Forging a black British identity

I recently read about a book from historian, curator and artist Eddie Chambers (who was born in the UK to Jamaican parents) and I wanted to post about it here because it’s all about black British identity and its emergence over the decades from when black Caribbean people began emigrating to England in larger numbers from the 1950s until the present day.

Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain‘ (published at the end of 2016) explores how black people who came to the UK and their children who were born British, used various influences from the Caribbean and Africa to shape their UK identity, and in so doing created their own version of ‘British-ness’ which merged music, art, food, sport, fashion and all other aspects of life.

Eddie Chambers. Copyright: University of Texas at Austin

According to Mr Chambers’ website the book “chronicles the extraordinary blend of social, political and cultural influences from the mid-1950s to late 1970s that gave rise to new heights of Black-British artistic expression in the 1980s. Eddie Chambers relates how and why during these decades “West Indians” became “Afro-Caribbeans,” and how in turn “Afro-Caribbeans” became “Black-British” – and the centrality of the arts to this important narrative.

“The British Empire, migration, Rastafari, the Anti-Apartheid struggle, reggae music, dub poetry, the ascendance of the West Indies cricket team and the coming of Margaret Thatcher – all of these factors, and others, have had a part to play in the compelling story of how the African Diaspora transformed itself to give rise to Black Britain.”

Regular readers of this blog will know about my own struggle with being black and British so I think it’s a fascinating topic. As a child of Caribbean immigrants born in the UK I’m always happy to learn about the background to issues which probably impacted me during my childhood years, in some cases, without me even knowing.

I’m also always interested to discover how black people who came to the UK when there were not that many of us here, fought against the tide while creating space for their children to ‘fit in’. No doubt this would’ve been a difficult balancing act for many as they strove to remember where they had come from and what they had been through but also ‘assimilated’ into UK life.

I think at these times especially, when homegrown terrorists are attacking the UK and Europe, it’s essential that more people examine and delve into the complex relationship between being born black in Britain and what it means to develop an identity which fits with who you are and makes you feel accepted.

It’s also valuable to move the conversation surrounding race so that it goes beyond the ignorance of racism and hatred of bigotry, and demonstrates exactly how much we have achieved in a relatively short space of time.

Hopefully this book and other efforts will help us and others to fully understand the battles that have been won, while lauding the positive contribution black people (and other races) have made, and continue to make, to the development of the UK’s cultural landscape. That, of course, is also one of the main reasons why I started this blog.

Further reading:

The rise of black British identity – in pictures (The Guardian)

A review of ‘Roots and Culture’ by the Voice newspaper


A stranger at home and abroad

Hello again! I’m back after a short break and ready to post some more inspirational stories about Caribbean people in the UK following my hiatus, which included a tour of Africa (one word – amazing!) and another relocation to Barbados. Yes, I am back living in the Caribbean and although no place is paradise I can truly say that this is close enough for now.

Me on top of Table Mountain

Anyway, at the moment I am busy trying to build some contacts, find stories that I want to write and maintain that all important work/life balance which always seemed to allude me while I lived in London.

I am also happy to say that I have already been able to write an article which is close to my heart for a new platform called ‘Black Ballad’. This website is the brainchild of Tobi Oredein (Twitter – @IamTobiOredein), a young and inspirational black woman who I interviewed for my MA dissertation. After meeting Tobi I knew that I wanted to get involved and write as much as possible for the site which is described as “a UK based lifestyle platform that seeks to tell the human experience through eyes of black British women.”

I am so pleased that Tobi commissioned me to write an article on my move to Barbados and why I struggle to identify as British even though I was born there, and the piece was published on Wednesday (June 28).

Please become a member of Black Ballad or subscribe to get 3 free articles a month and read my story – A Stranger at Home and Abroad by Karen Rollins


A history of black Britain

I’m constantly coming across black British people, especially my generation from the 1970s, who say they were not taught enough about their own culture in school.

Obviously we were educated in the UK, so to some extent you can’t expect to get the same history lessons (or perspective) as someone taught in the Caribbean or Africa, but I think most people would accept that we (as in every state school pupil in England) seem to learn a lot about American history and European history alongside British history but there was (and probably still is) very little time spent, if any, on black ancestry.

