Black History Month: Black Journalists

The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827.  Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.

As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew.
Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.

Picture one

Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).

Picture two

Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2] the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones [pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.

Picture three

Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.

Picture four

James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics.  In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.

Picture five

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5]
After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation.  (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.)  Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States.  (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.

Picture six

Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah [pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.”  In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s.  She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy.  Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.

Picture seven

Una Marson [pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so).  She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation.  From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul.  She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.

Picture eight

Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia.  His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.

This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.

Picture nine

Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.


Pride Month in Lockdown

June 1st marks the beginning of Pride Month in the USA and UK, but this year we’re all celebrating Pride in a slightly different way. There will be no march at Trafalgar Square, no rainbow freebies thrown from floats, and certainly no parties afterwards. However, some believe that this may provide an opportunity to return to the true meaning of Pride, away from the commercialisation which has coloured so many Pride events in recent years. Below, we’ve included some ideas to celebrate pride in lockdown and we hope you will celebrate with us virtually this year. Continue reading “Pride Month in Lockdown”

Blog post from the North – January / February 2013

North Kensington Library
North Kensington Library

What’s going on in the North?

January has been a very busy month for us at North Kensington Library with planning and launching the Six Book Challenge which is taking place in all our libraries. The challenge is aimed at anyone who wishing to improve their reading or would like to read more. There’s more information about the Six Book Challenge on The Reading Agency’s website.

Craft books on display at North Kensington library
Six Book Challenge display at North Kensington Library

If you wish to take part in the Six Book Challenge you can register at any of our libraries in Kensington and Chelsea. You complete six reads and record your reading in a diary which we provide. There are incentives along the way to encourage you to keep reading, after two reads a free CD loan and three reads a free DVD loan. If you complete by 28 June 2013 you can enter the national prize draw for a trip to London (I know, we are there already) with a friend to see a show and £150 spending money. We also have a local draw for completers at the end of the summer for two Sony e-readers.

Six Book Challenge display at Notting Hill Gate Library
Six Book Challenge display at Notting Hill Gate Library

You can read anything (e.g. a book, poem, graphic novel or magazine article including e Books) but we have books in our Quick Reads and Skills for Life collections which are particularly suitable.

Sewing and craft books by Eithne Farry
Sewing and craft books by Eithne Farry

On 24 January Eithne Farry, author of ‘Yeah! I made it myself’ and ‘Lovely things to make for girls of slender means’ led a workshop at North Kensington Library. She demonstrated how to make decorative hair bands and ‘Fascinations’ using cheap and recycled materials. If you are interested in crafts and recycling/ remodling old clothes we have books, including Eithne’s, in all our libraries.

Eithne Farry craft event
Eithne Farry in action at the craft event

Eithne will be running a workshop for young people (aged 11-15) in our children’s library at North Kensington Library Wednesday 20 February 2pm to 4pm- do come along if you can!

Gaynor Lynch
Gaynor Lynch

Gaynor Lynch

Lending Librarian, North Kensington Library

Improved stock display at Kensal Library

Kensal Library
Kensal Library

‘Small is beautiful’ and ‘less is more’ are phrases we often use when talking about things on a reduced scale. Small can also be a great challenge but for creative people like Ruth Gutteridge, Senior Customer Services Assistant at Kensal Library, this is not a problem. She has given the stock at Kensal Library a much needed makeover to improve display and create additional space for the children’s and young adult collections. Ruth explains the changes she has made.

We have expanded the junior area making it easier for the children to browse the shelves and find what they are looking for. The early readers, junior and teenage fiction all now have their own shelving areas. This means that we now have much more room to display both new stock and our more popular junior titles.

Studying and relaxing at Kensal Library
Studying and relaxing at Kensal Library

Our junior non- fiction has moved next to the junior study tables. This is more accessible and makes it much easier when the children are researching for their homework. We have some excellent new books in this area from the dinosaurs to space travel!

In the adult area crime fiction continues to be very popular. We have responded to customer demand by creating a special designated crime section which also brings Kensal Library in to line with the practice at the other libraries in the ‘Triborough’ area. We have also given talking books (stories on CD) and crime fiction a more prominent position at the beginning of the adult fiction.

Enjoying the new reading area at Kensal Library
Enjoying the new reading area at Kensal Library

We have new books coming in each week so don’t forget to check the ‘New Books’ displays both at the entrance and it their designated section.

