American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more about this blog

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.

AIAI
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
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

26 May 2021

Ranette Prime: Food and Identity in Britain

This is the fifth 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 Ranette Prime, a London-based lawyer and food enthusiast who set up her own supper club. Ranette’s parents, Randolph and Lynette Prime, travelled from Trinidad and Guyana to England, in the 1960s, and they have both shaped her love of food. This blog focuses on Ranette’s memories of family trips to Brixton market and life in Sheffield, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Sundays at Brixton Market

Brixton Market

On Sunday mornings, Ranette’s family would pack into a car and drive from West Sussex to Brixton Market, where they would spend the whole day stocking up on supplies of food, beauty products and incense. Ranette’s memories of the market speak to Brixton as a hub of Black Britain – a place where were nods and smiles were signs of ‘community acknowledgement’. Trailing round the market for hours, getting the best eddoes or the cheapest sarsaparilla, and make-up from Island Beauty, Ranette and her siblings were rewarded with patties at the end of the ‘marathon’ shopping trip. Ranette’s recollection that she ‘felt very at home in Brixton’ echoes Brixton’s history as a place of Caribbean settlement, political activism, commerce and leisure.

Article about living in Brixton, B&W photos and text
Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
 
B&W article about Brixton Market with photos and text
Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

These articles from the 1960s reflect this sense of Brixton as the heart of Black Britain at the time. Founded in 1960, Tropic magazine was a popular glossy magazine that described itself as the ‘voice of 250,000 coloured people in Britain.’1 ‘Living in Brixton’ tells its readers that if you ‘Walk through the famous Brixton market any Saturday and you are bound to hear the lilt of West Indian and West African voices mingled with cockney accents.’ On the next page, the article pinpoints the highlights of living in Brixton, including a photograph of Claudia Jones at the West Indian Gazette offices that were housed at 250 Brixton Road – above Theo Campbell’s record shop – and Leslie and Chris Morgan’s Caribbean Bakeries Limited. Founded a few months after Tropic’s demise, Flamingo magazine was similar in terms of content and style. This 1963 article, ‘West Indians in Brixton Market’ explains the increasingly profitability of ‘West Indian food, vegetables and tinned goods’ alongside recognising its importance as a ‘meeting place’. As Ranettes’ interview reveals, her memories of Brixton market in the 1980s and 1990s are in dialogue with these longer histories that have been documented in Britain’s Black magazines.2

Moving to Sheffield

Over the years we established a bit more of an identity in Sheffield … we had pockets … but it took a while

Martin's Deliveries

At the age of 11, Ranette and her family moved to Sheffield. As they built a new life, they sought out ‘parallels’ to what they had in London. Interestingly, the parallels that they were seeking were often food-based – they searched for familiar ingredients and flavours. In this clip, Ranette remembers a man called Martin who delivered Caribbean food to families across Sheffield. His van was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ that was filled with fresh and dry foodstuffs, such as plantains, cakes and hardo bread. By the early 2000s Martin had opened a ‘massive’ shop in Pitsmoor, on the outskirts of Sheffield. This story of Martin’s evolution from his travelling van to a permanent shop captures Ranette’s broader reflections on adaptation and community-building, as Sheffield’s Black Caribbean communities established themselves.

Poster with different blue fonts
J. Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588

Establishing a sense of community in Sheffield was a gradual process and one that was at times complicated by questions of food and identity. ‘Surrounded by fish and chip shops’, Ranette expresses a sense of fascination with their signification of Britishness. This beautiful ‘Fried Fish and Chipped Potatoes’ rhyme, that was printed on greaseproof paper and published in Leeds, in 1906, embodies this quintessential ‘British’ fish and chips narrative that Ranette speaks of. However, these positive, wholesome and British connotations were a relatively recent development in the early 20th century. In Fish and Chips: A History, Panikos Panayi explains how Sephardic Jewish refugees brought traditions of frying fish to Britain in the late 19th century. Panayi interprets records of people complaining about the “nauseous odour”, as symbolising denigrating associations between fried fish and London’s poor areas, where Jewish communities settled.3 So, interestingly, Britain’s ‘national dish’ tells a history of migration, othering and adoption.

Fish fingers and peas

As well as eating fish and chips, Ranette remembers asking her mum to make that ‘British stuff … peas and fish fingers’, when her school friend came over to the house. Reflecting on her associations of certain foods, like shop bread and fish and chips, with British culture, Ranette remembers her young self, feeling a need to identify with these foods. This anecdote of culinary elasticity signifies the multiple ways in which people, especially children, self-consciously shape their identities.

Photograph of phoulorie
Trini Phoulorie, photograph courtesy of Ranette Prime

I lived in little Trinidad as it were, and little Guyana at home

As Ranette explains, her approach to cooking, whether at home or for her supper club (Eats and Beats), has been profoundly influenced by the food of her parents i.e. the food of Trinidad and Guyana. However, other cuisines, from Turkish to Korean, have also shaped Ranette’s tastes and cooking style. Speaking about the her parents, she describes a ‘common ground in their culture that Guyanese and Trini … complement each other really well’ – a harmony of tastes that is born out the region’s complex history. Phoulorie, which is widely eaten in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, reflects this ethnic and culinary crossover that is in part a result of their respective Indo-Caribbean populations. There is a basic recipe for phoulorie in E. Phyllis Clark’s West Indian Cookery book , but I think that Ranette’s recipe, which she has generously shared, sounds far tastier than Clark’s version which seems under spiced. Why not try it at home this weekend?

Page of text recipe for phoulorie
E. Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.

text

text
Phoulorie Recipe, courtesy of Ranette Prime

Thank you Ranette Prime 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 sixth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Anselm Berkely: From Field to Shelf to Plate

References / further reading

  • Black London Histories http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/
  • Caribbean Market, Brixton, 1961, British Pathé
  • Conversation in Sheffield about accent, dialect and attitudes to language, BBC Voices, British Library Shelfmark C1190/28/05
  • Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
  • Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588
  • Loretta’s Kitchen
  • Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020), 136-162
  • Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). British Library Shelfmark 2016.a.1892
  • Sahar Shah, Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history, gal-dem, 1 December 2020
  • Shopping, Brixton, 1975, British Pathé 
  • Ranette Prime interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • ‘The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland’, Vittles, 30 October 2020
  • Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.