It was only after I went to live in Barbados when I was 33 and tried to fit in to a different culture, albeit the home of my parents and immediate ancestors, that I really realised how ‘British’ I was.

I also became acutely aware of my limited knowledge of Caribbean history and especially in terms of how it fit in and contributed to the development of the British ‘Empire’. I think I have been actively trying to make up for this deficit ever since.

Anyway, I recently came across a course which would probably fill in some of the history blanks for me and many other black Britons.

It’s being advertised by Goldsmiths University in London and I just wish that it had been around when I was a teenager and I also wish that I had time to go on it now (I’m currently researching my MA dissertation while working three jobs so barely have time to eat).

It’s called Black Britain: A History of Struggle and Triumph


Copyright: Goldsmiths University

It’s running every Tuesday for 6 weeks from January 17th and will run again in the Summer at a cost of £150.

According to the website accompanying the course, it is for “anyone seeking to explore and share their experiences of the history and cultural roots of Black people and ‘Black culture’ in London.”

It adds that participants will “learn how it came to be that Britain was a key destination for migrating workers from the Caribbean in the 1960s …The course will highlight the contribution of people of African descent to the rich history and culture of Britain and will explore film, photography, literature and biography that will generate great conversation.”

I think it sounds like an interesting six weeks and I’m happy to promote it to anyone who visits my site and might be interested – don’t forget to tell your friends.

Hopefully, one day soon I may go on a course like this, or something similar, because any method that’s striving to ‘complete’ our education as black British citizens, has to be welcome.

I would also argue that people from other races should also go along if it is something that they are interested in because we all learn, and hopefully advance, when we know more about each other.

Have you heard of Olive Morris?

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Olive Morris until today although I’m not surprised because that kind of ignorance is why I started this blog in the first place.

I came across Olive’s story today when someone I follow on Twitter posted about a seminal book called ‘The heart of the race:Black women’s lives in Britain’ which is 30 years old today.

This book was published when I was nine-years-old and I think it is a sad indictment of the UK school system that I had not even heard about until now.

I’m not going to pretend I know much about it but the introduction to the book states: “this book originally came about as a response to gaps in the historical record, especially concerning Black women.

“Histories were being produced about Black struggles as a whole, but too often Black women’s roles and experiences were left out or diminished. The white-dominated women’s movements in the UK were also repeating the same thing: documenting ‘herstory’ from every angle except our own”.

I find it really moving that in 1985 there were people who recognised that the story of how Black people (especially, in this case, women) have and are contributing to the UK was not being heard and wanted to address it.

But it’s also a little bit sad that 30 years later IMO this topic has still not been properly addressed beyond a few committed and passionate individuals and organisations.

Anyway, back to Olive Morris who was a leading voice in the Black women’s movement in the UK and spoke out on a range of social issues especially housing and education.

Olive Morris at a rally

Copyright: BBC

Olive came to the UK from Jamaica when she was 9 years old and grew up in South London. During her teenage years she was involved in political activism and later co-founded several influential civil liberties groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent.

During the 1970s, which we all know was a turbulent time for Black people in the UK due to widespread racism and discrimination, Olive could be called on to mobilise and organise people and ensure their voices were heard. She was evidently a strong, committed and active woman who was determined to stand up for vulnerable people who may otherwise have been ignored by the system.

Instead of sitting around, bemoaning the way things were, Olive set about trying to make them better and her courage in the face of what must have seemed daunting odds, is to be admired, even if you might not agree with all of her ideas or methods.

People like Olive don’t come along often but when they do they shake up the establishment and show other individuals that we can all make a difference.

Sadly, Olive died of non Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1979 at the age of just 27, but I’ve often said you don’t have to live a long life to make an impact on the world and it’s clear that she certainly did from what I have been reading.

I really think that learning about Black Caribbean people such as Olive, Claudia Jones, Walter Tull, should be compulsory in British schools.

I certainly wish that I had known some of these stories when I was growing up – it may have helped me to realise just how much Black Caribbean people have added to the history of the country I was born in and so deserve to have their sacrifices remembered.

Further reading:


‘Ackee and Saltfish’ by Cecile Emeke

Even though this blog was created for my MA in International Journalism (distance learning) from Napier University and has now been submitted for grading, I’m hoping to try and keep it going, as I’ve really enjoyed exploring the history of black Caribbean people in the UK and telling their stories.

