sister cracking nutmegs at a receiving station in Grenada receives a small wage of $7.10 a day, and that sister would need to crack about 150 pounds of nutmegs in order to earn that $7 for the day. Those same nutmegs are sold to a broker – a middleman – and taken off to Europe. Then they are resold to a miller, cleaned, blended, and packaged, and put on the shelves of European supermarkets. And when one of our sisters or brothers or aunts living in Shepherd’s Bush or Brixton or Hammersmith in London goes to buy a one-ounce carton of Grenada nutmeg, the price of that ounce of nutmegs is about 20 pence or one of our dollars. One ounce for $1, but 150 pounds of cracking for $7. … the real value of the nutmeg worker’s labor is 300 times what she receives in a day’s wage. That is what we mean by imperialism at work.’

Maurice Bishop, ‘Three Years of the Grenada Revolution’, 13 March 1982, Rally at Queen’s Park, St. George’s

Bishop’s speech was reflective of the PRG’s broader Agro-industrial policy, in which questions about crops and food reliance became a critical part of political debate.4 Interestingly, Anselm’s journey, from picking nutmegs in the mountains to running his own export business that shipped fresh Grenadian produce to Britain, represents a politics of independence that took ownership of foodways between Grenada and Britain.

Shepherd’s Bush Market: ‘one of the first shop fronts’

Black and white advert with palm tree and lists of produce e.g. Guava jelly
Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark: P.P.7615.kf
Black and white advert with photograph of a food shop and list of locations and supplies
Flamingo, November 1962. British Library Shelfmark:

Market Day

‘Some enterprising West Indians went to the importers and got the stuff, eliminating the middle man. These stuffs were sold from street to street wherever they could find West Indians and Africans. Later they bought out the shops.’

Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion (1966)

In the mid-1980s, Anselm took over one of the first permanent shopfronts selling West Indian food in Shepherd’s Bush Market. Much like these adverts for Edwin McKenzie and 3 Star Stores, Anselm’s shop sold fresh and dry produce. One of the earlier Caribbean-owned Caribbean food shops, Anselm’s story is part of a broader history of Caribbean people establishing their own supply chains in post-war Britain.

On a typical day, Anselm would arise from the family home in Thornton Heath at 4am and drive to Spitalfields Market to buy produce. Arriving in Shepherd’s Bush by 7am, he then unpacked the goods and arranged fresh produce on a bench outside of the shop. Fridays and Saturdays were the busiest days because that 'was the time that the majority of people get paid', so on Friday evening when the 'women come from work, they pass in the market' and bought food from his shop. Anselm recalls spending long days in the shop alone with no break until his children were old enough to lend a helping hand. Running the shop was ‘very hard work’; Anselm would get home at 7pm – meaning he was working 15-hour days, 6 days a week, with Sundays spent bookkeeping.

Chatting at the shop

Anselm’s shop was also a social hub, people ‘would come to chat’ and meet their friends and fellow customers there. Next door to Websters’ record shop, Anselm’s had a unique atmosphere that drew custom from across London. This reminds me of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, ‘the iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain.’5 Tanty, an elderly aunt in the novel, makes frequent visits to the grocers:

‘Well Tanty used to shop in this grocery every Saturday morning. It does be like a jam-session there when all the … housewives go to buy …. They getting on just as if they in the market-place back home: “Yes child, as I was telling you, she did lose the baby … half-pound saltfish please, the dry codfish … yes, as I was telling you … and two pounds of rice please, and half-pound red beans, no, not that one, that one in the bag in the corner” … She too like the shop, and the chance to meet them other women and gossip.’6

Selvon’s description reconstructs the social vibrancy of the grocers as a place for conversing, gossiping and shopping. A public space of domesticity where the ‘market-place [of] back home’ could be recreated to produce feelings of familiarity and comfort. Anselm’s son, Rob Berkeley, describes how ‘Food traditions from across the Caribbean were exchanged, recipe secrets passed on, new fusions created, and old friendships rekindled.’

Fire in the market

During his 14 years at Shepherd’s Bush Market, there were four arson attacks at Anselm’s shop. This disturbing and upsetting part of the story speaks to the struggles that Anselm faced. Speaking about the first fire, that was done ‘deliberately from outside of the shop’, he recounts how the shop and shuttering were burnt out and all of his produce – most of which was uninsurable – was destroyed. Anselm explains that it is ‘hard to describe how he felt … there was nothing I could do.’ While the shop was being repaired, Anselm had a temporary stall on the market. On the Saturday after the fire that had happened two days prior, Anselm recalls how his customers refused to walk down Shepherd’s Bush Market and queued, waiting to buy from him, at his temporary stall. No one was ever charged with starting the fire and Anselm explains that he never received any information from the police about any suspects or the wider case. Whilst the state failed to respond effectively to the fire, the community rallied around Anselm. This dynamic, of state failure and community mobilisation, has been a defining characteristic of Black British history.

