Fifty years ago, when racists called and wrote daily letters to ITV’s Today programme in 1968 telling the corporation “Get that nigger off our screens”, they were speaking about me, the first visibly Black TV journalist in Britain.
It resulted in me losing my job, having been in post just nine months. The official excuse at the time was, “She didn’t fit in with the programme.” But this was not what I was told when the producer showed me the complaint letters, and then the door.
It hurt. Not least because, only a few weeks prior to that, the British government had passed the Race Relations Act, making it illegal to discriminate against people in housing, education or jobs based on their race or religion. I had even attended parliament to hear the debate. My employers, Thames Television, could have told the racists they they would have been breaking the law by terminating my job. They didn’t: they sided with the racists instead.
It hurt even more 50 years later, in 2021, when I learned from research published in the Guardian that that same year, the Queen’s courtiers had banned “coloured immigrants or foreigners from serving in clerical roles in the royal household”. No wonder Thames Television felt able to stop me contaminating their black-and-white TV screens. If the Queen did it, why not them?
Yes, TV was black and white then, which is probably why Eric Anthony Abrahams, a Jamaican journalist at the BBC a few years before I got my job, escaped the same fate as me. His paler skin had not appeared dark enough on TV screens to receive the same racism that mine inspired. Skin tone mattered. It always has.
There is a startling illustration in the Jamaican National Library showing three slave women washing clothes in a river. One is a beautiful, near-white woman with Caucasian facial features. The fact that she is a slave is clear because of the work all three women are doing. Those light-coloured “mulatto” and “quadroon” slaves were born from the unions of Caribbean slave owners, who were all white men, with the African women they had enslaved. This miscegenation produced many children living with the disadvantage of their “one drop” of African blood. Still, some slave owners were fond of their mixed-race children, paying for the manumission of their mothers, sending them to be educated in Britain and leaving them property, money and slaves in their wills.
There is no escape from the negative association of having that “one drop”, no matter how light-skinned the person is, as Meghan Markle has discovered. The word black with a “b” is first associated with the spectrum colour, but also with black magic, blackmail, blackboard, evil, darkness, despair. It is not just the negative connotations of the word black, but how confusing it is when used to describe the many hues of the African race – from milk chocolate to ebony. For this reason, calling Black people Black with a “B” needs to become universally adopted by the print media, for clarity and understanding when a person’s race is referred to.
Looking now from Jamaica, where I live, I know that Britain – and Black Britain – is a different place, but still I find it hard to be too optimistic. The attitudes of racism seem embedded, with violations by the police of basic human rights. All signs of a rush to Black Lives Matter-style action after George Floyd’s death have disappeared. The Barbara Blake-Hannah Press Gazette award, which was created for up-and-coming Black and minority ethnic journalists in the wake of the BLM protests in 2020 and named after me, was cancelled after just two years. The excuse the awards organisers gave was that they wanted to “ensure a diverse range of people are recognised across the awards, not focused on one category”. The “one category” being Black journalists. It’s dispiriting, but all I can do is fight on.
As Emperor Haile Selassie said: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited … until the colour of man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes … the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained.”