The truth is the project is more extensive then I could have imagined as the contribution of Caribbean culture to the UK spans so many years, across so many sectors and IMO every individual who has made a significant impact in a particular area deserves to have their story heard and shared.

I said before in the post on ‘Why create this blog?’ that I want this site to be as inspirational and motivational as possible, not just for black Caribbean people, but for anyone who is facing adversity or obstacles (whether racial or otherwise) and needs encouragement. It seems there is nothing more uplifting than discovering other people who have overcome the odds to make a success of their life.

So I’m going to try to keep posting stories on the achievements of black Caribbean people in the UK in the past and present.

And on that note one such person I came across recently is Cecile Emeke who is a British-Jamaican filmmaker and the creative force behind a film and web series about the black British ‘experience’ called ‘Ackee and Saltfish’.

Ackee and Saltfish

Copyright – Cecile Emeke

Cecile has been interviewed recently on the success of her production which “aims to capture the full range of the black and African diaspora, especially in Europe” and obviously the write-up grabbed my eye because this blog has a similar aim.

Anyway I found her story fascinating so if you want to know more about Cecile and her work I have added some links below and I will definitely be watching previous and future episodes of ‘Ackee and Saltfish’ to see how it portrays what it is like to be black and British.

If you plan to have a look as well, or have already seen it, or have another film/series you think black Caribbean people in the UK will be interested in, please let me know via the comments section.

Click on the links to find out more about Cecile Emeke and ‘Ackee and Saltfish’:

A historic voyage of discovery

The history of black Caribbean people in the UK is long and varied, as I hope I have been demonstrating through the posts on this blog, but there will always be one event that is forever linked with our past in this country and that is the arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948.

On that ship were over 490 passengers from Jamaica and Trinidad which was the largest number of black Caribbean people to come to Britain at one time.

The people that arrived on the Windrush were brave, bold and enterprising and the others that followed shortly afterwards would undoubtedly thank them for taking that first step and showing the way.

My video montage posted below (with captions) charts the arrival of the Windrush and highlights some of the achievements of those on board as well as their descendants.

The Windrush voyage was history in the making and its arrival nearly 70 years ago shows how far Caribbean people have come.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu)”.

References / further reading:

A review: Staying Power exhibit

A review: Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s


What is Staying Power? One dictionary definition says: ‘the quality or ability that allows someone or something to continue to be effective, successful, popular, etc., for a long period of time’ . 

I think that is certainly an apt way to summarise the experience of black Caribbean people in the UK over the years and so is an appropriate title for an exhibition currently on at the Victoria and Albert Museum which is inspired by Peter Fyrer’s reference text Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain.

As I walked in the door into the low lit room at the exhibition, the first photo that greeted me was a self portrait by Jamaican photographer Armet Francis who moved to London at the age of 10 in 1955.

The photo, which is called ‘Self portrait in Mirror (1964)’ is black and white, crisp and studious and it shows a young black boy, with what was probably one of his first cameras, taking a snap of himself in the mirror in an early type of ‘selfie’. In this one image the entire point of this display of photographs is encapsulated – look into the mirror, as a black person in the UK, and what do you see?

'Self-portrait in Mirror', 1964

© Armet Francis/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I immediately connected with the message behind this image because this is what this entire blog is about. Who are black British people? What is our history in this country? How have black Caribbean people contributed to the UK? Why do some of us feel like we don’t belong? What can we do to feel more British? Can you be black and British or are these two concepts incompatible? The list goes on and on.

The images in this exhibition go on to highlight this struggle for the black Caribbean population in the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s but the images are not depressing or downtrodden just real and simple. They show black people growing up in the UK and trying to find their place, trying to work out who they are and trying to understand how and where they fit in.

The photos by Neil Kenlock, showing ordinary black people in their homes in the 1970s with their flares, afros, swirly carpets, loud wallpaper, large TVs and dial-up telephones took me right back to my childhood growing up on a council estate in Fulham.

'Untitled [A young girl speaking on her parents' telephone in South London]', 1973

© Neil Kenlock/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

At that time it didn’t matter to me what colour my skin was, it only mattered whether I had the latest rah-rah skirt or how long I could keep up a hula hoop.

