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”.