RARELY is a book produced that so accurately reflects its subject matter: Black Country Roots, the story of the African Caribbean people’s experience of life in the Black Country, holds up a mirror to their lives.
But it’s more than simply a book – it’s a fine example of team work because it’s been written by the people themselves who have told their stories in their own words.
The history of their journey is now a familiar one – arriving from the warmth of the Caribbean to a cold, often hostile Britain, which was sold to them as the Motherland that needed rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War.
However, the stories remain fresh because they come from the heart and have been accurately recorded by those who took the time to sit and talk with up to 30 contributors.
And the work has been illustrated by world-class photographs either collected by local people or taken by professionals who find the Black Country and its people so inspiring.
Contributor Hyacinth Jarrett, who made history as the first black person in Sandwell to launch their own business back in the 1960s, told The Voice at the launch: “I have always wanted a book like this to be written because our second, third and fourth generations know so little about our history – and they need to know in order for them to feel more rooted here.
“Every other community seems to document their story, so this is long overdue, but it’s only the surface. More needs to be written.”
In the book Hyacinth is quoted many times. She says of her first experience of Britain: “The first thing that hit me was the bricks on the houses because the only place that had bricks in Jamaica was the prison!”
She told of the racism people experienced and the resilience they showed in response to the lack of acceptance everywhere.
Hyacinth tells of how a group got together to start what became their first credit union. She said: “We used to help each other. It was like a credit union. It still goes on, it’s just trust. We did it through trust – we didn’t let each other down.”
Others tell of the way they were virtually written off by local schools and were told ‘you can’t achieve anything much.’
Errol Drummond is CEO of Sunrise Bakery, which supplied rum cake to every member of the Jamaican Track and Field team when they stayed in Birmingham before London 2012.
He said as a boy growing up in the West Midlands he found school ‘a bit traumatic,’ having been at a grammar school in Jamaica, he was told he would have to go to a secondary modern over here.
He called it ‘his biggest disappointment’ adding: ‘most of us from the Caribbean believe that, at that level, the education standard in the Caribbean was actually higher.’
Commissioned and produced by the Black Country-based charity Multistory, the book was launched at the African Caribbean Resource Centre in West Bromwich, led by centre CEO Shane Ward, with special guest Councillor Julie Webb, Mayor of Sandwell.
Kurly McGeachie, a Birmingham Poet Laureate finalist, was among those who interviewed the contributors. In a poem written specially for the launch, Kurly speaks movingly of visiting some of the Caribbean-born elders as he listened to their stories; one reminded him of his own grandmother as her home was filled with the wonderful aroma of Caribbean cooking.
He wrote: “As they talk, I see and tangibly sense all . . . There’s adventure, disappointment, elation, tears, laughter, resolve.”
He added: “Last week a 71-year-old black lady eloquently asked: ‘What is the return on their investment?
“I stop in my tracks and ask myself this question.
What is the return on my grandmother’s investment?
The answer lies somewhere within the way I live my life, which is a much more informed way thanks to this book.”