Barbara Blake-Hannah: The Untold Story of Britain’s Pioneering Black Female TV Reporter’s Departure from Television
Written by GRB on 24/10/2023
Blake-Hannah sits down for our conversation, her voice warm and full of vibrant memories. She’s in Kingston, Jamaica, her home since 1972, wearing a leopard-print headwrap, worlds away from her 1960s TV days when her signature look was a straightened Vidal Sassoon-style bob. Her only child, Makonnen Hannah, made headlines worldwide in 1998 when, at just 13, he became the youngest-ever adviser to Jamaica’s Ministry of Commerce and Technology.
Her childhood was quite different from what you might expect. She grew up in a well-off part of Kingston, thanks to her father, Evon Blake, a respected magazine editor. He was known for more than just his editorial skills, as he played a crucial role in desegregating the swimming pool at the affluent Myrtle Bank hotel, a favorite spot for one of his employees. “This accountant would go and swim there every midday, but my father, his boss, couldn’t. So one day my father put on his swimsuit and dived in. The horror! The manager came and said: ‘Mr. Blake, you have to get out of the pool.’ He said: ‘No. Call the manager, call the prime minister, call God!’ And that was it: he liberated that pool, and he liberated Jamaican tourism.”
It was really wrong’ … Blake-Hannah with her Today colleagues Eamonn Andrews and Jane Probyn in 1968. She was dismissed after nine months due to racist complaints from
viewers. Photograph: Larry Ellis/Getty Images
However, it wasn’t just about the pool. Their family enjoyed luxuries like daily swims and the care of a cook, gardener, and nursemaid. They even attended the prestigious boarding school Hampton, rubbing shoulders with the Caribbean elite. “There were 100 girls, only 10 of whom were Black, of whom my sister and I were the ‘blackest’,” she recalls.
Her privileged education came to an end after her O-levels when her father’s financial fortunes dwindled. “By then, my father’s finances had collapsed. He took me out and put me in secretarial school. I wept bitter tears, but it really turned out to be most useful.” And it was. When she accepted a job offer in Britain – a minor role in the 1965 film “A High Wind in Jamaica,” starring Anthony Quinn – her work experience was quite diverse, from journalism to copywriting for an advertising agency, hosting a TV quiz show, appearing in a pantomime, and even some modeling.
She had a good life in Jamaica, but a desire to connect with the “mother country” beckoned. “I’d been educated to be a Black Englishwoman. I could tell you the average rain rate for all of the Lake District and recite Wordsworth’s poem to daffodils. I spoke and wrote perfect English and I thought: ‘Well, apart from the disadvantage of brown skin, kinky hair, and a broad nose, I would be quite OK, y’know?'” Unfortunately, Britain didn’t quite offer the warm Commonwealth welcome she had hoped for. “The contempt was so visible all the time; that was a real shock,” she says.
She wasn’t entirely unprepared, though. “Slavery already taught us that, y’know? The white man will have contempt: you are his inferior and he doesn’t have to like you. So you’re kind of prepared. Or, at that time in the development of Black people in the world, that was our attitude.”
One of the biggest shocks was trying to find accommodation in Britain. “Trying to get accommodation is really where it hit home,” she says. “No one would rent you anywhere decent. You had to be prepared to have the worst accommodation, in the worst parts of town.” Eventually, she found a room in a house, sharing a single bathroom with two Indian families. “It was really awful to have to put up with life under those conditions,” she reflects.
Work opportunities were more forthcoming, though she had to start from the bottom. After various secretarial jobs, she landed a position at the PR company handling Jamaican affairs in the UK. Eventually, she began writing for the Sunday Times and found herself embraced by a community of fellow West Indians and expats.
“I had a very good girlfriend – Celia Brayfield, who became a bestselling author – and we’d go to the parties that the Sunday Times and other journalists would give,” she says. She might have been the only person of color within that media circle, but it didn’t matter to her. “It was an artistic community; that was colorless, y’know? It didn’t matter. The Beatles had just gone to India, good heavens! So everybody was dressing in Indian clothes. It was a multicultural melting pot.” This offered some respite from the discrimination she faced elsewhere. “You were aware of racism at all times. I think it was just this circle of people who had no hang-ups, no prejudices, that made life not too difficult.”
In the mid-60s, the Black liberation movement was in full swing, yet it felt distant from Blake-Hannah’s life in London. “The revolution was something that was happening in America,” she says. “‘Black is beautiful,’ Black power, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael; our Black brains started ticking over because of them, but the Black community on Ladbroke Grove was a place you tried your best to get away from because you knew it was really the bottom, and you weren’t accustomed to that; I certainly wasn’t.”
It would take several more years and a Rastafari awakening before Blake-Hannah started to consider her place in this revolution. She moved in different circles than the activists like the Mangrove Nine, who were arrested for protesting against police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill and then fought a landmark legal battle to highlight racism in the criminal justice system. “People asked me the other day if I was part of the Mangrove uprising. Mangrove was happening at the same time as I had my PR job. I took people to lunch, y’know, at restaurants on Kings Road. I didn’t take clients to lunch at the Mangrove.”
