In 1968, Jamaica’s Barbara Blake-Hannah started a revolution on British television. Four years later, what drove her away?
A report by Mick Brown for London’s Telegraph.
When in 1972 Barbara Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica, her birthplace, after seven years as a journalist and television presenter in Britain, it was with decidedly mixed feelings – hope for the life she was about to embark on, anger and disillusionment at the life she was leaving behind.
Blake-Hannah had come to Britain aged 23, the model of the young, aspiring professional – smartly-groomed, her hair straightened in the manner of most middle-class Jamaicans – determined to make her mark. It was 1965. “England,” she says, “was the Mother Country, and we all came with confidence that our lives would be better.” And, for a while, hers was.
By 1968, Blake-Hannah had become Britain’s first black television reporter – five years before Trevor McDonald began his career as a reporter for ITN, and 13 years before Moira Stuart became the first Caribbean female newsreader to appear on British national television, on the BBC. What happened next is the subject of Blake-Hannah’s shocking memoir, Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties, republished next month.Advertisement
It is a fascinating book, both for her vivid descriptions of her new life in Britain – “a real fire, a real Christmas tree and a real colour television set showing old films, Christmas specials and Walt Disney cartoons. I was blissfully happy” – and for the painful recollections of the racism she faced: the letting agent, for instance, who told her “We have one or two flats on our books, but they all say ‘No Coloureds’.” Wide-eyed wonder jostles with a vitriolic anger – sometimes in the same paragraph.
It took nearly 40 years for her book to see the light of day. She wrote it on her return to Jamaica in 1972, but it wasn’t published there until 2008, then in Britain, in a tiny run, two years later. Only in 2020 were her trailblazing achievements brought out of obscurity, when the British Press Gazette inaugurated an award in her name.
Blake-Hannah, now 80, is speaking to me on Zoom from her home in Kingston. She has become one of Jamaica’s most prominent Rastafarians, a striking, warm-spirited woman, her hair concealed under a high turban.
In conversation, the anger of her memoir is tempered with a tone of sadness and regret. “Why did the English make themselves so difficult to be loved?” she asks me. “The more I compared myself to them, the more I wondered how we in Jamaica could consider them our superiors.”
Her father, Evon Blake, was a prominent magazine editor, but best remembered, she writes, for having desegregated the pool of the exclusive Myrtle Bank hotel, simply by diving into the water one day and refusing to get out, despite the unwritten law forbidding black Jamaicans from enjoying the water. “‘Call the police, call the manager, call God’ was his only comment when they told him to come out,” she writes. “He says he did it because a white employee of his could swim there and he – the man’s employer – couldn’t.”
Blake-Hannah was educated at what she remembers as the best school not only in Jamaica but the whole Caribbean. “All the rich people sent their children there – girls who would go to classes wearing diamond earrings, which the teacher would have to tell them to take out.” It was an education, she writes – the irony echoing between the lines – “guaranteed to churn out one perfect English girl”.
She went on to work in journalism, and do television work. Then, in 1965, she was offered a small part in the film A High Wind in Jamaica, starring Anthony Quinn, which led to her being invited to England to complete filming.
The England she had grown up with was Trooping the Colour, Enid Blyton, the annual rainfall in the Lake District (a statistic memorised at school). One message was drummed into her: it was better to be white than to be black, and the better one could succeed at being English, the better one would succeed in life. “To be an island girl in a metropolitan city – it was like the gap year every teenager in the world dreams of,” she says. “The movies you could see… the food…”
At first she worked as a secretary, temping for the Brook Street Bureau, then gradually her journalism started appearing in the Sunday Times and the magazine Queen. She was clever and vivacious. Soon, she was sitting in swinging London’s trendiest nightclub, the Ad Lib, watching the Beatles, movie stars and rich playboys float by; “feeling light-headed on wine” at parties; Tom Jones winking at her across the dining room of the Club Dell Aretusa. “Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were very good friends,” she says. “I didn’t even know they were gay! I didn’t know about those things then.”
It was, by the standards of most West Indian immigrants, “a privileged existence”, she says. And yet she would return from the Ad Lib “to a crummy flat in Ladbroke Grove, going to the corner shop for a newspaper and seeing the contempt in the eyes of the newsagent who sold it to me. Finding out that the Brook Street Bureau only sent me out on a job after they’d first called up to see if the company minded having a black person. Trying to buy something at Marks & Spencer and realising the sales girl didn’t want to serve you. And you get shock after shock until you finally get accustomed to it, and expected it, and realised it would always be there. So it was gradual – but inexorable. That’s the word”.