1. Tropic, March 1960, p.1

2. Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020)

3. Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014); Sahar Shah, 'Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history', gal-dem, 1 December 2020

20 May 2021

Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

This is the fourth 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 Sandra Agard, a storyteller and author who is currently based at the British Library. Sandra’s parents travelled from Guyana (British Guiana at the time) in the early 1950s and infused their London home with the flavours of Guyana. A life-long Hackney resident, this blog focuses on memories of her parents’ cooking and trips to Ridley Road market but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Delicious, magical, sumptuous … it’s about stories, journey, tradition … a melting pot of so many influences coming together to make the Caribbean, and that’s what Caribbean food is, it’s history, it’s us, it’s me

Caribbean food is

Capturing the magic of Caribbean food, Sandra connects her own life to that of her parents, and the wider history of Guyana and the Caribbean, through recollections of freshly baked bread, chow mein and Guinness punch with hot milk. Dishes like chow mein speak to what Sandra calls Guyana’s ‘melting pot’ history. Those fried noodles stretch back to the period of indentureship, when Chinese labourers transported ingredients, tastes and cooking techniques, as they arrived on ships from Hong Kong, to supplement labour shortages following the abolition of slavery.1

Legacy

Sandra’s sumptuous memories of delicious and comforting meals speak to nourishment as a form of community building. Throughout the interview, Sandra spoke tenderly about her parents, Evelyn and Cecil Agard. She thanks them for instilling the family with a strong sense of Caribbean identity. From Cecil’s Black Cake – which he laboriously made at Christmas time – to Evelyn’s curries, duffs and roti, interspersed with parties and trips to Speakers’ Corner, the family was raised on a diet of Guyanese delicacies, culture and politics. Families like the Agards are revealing of a bigger story about food, migration and identity. A storyteller herself, Sandra avows the importance of maintaining stories and legacies because these ‘mothers and fathers, grandparents, they sacrificed too much to become invisible’. Her memories of Ridley Road market are just one part of this legacy, and they echo Hackney’s working-class and multicultural heritage.

Memories of Ridley Road

Ridley Road Market, as a child, it was the boom

Red, white and green painted flyer with text
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, collect by the author

Sandra remembers when Ridley Road Market was so busy that ‘you couldn’t move … it was just chock-a-block’. She would go on Saturday mornings with her mother, Evelyn, who was constantly bumping into friends, stallholders and fellow nurses – you could not go ‘two seconds without meeting somebody and standing up for years and talking and talking’. These memories capture the community spirit of one of London’s oldest markets. Whilst official records of Ridley Road date back to 1926, Freddie Sherrif – who was once the market governor – explains that this date refers to the time when stallholders asked the council to regulate it and that the market long predates this. Recorded for the Millennium Memory Bank, Sherrif traces the history of the market, from his grandfather who fought against Oswald Mosley (founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40) to the changing demographics of the surrounding area in the post-war period.

‘that’s why this market’s survived, basically we’ve got a catchment of customers that come from cultures that are market-based … we realise that and we’re very grateful. Where other markets, great markets within London have failed … Ridley Road’s still thriving because of that one reason … The whole world meets here and there’s never any trouble … no more than you would in Harrods’

Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank BL Shelfmark C900/05075

Both of these interviews – with Sandra and Sherrif – depict the market as a hub of trade, nourishment and comradeship, with its comparative success and longevity resulting from the rich composition of Hackney’s population.

Page from the book
Great Domesday Book, 1086. National Archives Shelfmark E 31/2/2

Markets have existed for millennia, to provide goods and services to the surrounding locality and as a space for farmers and artisans to sell their wares. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, in 1085, the Great Domesday Book (1086) recorded details of 13,418 settlements in England – including 50 market towns. From the 12th century, the number of market towns in England increased rapidly; between 1200 and 1349 thousands of new weekly markets were licensed by the Crown.2 These markets are a part of our national heritage, that speak to the everyday histories of food, trade and of family life. Even as the prevalence of street markets decline (in the UK), they continue to be an important part of daily life for many people and cultures across the world. In fact, ‘The Market’ was one of the topics included in Going to Britain?, a guide for prospective Commonwealth voyagers from the Caribbean. Published by the BBC in 1959, the pamphlet was authored by a combination of Caribbean men who were already living in London (including Samuel Selvon, the Trinidadian novelist), political figures and civil servants. It covered several topics, such as the journey, housing and work, in a sometimes humorous but generally stern and condescending tone.  

Front cover, black and white photo and page of text
BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17. Available to view online

Nurses shopping in the market

A.G. Bennett’s section on shopping warned future settlers that ‘Fruit dealers hate buyers handling and squeezing things on display.’ This reminds me of Sandra’s anecdote about nurses shopping for provisions – ‘plantains, sweet potatoes and yams’ – on Ridley Road after they had come off the night shift. When the shopkeeper told the nurses off for touching the produce, Sandra thought ‘how dare he?!’ These feelings of anger prompted her to tell ‘him what’s for’ and demand that he show these women, nurses, mothers and customers more respect. These were women that had been recruited by the newly-formed NHS to come to Britain and train as nurses in order to meet the health needs of post-war Britain.3 Sandra remembers that everyone else started to join in, which ‘was just so brilliant’ – it was part of a process of ‘finding their own voice and standing up for themselves’. This is why recording and archiving stories like Sandra’s is so important, because it speaks back to the archive and, in this case, to the politics of assimilation that publications like Going to Britain epitomised.

Article 'Black Angels' with text and photographs
'Black Angels: Coloured doctors and nurses are saving Britain's hospital services from breakdown', Flamingo, October 1961 British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.

How the market's changed 

Nostalgic for the market’s ‘vibrant’ and ‘electric’ feel, Sandra explains that there is now ‘something missing’, which has only been intensified by the global pandemic. Acutely aware of the forces that have intensified the market’s decline, she comments on the fact that Ridley Road is ‘prized land’, as much of Hackney is now. Listing some of Hackney’s diminished or lost markets, like the Waste along Kingsland Road and Roman Road Market, in comparison to thriving Broadway Market, Sandra provides a window onto the fast-changing gentrified landscape of Hackney, through the lifecycle of the market. Much like the Save Ridley Road campaign – for which you will see beautifully painted and printed signs on display in the surrounding area – Sandra proclaims ‘We need our markets’!

