Title: Growing Out: Black hair and Pride in the Swinging Sixties
Author: Barbara Blake Hannah
London and Hertfordshire: Hansib Publications, 2010. 168 pages
Reviewed by: Mary Hanna (originally in the Jamaica Observer newspaper)
Barbara Blake Hannah has written a lively and well documented memoir of her radicalization into a Black identity in the sixties when she lived and worked in London. Hannah writes with style and immediacy that is gratifying. She is present on every page, whether speaking of her struggles or her triumphs, and for brawta, she offers “The Story of Mr. Jones”, a tale told in fragments and in italics of the lives of typical, poor Jamaican immigrants. The stories afford relief for each other, “Mr. Jones” always showing the way to a grimmer reality than Hannah’s, but yet commenting on her situation with resonance.
Hannah’s memory for details is superb. She records the highlights of sixties Swinging London as well as her rise to become Britain’s first black TV journalist. Along the way, she encounters all forms of racism that she learns to identify as such:
Polite racism. In 1964 I had no answer. Brought up as I had been in the neo-colonial Jamaican society to regards such comments as praise, I wad guardedly happy to have passed the test to remain in their inner circle, but wary enough to keep my distance. If I had any notions of racial consciousness (which I did not), my upbringing had firmly imbedded into me an image of my superiority over the ‘lower classes’ – of whom I definitely was not one…
She analyses the root cause of her discontent:
It wasn’t that I wanted to be White, but that I was desperately wanted to prove I could be as English as the English. I was certain that one day they all would see, and that day all the icy stares and frowns and looks of contempt would be transformed into smiles. Until then, I maintained a low self-esteem because of it. The pressure was everywhere and I was constantly aware of it.
Hannah has a keen eye and wonderful sense of the rightness (and wrongness) of things. She charts her course for success and works with gusto at moving in the right circles in London. Her friendships – with Beverly Anderson Manley, Sally Henzel, and John Pringle – helped her in her climb to celebrity status as a TV reporter. This position is all too soon terminated owing to racist elimination of her job. Hannah does not waste time in bemoaning her fate; she gets to work to rectify the situation, to move on:
Well you gotta be a little crazy to have been bold enough to think that you could take England by storm, and then go out and actually do it without any money or connections, only an arrogant blind faith in your little self. You can make it if you try. Yes, yes.
She promotes herself into a position as PR executive’s assistant with Michael Rice & Co, the firm that handles the Jamaica Tourist Board account. She is able to pass the exams in two months of studying that gained her the letters AIPR (Associate of the Institute of Public Relations) behind her name. Hannah is intelligent, resourceful, and a hard worker. She is never down for long.
But the real journey in Growing Out that she charts is one of the growth of Black consciousness – and a consciousness of her own Black beauty as her straightened hair is first cut off and then left to grow out into the natural look, and then into locks…that is, what happens to Hannah when she decides to turn from Babylon (the Cannes Film Festival) and ultimately return to Jamaica? Her redemption is linked to the growing out of her hair and the significance of this change in herself. Hannah writes passionately about the enormous difference in her life that deciding to grow out her hair brings about. It is an interesting and humbling exposition, for Hannah records the damage done to Black hair (and self-esteem) by the processing of straightening the hair:
Hair had become a symbol of the militant Black stance, an emblem that demonstrated just who was prepared to stand behind the new positive Black attitudes that were being articulated. Natural black hair was an open statement that said: Here I am, Black, naked, no pretension, no desire to ape Whitey. Bearing our natural hairstyles was a defiant a statement as if we had taken up spears or guns at the ready.
It would be good to get the sequel to this revolutionary change of self-perception and lifestyle that Hannah embarked on when she left London and returned to Jamaica. Here she encountered Rastafari and her hair, again the symbol of her inner journey, became locked to the knee. This process of immigration in reverse is well worth documenting and Hannah’s style of writing, both imitate and articulate, would greatly befit such a tale.
Speaking of the enormous trauma of the change away from straightened hair in London, she says:
You know, it’s hard to re-tell these experiences. At this writing, seven years later, my hair is a beauty asset envied by Black and White women. In the years when I still combed it out, it was soft, silky, long, shiny and had enough “straight” in it to make it lie down in neat lines, when I wished…but when I returned to Jamaica and started living as a Rasta, I covered up every strand to overcome the vanity before I eventually started growing my locks when my son was born in 1985.
Today my locks are down to my knees and I have had the pleasure of growing it out for 24 years, as I write, bringing another dimension of beauty to my hair and hairstyle.
So, it’s hard now to recall the panic of those first weeks and months of growing-out hair. The self-hate, the feeling of ugliness, the feeling of not knowing what the future held for my looks…It was a mystery of faith, like contemplating death and the life after.
This text is a document of great interest to all readers. It is a good read.
Barbara Blake Hannah is a journalist, author and filmmaker. She has achieved several notable firsts. She was Britain’s first Black TV journalist, she was the first and only female independent senator in Jamaican political history, and she is the author of the first book on Rastafari by a member of faith. She has spoken and lectured around the world and been awarded Ethiopia’s Gold Adowa Centenary Medal and a United Nations Peace Medal. She was a special assistant in the Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica and Director of Public Relations for the City of Kingston.
This book is available online @Amazon