Monthly Archives: October 2011

Black firsts blog: Barbara Blake Hannah

This week at the Black Entertainment, Film, Fashion, Television and the Arts awards in London, Barbara Blake Hannah received the Beffta Lifetime Achievement award for “opening the doors for black media in England”.

Barbara, who now heads up Jamaica’s Reggae Film Festival and has several films and books to her name, including Rastafari – The New Creation, said: “It’s great to be recognised after all this time.”

I was so pleased when I read about the award because, way back in the late 1960s, I remember the shock, and at the same time, the excitement of walking into the front room and seeing a black woman presenter on the television – Barbara Blake.

This was a first! We had never seen a black presenter before on TV. I was mesmerized. For a while I was more interested in just ‘looking at her’ – feeling proud, and noting the way she dressed, wondering how she managed to keep her hair so nicely in place – and less on what she had to say.

Some years later I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara, in person, when she came to Handsworth, Birmingham.

It was in 1968 that Barbara was appointed one of three on-camera reporter/interviewers on Thames TV’s daily evening news show, Today with Eamon Andrews.

Her TV presence was short lived but her story reveals much of the working climate in those days. About her experiences, she wrote “After nine months my contract was terminated and I was told that the producers were under pressure from viewers who called in daily to say ‘Get that n****r off our screens’. My next job was in a similar capacity with ATV Birmingham’s Today show aired during a time when Enoch Powell had made immigration a major issue. I could not get a hotel room in that city and had to return each night to London and commute each morning by train back to Birmingham, until I finally got a room at the YWCA.”

A true pioneer and one who rightly deserves to be honoured.

You can see Barbara as she appeared on TV in the 1960s here

She also wrote about her early television experiences in this article which appeared in The Guardian.

Why a black firsts blog?

One of the projects I did a lot of research for when I was in charge of Handprint, but which never saw the light of day, was a book called Black Firsts. The idea was inspired by the very popular series of books by the American publishers Empak, which Handprint distributed in the UK.

The Empak books celebrated the achievements of Afro-Americans in the fields of science, arts and culture and politics. Although the books focused exclusively on black Americans, they proved to be very popular in British schools where teachers were looking for materials that projected positive images of black achievement.

As the Handprint press cuttings library began to grow, I realised that it might be possible to put together something similar about African Caribbean people in the UK.

I had all but forgotten about this unrealised project until I began work on this website. Then, as I began to trawl through the Handprint archives in our spare room, I came across a battered old manilla folder with scores of newspaper cuttings – everything from the first black footballer to play for England (Viv Anderson) to The first black woman mayor (Lydia Emelda Simmons) and much more besides.

The reasons for publishing information about black firsts have changed since the 1980s, of course. Then, the need for positive images of black achievement was critical in the face of the almost incessant torrent of negative reports about black people in the media, which sustained and fueled the institutional racism endemic in almost every section of British society.

Thirty years on, the landscape is clearly very different. But I think there’s a real value in recalling some of these pioneering figures, and the struggles they had to go through to make their mark. So I’m going to be posting some of the contents of that battered manilla folder on a regular basis because, as Marcus Garvey reminds us “a people without a past are a people without a future”.