These images brought back those memories when the question of identity, history or ancestry was the farthest thing from my mind.

But of course the undercurrent of a changing Britain is ever present in the background and two photographs in the exhibition clearly demonstrate the multicultural society that was slowly evolving in the UK over the decades primarily because of the growing presence of black Caribbean people.

The first image by Charlie Phillips entitled ‘Notting Hill couple’, taken in 1967 would have undoubtedly caused a stir at that time.

When you look closely at the young white woman and the contrasting, black man next to her with his arm on her shoulder, you can see that they are in a relationship and their defiant gaze into the camera gives you some insight into the racism and discrimination they must have faced because of their love.

 'Notting Hill Couple', 1967

© Charlie Phillips/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

It makes you wonder what they went through but it also makes you think how far we have come now, as mixed race relationships today are nothing out of the ordinary.

The next image, taken in the 1970s by Dutch photographer Al Vandenberg, shows a mixed group of school girls standing on a street corner totally at ease with one another, posing while linking arms.

'Untitled', 1970s, from the series 'On a Good Day'

© The Estate of Al Vandenberg / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This photo also reminded me of my secondary school years in the 1990s with a group of friends of all races, faiths and backgrounds, sharing life and experiences without the concerns of racism or division.

I wondered, as I looked at this photo, why we lose that ability to just accept people because they make us laugh or like the same boy band, and then as we grow up increasingly separate ourselves from each other based on class, colour or religion.

So we move on into the 1980s and 1990s with pictures of ‘rude boyz and gals’ on the streets and outside tower blocks, in clothes that are clearly inspired by Africa but also borrow from ghetto culture in the States. These images show how, by this time, first generation black Brits were grappling with who they really are and what they should use to shape their identity.

'She Rockers (London/Rap/Dance Crew) Shepherds Bush Green, London

© Normski/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I saw in these photos, how a chronic lack of positive role models in the home and the media left a void, and obviously different people with different needs, filled this void in different ways.

Hip hop artist Normski demonstrates in his images the alternative, street life that was developing at this time as young black people used music and fashion as an outlet and a way to show that if society would not accept them, they at least belonged to each other.

The exhibition does not move into the 2000s and the present day, which is a shame as the story it has partly-narrated, is far from over.

I am proof, along with countless others that I have met, of the conflict that still exists between being black and British. The questions about identity, culture, history, assimilation, acceptance and belonging have not gone away.

But ultimately this exhibition left me with a hopeful and uplifting feeling that black people in the UK are at least on the right track.

This powerful and moving collection of images show there is room to be black and British and one does not have to cancel out the other, in fact, when the two positively combine they do not just change individual lives, they change a nation.

Staying Power slideshow:

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References / further reading:

‘A people needs a voice’

When I was a teenager and I decided I wanted to be a journalist my role models were Kate Adie, Martin Bell and John Simpson – this was primarily because I was interested in being a television war correspondent and also because I admired their courage, their story telling techniques and their ability to find the stories that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Obviously I realise now that most of the journalists I admired were white, which is fine, but there were two leading high-profile Caribbean journalists on TV at the time – Trevor McDonald who was born in Trinidad and Moira Stuart who had a Dominican mother and Barbadian father and was the first African-Caribbean female newsreader on British TV.

I think I must have taken the presence of Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart for granted and I certainly never thought much about the challenges they might have faced to get to where they were or anyone who may have gone before them.

However if I’d considered it more carefully and known more about some of the obstacles facing black people trying to forge a career in the British media, I think my role models would have definitely included one particular person – Claudia Jones.


Claudia Jones was a ground breaking civil rights activist, feminist, political campaigner and journalist.

She was born in Trinidad in 1915 and moved to America when she was eight years old. After a harsh, poor upbringing Claudia became politically active and joined the communist party. In 1955 she was deported from the US for her communist beliefs during the controversial McCarthy hearings and after serving time in prison she was given asylum in England.

Claudia came to the UK when race relations between the West Indian community and white English people were at boiling point.

People from the Caribbean had been coming over in large numbers since the Windrush arrivals in 1948 and primarily at the invitation of the NHS and London Transport, but their presence was resented by some of the white population and they began to target black people on the street with verbal and physical abuse.

