Tag Archives: Centreprise

“It Seems I Test People”: Voices from Earlier Immigrants to Britain


Centreprise’s Talking Blues brought many young writers together, sharing poems about the realities of Britain’s attitudes toward immigrants.

The past week has seen a depressing rise in racially- and ethnically-based incidents of hatred in Britain. Perhaps emboldened by the Brexit vote, perhaps fueled by fear, many British people have found it acceptable to shout at those who appear different in the streets, telling them to “go back where you came from”. The Polish embassy has reported leaflets, shoved through their letterbox of Polish people in the UK, which say “No more Polish vermin”. The Guardian reports on attacks on Muslims (“Racist incidents feared to be linked to Brexit result” 26 June 2016), and the former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, was told she was “not a true Brit” on Twitter. Social media and the immediacy of news reporting has made such events more visible, but it is useful to remember that they are not new, and that previous immigrant groups to Britain have withstood such attacks, and endured to become a part of the fabric of Britain. The writer and editor Leila Berg recorded such experiences in an article published on December 30 1963 in The Guardian entitled “We don’t mean you.” In the article, Berg compared her own experiences of anti-Semitism in WWII London to that of new West Indian immigrants experiencing racism. Berg would later go on to share stories of endurance, humor and racism surmounted with children in her early reader series, Nippers.


Leila Berg sought out Black writers to tell stories about experiences with racism for children. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Another place to find a record of this endurance is in poetry. Seven Stories’ archival collections include the poetry of both children and adults from post-WWII migrants to Britain. People from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia all journeyed to Britain in the period between 1945 and 1970 (by which time new legislation was in place to restrict mass immigration from these groups). They were, in many cases, asked to come to fill post-war labour shortages, but they were met with fear and suspicion from members of the resident British population. The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature, recorded some of this suspicion in a poem entitled “Telephone Conversation,” found in the collection How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile collected by Howard Sergeant. Searching for housing upon his arrival to Britain, Soyinka’s speaker telephones a potential landlady. When he tells her he is African, she asks “Are you light/ Or very dark?” (32), something Soyinka labels as “public-hide-and-speak” (32). The poem ends without telling whether he was offered the flat, but the experience of thousands of non-white migrants during the time period suggests that he would have eventually been told that the flat was “already let”.


Scene from British Pathe film that depicts the immigrants’ plight that Wole Soyinka discusses in “Telephone Conversation”.


The day-to-day racism experienced by new migrants extended to their children, born in Britain or not. The collection Talking Blues, published by the community organization Centreprise in 1976, included poems from young writers who formed part of a writers’ group at the centre. One of these poets, Donald Peters, wrote an eight-line poem called “Explain” in which he asks “someone” to explain to him “Why the world we live in today/ Has no hope for us to stay” (5). Sandra Agard—who as an adult continued to write poetry and perform as a storyteller throughout Britain—demanded that the white Briton see the Black Briton as “your brother” (13) while at the same time knowing that “You took my identity/ . . . [but] You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” (13). Talking Blues appeared in the very year that increases in racist incidents, including those that led to the Notting Hill Carnival riots and Eric Clapton’s rant about “stop[ping] Britain from becoming a black colony… the black wogs and coons and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here” (“Reggae: The sound that revolutionized Britain” Neil Spencer 30 January 2011 Observer), were causing the Black British population to fear that they would never be “allowed” by white Britons to belong in British society. While (as today) there were many who agreed with Clapton’s racist sentiments (and the racist actions of others, including the police), his words galvanized many British people—Black and white—to action. Membership in the Anti-Nazi League rose, and Rock Against Racism (which united punk and reggae bands at concerts focused on anti-racist messages and campaigns) was formed.



Testing times for Berry–and for all of us.

For me, the point of all this is that the voices of newcomers (or those perceived as “Others”) in Britain matter, not simply as a record of their experience in Britain but as a call to action for everyone. James Berry wrote a poem, “It Seems I Test People,” which can be found in his 1988 collection When I Dance. Berry, who came to Britain from Jamaica in the Windrush year of 1948, described his “skin sun-mixed like basic earth” (84) being the cause of discomfort for others. Despite “my eyes packed with hellos behind them/ my arrival bringing departures/ it seems I test people” (84). Otherness does test people, because it reminds us all that we have only one world and its resources must be shared. For many of my British colleagues, the post-Brexit world seems rather frightening, not because of the (perceived) “others” but because of what those others might think of the British in the face of the racist incidents that are getting so much coverage. The poets of post-WWII immigration show us that the answer to racism is not to worry, and fear, but to act positively. Speak out against racism. Listen to the voices of those experiencing it. And think about how you can help to make those the loudest voices. As humans, we are being tested all the time; in this case, it’s important not to be found wanting.

I’d like to dedicate my blog this week to my friend Lisa Pershing Ballinger, who despite being tested by lung cancer for over three years, always faced everything with courage and a sense of humor.  I’ll miss you, Lisa.


Educating Britain: Race and the Comprehensive School in Children’s Literature and Media


Will the kids like what you’re serving up, George?