Photograph of a red, white and green sign surrounded by leaves
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, Dalston, taken by the author

Thank you Sandra Agard 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 fifth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Ranette Prime: food and identity in Britain

References / further reading

  • 'Great Domesday Book', Anglo-Saxons Collection Items, British Library 
  • BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17
  • ‘Black and white photos of pre-gentrification Hackney’, Huck, 12 February 2020
  • Flamingo, October 1961, British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.   
  • Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/05075
  • Future Hackney
  • H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, The Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  • Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
  • 'Local storytelling collective to stage public exhibition celebrating Ridley Road', Hackney Citizen, 13 October 2020
  • William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies. A trip through British Guiana undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of the Chinese who have emigrated under Government contract. With supplementary papers relating to contract labor and the slave trade (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store 8155.ee.9.(6.)
  • P. Lee, Chinese Cookery. A hundred practical recipes with decorations by Chiang Yee (London: Faber & Faber, 1943) British Library Shelfmark 7946.df.32.
  • Sandra Agard interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Save Ridley Road
  1. William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866)
  2. R. H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  3. Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018

19 May 2021

Reading Brood X

As the days turn to dusk over the next week across north east United States, billions of Magicicada nymphs will burrow their way to the surface after spending seventeen years underground. Having already been delayed by cooler than average temperatures, some have already begun to appear in geographic patches where the soil has reached a critical temperature. You can follow this on the Cicada Safari app which uses photographs and data provided by citizen scientists to create a live map of their emergence.

Snodgrass 1
R.E. Snodgrass, Insects, their ways and means of living. New York, 1930. BL shelfmark Ac.1875/16. See also https://archive.org/details/39088001578236

This particular group of periodical cicadas are known as Brood X, or the Great Eastern Brood. The brood is endemic to fifteen states in the eastern United States. Up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre, totalling in the billions, emerge and climb nearby vegetation where they molt their nymph exoskeletons and emerge in their imago form.

Snodgrass 2
R.E. Snodgrass, Insects, their ways and means of living. New York, 1930. BL shelfmark Ac.1875/16. See also https://archive.org/details/39088001578236

The males proceed to group together and ‘sing’ to attract females. Once mated, the female cicadas lay their eggs. Within a few weeks, the adult cicadas pass away. Soon thereafter, the newly hatched nymphs emerge and return to the soil where they will remain until the next cycle in 2038.

Cicadas are endemic to most countries with warmer climates (there is only one species in the UK which is under threat of extinction and unique to the New Forest). Unsurprisingly then, cicadas’ presence in print is scattered across the natural history record, and they also regularly appear as a motif in literature. While there are over three hundred species of cicadas, periodical cicadas are unique to the United States.

The first known written record of a Magicicada brood was in a 1633 report by the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. He notes the brood’s appearance in relation to a disease that killed many of the local Indigenous populations as well as the Plymouth settler colonists. His description illustrates how reliant the relatively recent settlers were on Indigenous knowledge to help them to navigate their unfamiliar natural environment, and how this 17-year event was both familiar to and held significance for the local tribes.

William Bradford
William Bradford’s account of a 1633 Magicicada brood can be found in New-England's memorial: or, a brief relation of the most memorable and remarkable passages of the providence of God, manifested to the planters of New-England, in America: with special reference to the first colony thereof, called New-Plymouth ... By Nathaniel Morton ... [The address “To the reader” signed: John Higginson, Thomas Thacher], ([Newport, R.I.] : Boston: printed. Newport: reprinted, and sold by S. Southwick]: 1772) http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100027393994.0x000001

The following century, Swedish naturist Pehr Kalm wrote a lengthy essay on his witnessing of the emergence of what we now know as Brood X in 1749. His Description of a type of Grasshopper in North America, published in 1756, is an incredibly evocative and richly detailed account that gives a sense of how it must have felt to experience this phenomenon for the first time:

Among the many flying insects in North America there is a species of grass-hopper which seems to merit special discussion because of its extraordinary characteristics… Later, when I travelled through the Land of the Iroquois to the large waterfall Niagara, I heard its squall in the woods daily, for no matter where it is it does not remain silent for long…

These insects are extraordinary. They appear in astounding numbers with indescribable suddenness on certain years… In 1749, on the 22 of May, new style, these locusts or grasshoppers appeared in dreadful quantities in Pennsylvania. They had been lying in holes in the ground throughout the winter and spring like Eurcae, but on this day they crept out of their winter coats and came forth in summer dress. A tree could scarcely be found, in either forest or orchard, whose trunk was not entirely covered with them. Some had emerged from their pupal cases, others were emerging so they were half in and half out. Some had begun to try their wings. It was remarkable that on the previous day, that is the 21st of May, there were none… For seventeen years these insects had not been seen, now they appeared in fantastic quantities throughout the land…

...On the 25th day of May the insects were heard in the trees…They now made such a roar and din in the woods they could be heard for great distances. If two persons happened to meet they would have to shout in order to hear each other. If they were any distance apart it would be necessary to strain the voice to capacity in order to determine what was being said…

The handiwork of the Almighty Creator is easily recognized in the lives of these small creatures.

Kalm was clearly emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually moved by his meeting with Brood X.

Kalm merged
Pehr Kalm, "Beskrifning pa et slags Grashopper uti Norra America" (Description of a type ofGrasshopper in North America). Kungl. Svenska vetenskapsakademiens handlingar, 17: 101-116, 1756. BL shelfmark Ac.1070.
Alternatively, read at the Biodiversity Heritage Library https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/178172#page/127/mode/1up
English translation: https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/4028/V53N03_138.pdf;jsessionid=A0077074BAF08FEBE137E290618B5E3E?sequence=1

A separate account of the 1749 emergence was also documented by Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and self-educated polymath. Banneker is well known for his Almanacs which detailed daily life on his farm as well as astronomical observations, and his correspondence with George Washington on slavery and racial equality. His observations on natural science are less familiar, but remain noteworthy.

The first great Locust year that I can Remember was 1749. I was then about Seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes... Again in the year 1766, which is Seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a Second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first… Again in the year 1783 which was Seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800,which is Seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture So to express it, their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us…

Written in 1800, these observations make Banneker “among the first American scientists to document and record chronological information of the seventeen-year cycle of the periodic Magiciada – Brood X".

Banneker
"Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer," mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641717/

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unusual life cycle of the Magicicada also catches the literary imagination and they make periodic appearances in biography, poetry, prose, and graphic novels. Across these works, two themes particularly stand out. The first is aural – the din, hum, buzz, drone, whirr, roar, squall – these little creatures cannot be ignored, particularly when in full throes of their communal love song. The second theme speaks of loss, re-emergence, and transformation.

Perhaps the most striking literary homage to the cicadas’ song is a poem in Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Magically illustrated by Eric Beddow, this collection designed for children celebrates insect life in all its joyous forms.