Coming full circle: farming and exporting 

Sketch of breadfruit growing on a tree
William Elwood Safford, The Breadfruit … Together with a biographical sketch of the author (Washington: H. L. McQueen, 1904) BL Shelfmark 7031.bbb.4.

Export business 

Anselm left the market in 1996 mainly due to sharply rising costs of running a shop there. Returning to Grenada with his wife, Rita, they started exporting Caribbean food to British markets from a farm that they created back in Grenada. They sent fresh produce, like mangoes and breadfruit – a favourite of Anselm’s – by air, to agents in the UK. Anselm’s circular journey from Grenada to Britain and back again (him and Rita recently returned to the UK) embodies the fluidity and connectivity of Caribbean foodways.

Thank you Anselm Berkeley for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the seventh blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

References/Further Reading

  • Anselm Berkley interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004) British Library Shelfmark YD.2006.a.4718
  • Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain (Heinemann: London, 1966) British Library shelfmark W49/3312
  • Flamingo, November 1962, British Library Shelfmark:
  • Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983). Available to watch on YouTube
  • Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402
  • Pure Grenada 
  • Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956) British Library Shelfmark2013.a.2
  • Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  • Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark P.P.7615.kf
  1. Grenada produces approximately 23% of the world’s nutmeg, ‘second only to Indonesia, which accounts for 73%of the world’s production’, Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004). 
  2. Ibid p.1.
  3. Ibid p.1.
  4. Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983) 
  5. Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  6. Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956).

04 June 2021

Marking 40 years of AIDS activism

On June 5, 1981, the US Center for Disease Control published an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that identified and described five cases of a strain of pneumonia in gay men in Los Angeles. This was the first time that what subsequently became known as HIV and AIDS was described in the medical literature. As we approach the 40th anniversary of that date, this post will look at some items in our collections produced by health and social care bodies, and community-based AIDS activist organisations.

The impact of AIDS on minority ethnic and Indigenous groups was considerable. This was partly due to an increase in risk associated with poverty and other social conditions that disproportionately affect these groups. Fairly quickly, it became clear that targeted and culturally sensitive information was a key component of preventing the further spread of HIV.

AIDS women's pamphlets
A selection of health pamphlets about women and AIDS. From left to right: Pregnancy and AIDS produced by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Information for Lesbian/Bi, Indian women about sex produced by the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force; American Indian Women & AIDS produced by San Francisco American Indian AIDS Institute; AIDS (SIDA) mata a las mujeres y a los niños produced by San Francisco AIDS Foundation

In time, there was a rise in community activism to counter wide public misunderstanding of HIV/AIDS and to support people infected with HIV. For some, these organisations were literally lifelines where they previously had been on the receiving end of terrible discrimination both within and outside of their communities, social isolation, and lack of access to adequate healthcare. They also acted as advocates, pushing for policy change at a local and national level, and gradually improving conditions for people within their communities who had a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS.

The American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco Newsletter, Autumn 1988. Shelfmark ZD.9.b.2968

The above image shows the cover of the first newsletter published by the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco (AIAI). The newsletter outlines who they are, why they formed, and what is different about their services. It states that AIAI "was created to provide Indian-specific AIDS information and education" and that they have prioritised "development of a broad base of community members, who feel ownership of the program and assist in the diffusion of HIV information in the community." As well as serving as an information and educational hub, they worked to "provide and/or coordinate essential direct services to Indians diagnosed with AIDS, ARC or HIV infection." They go on to describe how historic problems hampered AIDS prevention and care efforts amongst Native American communities. For example, inaccurate recording of ethnicity by medical professionals resulted in an under-reporting of incidences of infection amongst Native Americans. This was compounded by historic gaps in health related data for Native Americans, such as rates of intravenous drug usage. Additionally, the separation of urban Native Americans from their communities, as well as the regular movement between tribal reservations and cities made it difficult to track transmissions and case-rates. Taken in combination, these factors resulted in insufficient funding being allocated by the government to Indian communities for AIDS prevention and care. The AIAI thus lobbied for the Center for Disease Control "to require or convince states to begin reporting American Indian/Alaska Natives as a separate ethnic category for AIDS surveillance."

