The remaking of Jamaica’s Barbara Blake-Hannah
It was not just because of her striking beauty that Barbara Blake-Hannah was hired to criss-cross the island selling the coming Jamaica Daily News, or as the publicist for the people’s mayor, Kingston’s Ralph Brown in the early 1970s.
Blake-Hannah was born with the proverbial journalist’s ink in her blood, handed down, no doubt, by her towering father, Evon Blake of blessed memory.
In the relative modesty of the times, few could have known that in the decade leading up to that, the young Jamaican woman was scaring old British white men by coming at them from their television sets, as the first black on-screen journalist in England.
“… Those for whom the racist politician Enoch Powell was a hero decided the colour of my skin on British television screens was unbearable. Thames Television, for which I worked, agreed and told me my job was over,” Blake-Hannah recalled for the Press Gazette.
She had only worked the job for nine months, working alongside Eamonn Andrews to interviewed the likes of Prime Minister Harold Wilson and actor Michael Caine. When the contract was not renewed, a colleague confided that racist post from viewers had swayed her bosses.
That was 53 years ago and the sacking of the Jamaican journalist might have been a truncated story which made the late pages of an obscure newspaper. But over that half a century, something drastic has changed.
“After 50 years in which I had been remembered only as a paragraph in British Black History Month stories, I suddenly became the centre of a massive British media spotlight with Zoom interviews becoming a feature of my daily life,” Blake-Hannah, now 80, explains.
“My quiet Jamaican life came to an abrupt end in August 2020, when the British Press Gazette decided to create the Barbara Blake-Hannah Award for black journalists in my name, memorialising a cruel, bitter moment of my British life when the TV company at which I worked decided to obey the daily commands of racists saying: ‘Get that n***er off our screens’ and terminated my employment as Britain’s first black TV journalist.”
Last year, thinking about reparations, and with the renewed publicity around racism at the time of black American George Floyd’s murder by a white cop, plus the economic damage she had suffered from losing her job at Thames TV, she decided to act.
“I contacted Freemantle – the wealthy international company that has bought out the remains of the broadcaster and re-established it as four companies – and asked them to consider compensation. Freemantle’s response offered neither compensation nor apology.
“It’s difficult to acknowledge firmly that your contract was not renewed for racist reasons without any evidence beyond your own account, nor that this de facto ended your career as a TV journalist here,” replied Freemantle’s representative in a letter following her Zoom meeting with him. And that was that.
The Gazette named its British Journalism Awards after Blake-Hannah to recognise the best up-and-coming writer from a minority background. Entries from non-white journalists who do not have a publication to support their entry was made free of cost, thanks to Google.
Last year, the BBH award attracted some 200 new entries from people of colour. Entries for this year’s award are now open and will close on October 31, 2021. Blake-Hannah will be one of the judges.
Blake-Hannah recounted that the creation of the award in her name for journalists the same colour as her, had made the same front-page news that had accompanied her TV job 50 years earlier.
“But whereas in 1968 the news had created negative racist responses, the 2020 BBH Press Award did the opposite, creating a flurry of positive press stories about me that included scores of TV, press and radio interviews in British media.
Suddenly, everybody wanted the Barbara Blake-Hannah story, and she was not shy about telling it.
“I was interviewed by Good Morning Britain and Jeremy Vine, featured on the BBC Radio and website, translated into Spanish for international magazines, starred on TV programmes in the USA and, of course, Jamaica where the attention came as a big surprise for everyone because few people knew about my bit of British history.
“’Jamaica is proud of you,’ was a common post on my Facebook page,” she told the Gazette.
“I was happy that as the spotlight continued to shine, I found myself becoming an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Blake-Hannah who describes herself as film-maker, homeschooling mother and Rastafari empress.
“As a Rasta, anti-racism has been a major part of my life, speaking and writing about the history of British enslavement of Africans and the effects of plantation brutality and post-slavery colonialism in the land of my birth.”
