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The Big Interview: Barbara Makeda Blake-Hannah, Britain’s First Black Female TV Reporter

The Big Interview: Barbara Makeda Blake-Hannah, Britain’s First Black Female TV Reporter

I saw how beautiful it was, it rested in little curls, I looked beautiful because the curls of my hair matched the curls of my face. And for the first time, I started to see myself as beautiful. I grew out my Black hair to show my pride at being Black and it was in the Swinging sSxties and that’s the title of my book. Growing Out, Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties. .” – Barbara Makeda Blake-Hannah on loving her Afro natural hair.

Blake-Hannah is a Jamaican author and journalist known for her promotion of Rastafari culture and history. She is also a film maker, festival organizer and cultural consultant.  Barbara Blake-Hannah became Britain’s first black female TV reporter back in 1968.She later returned to Jamaica and was an independent senator in the Parliament of Jamaica from 1984 to 1987.Her contract with Thames television came to an end after just nine months, following complaints from viewers about having a black person on their screens.

Blake-Hannah voices her thoughts and experiences in her recent book Growing Out Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging 60s which provides a dazzling, revelatory depiction of race and womanhood in the 1960s from an entirely unique perspective. She also talks about a commonwealth not headed by a British monarch “male or female” and seeing it as a “marketing” tool.

New Book: Blake-Hannah Growing Out Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging 60s

ALT A:  To start at the beginning, your father was a journalist, but what made you think that it was something you wanted to do?

Barbara:  I grew up with my father as a journalist, with books and writing all around me. And by the time I got to high school, I discovered I was a writer. We would be given weekly essays at my school in Kingston Wolmers. Once, the English teacher gave us an essay to write on the word ‘Blue’. My essay was so loved, it got shared around quite a number of the high schools in Kingston. So, I got a reputation as a writer and they said, “Oh, well, she’s her father’s daughter”. And it just became something that I could do. I could write, seeing my father’s example, who had a monthly news magazine which I would read, and we were surrounded by books, magazines. All the journalists in Jamaica as well as the foreign journalists who always come to our house and his office. I grew up, with printers’ ink in my veins.

ALT A:  Let us talk about how you started out in the UK. What was that job like and how did it feel landing that job?

BBH with Eaamon Andrews, Jane Probyn

Barbara: Well, I’d been doing quite a lot of other things in England before that. I’d been trying to be a journalist. There was a Black newspaper I worked on for a while, but it didn’t make enough money to pay staff, so I worked as a temporary secretary for a long time. I got a job as a secretary with the company that handled the PR for Jamaican Tourism and Government and worked my way up to become the Account Executive of the PR account, and did that for a while. While I was doing that, I invited the Sunday Times to let me write an article on Jamaican food, which they published. That gave me membership to the National Union of Journalists which I used to write more articles for other magazines. The Sunday Times itself gave me freelance assignments. So, I did a lot of journalism. One day, I was fed up with doing Jamaican tourism after being there for about three years. I saw that a new TV company was opening up in, in London, and I applied for a job as a journalist, thinking they would want writers. And that’s how I got auditioned for an on-camera job with THAMES Television when it started. It was quite an accident, they asked for an audition and I thought, sure. I’d done some TV in Jamaica, read the news, hosted a quiz show, so it was no big thing. I was surprised when they called me up three weeks later and said, “We’d like you to be an on-camera reporter”. I agreed, not thinking it was any big thing because you watch television every night and see an assortment of people on television in various jobs. And there I was on camera, and discovered that I was the first Black woman to have done the job. In fact, the first Black face on current affairs News, because the other Jamaican who had done a temporary job a few years before was so white skinned that nobody called him Black. You know, those were the days when Black was a skin color, not a race like today. You can be Black like Meghan Markle, and in those days be called a white girl. So, he was just termed white Jamaican and I became the first Black face on British television, current affairs news.

Alt A: And could you tell us a bit about doing that job, some of the people you interviewed and what was it like?

Barbara: It was a real variety show which did everything. My first job was a murder scene in the East End where I had to go down and report on it and interview people. But I also did things like covering The Beatles closing down the Apple shop in Baker Street. I had to fight my way through the crowd with the help of police to get inside and do my interview. I interviewed the man who had a cat that ate oysters, on the opening of Oyster Week. I interviewed Sir Francis Chichester after he was the first man to sail around the world single-handedly. So, it was quite an assortment. I remember meeting Bianca Jagger, who I am still friends with. She was with Michael Caine then, and they were both raising funds for some charity. She’s still very much a social activist, and she was doing that then even when she was just famous as a beauty. It was a real variety of stories. And you’d come into work in the morning, and it could be anything. You could be out on the street interviewing, or you could be in the studio live. It was everything.

