THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

17 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

22 June 2021

Windrush Day: Bristol’s Princess Campbell

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Today is Windrush Day, a day which honours the contributions and hardships of the British Caribbean community and those who travelled to the UK after the Second World War to help rebuild Britain and start a new life. To mark the day we have a guest blog from one of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’s (UOSH) hub partners Bristol Archives, to tell the inspiring story of one of Bristol’s members of the Windrush generation, Princess Campbell.

Princess Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1939. As a young woman, she became one of the estimated half-a-million people from Commonwealth countries who answered the call for migrant workers in England. She came to Bristol in 1962, where she trained as a nurse and became the city’s first black ward sister.

In recent years, she became one of Bristol’s best-known members of the Windrush generation. Through the UOSH project, we can now hear about Princess’s life in England in her own words.

Photo of Princess Campbell

Pictured above: Princess Campbell in her nurse’s uniform (Bristol Archives, 44459/Ph/2/4).

In 2007, schoolchildren, involved in the ‘Easton and Us’ local heritage project, interviewed local residents to find out about their lives in Easton from the 1930s to the present day.

These oral histories, held at Bristol Archives, were recently made available for research through UOSH. Originally held on minicassettes, the recordings have been digitised so that we can once again hear the voices and experiences of the people who took part.

Princess Campbell was one of those interviewed and her story is compelling, from her experiences of racism to the many ways she fought against discrimination.

Keen to establish herself in a profession, Princess considered becoming a teacher before choosing to train as a nurse. Once qualified, she worked for years but encountered barriers when she sought to progress her career. She tells the children who interviewed her how hard black people have to work to prove themselves; in this clip, she talks about working hard to gain as many qualifications as she could.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip one

Download Princess Campbell clip one transcript

Despite her skills in both general nursing and psychiatric nursing, Princess was passed over for promotion to ward sister. She describes how support from fellow staff helped her to overcome resistance to appointing a black woman and she was eventually appointed to this role.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip two

Download Princess Campbell clip two transcript

Princess also talks about wider problems of discrimination for the growing black community. As she explains in this clip, she arrived in Bristol to find black people had little access to good jobs or decent homes. To solve the housing problem, she was involved in setting up a housing association to help both black and white people to find affordable accommodation.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip three

Download Princess Campbell clip three transcript

Through her determination to bring about change, Princess was also involved in other movements. Soon after her arrival in England, she was involved in the Bristol bus boycott, a campaign against the local bus company’s refusal to employ black drivers and conductors.

The boycott was led by the activist Paul Stephenson but as Princess says, ‘I was one of the protestors - I can't help it... we would have our banners out there and protest peacefully and decently’. Ultimately, the bus company changed their policy and began to recruit black staff, although racism from other passengers was also a common experience.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip four

Download Princess Campbell clip four transcript

Later on, Princess was also active in the aftermath of another high-profile protest. In April 1980, the St Paul’s riots in Bristol were a response to police treatment of young black people. Princess described attending Parliament to lobby MPs for improved facilities to young people, leading to the creation of a new youth centre.

Towards the end of her life, Princess’s achievements were recognised and celebrated. A few years after this interview was recorded, she received an OBE for services to the community. In Bristol, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol and a nurses’ training centre was named after her at the University of the West of England. When she died in 2015, crowds lined the streets of Easton for her funeral procession.

This recording complements other material documenting the experiences of black people that can be found in the collections at Bristol Archives. Princess was a founder member of the Bristol Black Archives Partnership. Through this venture, people and organisations from Bristol’s African-Caribbean community - including people involved in the bus boycott - deposited records and personal papers with the archives. Available for research alongside these records, Princess’s interview adds a personal insight into the lives of people from the Windrush generation who made their home here.

Three logos - UOSH - Heritage Fund - Bristol Archives

This post was written by Allie Dillon from Bristol Archives.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @bristolarchives for more updates from the UOSH project teams.

18 June 2021

Walk in their footsteps: Windrush Voices, a new digital education programme at the British Library

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I still remember it like it was yesterday. The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. The level of excitement about us as the host nation was at a fever pitch. There was a lot of talk around Danny Boyle’s plans for an very epic opening ceremony and what an amazing performance it was. There was one particular moment that has stayed with me the most in my memories of that event.

