Staying power? Hardly

I certainly expected more than I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum display entitled ‘Staying Power: photographs of black British experience, 1950s-1990s’. I guess the basic problem was that the ‘experience’ it showed had no theme, other than black people were featured in each image. It has little bits of experience, and very small bits, too. How it related to the black experience during the 40 year period was not clear. As I said to a German journalist who nabbed me and a man from Antigua, “it was a depiction” of little bits.

Did I see me in any of the pictures? Maybe, a little. I saw a younbg black boy’s face. I saw a picture of a woman dressed as a police officer. I saw images of Caribbean homes. 

What did I expect? I really didn’t get any sense of what life was like for black people in Britain except in the four pieces that showed photographs taken in the 1970s for people to send home. Pictures of people standing next to radiograms, or stacked china cabinets, or the table with the telephone and the child ‘speaking to people back home’. These were meant to be images that showed that people had ‘made it’, from whatever district they had left in Jamaica, or wherever, to people with trappings of a better life.  

But, the pictures don’t show anything like the daily grind–not that it need necessarily be hardship grind. I would have liked, say, pictures of people in markets; children playing in neighbourhoods (whether with white children or not, alone or with others); people at work (in factories, on the buses, in hospitals–images that we know and maybe have seen, already); people playing sport (cricket, dominoes, football, athletics); flashes of anger and danger. Daytime life, nightlife; people doing leisure activities (immigrants didn’t go on holidays like the host population, so it’s hard to find images of them, say, in deck chairs in parks or on beaches eating ice cream–they tended to save money to make trips home); people in hardship, people showing off successes.

Maybe, the organizers thought these images are all ready well-known. Even if they were, so what?  I said to the journalist it would be worth asking people who had little or no notion of black immigration to Britain what they took from the images.

The bits shown at the Victoria and Albert are just a part of a larger exhibit at the Black Cultural Centre, in Brixton. To be fair, I will try to see thta; it was closed when I wsa there on Sunday.

I went out in the evening and walked through the City of London, to the north-eastern corner named Shoreditch (if you know the rhyme ‘Oranges and lemons’, you’ll recall the name). It was another ‘reception’ area for immigrants that has played that role for decades. The latest group are Vietnamese, who now have restaurants strung along the High Street. The days of corner and side street Indian curry houses is past. Jewish cuisine is hard to find, if not impossible. Chinese migrants stayed tucked away in their tight areas. Yuppies have found this area, too, with its easy access to the City. Caribbeans stayed a little further north and as is usual feature littel on the culinary map. We are less visible for many reasons, but one of them is that we never understood how to give that taste of ourselves to others through the simple medium of food. Now, dog and all have eaten our suppers, again.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Staying power? Hardly”

  1. I can just imagine this must have been a disappointment. What was the aim of the people who put together this exhibit, or was it mere tokenism (I hope not, but I am a bit of a cynic). Surely the daily grind (including hardships) must be in there, too. I wonder if you have seen the Brixton one now (I am just catching up so perhaps you have already written about it).


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