Alt A: And of course, we can’t talk about this without talking about being forced off the screen. Without having to relive that fully, when you look back on that now, what is your emotion?

Barbara: Well, I’m able to now say that it was good in the long term because of everything that’s happened after then for British journalism and even for my life. Because although it was very sad and very depressing to lose my job because of racism at the time, there was nothing I could do about it. Today, there would be organizations I could appeal to. People like you would get on the air and say, “No, how is this happening?”.In fact, the Race Relations Act had just been passed in Parliament, but that meant nothing to the producers of the program. They didn’t say, “No, we can’t fire her, even though you tell us to do that”, they just said, “Oh, the viewers don’t like you, so we have to do what the viewers say”. And that was that.

But today, so many journalists have used that door that I broke open, and walked through and done great things without any racism or without much racism, because I’m sure it’s never disappeared. It’ll always pop up its ugly head. But it’s been a door that’s been an opening for Black journalists and especially Black women. I’m glad to say it looks like there are more Black women journalists on the visual media, than even men.

On TODAY set with Jane Probyn

So, 50 years later, I can look back with a positive outlook. The Press Gazette named a Journalism Award in my name, which lasted a couple of years and that was good, that was recognition. That made lemonade out of the lemons of my experience. But at the time, it was awful because I do remember being ashamed to tell my friends I’d lost the job because they were so proud of me. A lot of the people I’d been meeting went into television. I mean, people like Eric Idle used to come around to my flat and I would cook spaghetti Bolognese for him. And they were all doing well in their jobs and suddenly I’d lost mine. For nine months I’d been somebody and then I wasn’t. So, it was sad, and it was embarrassing, and it was awful. But we’ve lived through so many sad things in our lives all for the next thing that’s to happen, because otherwise I’d still be there in England as an old lady. And I’m here in Jamaica as an old lady. The weather’s beautiful, I can go to the beach tomorrow, I’m okay, I live in a decent house. You know, life works itself out if you keep a positive outlook. And I’ve been able to do that. I wake up every day and say, what good thing’s gonna happen to me today?

ALT A: So, talking about good things, when you went back to Jamaica, you discovered Rastafari, how did that enrich your life?

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Barbara: Well, it’s Rasta that made me go back to Jamaica because, I got asked by Chris Blackwell to do the PR for a film he and Perry Henzell had made, which was Jamaica’s first feature film ‘The Harder They Come’, which is famous even today and has just had a 50th birthday party. It’s still one of the most important things that’s ever happened to Jamaica, like Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. And watching the film, I learned about my Black culture that I really didn’t know about before. I didn’t know about reggae, although I knew Jimmy Cliff and Millie, but they weren’t reggae stars. I definitely didn’t know about Rasta. And when that Rasta man came out of the water and flung his locks up, I just said, What’s that? I wanted to know. And the whole film, it was about Rasta culture, because that’s why they were selling ganja and that’s why they used ganja. It was their religious sacrament. I knew in London we smoked it, but this was their religion. I wanted to know, I needed to know what that was all about. And when the film took me back to Jamaica for the premiere, which was the greatest party of my life, I just saw my country in a new way, and I saw all the negatives of British racism as something that I needed to get away from. And here was the door opening for me, so I came back to Jamaica to find out what this Rasta thing was all about. And I’m still here.

Alt A: Just to touch upon something you’ve just said, a lot of young Jamaicans are more likely to leave. What would you say to that generation in terms of staying in the country and adding to the culture and enriching the culture like you have done?

Barbara: Yes, we all wanted to leave. We’re a small island. After you’ve driven around it a few times, you’ve figured it out. Then we wonder,“What does America look like, that I see on TV all the time, or England or France or anywhere in Africa”. So, we want to venture out, and a lot of Jamaicans live abroad. They say as many live abroad as on the island. But our love for Jamaica is so strong that we know we must help make Jamaica be greater. And when we read about how great Bob Marley is still, 40 years after he died he’s still so famous that they just made a movie about him.They just unveiled a new statue of Usain Bolt in Florida this weekend he is still the greatest athlete, nobody has superseded his achievements.

When we look at things like that and we see how great our little country is, it inspires us to keep trying to make it better, even if better means working in America so we can send money back to Jamaica so that our friends’ children and our children can go to better schools and get better jobs and build better houses. We do that. I see this is Windrush year, and the celebrations have all been happening while at the same time, the racism hasn’t changed. And I keep thinking, why don’t you all come home? Why don’t you all return to Jamaica? A lot of people do. I just got invited to do an interview with a couple. The husband wanted to stay in England, but the wife wants to come back to Jamaica. And I’m sure those questions are happening all through the Black community in Britain, every time racism makes it unpleasant to keep living in England.