Joyful Noise endpaper
The fabulous endpaper illustration by Eric Beddow for Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise (New York : Harper & Row, c1988.) depicts a stick insect reading a book. Shelfmark YD.2008.a.7451

Each poem is intended to be read aloud simultaneously by two people. This has the effect of partially recreating the sound of the insects buzz, and eventual pairing-off. The dual voice also acts as an affirmation of the childhood experience of encountering and describing a newly discovered insect: the curiosity, wonder, and perplexity they inspire is best when shared (much like books being read aloud by parent to child).

Fleischman Cicadas
Paul Fleischman, “Cicadas” in Joyful Noise. Illustration of “Two cicadas singing” by Eric Biddow. Note the two columns of poetry, for two voices. Shelfmark YD.2008.a.7451.

Mộng-Lan’s Song of the Cicadas also foregrounds sound. In contrast to Fleischman, she uses cicadas as a motif for exploring a coupling between two people. It should be noted that Mộng-Lan is Vietnamese and she moved to America with her family following the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and has subsequently lived in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. These experiences are alluded to through references to foreign lands, encounters in airports after long journeys, seasonal transformations, and the unpredictability of ‘fate’. She thus weaves through the poem allusions to the brooding and mating habits of periodical cicadas in order to evoke how this particular encounter resonated with the emotional experience of being an immigrant. This experience is signaled as transformative through its use of the visual imagery of an imago cicada emerging from its nymph exoskeleton at the molting phase:

    skins subtle as persimmons
                                                       where the skin breaks at the fullest

Mong-Lan
Front cover of Mộng-Lan’s Song of the Cicadas. Amherst : University of Massachusetts, 2001. Shelfmark YK.2003.a.15438

Another work that also makes use of cicadas in reference to the immigrant experience is Canadian author Elfreida Read’s A Time of Cicadas. This is the first in a series of memoirs about her childhood in Shanghai, her internment during the war, and her family’s subsequent emigration to Canada (Vancouver). It opens with a description of Shanghai, “my city, my Camelot”. A city, she says, that “was lost in time… you will never be able to go there yourself, any more than you can step at will into the substance and memories of those who lived there for that short enchanted time.” She then skillfully brings to life on the page a vision of summer in pre-war Shanghai accompanied by the soundtrack of “cicadas sawing in the treetops”. Here, the sounds of the cicadas evokes a nostalgia for a youth and a city lost to war and emigration.

Elfreida Read
Elfreida Read, A Time of Cicadas title page. BL shelfmark YA.1990.a.11506

Just as we’ve been waiting for the cicadas to emerge, readers spent five years eagerly anticipating the arrival of this children’s book from Australian author/illustrator, Shaun Tan. Cicada, follows a green insect office clerk (the eponymous Cicada); a lone splash of colour trapped deep in the grey drudgery of an office job.

Shaun Tan 1
Front cover of 'Cicada' by Shaun Tan. BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.317195

Underappreciated and mistreated, the cicada works harder and longer than the others, yet has less rights and lower pay than his human colleagues. Tan acknowledges the parallels here with the retirement of his architect father, a frustrated Chinese immigrant from Malaysia who felt undervalued by his Australian colleagues. Upon Cicada’s unremarked retirement after 17 years (the life cycle of a cicada), we follow as he winds his way up the stairs of the office block, finally emerging on to the roof. His drab outer shell of suit and tie is shed to reveal a luminous winged body which takes flight; joining thousands of others in the lush, bright forest for a brief, but explosive finale.

Shaun Tan 2
Detail from 'Cicada' by Shaun Tan.

 

 

- Written by Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland

 

17 May 2021

Digital resources on the 17th, 18th and 19th century Caribbean

Imaobong Umoren is the co-winner of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award. Here she explores some of the digital resources which have supported her research so far.

________________________________________________________________

With access to the British Library restricted due to lockdowns, taking advantage of the wealth of primary source material available electronically has offered me the chance to work on my current book project, Empire Without End: A New History of Britain and the Caribbean, which explores the entangled connections between the Anglophone Caribbean and Britain from the 1600s to today. I trace the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism considering especially the role they play in shaping structural and persistent inequalities facing both Britain and the Anglophone Caribbean.

BAO Slavery resource online landing page
British Online Archives, landing page for the Slavery in Jamaica, Records from a Family of Slave Owners, 1686-1860 collection

My focus, for now, is centred on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The British Library’s subscription to the British Online Archives (remotely accessible for registered BL Readers) have provided me the chance to dig into rich collections that document the history of slavery and the post-emancipation era. I have found a wealth of material in collections such as Slavery in Jamaica, Records from a Family of Slave Owners, 1686-1860; Antigua, Slavery and Emancipation in the Records of a Sugar Plantation,1689-1907; Caribbean Colonial Statistics from the British Empire, 1824-1950; Slave Trade Records from Liverpool, 1754-1792; The West Indies in Records from Colonial Missionaries, 1704-1950; and The West Indies: Slavery, Plantations and Trade, 1759-1832.

E-books and digitised pamphlets relating to pro- and anti-slavery debates have also been valuable. Many of these can be accessed freely online without a British Library Reader’s Card. I have found the following especially useful: James Ramsay’s, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Slave Colonies (1784) [BL Digital Store RB.23.a.1199], Elizabeth Heyrick’s ‘Immediate, not Gradual Abolition’ (1824) [available in the Reading Rooms as part of the ‘Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive Part I’ e-resource; also available on Google Books], Thomas Cooper’s Facts illustrative of the condition of the Negro slaves in Jamaica (1824) [BL Digital Store 8156.c.30.], and Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey’s The West Indies in 1837 (1838) [BL Digital Store 1050.l.22.]. (The British Library’s digitisation collaboration with Google Books has made nearly 470,000 volumes, including these, available for free online. Find out more on the Google Books project page of the British Library website.)

Readex Caribbean Newspapers online landing page
Readex, landing page for the Caribbean Newspapers, 1718-1876 digital resource.

Useful too has been the Caribbean Newspapers Collection (also remotely accessible for registered BL Readers) which has afforded me insight into the broader context of this period from the perspective of elites especially the St Lucia Gazette, Bahamian, Nevis Guardian, Dominica Chronicle, Bermuda Gazette, and the Port-of-Spain Gazette. These newspaper collections span, for the most part, the period 1786-1876. I have also explored fascinating material in the African American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2 and the South Asian Newspapers collection, all available via remote access for registered Readers.

The Endangered Archives Programme has also given me access to a wide range of sources, freely available online, related to the history of the Turks and Caicos Islands, St Kitt’s and Nevis, Montserrat, and material from The Barbadian Newspaper, The Barbados Mercury Gazette, and the Deed Books in St Vincent during slavery.

