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.


Opened Ground – poems by Seamus Heaney

This week we have Richard from Brompton Library who is reviewing Seamus Heaney’s collection of poems, Opened Ground.


I can thoroughly recommend any collection of poems by Seamus Heaney and there are many in digital form to choose from on the Cloud Library. Selected poems 1966-1975 was my first introduction to the poet many years ago. These poems have a strong connection with the land and the country. The language has a tactile quality that brings you cheek by jowl with the sensuality of nature.

Interestingly, many people during the early stages of lockdown in London, commented on the sudden pleasure of seeing nature more clearly: the burst of colour (early Spring), noticing many animal species compared with pre-lockdown and hearing more varied bird sounds etc.

Heaney’s Gifts of Rain from Opened Ground, floods the senses with its use of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words that capture the tactile feel of a straw-footed mammal on the mud and the sounds and smells of the river Moyola bursting its banks near Heaney’s hometown. The relationship of the worker to the land is pictured in the brush-stroke of a line: ‘A man wading lost fields breaks the pane of flood: a flower of mud- water blooms up to his reflection.’  Many of the poems dwell on this relationship of the people with the land such as The Tollund Man and Bog Queen, poems based on Bronze aged cadavers that have been preserved in the peat bogs of northern Europe capture this intimacy between the people and the land through bold imagery and rich use of metaphor: ‘my body was braille for the creeping influences.’ In addition to these themes is a concern with the political situation that dominated his landscape during these formative years. There is a great selection of his work to be found here on cloudLibrary:

New Selected Poems 1988 – 2013

District and Circle


Death of a Naturalist

Human Chain


If you would like to read any of these works of Seamus Heaney, they are available here from our cloudLibrary.  All you need is your Kensington and Chelsea Library card and if you are not a member, don’t worry, just click here to join.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart

Elin Jones (Tri-borough Stock Librarian) inspired by the poetry books available in the libraries, writes:

Some of the most moving poetry in English was written as a result of direct experience of the First World War. Here is a quick browse of some of the best-loved and most profound poetry of the era- and it is all available in the library.

Our poetry selection
Our poetry selection

Feminist author and poet Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth as a result of losing her fiancée, her brother and two of her dearest male friends before peace was declared in November 1918. Words from her poem “To My Brother” (In Memory of July 1st 1916), still move us today:

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart
Received when in that grand and tragic show
You played your part
Two years ago

“In Flanders Fields” is one of the most memorable poems from the First World War written by Canadian Officer John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.

Poppies were everywhere on the battlefield of Ypres as they only flower in rooted-up soil, and the whole of the Western Front consisted of churned mud. McCrae, in his poem,  gave us an enduring image of war: the poppy.

Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous of the War Poets who tragically died in 1918 just one week before the end of World War I. He encapsulated the horrors of the battlefield in his writing. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is one of his best-known pieces, written by Owen who in October 1917 wrote to his mother, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday – the famous Latin tag (from Horace Odes) means Sweet! And decorous!”. The title was, of course, ironic: the intention was to shock people at home who thought war was noble and glorious.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…

Poetry of the First World War reflects the mixture of social status, class and backgrounds of the men fighting in the trenches: Isaac Rosenberg wrote some of the best poems of the First World War. His poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” had a special mention in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory.

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.

He was born into a working class Jewish family in Dvink (now Latvia) and his parents then emigrated to the East End of London.  It was thought that he might have been one of the outstanding poets of his generation had he survived the war: his work was admired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was killed at the front in April 1918.

In contrast to Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney was trained as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral and a composer as well as a poet. His lifelong friend was Herbert Howells, a director of music in St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith. Gurney wrote a collection of poetry for his first book Severn and Somme, which was published in October 1917. He suffered from a mental health condition and spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental hospital having been gassed in 1917, but it was in hospital that he returned to his wartime experiences and wrote some of his best works.

