When I was growing up in a small town called Rickmansworth, north-west of London in the 60s and 70s, I don’t think I ever saw a black or non-white face anywhere: there was one girl who was a little darker in skin colour; she was a few years older than me, and played the viola. I was friends with her brother; I think I heard that they had both been adopted, but quite honestly no one ever thought twice about it. Everything was very tranquil and normal.
Like most people of that time, I remember sitting down once a week to watch the Black and White Minstrel Show. I was very young, and so the viewing choice was very much my parent’s, but I do remember though being very confused at why these men were blacked up. I couldn’t really grasp the idea that they weren’t really black people, and why should anyone do such a thing. I knew nothing about the tradition or history of the American ‘minstrel show’, nor the implications of the then increasing racial issues around the world, nor anything about slavery and the rest. There had been an influx of black people from the Caribbean after the Second World War, but all of this had happened a long way off from the leafy London suburb.
Black and White Minstrel Show BBC
The only awareness of black people, whilst I was growing up, had been totally positive: I loved jazz music, and so I was filled with awe at the natural ability of all the American gods; to this day I believe you can hear the difference between black and white jazz musicians; then I was a West Ham and Watford soccer supporter – Clyde Best; Luther Blissett and John Barnes. I have no idea why, but there seems to be often something very special about people of African origin for musical ability, and sporting prowess.
The first time I got to know anyone from a different ethnic background to my own, was when I had left school and was doing a summer job as an usher at the Watford Odeon cinema. I’m afraid I’m not a very observant person, so I wasn’t particularly aware of what the different ethnic groups were, or were supposed to be. However, a friend I made there, who took me under his wing a bit, was a boy of Pakistani parentage, and I remember clearly the stories he told me of the abuse he received on a daily basis, just for the sole reason of him being born Pakistani. I remember being shocked and in disbelief, that acts of such intolerance and hatred could be possible. I was stupefied that such things existed in Britain. Watford was only 5 miles away from my beloved hometown of Rickmansworth.
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