All of these sources have proved rich and fruitful and once the British Library’s doors begin to open wider I am looking forward to diving deep into non-electronic sources especially on Black British political and artistic movements.

-- Imaobong Umoren, May 2021

11 May 2021

Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner

This is the third 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 Charlie Phillips AKA Smokey, the Jamaican-born photographer and restaurateur, who arrived in Liverpool on-board the Reina del Pacifico in 1956 before settling in Notting Hill. This blog focuses on Charlie’s early years in Jamaica and his restaurant, Smokey Joe’s, in Wandsworth, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Chicken soup

The marriage of the Jewish classic, chicken soup, with the African, Caribbean and Latin American staple, cassava, all in a humble bowl of goodness, cooked by Charlie’s grandmother, captures traditions of blending and nourishment that are central to Caribbean cooking.1 As Smokey explains, this bowl of soup is part of Jamaica’s ‘hidden history.’ The earliest Jewish presence in Jamaica dates back to 1530, as it became a place of refuge for Jews that were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. By 1720, 18% of the island’s population were Jewish.2 Whilst the Jewish presence has all but disappeared (there were less than 15 people at a Shabbat service that I attended at Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, in 2019) some culinary influences have survived. The parallels between Charlie’s description of his grandmother's cooking in the hills of St Mary, Jamaica, and the following excerpt from an interview with Jewish East-ender, Carol Matthews, are striking. From the salting of beef to the pickling of cucumbers, quintessential Jewish flavours and textures – which are themselves the product of multicultural diasporic culinary evolution – formed a nourishing cornerstone of Charlie’s childhood.

‘well … you’ve not had a real meal unless you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup. Now, they call it the penicillin, of the Jewish world, and trust me, you’ve not lived until you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup and lokshen and kneidlach balls … also, I make new green cucumbers, which is basically cucumbers in acetic acid with some spices thrown in and some garlic, salt beef … fabulous fabulous, hot salt beef sandwiches with mustard’

Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis (Singer, Taxi Driver, Pub Compere) - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/04026

‘Matzo Kleis’, as they are called in this cookbook from 1895, are typically served in a broth – generally chicken soup – for the Jewish festival of Passover. This Jewish dumpling-of-sorts was just one of the many types that Charlie loved to eat as a boy (and still does), from Johnny Cakes to cartwheels. Blanche’s Jamaican twist on matzo balls made with grated cassava, also known as manioc, manihot, yuca and tapioca, points to the multiple roots and routes of Caribbean foodways.

Text recipe for passover dishes
Miss M. A. S. Tattersall, Jewish Cookery Book: Compiled for use in cookery centres under the School Board for London (London: Wertheimer, Lea & Co., 1895) British Library Shelfmark A.2003.a.43999
 
Front cover of pamphlet
Jean S. Ingram, Cassava processing: commercially available machinery (London: Tropical Products Institute [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], 1972) British Library Shelfmark 9056.510

Coronation market

Ships leaving KingstonHigglers in Coronation Market 

A ‘country boy’, Charlie begrudgingly moved to Kingston aged 10. This is where Smokey’s enterprising character blossomed – he would run ‘last minute errands’ for emigrants leaving Jamaica onboard ships like the SS Ormonde and Reina Del Pacifico; help out higglers in Kingston’s famous Coronation Market; and carry stale bread from the bakery to a fishing village called Greenwich Farm. In these clips, Smokey remembers buying packets of Zephyr cigarettes and pickapeppa sauce for the hopeful voyagers who had learned from earlier sojourners to douse the bland food onboard in hot sauce.

Fishermen and bulla cake

The term ‘higgler’ or ‘higglering’ signifies the ‘informal economic activity of small-scale street vending dating back to the days of slavery, and is dominated by black, lower class Jamaican women.’3 Charlie fondly remembers one higgler in particular, Miss Gladys, who used to look out for him. Much like the higglers that Charlie ran errands for, he was creatively responding to the precarity and poverty that shaped the lives of working-class people in Jamaica. Recalling some of his favourite things to eat as a boy, Charlie describes picking up left over avocados when the market was finished and eating these with bulla – a spiced cake that was made with molasses – that he would get when he collected bread for the fishermen.

Las Palmas to Smokey Joe's

Photograph of a crowd of people on the street by a green food truck
Smokey Shack, photograph courtesy of Charlie Phillips

Before Charlie’s family opened Las Palmas, a food ‘shack’ on Portobello Road, which was one of London’s earliest Caribbean eateries, they had an unlicensed cook shop where his stepmother would cook for 15-20 people a day. Cook shops were fairly common in the 1950s and 1960s, offering a slice of home for mostly single men that had settled in the UK. This blurring of private and public space was a pattern that characterised many post-war Caribbean leisure and commercial practices, from blues parties to hair salons. Charlie’s early introduction to the business of selling food, combined with cheffing experience at restaurants like the Grosvenor House Hotel and travelling around Europe, led him to set up his own food stall in the 1970s. He started selling barbequed corn on the cob and became known as liking to ‘smoke up the whole place’, which is how he got his nickname – Smokey Joe. After doing fairs and festivals for some years, Smokey decided to set up a diner in the 1980s.

Newspaper article with text and images
New York Times, 18 January, 1993. British Library Shelfmark MFM.MA3

A barbeque-style Jamaican fusion joint, Smokey Joe’s diner was a popular spot. In 1993, the New York Times praised its standout jerk chicken and pork. It was featured alongside the still standing Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (one of Charlie’s favourite spots) and Mangal Ocakbasi in what was then the ‘gritty East End’ where tourists were ‘unlikely’ to venture!4 Smokey Joe’s was a success in spite of the obstacles put up by bank managers that refused to loan Charlie money, who according to him had no understanding of what a Caribbean restaurant was or might become. While there are many more Caribbean food outlets, restaurants, supper clubs etc. across the UK today, there are still gaping inequalities and injustices in the food industry. From a lack of investment, to the whitewashing of recipes, names and décor, processes of racism, othering and exclusion are still very much present in the commercial British food landscape.5 This is why it is so important to highlight ongoing and historic stories of delicious defiance, like Smokey Joe’s!

