Racism has a way of blocking talented individuals from giving off their best in their chosen field of work. Barbara Blake Hannah, a young Jamaican girl skilled in her field of work, had her contract terminated because the audience did not want to a n**** on their television screens.
She became the first Black journalist to appear on British Television in 1968 in a non-entertainment role but had a short career on-air in England.
Many tend to refer to Moira Stuart who had an over a decade long career onscreen with BBC News in 1981 as the first British female broadcaster. Even though her influence cannot be underplayed as one of the most recognizable voices in UK journalism, there was Hannah before her.
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Hannah was a highly skilled journalist in her own right who happened to find herself in England in 1964 as an extra for the film A High Wind In Jamaica.
This was the sad introduction to the realities of a dark-skinned person trying to carve a niche for herself. The racism was unabated right from the get-go.
Growing up, her father, Evon Blake, taught her to be treated as an outsider because of her race and she learned to accept it.
In an interview with Sky, she recalled, “I was treated with scorn, disgust, hatred. I had been raised to expect that reaction from white people, and to accept it, so I did and learned to live with it – even though I hated it.
“The worst was one night at a party when a drunken scuffle between some people next to me broke a glass and a splinter hit my hand. A girl looked shocked at the blood and said: ‘It’s red!’
“Her friends roared with laughter, mocking me. I should have laughed, but it was frightening.”
Hannah’s father is her biggest inspiration and she accumulated experience from working at his monthly magazine as a writer. This gave her a love of both reading and writing and a revolutionary spirit.
She was well positioned by her father’s status quo in Jamaica as the founder of the Press Association of Jamaica in 1940. By default, Hannah received the best education and gained an edge over her peers. She was not a novice to journalism when she arrived in England.
Hannah had stints with Queen, Cosmopolitan and The Sunday Times before her historic appearance on British television at Thames TV.
Her first broadcast was to report a mob crime by a gang from the East End in London. She also had the opportunity to interview Harold Wilson and actor Michael Caine before her career on British TV was truncated.
Her job at Thames TV was not the first time she was on TV either.
“It wasn’t the first time I had a job on TV. I had been hostess of a weekly quiz show in Jamaica and done some news reading and stuff like that at home,” she said.
Nonetheless, the struggles in the British media were harsher than those at home. She was never really accepted by her own colleagues and the largely white audience to whom she appeared on their screens. She was deemed “inappropriate” regardless of her mad skills in journalism.
“Whatever racism you encountered you just had to accept because you were brought up to understand white people will always see you as inferior and you just had to accept that and smile about it and pretend that it doesn’t hurt because you are living with them,” she said.
One incident that sticks high in Hannah’s memory was when Enoch Powell paid a visit to the Thames TV studios for an interview. Powell was the then right-wing Conservative MP notable for his infamous Rivers of Blood speech that bashed mass migration from the Commonwealth.
Unknown to Hannah, Powell agreed to come into the studio to grant the live interview if “the black girl” was not around. So, she was sent on an assignment.
Blake could later not hide the disappointment she felt when she realized that the contract of her two white colleagues had been renewed and hers was terminated.
At first, she was let go without any reason. But later, the producer showed her some of the letters from viewers amid disturbing calls just to say, “Get that n***** off our screens.”
“That was when I first learned this was happening because they showed me some of the letters that had come in, maybe not to be cruel but to justify not renewing my contract when they renewed the contract of the other two presenters,” Hannah said.
According to her, she experienced worse racism when she went on to work at ATV in Birmingham. But her struggles paved way for Stuart and Sir Trevor McDonald, who had a celebrated career at ITN after starting off in 1973.
“When I left England in 1972 and came back in 1982 and I was surprised that in the ten years I had been away no-one had replaced me….It’s good that now finally an effort is being made to fill that gap and correct that wrong,” she said in an interview.
Today, efforts are underway to diversify British media even though there is still more work to be done after 50 years since Hannah was dismissed.
This year’s British Journalism Awards with The Press Gazette has a new category — the Barbara Blake-Hannah prize — to recognize the works of upcoming talented Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) journalists.
“What happened to me 50 years ago, which was so painful and hurt me so very much, deprived me of income even.
“What happened then has led to an award that’s going to recognize black journalists from here forward and that’s really great. If I’ve done nothing else in my life that’s been the most important thing that’s happened in my life.”
The winner will be chosen by Hannah and other judges as they are on a quest to find equally good journalists who are changing the narratives with their work whiles breaking down barriers put up by society.
The editor-in-chief of the Press Gazette is astounded by Hannah’s accomplishments and admits it’s been a long time coming.
“I’m ashamed to say I was not aware of Barbara’s story. But having spoken to her and read up about her history I can’t think of a better role model for the next generation of BAME journalists who are breaking through barriers in the way that she did.”