American Collections blog

14 posts categorized "Women's histories"

14 October 2021

Americas and Oceania e-Resources: An Introduction

In light of the recent unprecedented demand for digital materials, we’ve decided to run a year-long series of monthly blogposts highlighting the extraordinarily rich Americas and Oceania-focused e-resources that are held at the British Library. Although most of these e-resources need to be consulted in-person in the Library’s Reading Rooms, some are accessible remotely to Reader’s Pass holders and we are hopeful that this number will continue to rise.

In terms of content, e-resources fall into two broad categories: full-text and bibliographic. The former will give you all or most of a particular item, be that a book, journal article, map, letter, playbill, diary, logbook, newspaper article, photo or minutes of a meeting. The latter will simply provide you with citations which you then need follow up elsewhere - in the Library’s Main Catalogue, for example, or a catalogue at another institution.

Psalmes II
Fig. 1: The Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1640. This was the first book to be published in the American colonies. It can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Over the coming year, these blogs will cover both types of e-resources (full-text and bibliographic) and will clearly flag the kind of access they offer (in-person or remote). Some will focus on particular subjects: for example, US politics, Oceania, or literature of the Americas. Others will focus on certain types of material. Next month, for example, we will look at newspapers, including historic newspapers from the Caribbean, Latin America and the US,  American Indian newspapers, communist newspapers and service newspapers of World War II; many of these are accessible remotely.

All of the Americas and Oceania e-resources can be found in the Library’s Main Catalogue.

However, if you don’t have any titles or you want to get a sense of what the Library holds, please browse the holdings by subject. Currently, there are 130+ e-resources listed under History, for example, many of which have Americas and Oceania content. And more than 110 are listed under American Studies, a selection of which includes: America in World War Two; American Civil Liberties Union Papers; Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century; Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015; First World War Portal; Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange; History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988; History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1880-1990; The Nixon Years; North American Indian Thought and Culture; Slavery & Antislavery: A Transnational Archive; Trade Catalogues and the American Home; and Virginia Company Archives.

Anne bradstreet II
Fig. 2: Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety and Learning...(1678). This anonymous and posthumously published volume of poetry by Anne Bradstreet was the first work by a woman to be published in the American colonies. It can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Finally, I’ll just say a few words about one of my personal favourites: Early American Imprints: Series I: Evans, 1639-1800.  Based on the 14-volume work by US bibliographer Charles Evans, this incredible database provides the full-text of almost every book, pamphlet and periodical published on American soil in the 17th and 18th centuries.And once you have a Reader’s Pass, you can access it whenever and wherever you wish! Among its many treasures are The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640) – the first work published in the American colonies (Fig 1, above). Anne Bradstreet’s self-revised and posthumously published Several Poems Completed with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678) – the first book by a woman to be published in North America (Fig.2, above). And An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World…(1784) by Hannah Adams – the first woman in the United States to make her living as a writer (Fig. 3, below).

Hannah adams
Fig. 3: Hannah Adams, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects...(1784). Adams was the first American woman to make her living as a writer and this was her first book; it can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Happy browsing!

Next month we will look at the Library's huge range of Americas-focused e-newspapers. 

(And if you would like to learn more about the British Library's holdings of works by early American women writers, please take a look at 'For Myself, For My Children, For Money': A Bibliography of Early American Women's Writings at the British Library on the the Eccles Centre's website.)

References:

Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America ... 14 vols. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 HRL 015.73

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 July 2021

Hazel Daniels: Pepperpot Philosophising

This is the ninth and final blog 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 Hazel Daniels who was born in Guyana in 1946. Training and practicing as a radiographer in Georgetown, she then married Omar Daniels in 1973 and moved to the UK in 1975, where they have lived ever since, raising their three children. An enthusiastic home cook, Hazel likes to experiment with different cuisines and flavours in the kitchen, but is guided by her Guyanese roots. This blog focuses on Hazel’s descriptions of Guyanese ingredients and dishes alongside her philosophy of food and health, but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Black and white photo of hazel in a white headress
Wedding photo of Hazel, photograph courtesy of Hazel Daniels

Pepperpot

‘if you want to take something forward, into the future, I think it has to be pepperpot’