Glittering CV .. Blake-Hannah (right) modelling alongside the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham in 1967.
Photograph: Edwin Sampson/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock
When conducting interviews in public, she was shielded from much of the prejudice, if only because most people were flattered by the presence of a camera. “I put that down to the fact that people like to be on television. It doesn’t matter who’s asking them the questions,” she says. However, being a journalist couldn’t shield her from racism within the media. She recalls a shocking incident when she was working in Birmingham, where her colleagues asked her, “Well, Barbara, if Black people are so great, how come they didn’t paint the Mona Lisa?” She was left speechless. “I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know there was anything to compare to the Mona Lisa. I thought that Egypt was Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, y’know? I didn’t know anything about Africa. Except that we had come from there as slaves. That’s all I knew.”
In 1968, she was sent to report at the Houses of Parliament. “I remember being on a bus and passing by South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, and white people using the N-word and shouting up at my face in the bus: ‘Go back home.’ This was the year of the bill proposing amendments to the Race Relations Act 1965, making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services on the grounds of race. In March, Enoch Powell had delivered his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in objection to the bill. For Blake-Hannah, the timing of her dismissal from Today that year is significant. “Thames Television had a good opportunity to act on the Race Relations Act, and they didn’t. They decided to continue the racism. I didn’t know it at the time – I couldn’t say anything – but, looking at it now, it was really wrong. They could easily have said [of the racist complaints]: ‘We don’t care.’ After being let go in such a manner, she says: ‘I realized there was no space for me in Britain.'”
She found another job in TV, this time at Associated Television in Birmingham, but relentless racism interfered with her work. She couldn’t find accommodation near her new job as no one would accept a Black tenant, forcing her into a grueling daily commute from London. She recalled how she had to “listen without reacting when the production staff asked: ‘What ‘wog’ story are we doing today?'” On another occasion, she noted, Powell agreed to do an interview with the station “on condition that ‘the Black girl’ was not there.”
Britain’s loss, Jamaica’s gain … Blake-Hannah (far right) in her role as cultural liaison for the
Jamaican government, alongside Olivia Grange (second right), the culture minister. Photograph:
A few years later, she was asked to do PR for the Jamaican film “The Harder They Come.” That experience led her to leave the UK. “The entire population of Jamaica tried to get into the cinema that premiere night. When the show was over, the best party I’ve ever been to in my life was held by the Jamaicans. I couldn’t wait to get back home … I did not look back.”
What she did after her return could fill many books and showcases how much Britain lost. She produced several films, including the 1982 Channel 4 documentary “Race, Rhetoric, Rastafari,” and authored various books, including a 2010 memoir covering her time in Britain and an influential manual on home schooling. In 1984, she was elected as an independent senator, becoming the first Rastafarian to serve in the Jamaican parliament. She has always kept up with British news and now campaigns against what she calls “heartless” Home Office deportations to Jamaica, which Priti Patel, the home secretary, recently promised to make a “regular drumbeat” of British life.
Blake-Hannah shares the story of Treymane Brown, a 25-year-old who left Jamaica for the UK as a six-year-old and was separated from his own six-year-old son when he was deported in 2017. Homeless in Jamaica, Brown saved a young boy from drowning in a gully, and yet, they only awarded him a hero’s award. “He still has no job, no money, and nowhere to live. None of them do. None of them have any connection with Jamaica except their genes.”
What shocks her the most, however, is how little the British media has changed in the 50 years since she was sacked, afraid that her skin color would offend racists. “When Meghan [the Duchess of Sussex] was still in Britain, you’d see a story and go into the comments section … I could see into the minds of the people who would call in [to Today] and say: ‘Get that N-word off our screens!’ Those people still exist in Britain today.”
Whether it is supermarkets’ TV adverts, Black Lives Matter-themed dance performances, or breakfast news presenters being disciplined, it often seems that the racists in the audience complain louder and have their feelings considered more than the non-racist majority. “You know why? British people have never been taught the full story of their history … the Queen of England is a nice old lady, nuff respect, but when I see Colston’s statue toppled and I read the history of the Royal African Company … You all need to know your history! That will stop the arrogance and that will stop the racism.”
Her own place in that history is being reclaimed. This year, the annual British Journalism Awards honored the Independent’s Kuba Shand-Baptiste with the inaugural Barbara Blake-Hannah prize. The award for up-and-coming minority ethnic journalist even included the amazing prize of a trip to Jamaica to meet Blake-Hannah. She’s also a part of Britain’s Black History Month curriculum and has received various lifetime achievement awards and an Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government. But the journalism award is, she says, particularly meaningful: “Every year, I will be remembered by all these beautiful Black, brown, Asian journalists. I am so honored.”
Her advice for the recipients echoes her journey: “Learn your history. Don’t be like Barbara Blake when they said: ‘If Black people are so great, how come they never painted the Mona Lisa?’ Have an answer because somebody’s gonna ask you. And then teach them something. Come into work one morning and say: ‘Hey, do you know that it’s Usain Bolt’s birthday today?’ Just once in a while, say something Black.”