Tag Archives: James Berry

“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.


Key Word Scheme: Judging Books about Black Britons and Caribbeans by their Covers

I was with my older brother a couple of years ago in a secondhand bookstore. He watched me go to the children’s section and, after scanning the shelves briefly, pick out a book. “This one will be about Black Britain,” I said—and it was. I don’t get to amaze my older brother too often, so it was quite tempting to leave him guessing at my powers of prognostication.

But in truth it was not a magic trick that allowed me to pick out the right book. Nor had I seen it before, or caused the owner of the bookshop to plant a book in an agreed-upon place. The book was of a certain age (type font and binding suggested the 1960s or 1970s), the author was British, and the book’s title had a key word in it, one I’d seen before in books about Black Britons. The book was Christine Pullein-Thompson’s 1967 Robbers in the Night, and the key word that had caused me to believe it was about a Black British character was the word “robber.” I already had Nina Bawden’s 1979 The Robbers, and other books which didn’t include robbery in the title but which had it as a plot point. These books were all written by white Britons after 1960 and before 1990, a period of time when some members of the white British community feared their traditions and values (and jobs and everything else) were under threat from what were then called the “New Commonwealth” (code words for not white) immigrants. I am not suggesting that either Bawden or Pullein-Thompson (or any of the other writers including Black British “robbers” in their children’s books) were part of this fearful group; in fact, in many of the books, it turns out in the end that the Black British character is either not a robber but is assumed to be because of racial prejudice, or is a robber but makes restitution for his (it’s always a boy who is the robber) theft and brings the community together. These books tell a particular story about particular characters, but they also tell a cultural story of how one group of people in a particular time was feeling about another group of people entering (and potentially “robbing”) the island they thought of as exclusively theirs.

Robbery is not the only key word for titles about Black Britain. Historical fiction (particularly those books set in 18th century England) often includes the word “midnight” in the title—witness Morna Stuart’s 1969 Marassa and Midnight, Marjorie Darke’s 1977 The First of Midnight, and Michele Torrey’s 2007 Voyage to Midnight: Chronicles of Courage. The word “midnight” in these books is often used as a character’s name (because he—again, always a “he”—is supposedly “black as midnight”) but also suggests the long dark night of Britain’s soul that was the slave trade, and the dawn of the new era that began with the end of it. There is always a hint of skepticism about this “new era” however; as Darke’s title suggests, the slave trade was only the first midnight that Britain would face; racial prejudice would continue to be a problem for characters in her historical series that took readers to the descendants of Midnight in the 20th century.

The first of midnight–but perhaps not the last.

Of course, Black British writers are not immune to the publishing imperatives surrounding books with Black British characters, and they can work these key words to their advantage. Nalo Hopkinson, the Jamaican-born science fiction writer includes both words in her award-winning 2000 novel, Midnight Robber, which includes reference to carnival and the trickster tradition—both of which turn the status quo upside-down. In general, though, Black British writers tend to use the word “thief” rather than “robber”; examples can be found from Therese Mills’ 1981 Charlie and Joey Catch a Thief to James Berry’s 1987 A Thief in the Village to Malorie Blackman’s 2004 Thief. Midnight Robber is a book for adults (it includes the rape of the main character by her father), but all these books indicate the ways in which key ideas about people from the Caribbean can permeate the culture and affect writers and publishing, consciously or not.

However, Black British writers can also reject the choice of words used to describe them. When looking for more modern books about Black Britons, the word “cool” is often a key word for titles—but usually in books written by white authors. Examples are the 1994 Gregory Cool by Caroline Binch, and Michaela Morgan’s 2000 Cool Clive and the Bubble Trouble. Interestingly, neither of these books indicates exactly what makes these characters “cool”; Gregory Cool is about a Black British boy who goes to meet his grandparents in Tobago, and Morgan’s book (which is part of a series that she has written about Cool Clive, so perhaps there are other books that explain his coolness?) is about Clive’s annoying little sister losing a hamster. “Cool” is not a word that functions in the plot, but rather serves to indicate something nebulous about the character, something that the reader is supposed to understand about Black British boys. Black British writers tend not to use the word cool, at least not in their titles. In fact, most Black British writers who include a character name in their title do not modify that name with an adjective at all; they are just Danny Jones (Andrew Salkey, 1980), Nini at Carnival (Errol Lloyd, 1978), Shawn goes to School (Petronella Breinburg, 1973), We Brits (John Agard, 2006).

Illustrator Errol Lloyd's pictures of Breinburg's Shawn need no modifiers.

Illustrator Errol Lloyd’s pictures of Breinburg’s Shawn need no modifiers.

The only exception to this rule that immediately comes to mind is Malorie Blackman’s series about Betsey Biggalow; although the initial book is titled simply Betsey Biggalow is Here!, two of the later books modify Betsey, and I initially found these books through one of these modifiers.   The single most popular key word for titles of books about Black Britons or Afro-Caribbeans is a word used throughout history, and by authors of all backgrounds: if you see “hurricane” in the title of a children’s book, it will often be (like the 1993 Hurricane Betsey) set in the Caribbean.

The winds of change blow rather slowly sometimes.

So next time you are scanning the shelves of used or new bookstores, looking for a book about a certain group of people (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, or other), take a minute and think what key words you look for to indicate that group based on title alone. Because unfortunately, it is still possible to judge a book by its cover.