Cartoon style logo of man grilling meat and corn
Smokey Joe’s Diner, photograph courtesy of Charlie Phillips

Thank you Charlie Phillips 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 fourth blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

References / further reading

  • ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, New York Times, 18 January 1993. British Library Shelfmark MFM.MA3
  • B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), British Library Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
  • Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) British Library Shelfmark YK.2008.a.10168
  • Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library Shelfmark C900/04026
  • Charlie Phillips interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive
  • Jean S. Ingram, Cassava processing: commercially available machinery (London: Tropical Products Institute [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], 1972) British Library Shelfmark 9056.510
  • Harriet Sherwood, 'Revealed: how the Caribbean became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny', Guardian, 7 December 2019 
  • Miss M. A. S. Tattersall, Jewish Cookery Book: Compiled for use in cookery centres under the School Board for London (London: Wertheimer, Lea & Co., 1895) British Library Shelfmark A.2003.a.43999
  • Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021 
  • Steve Rose, 'Charlie Phillips: why did it take so long for one of Britain's greatest photographers to get his due?', Guardian, 25 March 2021
  • 'Who the F*** is Charlie Phillips’, MrFeelGood

1. Taino peoples subsisted on, from B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), pp. 61-6

2. Rebecca Lambert, ‘Jews in Jamaica’, 13 October 2020, Jewish Museum

3. Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

4. ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, NYT, 18 January 1993

5. Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021

 

07 May 2021

Joe Williams: ‘the need for flavour’

This is the second 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 Joe Williams, the Leeds-born arts and heritage activist who researches the historic African presence in Yorkshire. This blog focuses on Joe’s memories of Leeds West Indian Carnival and his historical perspective on Caribbean food but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Book cover with title and red etching of a face surrounded by
Lorna Goodison, Tamarind Season: Poems (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1980) British Library Shelfmark X.950/14241

In Jamaica, tamarind season refers to a period of scarcity and hardship before the harvest. Invoking this in her first published collection of poetry, Tamarind Season (1980), Lorna Goodison expresses strength and optimism in face of suffering. Joe Williams echoes this motif of struggle and resilience throughout this recollections and understandings of Caribbean foodways, from Yorkshire to West Africa.

Tamarind

The fruit itself – what Joe calls ‘packaged sweets in nature’ – also connects Joe’s story to Goodison’s poem. In this clip, Joe recalls his sister joining the family in Leeds, from Jamaica, in 1969 and bringing fresh tamarind pods wrapped in newspaper. Joe’s evocative description of the lip-pursing – ‘makes you stand up’ – dark reddish-brown fruit provides a window onto the numerous delectable, novel and familiar items that would have been pulled out of tightly packed suitcases and trunks, as people came to join already-settled family members and friends in Britain.

The occurrence of siblings joining partially established families in Britain was common; families that been separated by the Atlantic’s economic and historic waves, what some historians have referred to as the ‘second Middle Passage’.1 Joe’s mother, Betty Williams, a seamstress from Jamaica who had 10 children in Trench Town, Kingston, came to Britain alone in 1960. Joe locates his mother’s story as a ‘rare insight into the Windrush narrative’ that puts a spotlight on those women who bravely travelled alone ‘to create opportunities for their family’. Throughout the 1960s, Betty’s husband and children joined her and Joe in Leeds – realising her dream ‘to get her children out of terrible conditions in the ghettoes of Jamaica, which were a legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’.

In Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004), the award-winning novel about post-war Caribbean migration, there is a similar narrative around food and arrival. When Hortense arrives in London to join her husband Gilbert, Kenneth – a fellow Caribbean settler – enquires about the contents of her luggage:

‘So you tell me she jus’ come from home? You know what she have in that trunk?
‘No, man.’
‘Come, let us open it. Mango fetching a good price. You think she have rum? I know one of the boys give me half his wage to place him tongue in a guava.’2

Whilst this conjures senses of yearning for the familiarity of home through foodstuffs, like Joe’s story, it evokes the personal and small-scale journeys of Caribbean produce, in pockets and suitcases.

Leeds West Indian Carnival

Open book with a photograph of a carnival crowd in 1968 and a woman dressed in a costume from 1970
Harriet Walsh, Leeds West Indian Carnival, 1967-2002 (Leeds: Pavillion, 2003) British Library Shelfmark YK.2004.a.1560

The longest running West Indian outdoor carnival started in Chapeltown, Leeds, in 1967. As Joe explains, Leeds’ West Indian population has a majority of people from St Kitts and Nevis – so Leeds Carnival reflects the unique cultural practices of these islands, such as Christmas Sports.3 Becoming more conscious as a teenager, Joe found his own way to carnival, describing it as a ‘welcoming and inclusive’ space where eclectic Caribbean cultures were shared.

Food at Leeds Carnival

Carnival marked an ‘opportunity to introduce people to the food of the West Indies’ from roasted corn to homemade patties. Evoking the sights, sounds and smells of carnival, Joe recalls a man with a machete chopping green coconuts. The journey of the coconut from Southeast Asia to the Americas, and its symbolic place at Leeds West Indian Carnival, reflects the complexities of Caribbean foodways. The coconut was introduced to the Americas as part of the Columbian exchange in the early colonial period, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. J. W. Bennett’s The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation (1836) speaks directly to the transportation of certain plants and foodstuffs across the British empire – a point that Joe echoes in his critical discussion of Kew Gardens' colonial legacies. Bennett’s book embodies practices of extraction, exploitation and disavowal. From the exoticizing narratives of indigenous practices in ‘Ceylon’ to carefree recipes for coconut cocktails, it is, essentially, a planter’s manual for the production of capital, luxury and indulgence during an era of apprenticeship – which was, in practice, an extension of slavery. As Joe’s interview explores, Caribbean food cannot be disentangled from histories of slavery and resistance.


Coco 2

Coco 2

Pages from a book, including the title page, a painting of coconuts and a cocktail recipe
J. W. Bennett, The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation: as adapted for the general benefit in our West Indian and African colonies (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store RB.23.a.25211

Hospitality in the home

Homes as spaces of commerce

Black and write scan of a magazine article on the 'Colour Bar in Public Places'
Tropic, June 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.

Throughout Joe’s descriptions of culinary commerce, there is a strong sense of resourcefulness, of what he calls ‘the culture of … survival’. This self-sufficiency was manifest in the houses that became social hubs for eating, drinking and playing dominoes, and by the creation of shebeens and blues parties. Drawing links between South African apartheid and the ‘colour bar’ in Britain, this editorial from Tropic highlighted the state’s failure to ‘put an end to the practice of racial discrimination in … public places.’ The exclusion from mainstream opportunities to engage in commercial and leisure practices meant that Caribbean communities had to construct their own spaces of enjoyment and commerce, to make money and experience joy, wherever possible. The fact that food simultaneously produces pleasure and capital means that it is an important arena for diasporic and migrant cultural-commercial production.