Race discrimination was the norm and signs saying ‘No Irish, Blacks or dogs’ were commonplace in the windows of shops and rented accommodation.

Claudia immediately recognised a need to inform and unite the black community in Britain and she realised the best way to do that was through a medium that would highlight the issues affecting them and provide a way for them to communicate with each other. So in 1958 she founded and edited the West Indian Gazette which was Britain’s first black newspaper.


The West Indian Gazette, which was published weekly, covered race issues which were prevalent at the time, provided news from the Caribbean and encouraged input from young, black writers who were not able to breakthrough into mainstream media because of racism.

The paper became an important tool to inform and educate the Afro-Caribbean community and it encouraged them to galvanise and unite against racism which was threatening to rob them of their right to seek a better life in the UK.

A few months after launching the paper Claudia also conceptualised and organised, along with others, the first Notting Hill Carnival which was held in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959.

The event was developed in response to violent race riots in Notting Hill in 1958 and again the aim was to bring together the Afro-Caribbean community and enable them to celebrate their culture and positive aspects of West Indian life.

Claudia died on Christmas Eve in 1964 at the age of 49. The West Indian Gazette, which had always struggled financially, only produced four more editions after her death but its legacy, and the legacy of Claudia Jones, can certainly be seen in the British media today.

Soon after Claudia’s death, the actress, activist, and writer Ruby Dee wrote in the West Indian Gazette that she “made of her life a fury against poverty, bigotry, ignorance, prejudice, war, oppression — for all our sakes.”

I certainly believe that I have benefited from Claudia’s determination and drive to contribute to the UK – she made sure black people in Britain were represented in the media, given a chance to hold the mic and make their voices heard.

References / further reading:

A Barbadian on the buses

In the 1950s and 1960s London Transport, just like the NHS, began a major recruitment drive in the Caribbean to deal with a chronic shortage of staff after World War Two.

Barbadian Joe Straughn was one of many recruited to work on London’s buses and he came to the UK in 1965 and stayed for 23 years.

Joe spoke to Black Union Jack about his contribution to the UK after working for London Transport for 10 years including three years as a bus conductor.

Further reading:

Who do you think you are?

I guess it’s easier to start with my own experience growing up in Britain as that is the basis for me starting this blog as well as the fact that it is part of my MA in International Journalism.

I was born in the middle of the 1970s in Fulham,West London. I was brought up by a single mother (which unfortunately seems quite usual in the Black community), and we lived on a council estate which from what I remember had a mixture of races.

Fulham Court Estate

Fulham Court Estate

I don’t remember feeling the least bit ‘out of place’ while growing up although I do recall the odd incident like when a boy shouted out on the street ‘where is your tail’ and at school where a few people used to like touching my hair. But on the whole I did not suffer any overt racial discrimination and I felt quite comfortable in my own skin and being Black and British.

It was only when I became a teenager and began to show interest in the news and the world around me that I started to question who I was, where I fit in and what my identity was based on.

I felt British – I mean I liked football, fish and chips and knew the words to God Save The Queen – but obviously I also knew that I had Caribbean ancestry that was just as valid and had just as much claim to me as Britain.

But apart from the example of my mother there seemed to be very few positive stories about Caribbean people in Britain and how much we were contributing to British society. I knew there were lots of Black Caribbean nurses in the NHS, Caribbean people working on public transport and a few with shows on the TV or in the music industry but you had to be determined to find these success stories in amongst the negative imagery of crime, drugs and gangs.

Desmonds TV show

Desmonds TV show

I guess I became content with making my own mark especially in my chosen field of journalism and just tried to ignore the prevailing negativity surrounding the Caribbean experience in the UK. But as I get older the desire to merge my British upbringing with my Caribbean heritage has grown stronger and I’m hoping this blog will go some way to completing the circle.

By uncovering examples in the past of influential Black Caribbean people and interviewing people with my ancestry who have made a positive contribution to British life, I’m hoping to help myself and anyone else who wants to feel uplifted, empowered and motivated by other people’s stories.

I want this blog to show through inspiring individuals how much Black Caribbean people are a key part of British culture and how these two halves – being British and being Caribbean – have entwined and should be celebrated.