You don’t mind the weather, you can live with it, I got used to the snow, but you never get used to racism. And there’s no racism in Jamaica. There are a lot of other isms, there might be colorism and, there’s still a lot of poverty. Recently, a lady just asked the prime Minister to make her a present of a donkey. She’s a farmer and she needs a donkey to get her produce out of the hillsides where she grows them, down to where she can access the roads. So, that kind of poverty still exists, but look how far we’ve coming from slavery, when nobody had anything, nobody had a house, nobody had an income, nobody had a farm to grow their own food. Now we have highways, we have festivals, we have food events, fashion shows, we’re a modern country and we are very proud of that. We’ve come a long way since 1834, just celebrated our 60th anniversary of independence and we are moving onwards being a republic so that we are no longer are ruled by the British monarch. So, Jamaica is pretty much a nice place to be.

Alt A: What are your thoughts in terms of Jamaica coming out of the Commonwealth?

Barbara: I think the Commonwealth is a good union to be a part of the history that united us. So colonialism was a history for most of us and for some of us, slavery. It still provides us with a union like the European Union, a marketing union, and a political union that’s very useful in this world. I will never recommend that we leave the Commonwealth, but I would love for the Commonwealth to not always headed by the British monarch, male or female. It’s time for there to be a head that’s not tied to that institution that we really have to move away from. The Queen of England was a very nice lady and a lot of good things happened during her regime, but that’s over. Now it’s time to move on to a modern world in which we are no longer ruled by whoever happens to be sitting on the British throne. There are other thrones we respect; we Jamaicans respect the former Ethiopian Monarch and the rulers of Africa. There are so many other people who we look up to highly as leaders. We should have a choice.

Alt A: Let’s talk a bit more about ’Growing out: Black Hair and Black Pride in The Swinging 60s. I love that title. What was your inspiration? Reading the book is just so vivid to see the images of you doing all the things you were doing in the sixties as a young woman. So, what inspired the theme?

Barbara: In England I grew out my hair. Even as a little girl I was always straightening my hair or having it straightened. First, the hot comb that would burn our ears and then the chemical straightener, I was one of the first to do that. And in fact, they now say it’s linked to ovarian cysts, and I had to have a whole heap of them removed, so I do see the link. But the thing is, doing the hair was always an attempt to make myself white. It was the only way I could be white. I couldn’t fix my nose or my skin color, but I could try and have that white hair, which never flopped like the white lady’s hair did.

Afro 1984 (before starting locks)

But then, in the sixties, Angela Davis with that huge Afro representing her blackness, said a lot to me. It said a lot. You know, there’s a book by Frantz Fanon titled ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ that says just that. So many of us live with Black faces, but it’s just a mask for a whiteness or a desire to be white. And I didn’t want to be white because white was all that racism, but that hair was Angela Davis. She never said, keep your hair Black, she just said, I am Black, and this is my natural hair. And so, I grew out my Black hair, I went to the hairdresser who used to straighten it and said, cut it off. And it took about nine months for it to grow out enough that it wasn’t ugly, because the first nine months it looked like a straw mat, and I would cut it and cut it and cut it. And finally, one day, when it was about that long,  I saw how beautiful it was, it rested in little curls, I looked beautiful because the curls of my hair matched the curls of my face. And for the first time, I started to see myself as beautiful. I grew out my Black hair to show my pride at being Black and it was in the Swinging Sixties and that’s the title of my book. Growing Out, Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging sixties.

The Swinging Sixties was a great time to be in England. The young people were not racist, the Beatles refused to play to segregated audiences and that set the tone for all their fans in England. The kids who were hippies, that was the group I moved with. The young people on the King’s Road, Carnaby Street, they weren’t racist. So, the Swinging Sixties was a good time to be in England, although the rest of Britain, the older ones were being racist. And it was a good time to leave as well.

Alt A: So, in terms of actually writing the book, what were some of the joys and the challenges throughout the writing process and then seeing the finished product?

Sunday Times “What Is Beauty” issue – photo by war photographer Don McCullin
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First Afro – 1971

Barbara: Actually, I wrote the book when I’d been home for about six, seven months. I wrote it because first of all, after coming back home, it took me a long time to get to like white people again, because of the racism I’d suffered. It took me a long time. And writing my book was cathartic. It helped me get out all the anger and hatred I had for my life in England. I realized I had to tell it straight, but I also had to put the record down. I wrote it in 1970’s and put it down and it wasn’t till 2002 that I got to really publish it. First. I self-published it online at Amazon and then I persuaded a British publisher to bring out an edition, which they did, and never paid me a penny of royalties. So, I took it back and put it out myself online again. And it was online when the Press Gazette announced the creation of the Barbara Blake-Hannah Award and the lovely great British author, Bernadine Evaristo, found my book and said to Penguin, “You should publish this book as part of my Writing Black series.” So that’s just the history of how the edition that you have in front of you happens to be there, from writing it to get rid of the hatred in the 1970s when I really hated white people.