She says she hardly remembered living a decade of her life in Britain in the 1960s, which ended when “I became tired of British racism and having to pretend that it didn’t matter, and returned to my early home”.
She noted that when she left England in 1972 and returned in 1982, she was surprised that in the 10 years she had been away no one had replaced her on television. But she had started to see some change in the 39 years since then.
“It’s good that now finally an effort is being made to fill that gap and correct that wrong… I am so glad this is happening. I have seen that an effort has been made. I see more black journalists now on television in Britain.”
Still, she has questions and concerns.
“I see so many black female TV interviewers these days. They tell me I am the pioneer who opened the door for them. Am I? Is the door really open, or are they just figureheads given a spot to alleviate the guilt Britain pretends to feel for the racism it continues to practise in jobs, housing, policing and opportunities?
“Which of them spoke out in support of our black sister Meghan Markle at the abuse she continues to suffer at the hands of racist media organs?”
Reflecting on her years in Britain, Blake-Hannah told the Gazette: “Recognising my African ancestry and agitating for its recognition and respect have been part of everything I have done since returning to Jamaica 50 years ago, leaving behind the hated racism in the country I had been brought up to believe was my ‘mother country’.”
As an early member of the reparations for slavery movement, she confesses that she no longer believes that Britain would make any reparations to any of its former colonies because “reparations will cost Britain too much and is a debt that can never be repaid”.
She told the Guardian newspaper: “The Queen is a nice old lady, but she will have to say something about reparations for slavery. And if not her, then Charles or William.”
If she has lost faith in the reparations movement, Blake-Hannah has apparently decided to embrace her British citizenship, declaring that the British Queen, in a speech, announced that “I will be able to vote in the next British election as a citizen who has lived outside Britain for more than 15 years”.
“I got my British citizenship in 1968 and have travelled on my British passport many times to the USA, Europe, Africa and Canada, but being able to vote makes me now see myself as British with new eyes. I know which party I would vote for as a British citizen. Almost certainly Labour,” she said.
“Of course, I am British. Have been since I was born in 1941 on that British plantation [in] Jamaica with British citizenship. I came to Britain because I was British. I and all the blacks in Britain are here because Britain was there, in Africa and in the Caribbean. I would still be an African, not only by race but by residency, if Britain hadn’t been there.
“No apology is necessary from any of us for being in Britain, nor deportations. We are British. It’s our birthright and it’s the only thing Britain has given us as reparations for the cruel history of slavery. That’s obvious.
“But we black British don’t act with this in mind. We black British don’t know our own legacy and our history. We have swallowed the version fed to us by our education and the media that we are inferior beings who must be glad to be tolerated by and allowed to live with white Britons…
“We black British must get the courage to do the work that will call white Britain to acknowledge and compensate us all for what has been done, and is still being done. I am using this Press Gazette Award as my turn to speak up and speak out.”
As a judge, she will be looking for the journalists who don’t depend on assignments. Instead, “I would love to see stories from journalists who come up with their own… Journalists who are committed to making that difference and to being teachers in the nicest, kindest way. That would influence my choice of a winner…”
Blake-Hannah, who was awarded the Order of Distinction (Officer class) by the Jamaican Government, lists being an independent senator in the Jamaican Parliament as “perhaps my greatest achievement”, noting that she was appointed only because of what she was writing in the papers.
But she gave her job at Thames TV as “the most influential” thing she had done.
“I had little to do with that appointment, I didn’t make it happen, I just applied for the job and got it. But it has had such repercussions. Today it has made lemonade out of lemons, because it has created this award.
“What happened to me 50 years ago, which was so painful and hurt me so very much, deprived me of income even. What happened then has led to an award that’s going to recognise black journalists from here forward and that’s really great. If I’ve done nothing else in my life, that’s been the most important thing that’s happened in my life.”
Blake-Hannah thanked a young black British journalist, Bree Johnson, who interviewed her in 2020 for Sky News, “bringing me to attention and saying let’s do this now in this Black Lives Matter year, let’s do it”.
— Compiled by Kevin Wainwright and edited by Desmond Allen
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