Caribbean food is...

What Joe terms as a ‘need for flavour’ in this final clip, helps us to understand why and how the ‘brutality’ of Caribbean history has been ‘made into something beautiful that can be shared with others.’

Thank you Joe Williams 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 third blog in the Caribbean Foodways series here - Charlie Phillips: the story behind Smokey Joe's Diner

References / Further Reading

  • Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Review, 2004) British Library Shelfmark Nov.2005/1369
  • Frank L. Mills, Christmas sports in St. Kitts-Nevis: our neglected cultural tradition (F.L. Mills : S.B. Jones-Hendrickson, 1984) British Library Shelfmark YA.1988.a.9251
  • Gabriel Noble, ‘To what extent is the colonial history of botany realised at Kew Gardens today?’ Medium, 15 May 2015 
  • Guy Farrar, Tim Smith, Max Farrar, Celebrate! : 50 years of Leeds West Indian Carnival (Huddersfield: Northern Arts Publications, 2017) British Library Shelfmark LC.37.a.1666
  • Harriet Walsh, Leeds West Indian Carnival, 1967-2002 (Leeds: Pavillion, 2003) British Library Shelfmark YK.2004.a.1560
  • Heritage Corner
  • Hilary Beckles, ‘British Trade in Black Labour: The Windrush Middle Passage’, British Library, 15 June 2018 
  • Joe Williams, interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • J. W. Bennett, The coco-nut palm, its uses and cultivation: as adapted for the general benefit in our West Indian and African colonies (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store RB.23.a.25211
  • Lorna Goodison, Tamarind Season: Poems (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1980) British Library Shelfmark X.950/14241
  • Tropic, June 1960, p.1 British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
  • ‘From Caribbean Isles to the British Isles: Home to Home’, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum
  • ‘Complete Archive of aware-winning novelist Andrea Levy acquired for the nation’, British Library, 6 Feburary 2020 
  • Hannah Lowe, ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy’s Small Island’, British Library, 4 October 2018 

1. Hilary Beckles, ‘British Trade in Black Labour: The Windrush Middle Passage’, British Library, 15 June 2018 

2. Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004), p.22

3. Christmas Sports is an African-derived creolized tradition that begins on Boxing Day and culminates with a carnival on New Year’s Day in St Kitts and Nevis. See Frank L. Mills, Christmas sports in St. Kitts-Nevis: our neglected cultural tradition (F.L. Mills : S.B. Jones-Hendrickson, 1984) 

06 May 2021

Finding the Humor in 'Sappho'

Louise Siddons is an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture. As part of that research, she has been taking a closer look at the transatlantic lesbian press and the construction of lesbian identity. In this post, she shares the unexpected pleasure she discovered in the pages of Sappho, a British magazine that, unlike the American counterparts which advertised in its pages, routinely included comics and cartoons.

Louise will be talking about transatlantic lesbian visual culture and the lesbian gaze in a free online lecture on Monday 10 May at 19.00, Looking Like a Lesbian.

_______________________

“Every group has its share of jokes,” announced “Robyn’s Page,” a regular feature of Sappho. Founded in 1972, Sappho’s mission was to build a meaningful community among lesbian women both as readers and in person. Early in its run, Robyn worried that humor was troublingly absent from lesbian culture.1

In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the cartoons and comics that appeared in early issues of Sappho. Why should we take humor seriously? Robyn argued that, “Jokes are … a spontaneous endorsement of what’s happening where it matters most – that’s at grass root level.” The lack of lesbian jokes, she suggested, revealed a lack of group identity among lesbians. Eager to change this, she invited readers to come up with “the great lesbian joke.”2

Studies in the psychology of humor have historically focused on the role that “out-group disparagement humor” reinforces in-group identification; in other words, people mark their status as insiders by making fun of outsiders.3 But, as Robyn pointed out, in 1972 lesbian humor was still struggling to locate the notion of “lesbian.” The visual comedy published in Sappho’s early years is almost all about defining the in-group: what does it mean to be a lesbian, and how can humor help that definition cohere?4

If a brief survey of my friends last week is any indication, lesbian humor has achieved the status of a common culture, even if the jokes aren’t always great. Universally, when I asked for a lesbian joke, the first response was: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” (Is there any point to pretending we don’t know the punchline?) “A U-Haul.”

Groan-inducing though it is, the U-Haul joke echoes the humor presented in Sappho a half-century earlier, which overwhelmingly took couples as its subject and often poked fun at the intensity of new attachments—sometimes to make a serious point about healthy relationships. My informal friend survey, utterly unscientific and drawn largely from the same “militantly middle-class” audience to which Sappho addressed itself a half-century ago, points to the magazine as a foundational source for long-lasting tropes of lesbian comedy.5

In this 1990 interview, Sappho’s editor, Jacqueline Forster, described the board’s decision to include “photos, cartoons, articles, news stories, poems, and a list of places where lesbians can meet or contact.” As her inclusion of “cartoons” makes clear, there was an expectation that the magazine would include humor, at least some of which would be visual, under the direction of art editors Jay Francis and Murray Marr.

Sappho magazine cover. Yellow with the magazine name in large black letters and a small Venus symbol in black with two faces in profile inside the circle.
Cover, Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972)

An initial encounter with the magazine does not promise comedy: in the first few issues, the discreetly monochromatic panel of the cover is disturbed only by the title of the magazine in a typeface reminiscent of Westminster, the 1960s machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs, volume and issue information, and a small logo—the Venus symbol with two facing, vaguely feminine profiles inside its ring. Reminiscent of the optical illusion in which our perception shifts between two faces and a vase, the logo hints at the semiotic slippage that characterizes queer, and especially lesbian, identity throughout the twentieth century—without making us laugh.

Once inside, however, the conservative, technologically savvy design gave way to a hand-drawn aesthetic reminiscent of earlier lesbian magazines like the British Arena Three and the American The Ladder, inviting intimacy and openness in the reader. The first cartoon appeared on page 7 of the very first issue, and introduced “Mabel and Mildred,” a quirky, naked couple who venture out into the world with varying degrees of success. Although their adventures are slightly surreal, they offer a slice of lesbian life to Sappho readers.