AIDS is also an Indian problem merged
AIDS is also an Indian problem published by the Native American AIDS Advisory Board, 1988. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4306

Organisations such as AIAI were able to be much more responsive to the issues on the ground because they had the direct input of their community members. They also more easily gained the trust of Native Americans living with HIV and AIDS because their communications and models of community healthcare were built around traditional kinship networks and incorporated familiar traditions. Art and poetry by community members feature heavily in public health pamphlets, and these speak to themes of renewal, spirituality, and tribal identities. Personal accounts also identify that these culturally specific details marked the difference between engagement and disengagement, self-care and self-neglect, and consequently had an impact on both HIV prevention and pride in a Native Two-Spirit identity (it should be noted that Two-Spirit is neither a universal term, nor has a fixed meaning across tribes).

Impacto Latino
Impacto Latino, January 1992, September 1994, August 1997.

Educational materials targeted to other minority ethnic people living with HIV/AIDS similarly responded to specific gaps in existing provision. Indeed, some community AIDS activists felt that national AIDS activist organisations overlooked important socio-economic, cultural, and geographic differences in their campaigning, and thus inadvertantly exarcebated a discrepancy in provision. For example, Jesus Ramirez-Valles, a sexual health educator and activist working across the border in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, USA states that "our work was different from what was taking place in the north, especially New York and San Francisco... We did not have the financial resources needed to launch large prevention and treatment programs." He also goes on to carefully explain that "we were not defined as 'gay men' or 'queer people' fighting AIDS. Nor were we white, Latino, or black men. We were a group of men (albeit, marginalized) organised around AIDS... That was the case in our own little corner of Mexico (and in the backyard of the United States), anyway." The AIDS activism conducted by Ramirez-Valles and his eighty compañeros is thus better described as "an underground community that operated in a homosexual culture within spaces outside of the public view." He explains that this was a choice taken because it resulted in greater engagement with local men living with HIV/AIDS who would otherwise have avoided seeking support. This geographically specific narrative illustrates how local community organisations are often best-placed to identify pragmatic strategies in healthcare activism that bring improved results in education, treatment, and support.

Corpus, Fall 2004, Spring 2006, Fall 2007

By contrast to El Paso and Juarez, Latinx and Black gay AIDS activism in New York and Los Angeles directly and publicly engaged with the consequences of intersectional identities on the lives of many people leaving with HIV/AIDS. Corpus, pictured above, was a collaborative publication by the Institute for Gay Men's Health (NY) and AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a bilingual serial that collects creative work by the members the organisation worked with. Essays, artwork, photography, and creative writing regularly touch on themes of pride in sexual, gender, racial, and ethnic identities.

If We Have to Take Tomorrow
Inside cover of If We Have To Take Tomorrow: HIV, black men & same sex desire

Similarly, If We Have To Take Tomorrow: HIV, black men & same sex desire directly addresses race, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS through a series of contributor essays and photographic portraits. The contributors variously identify as queer, gay, trans, and speak directly about the relationship between their racial, ethinc, gender, and sexual identities. For example, one contributor, Charles F. Stephens, states in an essay titled "Performing Black and Gay: butch queen radicalism" that "a butch queen for me is a radical act of resistance to normative black subjectivity, and mainstream gay homogeneity... I perform black and gay, assuming a Butch Queen self, that allows me to see clearly the world I want to live in." The collective expressions of identities in this publication thus celebrate being black and queer/gay/trans.

Noticias Positivas
Noticias Positivas, 1995, and May 1997

It is now well documented that a positive self-identity and finding support amongst peers reduces risk behaviours. Needless to say such friendship and community networks also provide invaluable support during times of crisis and distress. Additionally, more formal community organising has resulted in improved access to and provisions for people living with HIV/AIDS. The resources highlighted here, while often providing sobering accounts of the personal and social impact of AIDS on minority ethnic and Indigenous peoples, also offer stories and creative expressions of healing, of hope, and of mutual strength forged through community bonds.


Further reading:

Rafael Diaz, Latino Gay Men and HIV. Shelfmark YC.1998.b.2241

Stephen Inrig, North Carolina and the Problem of AIDS: advocacy, politics, & race in the South. Shelfmark YK.2015.a.3526

Andrew J. Jolivette, Indian Blood: HIV & colonial trauma in San Francisco's two-spirit community. Shelfmark m16/.11783

Jesus Ramirez-Valles, Compañeros: Latino activists in the face of AIDS. Shelfmark m11/.21678

Alyson O'Daniel, Holding On: African American women surviving HIV/AIDS. Shelfmark YD.2016.a.3194

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