In 1968, she was offered a job as an on-camera reporter on Thames Television’s evening current affairs programme, Today, presented by Eamonn Andrews. Her appointment, she notes, was on the front page of every newspaper in London, “some carrying photos, though not the Daily Express, noted for its pledge never to print a black face on its front page ‘so as not to upset the readers’ breakfasts’, it was said”. The Express went for the “sex” angle, headlining its story: “The Other BB”, contriving a link with Brigitte Bardot.
She reported on national news stories – including the “great giveaway” when the Beatles’ Apple Boutique in Baker Street closed in 1968 – and interviewed everyone from Harold Wilson to Michael Caine. But after seven months, her contract was cancelled – she believes as a result of the volume of hate mail and telephone complaints Thames was receiving. Thames issued a statement saying she “did not fit into the format of the programme”.
“There was nothing I could do about it. There was no movement I could call upon, to come out and write articles about it. I just had to accept it and look around for some other way to pay my rent. Back to the Brook Street Bureau…”
Blake-Hannah was largely indifferent to the nascent Black Power movement in Britain. When she did show an interest, she was shunned. “It was very Marxist-Leninist and they did not want me. Their attitude was, you’re late to the party; you’ve spent your life mixing with too many white people.”
The soi-disant Black Power figurehead was Michael X, a Trinidadian who had arrived in Britain in 1957, and worked as an enforcer for the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, before being taken up by white liberals who perceived him, in the words of one writer, as the “authentic voice of black bitterness”. X had been one of the movers behind the first Notting Hill carnival, in 1966.
“The carnival was passing right along the road where I was living in Ladbroke Grove,” Blake-Hannah remembers. “I got Thames to send a crew but he didn’t want me to interview him; then later I met him at the artist Feliks Topolski’s house, with Princess Margaret there. I asked him why he’d refused to let me interview him at the carnival, yet was now in the company of the very whites he claimed to scorn! He said, ‘Because you don’t have a Jamaican accent.’ ”
She gives an ironic laugh. “And this was Michael X, one of Rachman’s people! I was only lucky that the little flat I was living in wasn’t owned by Rachman. The worst thing that could happen to a black person was to live in one of Rachman’s properties. If Michael X was the Black Power movement, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
For Blake-Hannah, the turning point was the seemingly simple matter of her hair. All her life, she had been told that the mark of beauty, of aspiration, was straightened hair – “white” hair. But then the American Black Power activist Angela Davis appeared with her towering Afro. “That was a really big statement, more than anything revolutionary she did. One day a Jamaican man said to me, ‘Barbara, when you feel your hair, does it make you think you’re white?’ And then I realised, yes it did, and it was time to change.” She unwraps her turban to reveal her locks, wound into a 4ft-long plait.
Among the middle-classes in Jamaica in which Blake-Hannah was raised, Rastafarianism was associated with outcasts and criminals. “People saw it as this strange religion of crazy people who revered Emperor Haile Selassie and smoked ganja, which was regarded as a terrible thing to do.” But Bob Marley changed that, awakening international interest in a faith given to simple living, much quoting of biblical prophecy, and a creed – as Marley put it – of “one love”.
In 1972, she returned to her birthplace when her friend Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, offered her a job promoting The Harder They Come, a Jamaican crime film, written in patois and set to a reggae soundtrack. “I realised Rastafari is not something that happens to you – you’re born a Rasta. And there it was, inside me.”
She returned to journalism, writing a column in the Star, Jamaica’s most popular paper, about black history and Rasta culture, but found she “was looked down upon by the establishment, who expected me to fill that nice little slot that I’d been educated in. But that wasn’t the life I wanted”. Her time in England had shown her that “to be white was not achievable” and also made her ask why she was even “trying to be among white people who didn’t like [me]? So Rasta was a really comfortable place for me to inhabit. That’s why I’m still a Rasta”. In 1984, she became the first Rastafarian in the Jamaican parliament.
Blake-Hannah last came to Britain in 1982, and says she has no desire to return. But Britain, I say, has changed enormously in the intervening years – and beyond recognition, since she was living here.
“Has it? When you tell me that black people on television do not get racist comments in their mail, then I’ll say Britain has changed.
“It’s a shame. Britain has been the greatest nation on earth, and has set examples to the world. You’ve done so much good, so do more good – that’s all I want to see. That’s what my book is about. You are who we should look up to. Britain, please, you are the Mother Country. Be our mother again.”