At the center of the multi-media stage was a recreation of the industrial revolution. Circling the stage were different moving milestones of British history to be proud of. Amongst this comes a large prop of a boat, smoke billowing from its engines and a gathered group of black men and women striding forward:

And others would come from other lands. In particular from the West Indies

These words were said by a BBC commenter as we watched in awe. It felt incredibly significant to include a generation who answered the call of the ‘mother country’‘ in Britain’s hour of need. My grandparents were part of that generation. Travelling from Barbados and Jamaica to Britain during the 1960s. However I found their stories were rarely taught or spoken about in school when I was a student. As a Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of the Windrush Voices educational programme, I do feel a sense of pride in providing a very unique opportunity for their stories to be heard by a new generation of students.

On Windrush Day as we celebrate the efforts of this generation in our society, the Windrush Voices team will host a special online event perfect for secondary and sixth form history teachers.

Windrush Voices is a digital education programme based on the themes of the exhibition ‘Songs in A Strange Land’ which featured at The British Library in 2018. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation. The event is designed to support and inspire teachers to use the ‘Windrush Voices’ resource in schools with 15-18 year old's. Places are still available to book.

Using stories from the Library’s oral history enables you to share people’s personal stories as they witnessed them. Not only do we hear them in their words but we are able to gain an understanding of what impact this moment has had on them today. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation, perspectives that they may never before have considered.

Our programme breaks down into three areas, so we can focus on the Windrush Generation and the second generation’s lived experiences in regards to childhood, work and activism. By encouraging in-depth listening, we then post these questions to the students:

  • What it was like to arrive in Britain? What was school like?
  • What was it working in Britain?
  • What challenges did the Windrush Generation face in Britain?
  • What steps did Windrush Generation take to make a difference?

As learners are encouraged to dissect personal accounts, there is also space to further understand how oral history is produced and may inspire them to talk more to members of their own families and communities.

Portrait photograph of Vanley Burke in front of framed photographsVanley Burke, Image Courtesy of Birmingham Post & Mail, 2014

Vanley Burke was born in 1951 in Jamaica and came to Britain in 1965 at age of 14. He is considered to be the godfather of black British photography. In his oral history recording about his career as a photographer, he gave a window into what he was going to school in Britain as a child.

Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child (C459/217)

Download Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child Transcript

In this very short account we discover there is quite a lot for us to unpack. Burke’s words paint a very clear picture of a lawless rough environment where he did not feel safe. By noting the silence, the laughter and his choice of words we are able to gain far more than if we simply read Burke’s account.

Portrait image of Sonia McIntosh sitting on a chairSonia McIntosh, Image from Caribeean Social Forum video, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films

Alongside the bad experience of racism and prejudice, we are able to see the resolve many within the Windrush Generation took to make a real systemic change in UK society. Sonia McIntosh began working as a civil servant at Parliament. To combat the fact that not enough black people were ascending to higher positions or work in parliament, she and her colleagues formed a group to encourage black people in the workplace.

Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH

Download Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH Transcript

Sonia McIntosh was one of many traversing uncharted waters to make lasting change for the generations to come.

The lasting impact of the Windrush scandal is also reflected in our final portion of our resources. With the context of the past, learners & educators can see a full picture as to why this betrayal cuts in incredibly deeply for the Windrush Generation. We are hopeful that learning the stories of their personal lived experiences can have a positive impact on future chapters of Windrush Generation’s story.

The Windrush Generation came to Britain at a crucial time. Their efforts have been woven into the fabric of what makes Britain great. It has been an honour and privilege for the team and I to provide a platform for their incredible stories to be heard. We greatly look forward to this event on 22 June, and hope that teachers and students are inspired to use Windrush Stories in the classroom.

Blog by Reuben Massiah, Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of Windrush Voices, British Library Learning

13 May 2021

Eid Mubarak: Celebrations marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month

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In today’s blog, Charlotte Wardley, Project Support Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), shares some recordings from our sound archive related to Eid. Charlotte is joined by Saba Syed, Chair of the British Library’s BAME Network, to talk about Ramadan and Eid.

Today is Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and each month is 29 or 30 days long. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims across the UK and worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, community and reflection.

Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory festival which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month. That makes ‘Eid eve’, otherwise called ‘Chand Raat’ (meaning ‘night of the moon’) in the Indian sub-continent, an exciting time. Everyone checks in with each other to see whether a new moon - which marks the new month and start of Eid - has been sighted.

New moon at sunset - photo by bartb_pt

Above: New moon at sunset,  'Ramadan رمضان' by bartb_pt  - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In some Islamic communities you will find people on the rooftops, eagerly scouting the sky for signs of a thin new crescent moon. If it is sighted, then Eid is declared for the following day by local mosques. If a new moon hasn’t been sighted, then it’s another day of fasting with confirmation that Eid will follow the day after.

