Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

18 October 2013

Black History at the British Library

Despite the media’s promotion of Black History Month every October, every month is BHM here in the British Library.   As the curator in charge of our UK publications in this regard, I’ve uncovered numerous books and magazines that you wouldn’t find with obvious keyword searches of our catalogue. 

Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus (1964) is about Jamaican novelists, while David Katz’ People Funny Boy (2000) is a biography of the famous reggae producer, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.   Even some local government agencies have done their share of documenting the African Diaspora in Britain too : London’s Wandsworth Council published Gloria Locke’s Caribbeans in Wandsworth (1992), while the Nottinghamshire Living History Archive printed up Louise Garvey’s Lives of Black Nurses in Nottingham (2002).


Magazine article about Althea McNish with a photo of her
From Tropic August 1960 (P.P.7615.kf)

But it’s the magazines and newspapers that are special.  In 1948, Edward Scobie published Checkers – “Britain’s Premier Negro Magazine,” presenting a mix of music, stage, literature, politics and fine art.  That year the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury with almost 500 Jamaican émigrés, launching decades of immigration from the Caribbean.  But although the community presence in Britain goes back centuries beforehand, there wasn’t yet a big enough readership to support such a magazine.  So Checkers folded after five issues, in January 1949.

Five years later, A.P. Pulleyn-Holden published, Bronze (PP.5939.BFA), with editorial help from Mr Scobie and the dance teacher Buddy Bradley, who’d helped everyone from film star Fred Astaire to bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson.   Although they kept readers up to date about Black progress in politics, sports, and finance, the team at Bronze excelled in featuring popular musical acts, including singer Lena Horne, calypso artist Marie Bryant, the best-selling pianist-singer Winifred Atwell, and even the future Avant Garde jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott.  Still, this periodical lasted just six issues (1954–1955).

By 1960 the prospect of publishing appealed to Charles I. Ross and so, with Edward Scobie (again), Patrick Williams, and Molly Douglas, he established Tropic.  This title was more ambitious, with African and West Indian politics in an increasingly post-colonial world, Black cinema, the BBC Overseas Service, and even short stories. Almost two decades before Rock against Racism they were campaigning for Music against Apartheid.  And in the spirit of friendly competition, they promoted Claudia Jones’ West Indian Gazette (1958-1969).  Although Jones established what we now refer to as the Notting Hill Carnival, Tropic didn’t get to push it.  Their role was replaced by Flamingo (PP.5109.bq), with Edward Scobie again at the helm, which published 1961-1963.

Staff of West Indian Gazette with editor Claudia Jones 

From Tropic April 1960 (P.P.7615.kf) 

This was an era of journalism demanding that movie makers “Cut Uncle Tom films,” railing against “Landlords’ Terror Tactics” and BBC TV’s demeaning Black and White Minstrel Show, and asking “Why not a coloured Miss Universe?”  Niche mags came later, such as Grass Roots (1971), Black Echoes : Today’s Music Weekly (1976-), Wealth : The Black Business Magazine (1986-), and Vibes & Voices (2006-). 

But as the mainstream Black press didn’t re-appear until The Voice, in 1982, we are grateful for these earlier ventures.

Andy Simons
Curator, Printed Historical Sources  Cc-by



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