I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history. Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.
I read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain. In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians. Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies. His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post. This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum! Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up. Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him. Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.
This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there. Her time here is more dramatic. She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer. Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.
Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer. She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain. What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views. The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.
Re-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues. Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.
Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians. Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in. I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.
‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population. Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.
Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X. All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here. Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.
The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.
James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life. The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message. Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.
The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading. A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel. This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.
‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother. She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.
Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA. The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too. An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.
What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past. Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.
‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
I watched the first series (programmes 1-6) many years ago when it was broadcast on BBC television and then caught up with the rest of the others (programmes 7- 14) on DVD. It made me realise how little I knew about Civil Rights struggle in the USA. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were well known to this British school boy but this documentary series showed that the movement was wider, deeper and full of more pain and suffering.
Julian Bond narrates the series. I came to love and respect his voice as he calmly detailed the battles fought for dignity by African-Americans throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I had no idea that he, himself, played a major part in the campaigns for equality.
The first series covered the period 1954- 1965. This was a period of great change but also great resistance by majority populations that felt threatened by any improvement to the living conditions of black people. The second series took the story on to 1985 and covered key issues and events such as Muhammad Ali’s fight for recognition, the Black Panther movement and the election of Harold Washington as the Mayor of Chicago.
Like all documentary series that make use of talking heads this has the poignancy of hearing from the people involved but what places this particular series in the highest echelons of the form is the use of ‘ordinary’ people who were involved.
Since November 8th, I have felt somewhat conflicted about the USA. As a British person I am aware that it isn’t my country but it is a country that has always fascinated me and its history in particular has inspired me. On November 9th I wanted to turn my back on it and all its works. Yet, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ reminds me that there are Americans who serve to inspire.
I was fortunate to see the great actor Richard Johnson play Atticus Finch in the play version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when it came to Bath. Written by Christopher Sergel, the play worked best as a courtroom drama as this is the setting where the skill of Atticus Finch, as an attorney, is seen to its best advantage.
The scenes with Jem and Scout were less well realised but it would take very good casting to be able to live up to the book or the film. In any case, the drama is in the court. This is the place where the racism of the time and place was exposed yet stood intact. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and the arguments expressed, although elegant to the ears of the liberal listener, could not overturn years of tradition entrenched by fear.
Interestingly, my memories of the play centre completely on Johnson as Atticus. I have little memory of the other actors or scenes which were dramatically expressed in book and film.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary film, released in 1998, is about the making of the movie version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It includes interviews with most of the major figures involved in getting the project off the ground. Harper Lee, herself, is missing from the film but the actors, producers, director and screenwriter all appear, giving their accounts of what it was like being involved in, what became, a film classic.
As with all major successes, it is difficult to remember that when being made success was not guaranteed. Added to that, there would be lovers of the book who would resent any treatment of the novel that fell short of their expectations.
The narration was a bit grating after a while, in my opinion. The portentous style got on my nerves about ten minutes in but the candid interviews made up for this. The most revealing anecdotes showed that, despite the subject matter, this was a Hollywood film and personal rivalries abounded.
Small town America was also examined; both the positive community aspects and the negative attitudes to race were examined.
The documentary is best watched by someone who has already read the book and seen the film. It works best as a companion piece.