Pepperpot

Pot with stew on a stove
Pepperpot cooked by Hazel, courtesy of Hazel Daniels

All the participants of Guyanese heritage that I have interviewed for the Caribbean Foodways oral history project spoke about pepperpot. A dish with First Nations origins, pepperpot is history in a bowl. Paying tribute to the First Nations people of Guyana, ‘the people who were there hundreds and hundreds of years … before the colonies,’ Hazel explains the intriguing process of making this historic meal. The key ingredient is cassareep, which is made from boiling cassava for hours, until the pristine white flesh of the root becomes a ‘dark substance.’ The seemingly magical ‘preservative quality’ of the cassareep means that this rich stew, which is made from combining meat, fish or vegetables with the dark sauce, does not need to be refrigerated and it sits on the back of the stove, being eaten day in and day out until the pepperpot is gone!

Also commenting on the importance of the cassava to 'Guinan natives', Rev. J. G. Wood's exploratory index to Charles Waterton's, Wanderings in South America (1882) described how boiled cassava was then 'flavoured with red-pepper' to become the 'well-known cassareep' and that 'when the palate has become accustomed to the inordinate amount of red pepper, is not only nourishing but appetizing.'1 Moreover, 'the pot is never cleaned, so that, as it is very thick, very soft, and very porous, it absorbs the juices.'2 Alongside Hazel's interview and recipes, Wood's glossary evokes the continuity of cassareep in Guyana's foodways.  

Front cover with drawings
Tom Brown's School Days, Wanderings in South America, Old Christmas and Bracebridge Hall (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
 
Text and illustrations about cassava and cassareep
Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
 

In Olive Senior’s introduction to Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, the poet states that: ‘One thing that unites us in the Caribbean is food, especially the melange: we all love pepperpot by any name - calalu or sancocho or ‘Saturday soup.”’3 Like many Caribbean dishes, pepperpot embodies cultures of creolisation and adaptability that reflect the region more broadly. Hence, there are numerous versions of pepperpot. ‘Pepperpot a la Jamaican’ that is featured below, does not include cassareep. The article sarcastically claims that ‘We are told that our pepperpot is but a poor imitation of the real thing which originated in British Guiana’. Likewise, the version described in recent Netflix series, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (based on food historian, Jessica B. Harris’s book), seems closer to a take on oxtail stew. ‘The most popular dish in Philadelphia in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,’ chef and artist, Omar Tate, explains that pepperpot was sold by free women of colour who made a living as street vendors.4

Black and white page from a magazine
Pepperpot. Annual Jamaican potpourri (1951) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.

Caribbean Guyanese Food is...

a language that we can virtually all communicate with, even without speaking’

Attuned to the variance and connectivity that encompasses the Caribbean region, Hazel compares Guyana’s ‘racing rivers’ to the island nations of the region that have ‘beautiful beaches and blue water.’ Whilst highlighting the distinctiveness of Guyana as a mainland country, located on the South American continent, she believes that the ‘roots are virtually the same … we understand each other, we eat each other’s food.’ This understanding is the outcome of the region’s history, where all these societies have been profoundly shaped by the African diaspora.

Sketch of a waterfall
James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.

Experimenting in the Kitchen

Playing with English Food

Hazel moved to England in 1975 to join her husband, Omar Daniels, who was studying psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Having trained as a radiographer in Guyana, she started working at King’s College Hospital. Upon moving to England, Hazel noticed that ‘the food was different,’ it lacked ‘that extra bit’ from the food she had grown up with – the wonders of fresh thyme, juicy tomatoes, papayas and garlic that smelt ‘to high heaven.’ Inviting her new colleagues round for dinner, Hazel would ‘try to create’ classic English dishes with ‘a little twist’ by adding a stick of cinnamon, sweet peppers or pomegranate molasses (that she likens to cassareep), which seemed revolutionary to her dinner guests who were bowled over by her food.

Cooking and Freedom

This playful approach to cooking, which contrasted with Hazel’s serious and accurate line of work as a radiographer, offered a feeling a freedom. Describing herself as a maverick in the kitchen, Hazel speaks about being ‘free to try new things’ without the constraints of a cookbook or scales. Always inspired by other cuisines, Hazel’s food has been influenced by the aromas and textures of Egypt, where Omar received a scholarship to study medicine (and her paternal grandfather had fought for the British army). Talking me through her favourite meals, she describes cooking melting lamb and rice with almonds and fruits, a dish that is traditionally eaten for Iftar, when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. From roast beef and tagines to plant-based stews, Hazel’s repertoire captures her open spirit and tastebuds that are always trying to create not only tasty, but beautiful looking dishes.