In the following recording from 2008 from the Moroccan Memories in Britain collection (C1237), interviewee Fatima Serroukh recalls how Ramadan was an exciting time for her as a young girl and she describes the traditional Moroccan foods her family would eat during Iftar. These include dishes such as ‘harira’, which is a soup with lentils, tomato and chickpeas, and ‘chebakia’ which are sesame and honey cookies. Iftar is the meal served after sunset during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. Iftar is often a social event where many friends and family come together.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 1

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 1

Fatima then describes the anticipation of Eid and how her family would prepare for celebrations. She describes the traditional Moroccan outfit called ‘takchita’ that she would plan on wearing. Then on the day of Eid her family would celebrate together by eating breakfast and going to meet friends and family.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 2

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 2

Saba recalls similar feelings of excitement ahead of Eid and when the new moon sighting was finally announced and celebrations would begin:

Growing up, I remember the flurry of activity and excitement that would follow the declaration of the sighting of the moon. My sister and I would pull out new clothes and set about ironing them for the family. My mum would be in the kitchen preparing favourite food items for the next day. New outfit, new underwear and bangles, and anything else festive would be laid out in preparation. Then we would sit down to apply henna on each other’s hands. My dad would be liaising with friends as to which morning service we would all aim for. When I was younger, we would all attend Eid prayer at London Central Mosque on Regent Street, and the car journey there would be an event in itself. More recently, we coordinate and attend one of the hourly services at Harrow mosque, or one of the prayers organised in a local park.

Following the prayer we gather and meet other friends and families, enjoy the food stalls and ice cream. Then we head off to the graveyard, to pay our respects and offer a prayer to the recently deceased, followed by visiting loads of people and eating lots of lovely delicious food. As children we would also look forward to ‘Eidi’ – money handed out by the elders. Now our tradition has shifted and my family buys each other gifts, and so there will be one point in the day when immediate family will get together, hand out gifts and enjoy watching everyone rip off the wrapping and delight in their new presents.

The final recording featured on this blog comes from our Head of Sound and Vision, Janet Topp Fargion’s collection, which was recently digitised by the UOSH project. It was recorded at a fairground in Zanzibar in 1989 during Iddi Mossi (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations, where many people from the town and rural areas gathered for festivities, food and lots of fun. You can hear the celebratory atmosphere, with the adhan in the background, which is the Islamic call to prayer, and the Beni brass band in procession around the fairground. Beni is one of Zanzibar’s best-loved celebratory musics and is performed at special occasions.

Listen to Iddi Mossi fairground - Janet Topp Fargion collection

Shelfmark: C724/2/6 © Janet Topp Fargion.

It is the second year Eid celebrations will be different for many Muslims across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Saba reflects on the ways in which her family have been finding moments to celebrate together during the lockdown:

This is the second year Ramadan has passed during lockdown, and last year there was no congregational prayers in mosques. Instead, we had our own family prayer with our immediate families socially distanced in the garden. Last year, my parents stayed indoors and observed us in the garden through the window of their house, until the final moment when they came out to pray before dashing back inside afterwards. My mum had prepared her usual feast for us, which was laid out in the conservatory, and we all helped ourselves and sat in the garden to eat as she watched us through the window, happy in the knowledge that her children were still with her on Eid, even with social distancing.

We wish our Muslim friends and family Eid Mubarak and despite the sadness, loss and difficulties many have experienced since last Eid, we hope those of you reading this blog and listening to these recordings will come together in a moment of celebration.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for updates from the UOSH Project team.

Thank you to Saba Syed for generously sharing her memories and knowledge, to those who feature in the sound recordings, and thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Andrea Zarza, Janet Topp Fargion and Mary Stewart for their help preparing this blog.

17 December 2020

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

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By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

16 November 2020

Recording of the week: Music and singing for the Tihar Festival in Nepal

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This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Tihar (Diwali) festival celebrations in Pokhara, Nepal
"20121113-Nepal-trekking-5-Pokhara-ARZH5002E" by zhushman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tihar (also called Diwali) is a five day Hindu festival celebrated in Nepal. It usually takes place in the Nepali month, Kartik (end of October to November). The festival is in honour of Laksmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune. Animals including crows, dogs, cows are also worshipped. Tihar is known as the festival of lights, as diyas (oil lamps) and festive lanterns are lit, illuminating homes and temples.