Ruth Gutteridge

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Kensal Library

‘Things Fall Apart’ at Notting Hill Gate Library

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Notting Hill Gate Library’s Reading Group recently read and discussed Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

A fascinating book that opens a window into the Ibo African Tribe, which is now South Eastern Nigeria in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Chinua Achebe expertly writes about their customs, language, beliefs, superstitions and the conflicts faced within their own tribes and with the white missionaries.

Things Fall Apart we all agreed was an easy read but Chinua Achebe included many of the Ibo proverbs and even used the Ibo language for many words so at times it could be a little confusing but we believe in doing so he preserved the essence of the Ibo culture.

Prior to reading the novel we all thought it would follow the normal attitude towards colonisation, but we were rather surprised and all commented on how Chinua Achebe had kept quite a neutral ground, exploiting the weaknesses from both sides so the reader may then ask their own questions and come to their own conclusions.

Chinua Achebe wrote this in response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This book was also read by the group last year so it was great to draw similarities and comparisons between the two.

We also were very lucky to have three members of the group who had lived with the Ibo tribe in the 1950s, so of course we wanted to know everything!!

Ihssan Dhimi
Ihssan Dhimi

Ihssan Dhimi

Senior Cutomer Services Assistant, Notting Hill Gate Library

La Belle Assemblée or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Triborough Reference Librarian, Debby Wale delved into Chelsea Library’s Costume Collection to bring us some more Regency gems.

La Belle Assemblée was a ladies magazine published between 1806-1837, founded by John Bell (1745-1831) who ran Bell’s Circulating Library. Holdings at  Chelsea Library covers most of the period.

The magazine has fashion plates, celebrity profiles, sheet music, poetry, fiction, news items and some scientific articles. It was almost  a cross between the modern day Vogue, Hello! and a broadsheet Sunday supplement.

Fanny Austen Knight, a relative of Jane Austen had a copy of the magazine, so Jane Austen would be likely to have been familiar with the title.

A chapter in Jane Austen In Style by Susan Watkin is called ‘A society of grace and manners’

‘Though she was not especially fond of listening to music, Jane Austen, like many of her female characters, took her piano playing seriously, and made time to practice every day. It was into these music books that she copied much of her music by hand.’

Music from 'Jane Austen In Style' by Susan Watkin
Music from ‘Jane Austen In Style’ by Susan Watkin

 The close proximity and physical contact of the dancers shocked many when the Waltz first came into fashion. However, La Belle Assemblée published this sheet music for a Waltz, Fly Away Care in January 1812.

'Fly Away Care' Waltz music
‘Fly Away Care’ Waltz music

Each month the magazine published a Biographical sketch of Illustrious Ladies. This article was published in August 1811 refers to an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Countess Spencer
Countess Spencer

Biographical sketch of Countess Spencer
Biographical sketch of Countess Spencer

Lavinia Countess of Spencer (née Bingham) was the daughter of the 1st Earl of Lucan. She is described as

 ‘a lady no less distinguished for the family she has married into than for that which she is descended’

She married George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer. His sister Lady Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire and became a famed Whig hostess. The story of this difficult marriage was made into a film released in 2008, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

In Autumn 1811, La Belle Assemblée printed picture of the Prince of Wales conservatory at Carlton house, with brief description. Very Homes and Gardens!

Exterior of the Prince of Wales' conservatory, Carlton house (November 1811)
Exterior of the Prince of Wales’ conservatory, Carlton house (November 1811)

Interior of the Prince of Wales' conservatory, Carlton House (September 1811)
Interior of the Prince of Wales’ conservatory, Carlton House (September 1811)

La Belle Assemblée also wrote about the Drury Lane Theatre which opened in 1812.

Opening of the Drury Lane Theatre
Opening of the Drury Lane Theatre

Not only were there suggestions of fashionable places to see and be seen, but also what to wear.

Opera dress
Opera dress

Evening full dress and Autumnal pelisse
Evening full dress and Autumnal pelisse

So, if you fancy whiling away and hour or two as a Regency lady of leisure, pop into Chelsea Reference Library and sit in one our comfy chairs and ask for La Belle Assemblée (or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies) They are fragile, so are kept in our store. Regrettably, tea and cucumber sandwiches without the crusts are not supplied!

Debby Wale
Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Triborough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library