How do you thank someone who has taken you from comprehensives to the streets? It isn’t easy, but I’ll try . . .

This week, George Osborne announced that by 2020, all British schools would have to become academies. In his speech, he framed this decision as one that would primarily benefit disadvantaged students: “Providing schooling is the single most important thing we can do to help children from a disadvantaged background to succeed” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35815023). Moving schools from local control to academy status, he said, would “set them free” from bureaucracy (including, perhaps, the government’s own “bureaucracy” of the National Curriculum, which academies are not compelled to follow). Although most of the media focus has been on the ability of academies to deliver for all children what they have delivered for a few (and indeed, on whether they HAVE delivered for those few), I want to take a look at the claim that this new plan would help the disadvantaged youth, and compare it to a similar battle nearly fifty years ago over the comprehensive school.

Comprehensive schools were first introduced after World War II in the UK as a way to provide a general liberal arts education to students who were not necessarily going to continue on to university. The original design of the system was that students would take an exam at the age of 11 (the “eleven plus” exam) and based on the results of the exam would be sent either to a grammar school (basically a preparation for university), a technical/vocational school, or a comprehensive. In reality, the technical/vocational schools never really developed, and most students attended either a grammar or a comprehensive, based on their exam results. The system was purposely inequitable, but the government argued that it was fair and provided students with the education that they needed for the life that they would live. But by 1962, the Newsom Report argued that the 11+ was biased, particularly against “disadvantaged” students (who included New Commonwealth immigrants and white working-class students)—and the bias extended to school buildings as well as to the content of the education. The much-larger comprehensives were housed in crumbling, sometimes bomb-damaged buildings, with few resources. But the general sense was that the comprehensive, not the grammar school, was the model for the future and the Labour government, which took over in 1964, ran on a promise to “get rid of the segregation of children into separate schools caused by 11-plus selection: secondary education will be reorganised on comprehensive lines” (http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter06.html). Circular 10/65 proposed that all secondary schools should become comprehensives. Although the change was never mandated, most secondary schools in England are, in fact, comprehensives.

But the change did not bring about the hoped-for equality between students, especially for non-white students, and the late 1960s and early 1970s produced not only a flowering of comprehensives, but also an increase in children’s literature that pointed out the problems of the comprehensive school for the Black, white working-class or Asian student. This sort of book was often modeled after E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, or at least after the 1967 film made out of the book. In the film, Black teacher Sidney Poitier is faced with the unruly students in an East End comprehensive. But the film (and book) are largely from the teacher’s perspective. Books that appeared in the years following Circular 10/65 focused on the student’s perspective.

Some of these books were even written by students themselves. Leslie Mildiner and Bill House, for example, wrote The Gates in an after-school writing program; it was published by Centreprise in 1975, who described it as “a funny, bitter, deeply perceptive look at how . . . the education system almost completely fails to respond to the needs and abilities of the inner city children it is supposed to cater for” (back cover blurb). The book is about kids who “can’t keep up” with grammar school study, and who are thus dumped in “massive Comprehensive School[s] with one thousand, nine hundred” students (18). At one point, there is a disturbance during morning registration; a “coloured girl” starts screaming, and has to be held down by a teacher; the main character is told by one of the teachers that it is just “one of Sheila’s moods” (75). There’s never any further explanation, but the chaotic nature of the schools at this time makes Geoff play truant more often than not.

Prudence Andrew’s Goodbye to the Rat (1974) is part of Heinemann’s Pyramid imprint, a series designed for reluctant teen readers. Several of the books (advertised on the back cover of Andrews’ book) are about the failure of schools; Glyn Frewer’s Crossroad “deals with a misunderstood secondary modern schoolboy”; This Could be the Start of Something by Audrey Coppard is about a boy “who has failed his ‘O’ levels”. Goodbye to the Rat is about three boys who can’t wait to leave school because “They were hopeless at school work. They never passed exams. They had been written off. And they knew it” (21). This failure at school is worse for Louie Kam, who is black: “Many employers wouldn’t employ black people” (61) and he had to take what work he could find if he left school, where his white friend Tony gets a position as a veterinary assistant.


Even though he’s a main character, Louie is behind the two white characters on the cover–and in life.

Perhaps the best-known writers of the genre were found in Aidan Chambers’ Topliners series, Farrukh Dhondy (who himself has taught at one of the new comprehensives and who used the experiences in his book Come to Mecca (1978), particularly the story “Two Kinda Truth” where the main character, Bonny, is a well-known Black poet in the community but his teacher thinks he doesn’t understand poetry at all. And in Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft, the boys team up together because they are the school’s academic failures—but Walter, who is Black, must decide whether his allegiance lies with the rest of the boys, who are white, or with a Black teacher. The school as a whole, the system, has already failed all of these boys.



Petronella Breinburg’s complicated vision of the Comprehensive still is least successful for the Black student.

So, George Osborne, take note: one-size-fits-all schools have been tried before, and have not succeeded in reaching the “disadvantaged”. Perhaps Osborne has a better plan than the one that put the comprehensives into place. Or perhaps we can look forward to a new wave of school stories detailing the failure of the academies to reach those that need help most.