In this recording, we hear a group of campus students and staff in the small Nepali town of Gorkha Bajar, performing a Deusire song. They are singing and playing instruments including harmonium, madal and kartal. Deusire (or Deusi Re), are traditional call-and-response songs that are sung during the Tihar festival celebrations in Nepal. Traditionally, troupes of children and teenagers sing the songs and dance as they visit homes in their community, giving blessings for prosperity and collecting money, sweets and food.

Tihar git (deusire) (BL REF C1465/44)

This recording was made October 29th 1987 and is part of the Carol Tingey Collection (C1465/44). You can listen to more recordings from this collection on British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

26 October 2020

Recording of the week: Go on then, tell me about the duppies

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This week's selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

‘Go on then, tell me about the duppies...’ Made in 1976, at Princess Junior School in Moss Side, Manchester, this recording captures a group of schoolboys talking about duppies, the malevolent ghosts of Caribbean folklore, or, as the boys put it: spirits of dead people that come alive at midnight.

Princess_Road_in_Moss_Side _Manchester
Princess Road in Moss Side, Manchester, showing Princess Road Park nearby where Princess Junior School was located.

The conversation begins in an atmosphere of lively, scary fun with plenty of laughter over stories about salt cellars moving without warning and unseen presences casting shadows on the wall. Gradually, as the boys open up, they begin to confide their real feelings, talking about fears of sleeping alone and the effects of watching too many scary films. As an afterthought, and a reminder that ghost stories are sometimes preferable to reality, one of them remarks that he doesn’t like watching the news ‘because you see too many horrible things’.

So what is a duppy? As one of the boys says ‘If a duppy catch you you’ll soon find out’.

Duppies (BL REF C1829/670 S2)

Download Transcript - 'Go on then tell me about the duppies'

Made by Ian Mulley in 1976 as part of his research towards his M.A. dissertation 'Aspects of the West Indian Culture and its Survival in an Urban English Environment - Manchester', this recording is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, which consists of sound recordings of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983, and dialect-related sound recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute. The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

02 October 2020

Banned in South Africa: Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

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It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in which the possession of a vinyl record of a Christian minister would be illegal.

But this did happen, and not so long ago. The year was 1966; the country was South Africa; and the speaker was Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

King disc label

In July 1966, the disc pictured above was distributed to 1200 church and community leaders throughout South Africa. The South African Publications Control Board banned the record on 19 August that same year, with no reason given. A police spokesperson reportedly said that mere possession of the disc would be grounds for prosecution.

This was at a time when the minority white population dominated the majority black population through the system of ‘apartheid’. Apartheid was a policy of legalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa for most of the second half of the twentieth century.

Two years before this incident, future president Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned: a 'life sentence' that was to last 27 years.

The disc features a speech by Dr King given in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, in October, 1964, at a meeting of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. It included a call for US society and its churches to cleanse themselves of racism. It seems this was not a message the South African authorities wanted people to hear.

The records were pressed and distributed by the Rev. Dale White (an Anglican priest, and director of the Wilgespruit Christian Fellowship Center near Johannesburg) and Bode Wegerif (an executive in a Johannesburg publishing company).

The British Library only acquired a copy of this rare record in 2019, when it was kindly donated to the collection by Jannie Oosthuizen.

Jannie wrote at the time:

The LP record was in the record collection of my father, D.C.S. Oosthuizen. He died in 1969, but we remember the record as children, and played it from time to time.

We never noticed that it didn’t have Martin Luther King’s name on the label, and I had assumed incorrectly that it had been bought on sabbatical in the states in 1968.

But in finding it again recently and looking up the history, I realise that it must have been sent to him (as a South African church leader) when the record was first distributed in 1966.

A contemporary press release about the banning, with quotes from Dr King, is available to view on the web site of the African Activist Archive.

01 October 2020

‘Using your eyes as a pen’ – Black British Poets in Performance

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By Dr Hannah Silva, British writer and performer and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Paula Varjack
Paula Varjack selfie.

“What you actually do is you use your eyes as a pen,” David J is telling me how he learned to freestyle, “off the dome.” We’re sitting in a studio at the British Library, recording an interview for an archive: Black British Poets in Performance.

David J developed his craft out loud. When freestyling “it’s your life really that gets played out.” He describes hiding in a corner: “a silent child hears more.” He picked up vocabulary from books in the family home, medical journals and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and integrated it into his freestyling, “we can have fun ’cause my family is medical so we’re gonnna do vocal autopsies so everyone is… ah! nah he’s gonna rip em apart... nah I’m gonna do it clinically, ’cause mum’s a health visitor.”