Multi-coloured book cover
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
 
Page from cookbook recipe for Fish Creole
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

Finding Rosamund 

Whilst not one for using recipes, Hazel’s ‘Fish Creole with Herb Dressing’ features in Rosamund Grant’s landmark cookbook, Caribbean and African Cookery. Published in 1989, with a foreword by Maya Angelou, it was one of the first Black-British authored cookbooks about Caribbean food. An old friend of Grant’s, the two attended primary school together in Georgetown. Meeting up at her legendary North London restaurant, Bambaya, Hazel reminisces about the joys of eating at a restaurant that served ‘all the food that we remembered.’ As Grant explains in her own oral history with the British Library, ‘Europeans tend to see Caribbean food in a particular way,’ for example, it is stereotyped as ‘spicy’ or ‘exotic.’5 In defiant response to this, Grant stated ‘I will define who I am and I will define … what I’m cooking.’6 Much like her schoolfriend, Hazel has forged her own personal and culinary path.

Food Philosophy

‘food is so much more than sustenance’

Food and Health

Given her lengthy career in healthcare, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that Hazel's food philosophy is embedded in a belief that food is a ‘preventative medicine.’ Throughout the interview, she often highlights the mineral and vitamin qualities of certain ingredients, such as getting magnesium from avocados, nuts and raisins. Much like this page in the health section of a West Indian cookery book, Hazel has wide-ranging knowledge of food’s nutritional value, which was partly shaped by her parent’s emphasis on maintaining a balanced diet and eating well.

Chart of ingredients and nutritional value
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.

Food, Happiness and Identity

As Hazel sets out in her philosophy, ‘culture and food are integral to the sense of identity … of every human being.’ Food has shaped Hazel’s life profoundly and that of her children, to whom she has passed down an adaptable Guyanese culinary heritage that lives on through the spices that they rub, coat or add to food. As the last blog in the Caribbean Foodway series, I think that Hazel’s food philosophy is the perfect note to end on, as it encompasses the centrality of food in the politics of health, community, history and identity formation. In the words of the remarkable Hazel Daniels … ‘it’s what defines us all and brings us all together’!

I will leave you all with Hazel’s recipe for a classic Guyanese pepperpot, which she has generously shared. The Caribbean Foodways series may be over for now, but I invite you all to continue your exploration of Caribbean cooking by trying out the recipes shared in these blogs by our wonderful participants. Whether it is Ranette Prime’s Trini Phoulourie, or Ann Husband’s Green Banana Salad, tweet us with photographs of what you’ve cooked @BL_EcclesCentre!

Recipe
Hazel’s Pepper-pot Recipe, courtesy of Hazel Daniels

Thank you Hazel Daniels 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 previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality

Further reading / references

  • 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.
  • Hazel Daniels interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, April 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021)
  • James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
  • Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to the America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) British Library Shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.70649
  • Annual Jamaican potpourri, 1951 – 1969 Reprint (Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1970) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.
  • Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014) British Library Shelfmark YKL.2015.a.1788
  • Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
  • Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35
  • Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
  1. Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882), pp.50-51
  2.  Ibid, p.51. 
  3. Olive Senior, ‘Preface’, in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014), pp.11-16 (p.11).
  4. High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021).
  5. Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35.
  6. Ibid.

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

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Anselm Berkeley: From Field to Shelf to Plate

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.

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 next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Anselm Berkely: From Field to Shelf to Plate

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

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 next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Ranette Prime: food and identity in Britain

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner

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

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, Birdie 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, Birdie’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 next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Charlie Phillips: the story behind Smokey Joe's Diner

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival

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

_______________________
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.

08 March 2021

Sor Juana's reply: a 17th century feminist manifesto

For International Women's Day 2021, we have a guest post from our European Studies colleague, Barry Taylor, which celebrates the 17th century Mexican poet, dramatist and scholar, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
 
Painting of Sor Juana sat at desk with book and writing quill by Andrés de Islas (1772). Image in public domain
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1772)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born near Mexico City, the most glorious city in the Americas, in 1651. (Paula Findlen points out that whereas the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote about the pyramids of the Egyptians, Sor Juana could see Aztec pyramids out of the window.) She was a swotty girl who seems to have had no objection to entering a nunnery, a traditional home for intellectual women in the Middle Ages and early modern period. She was famed for her highly wrought and learned poetry and drama in the style of Góngora, and wrote successfully for the court on festival themes and the cloister on religious themes (including hymns in Nahuatl) until 1693.  She was commissioned to write the text for a Triumphal Arch erected for the entry of Viceroy Marqués de la Laguna in 1680. 