Line drawing of a naked woman holding an axe running off a ledge with a smaller naked woman sat below the step with a speech bubble saying 'Now Mildred, look out for that first step!'
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 7

In each episode, the rendering is rudimentary: Mildred, slightly stockier than her counterpart, is perennially armed with an axe, which seems as likely to endanger Mabel as protect her. Mabel, in turn, is all knees and elbows, with a shock of unruly hair. In this first cartoon, Mildred is at the top of a precipitous set of steps, while Mabel sits at their foot, badly dinged by an apparent fall. “Now Mildred,” she warns, “look out for that first step!” Is this a commentary on Sappho’s inauguration—or on the dangers of coming out in public, as lesbians?

As a reader, I find myself less worried about Mildred than on the effect her outstretched axe will have on Mabel as she falls—a fear exacerbated by this cartoon, just a few pages later, in which Mildred has apparently chopped off Mabel’s head. The joke here is similarly dark: “For heaven’s sake Mildred,” chastises Mabel’s severed head as it floats above her fleeing body, “don’t lose your head!”

Line-drawing of two naked women. The woman on the right holds an axe and is running towards the woman on the left who is running away. With her head detached from her body she has a speech bubble saying 'For heavens sake Mildred, don't lose your head!
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 12.

By the second volume, the two are clearly gendered as a butch/femme pair, thanks to the artist’s pointed application of a decorative bow shape: as a bowtie on Mildred (and her axe), and as a hair accessory on Mabel. It affirms the physical stereotyping already in place: Mildred is relatively stout (and violent), while Mabel is slim, with substantial breasts that occasionally overshadow her knobbly knees and elbows.

Line drawing of six people queuing for an opera performance.
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 18.

With sly humor, this unusual level of clothing for the pair is featured in a cartoon in which the pair have joined a queue for a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra. The four characters in line ahead of them represent various characters comically typical of performing arts audiences, all carefully disregarding the naked women behind them. Mildred, facing the viewer and thus seen frontally rather than in profile, explains to Mabel that “It’s about a disturbed nuclear family.” In Strauss’s opera, Electra is armed with an axe with which she avenges her father’s death at the hands of her mother; the myth was taken up by Carl Jung as the basis for a psychoanalytic model of the feminine psyche in 1915.

As an early example of humor in Sappho, “Mildred and Mabel” reflected the middle-class values of the editors in its expectation that readers would recognize references to Strauss and Jung, as well as in the types of activities in which Mabel and Mildred participate. At the same time, the cartoon couple embodied—literally—the paradox of middle-class lesbian existence. Asserting their cultural savvy in their choice of outings, yet persistently appearing naked in public, they thematize the struggle of queer visibility and social acceptance with irony and self-deprecation.

With the caveat that it’s outdated, a friend offered me: "What's the difference between a lesbian and a dyke?" "About $30K a year."

Class was a persistent discussion in Sappho despite its declared affinity with the middle class. In an early issue, Forster refuted the Union of Women for Liberation’s claim that the lesbianism of “a few petty bourgeois women” was “irrelevant to the economic needs of working-class women.” She regularly published letters from readers who asked for more working-class representation, and class struggle came up regularly throughout the magazine’s pages.6

In 1974, cartoonists Kate Charlesworth—now well-known, but in her early work for Sappho credited as “Kaye”—and Sue Neumann joined the masthead of Sappho as artists. They both created witty, many-layered comics for the magazine that draw on art history, public schools, tourism, fashion, and other features of middle-class lesbian experience. Alongside their carefully crafted images, a series of relatively simple images began to appear. Created by a variety of artists (none credited, although a few of the images are signed with initials), they transformed the Venus symbol familiar from the Sappho logo into an anthropomorphic character.

This had two important effects: first, it largely eliminated class-specific references—as well as racial or ethnic markers, which provoked less specific comment at the time, but are striking to contemporary readers. And second, by making visual puns that relied on the formal qualities of the Venus symbol rather than the cultural specificity of a human character, these apparently minor cartoons became surprisingly conceptual in their comedy.

Line drawing of two Venus symbols
“Stop acting butch,” Sappho 3, no. 11 (1975): 19.

The first to appear was this small bit, tucked into the corner of a page about halfway through the magazine. Two Venus signs are side-by-side: the one on the left is oriented in the expected way, but the one on the right is rotated so that the cross that should be beneath the circle is pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle, mimicking the position of the Mars sign typically used to signify male identity. The circle of the Venus on the left cracks into a speaking smile: “Stop acting butch,” she says. How are we supposed to interpret this directive?

Although Steven Dryden has noted elsewhere on the British Library blogs that the scholarly consensus is that “there was a class dimension to the hostility towards butch lesbian identities,” the illustrations in Sappho normalized butch-femme pairings. Along with “Mabel and Mildred,” “The Gailies,” for example, was a recurring strip by Jay Francis that featured a butch-femme couple, and a comic by Charlesworth replaced Tarzan with a butch Jane as she rescues a hapless femme damsel.7

The difference between “Stop acting butch,” and these other examples is that the former is stripped of any extraneous cultural markers, thanks to the reduction of our protagonists to symbols. In other words, the visual humor is based not on our ability to recognize a human type from their class/race/gender markers, but rather on a visual pun: the Venus symbol is acting out of character by rotating itself 135º anticlockwise—thereby mimicking the appearance of a different symbol.

The cartoon is immediately funny, but it also rewards sustained attention. Consider the effectiveness of the symbol’s transgressive resignification of itself: acceding to the anthropomorphism of the artist, we understand perfectly what the Venus symbol intends to represent—masculinity. At the same time, we understand the artist’s intent: to represent masculinity with a symbol that signifies femininity. The humor comes from our ability to comprehend both meanings at once, almost instantly, without this pedantic explanation. And then we realize that the artist is inviting us to transfer that awareness onto our understanding of gender: in the semiotic space of the tilted Venus, one sign signifies twice, equally effectively, because signs—and genders—are both arbitrary cultural constructions.

Louise Siddons, May 2021

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Endnotes
1 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12; “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
2 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12.
3 Rod A. Martin and Thomas E. Ford, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Academic Press, 2018).
4 Not exclusively, though: there’s a cartoon with two Venus symbols sharing a snide comment as the Mars sign bumps his arrow into a doorframe—and even Mildred gets an opportunity to turn her nose up at the thought of a man as a potential mate.
5 “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
6 “Militant Madams,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 9-10; Jackie Forster, untitled editorial, Sappho 4, no. 1 (1975): 3.
7 Steven Dryden, https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/arena-three-britains-first-lesbian-magazine; “The Gailies” first appear in Sappho 1, no. 7 (1972); Kate Charlesworth, “Me Jane!,” Sappho 2, no. 11 (1974): 20.