Throughout these interviews it becomes clear that writing ‘out loud’ and ‘on the page’ are not differentiated practices, that performance is as much a part of ‘writing’ as writing is performance.

Here’s Anthony Joseph discussing how vocalising a poem can connect you to “other musical ideas”:

Anthony Joseph [47.55-48.24] ref. C1874_1

Download Anthony Joseph transcript.

Vocalisation is a way of embodying writing, engaging not just the ears in listening, but the breath, diaphragm, larynx, and vocal folds. Malika Booker comments that she likes to walk whilst she writes: “because I need to get the rhythm, I need to hear things I need to feel things […] writing is not just a solitary sitting down act.”

In the padded windowless room David J is looking at me, “you see Hannah” and looking around: “you see: speaker” and now he’s inhaling the words and mixing them with “what’s inside of you… your thought.”

David J [17.56-18.33] ref. C1874_15

Download David J transcript.

Kayo Chingonyi comments that “the label of ‘poetry’ has shrunk over the centuries”, that performance has often not been accorded the same importance as “dancing that intellect on the page.” He analyses the racialised aspect of labels such as spoken word and performance poetry and how this is linked “to having bodies”:

Kayo Chingonyi [26.37-27.30] ref. C1874_9

Download Kayo Chingonyi transcript.

Jacob Sam-La Rose discusses the importance of having spoken word and performance poetry in archives that can be accessed by poets developing their craft:

Jacob Sam-La Rose [19.50-20.40] ref. C1874_16

Download Jacob Sam-La Rose transcript.

This is that kind of resource.

These interviews feel groundbreaking because of the depth to which each poet discusses their craft. As Malika Booker says, this is “an artform that needs to be interrogated.” Every interview is over an hour long, and is accompanied by readings. We discuss how labels can exclude, and conversely how self-naming can be a creative act. We have conversations about the Black British voice, the Lyric I, presence, audiences, artistic development, performance poetry criticism, and poetry within theatre. We discuss influences and inspirations, and zoom in on moments of writing and performing.

Booker writes on her feet both at the early compositional stage, and sometimes in performance. In our interview she explains that her poem ‘My Mother’s Blues’ was edited in performance in response to her audience. Initially she wasn’t “sure how to use the ‘pain’.” She wrote “twenty-six drafts, trying to figure it out.” It was only when she did it for an audience that she realised the poem was “important.” Her description provides an example of how the body, voice and audience can all play a part in the writing of poetry, she treated “the performance space as a laboratory.” It also illustrates the interactive joys of a poetry night:

Malika Booker [45.50-52.00] ref. C1847_12

Download Malika Booker transcript.

Other unforgettable moments in this archive include Paula Varjack revealing that her name and performance persona were constructed around a pair of sunglasses. Lemn Sissay, whom I interviewed by a pool in Brazil, demonstrating how he started to deconstruct the moment of performance as it happens, and how he uses gesture as part of his writing (read more here: Lemn Sissay: Defamiliarsation and Performed Palimpsests. There’s Inua Ellams on guerrilla gardening, Karen McCarthy Woolf on vulnerability and hybridity and how trauma made her especially sensitive to sound, and a chat with Raymond Antrobus and Deanna Rodger behind the Latitude Poetry Tent (already a historical event).

Also – we had fun. Here’s Joshua Idehen parodying poetry styles and prosodies:

Joshua Idehen [55.28-56.28] ref. C1874_5

Download Joshua Idehen transcript.

The poets in this archive are there because I wanted to talk to them, and because they were willing to talk to me. My own research interests and my connections and friendships inevitably shaped it. The interviews were recorded several years ago and the poets would record different interviews today, but this archive enables us to, as Sam-La Rose puts it, “chase back movements and ways of thinking.” It is by no means a finished project and I hope it continues to be expanded and that the interviews are an exciting resource that supports further research.

Thank you to all the poets who agreed to talk to me for the archive, and all those who talked to me outside of the British Library context too. So far this archive contains interviews with Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Malika Booker, Kayo Chingonyi, Inua Ellams, Anthony Joseph, Ria Jade Hartley, Joshua Idehen, Keith Jarrett, David J, Chanje Kunda, Deanna Rodgers, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Andra Simons, Lemn Sissay, Mark Mace Smith, Paula Varjack, Indigo Williams and Karen McCarthy Woolf.

The archive was constructed as part of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with Stirling University and The British Library.

This collection is available in the Library's Reading Rooms and will be online next year. If you would like to browse the collection online, please enter C1874 into the Library's Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.