We said no word. Yet, as such comrades would,
You understood.
Such friendship is not touched by death’s disaster,
But stands the faster…

If you are interested in finding out more about the poetry of the First World War, take a look at these websites: the War Poets Website contains lots of useful information about the First World War Poets and their poems, as does the First World War Poets Digital Archive . The website Poetry by Heart incorporates a First World War Poetry Showcase. On 1st August,  to mark the centenary of the war, Cambridge University  put Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and diaries from the First World War online . They include an account of the ‘horrifying slaughter’ of the first day (

Or try some further reading, from books available on the catalogue (For a full reading list from our libraries, please click here):

Carol Ann Duffy – 1914: Poetry remembers Faber & Faber 2014 9780571302154

Tim Kendall – Poetry of the First World War: an anthology OUP 2013 9780199581443

Gaby Morgan – Poems from the First World War, Published in association with the IWM, 2013. ISBN 9781447248644

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Penguin 2006 ISBN 9780141181905

Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 Penguin 1998 9780141181035

Poems of War and Remembrance Talking Book BBC Audio, 2012 9781445896182




















Blog post from the North – June 2013

Welcome to our June blog post from our three libraries in the North.

Notting Hill Gate Library

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Notting Hill Gate Library Reading Group met to discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. As usual the discussion was lively and vibrant with opinions bouncing across the table.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue by Changez, a young Pakistani boy telling his life story to an American stranger in a café in Lahore. Changez used to live in America and is reporting why he has come to live back in Pakistan, in doing so he highlights the post 9/11 tensions. Changez went to America as a student to study at Princeton University, he lands a job with a prestigious consultancy firm and falls in love with an American girl, everything changes for Changez after 9/11 when his dream becomes a nightmare.

The group had different opinions about what the book was actually about. Some said it was about a man finding his identity, some said it was about the after effects of 9/11 and some said it was about a man going against America, but what we all agreed was, it was powerfully written and Changez’s story was deeply touching. We covered a range of discussions from religion, terrorism, capitalism, identity crises, the American dream and culture.

The story is full of intrigue, suspense and tension and it’s where we are left to fill in the blanks and the ambiguous ending that made it an exceptional book to discuss.

A trip to the cinema
A trip to the cinema

Lucky for the Notting Hill Gate Reading Group, the Reluctant Fundamentalist was then released in cinemas on 10th May, so of course we had to go and see it! We enjoyed the movie as much as we enjoyed the book and thought it was a great idea to have a comparative discussion. We were of course annoyed about some of the cuts from the book but we thought it still kept the essence of the story and it did justice for the book. We are very enthusiastic about linking future films with books.

Fancy a mystery?

To celebrate Crime Writers Month, we have decide to make things a little more exciting at Notting Hill Gate, choose a mysterious book from our display if you dare…

Crime fiction display at Notting Hill Gate Library
Crime fiction display at Notting Hill Gate Library

National Crime Writing Month is an initiative of the Crime Writers’ Association. Formerly known as Crime Writing Week, it was launched in 2010 with 50 events up and down the UK. In 2012, due to the popularity of the event, it was increased to a month. It gives readers the opportunity to explore the latest and best crime writing, as well as to discover (or rediscover) many classic writers. At Notting Hill Gate we have a vast collection of books by the authors of the Crime Writing Panel and by other authors associated with Crime Writing Week.

Ihssan Dhimi
Ihssan Dhimi

Ihssan Dhimi

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Notting Hill Gate Library

North Kensington Library

Sunshine in the Children’s Library

Don’t you think the sun is bright?
I wonder where it goes at night?
Does it sleep or does it hide?
Or is the moon its other side?
Does it hide behind the hills?
Late at night as outside chills?
Do you think it needs to rest?
From all that warming it does best?

On a gloomy and rainy Thursday afternoon we brought some sunshine to North Kensington Children’s Library by reading a poem about the sun, written by Gareth Lancaster and making the sun for our half term story and craft session. Children enjoyed tracing their palms on coloured paper, cutting traced fingers and sticking them on the back of paper plates. That is how we created the sun and now our display in children’s library looks bright and sunny.

Adisa Behmen-Kreso
Adisa Behmen-Kreso

Adisa Behmen-Kreso

Senior Customer Services Assistant, North Kensington Library

Kensal Library

National Bookstart Week

Bookstart logo
Bookstart logo

We are looking forward to celebrating National Bookstart Week here at Kensal Library and will be having a special baby rhyme time on Friday 28 June at 10.30 to 11.00 am with stories, songs and a craft tying in with Bookstart’s theme of fairytales.

There’s  more information about National Bookstart Week on the Bookstart website.

Crime at Kensal

Crime fiction on display at Kensal Library
Crime fiction on display at Kensal Library

We currently have a crime fiction display at Kensal Library to promote National Crime Writing Month.  We have included staff recommendations and the display has proved to be quite popular.

Natasha Chaoui

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Kensal Library