Her downfall was caused by her involvement in a pamphlet war.  In 1650 Fr António Vieira SJ wrote a Sermón del mandato.  Sor Juana criticised his biblical scholarship in 1690 in the Carta atenagórica alias Crisis sobre un sermón … (Letter of Athena alias Criticism of a Sermon …).  It was printed without her permission and the elogious title wasn’t hers as it was applied by the man who published it. In 1691 Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla, under a female pseudonym, brought out the Letter of Sor Filotea de la Cruz. Sor Filotea was in favour of women’s education at a high level, but thought that to use it in public life was a form of sinful pride.  ‘She’ is in favour of Christian letters but not pagan.

Sor Juana wrote in 1691 the Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz.  The reply is about six times the length of the first letter. She includes some striking personal touches: as at the age of 6 or 7 she asked her mother to send her to the new university dressed as a boy (‘mudándome el traje’) but mother said no. Looking back, Sor Juana saw this was the right decision. The child started to work through her grandfather’s library.  She measured her learning by reference to her hair.  She cut her hair, and set herself the target of mastering a certain subject by the time her hair grew back.  But ‘my hair grew fast and my understanding was slow’.  In the convent she was told not to study in books, so she studied things. She says cryptically: ‘if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more’. (I assume she’s thinking of Aristotle the scientist, and observer of nature: see Leroy.)

She unleashes a plethora of women, biblical and pagan, who had been poets. (You can see more of these in Jane Stevenson’s book.) Sor Juana agrees that St Paul had bidden women to keep silence in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34), but deduces that this means that women can study and write at home.  And when Paul says men can preach, he means only godly and learned men.  Just as not all men (e.g. Lutherans) should preach, so not all women should be forbidden. Sor Juana addresses the Church’s attitudes to poetry.  The Bible is largely written in poetry, so the objection is to pagan literature.  Sor Juana says pagan literature can be perverted but is not bad in itself. (Humanists had reconciled pagan and Christian literature 100-150 years before.) She agrees with Sor Filotea that Paul put limits on learning for men as well as women when he said (Rom 12:3) ‘non plus sapere quam oportet sapere, sed sapere ad sobrietatem’. (The Vulgate makes this a warning about knowledge, but nowadays it’s taken as a warning against pride: ‘I say to every man that is among you … not to think of himself more highly than he ought, but to think soberly AV; see Ginzburg.) The Church allows women to write, ‘but I do not have the talent to write’ (untrue, and she knew it). She points out that in the Carta she had been critical of Vieira’s biblical scholarship, not of the Bible itself, and concludes: ‘if my critics think the Carta is heretical, they they should report me to the Inquisition’. 
 
In 1693 Sor Juana ceased to write and in 1694 she sold her library to aid the poor.  She died in 1695. In the twentieth century, Américo Castro called her ‘a martyr to intelligence’; Alberto G. Salceda called the Respuesta ‘the Magna Carta of the intellectual liberty of the women of America’. 

Fama, y Obras posthumas del Fenix de Mexico, ... Sor J. I. de la Cruz, etc. [Edited by J. I. de Castorena y Ursua.] Madrid, 1700 (11450.ee.51.)
In 1700, five years after her death, tributes to Sor Juana were collected in "Fama y obras posthumas del Fénix de México dezima musa, poetisa americana, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz/ A celebration of and posthumous works by the Phoenix of Mexico and Tenth Muse, the Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz" BL shelfmark 11450.ee.51.

 

Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Studies

References:

Paula Findlen (ed.),  Athanasius Kircher : The Last Man who Knew Everything  (London, 2004) YC.2006.a.4592 
 
Carlo Ginzberg, ‘ High and Low: The Theme of Forbidden Knowledge in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Past & Present, 73 (Nov 1976), 28-41. PP.5939.be

Armand Marie Leroy, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London, 2014) YC.2015.a.9726 
 
Jane Stevenson, Latin Women Poets (Oxford, 2008) YC.2009.a.3621 

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