And it’s amazing because it took Rasta to teach me that hate was a bad emotion. You have to love, forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And Rasta would drum that into my head. Peace and love, Barbara. We want no war and no hate, we must live according to how the Christ has taught us, love is the greatest thing any human being can do. Rasta taught me those lessons and I’ve never forgotten them. So, I live in love and only hate bad deeds not bad people. Stevie Wonder is my friend, he couldn’t see me, but the third time he met me I was in the company of a movie star who introduced me to him, a Jamaican beauty queen, and an American Playboy bunny, who was also my friend.  He was in Jamaica for a show he was doing. I went to him and said, “Hey, Stevie, remember me, Vonetta McGee introduced us in Los Angeles, welcome to my home, Jamaica. And he couldn’t see me, my head was covered, I was wearing a long skirt, yet he just held onto me. He just held onto me. And it’s always been a lesson for me that it doesn’t matter what people look like upfront, its the spirit from them that reaches you.

Alt A: Looking back at everything that you’ve achieved, what would you say to the 19-year-old Barbara or the one who had just lost that job? What would you say to her if you could speak to her now?

Barbara: I would tell her to continue looking up. Always look forward, always have a positive outlook. My father used to take us swimming. We’d live by a big pool, but we would go out on Sundays to the beach. We would go swimming. He would swim far out and he would make us have to swim out with him. And then he would stay out there and make us swim back. You have to really believe in yourself to do that, that you can swim and there’s nothing really underneath you except water. But when you get near to the shore, that’s when you have a problem because the waves there tumble you and, you have to be really been skillful. Crash, crash, boom, and you finally reach the shore. It’s always been a lesson to me. That’s what life is like. You’re swimming in the deep water,and you can, but when you get near to your achievement, it’s rocky. But you have to overcome your fear there, be stronger and you’ll get there before you can take a rest. That’s the example I would give to that young girl. She remembered, that’s why she kept going.

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Alt A: And a couple of short questions, are you looking forward to the Bob Marley movie?

Barbara: Oh, yes. Bob was a friend of mine. I got to know Bob when I came back to Jamaica because the same Chris Blackwell, when I’d finished doing the film said,“Hey, Barbara, come and work for me now”. He said, “I’ve got some journalists coming down. I’ve just signed a new band. Can you show them around? Go up to 56 Hope Road. And the band is around the back.” I went around the back and met Bob Marley and from then we just became friends. Really good friends. I was there often. I had a job in the Office of the Prime Minister, which was just up the road from 56 Hope Road, and I would walk past 56 Hope Road in the evening, stop there, sit around the back, get a whiff of smoke, and see Bob Marley learn about Rasta and we just were friends. He agreed to perform at one of the film festivals I arranged, but it eventually turned out we couldn’t afford him. He said, Never mind Barbara. Another time I had a job as PR for the city of Kingston and I proposed that the City give Bob and Harry Belafonte the Keys to the City. They said, Well Belafonte can get it, but Bob Marley can only get it if he cuts his hair and stop smoking ganja. I had to go back and tell Bob and he said, “Well, Barbara, I’d only said yes because it was you who asked me”. But we were friends right till he passed and each year I usually get asked to pay a tribute at his birthday. I’ve been at his birthday several times and seen some miracles take place on that February 6th. Too many to tell.  Bob’s spirit still lives. His baptism in the Orthodox faith before he died was really very important, it gave him his ever-living life. Bob is still my friend and I’m good friends with the family. It was good to see the film being made, it’s gonna be a great movie.

ALT A: A final question for our creative audiences, mainly writers, what two important tips would you give them in terms of writing?

Barbara: Read a lot. Because then you learn how to write. You learn what makes people say this is a good writer. Read a lot of everything, newspaper, magazines, novels, history. It gives you vocabulary as well and it gives you the courage to put your own words down. And the other tip I would give is write your experiences down. Write your own personal experiences, write them as a column. Write your own thoughts down as well, write your novel, write your historical book, but write about yourself down. Keep your own history. You are gonna be glad you did as you grow older, to be able to go back and read it and look back.So those are the two tips I would give. Write your story and read a lot.

Blake-Hannah now resides in Kingston Jamaica: her book Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging 60s (Paperback) is available in many bookshops including Waterstones with Bernardine Evaristo (author of introduction) Price: 10:99 BUY HERE

Follow her on Twitter @BBlakeHannah