Many thanks to those well wishes from family, friends and supporters who have helped me to achieve my M.B.E. I’m truly humbled and wouldn’t have got here without you all. I know there are some who disagree with my decision to accept an M.B.E. on principle over the British Empire and I fully understand. However, the seeds of my personal achievement have been sown over ancestral centuries. I’m part of a connected history over co
ntinents. So, I have compiled this short passage to explain some of my feelings and context behind my acceptance. This makes for good writing material during my travels in America as I write Volume Two ‘My American Odyssey, From The Windrush to the White House: Reflections Across a New Black Atlantic.’
As I crossed continents wherever I travelled the world I was asked one question repeatedly by many different people from many different backgrounds often with a tone of incredulity. ‘Where did you get that accent from?’ The answer to this biological riddle has taken me many years to unravel. I was born in multicultural London but grew up in a white enclave of Bristol in Lawrence Weston. My parents were from Guyana, part of an Empire that had broken loose from its colonial chains and morphed into a family of nations known as the West Indies and part of the wider Commonwealth. British Guiana gained independence to become the Republic of Guyana yet geographically was in South America near the Amazon jungle. With the trauma of enslavement and its legacy raging within me, how do you expect me to explain all these conflicts and complexities? I’ll start here.
My parents had been raised from the cradle to grave in the history of the British Empire reinforced at school, church and social institutions like Sunday school and girl guides. Theirs was a relationship built on colonial power with towering sugar cane billowing in the fields to remind them of the reasons their ancestors were taken there. In my Mother’s school curriculum, there was little of our African ancestry or of Caribbean freedom fighters like Nanny Maroon or Quamina. My paternal grandfather who never left Guyana was part of one of these institutions as a Mason (pictured) was never prouder then when sending his sons my Uncles Leslie, Varney and my Dad to help rebuild Britain after World War Two as part of The Windrush Generation pioneers. Through the NHS, the London Underground and more my family and many others from its empire helped to rebuild Britain.
Writing about all of this proved my outlet and was more cathartic than I would have ever of dreamed. I could see the parallels during my adolescence and events of the 1980s where poor-policing and mistreatment led to uprisings and riots in inner-city Britain. I saw the genesis sown from seeds of hate from the state seen in stop and search tactics. This fuelled the violence of far-right groups and racist propaganda from the National Front, skinheads and thugs telling me to ‘Go Back Home’. I was on the receiving end of acts of violence, aided and abetted by a hostile political climate. I had to overcome an internal burden of inferiority that had been placed upon ‘the chips of my shoulders’ by white authority figures. This was characterised by Norman Tebbitt’s infamous ‘Cricket Test’ made in remarks made in 1990 on the 22nd anniversary of Enoch Powell’s incendiary Rivers of Blood speech. Once again a generation of black and brown people were left feeling rejected by their host country. This time it was different, however because we were born in Britain. We were now children of the commonwealth whose forebears had never commonly shared the wealth and natural resources of their homelands.
The seeds of empire and imperialism have always been for better or worse part of my DNA and this has been hard to acknowledge. Now I have chosen to reclaim what this means to me. I will continue to inspire others to make their dreams come true through the arts and championing diversity. Most of all the award is an acknowledgement of the work of my parents and their generation who when they came to Britain dreamed of a better life for their children. Whilst the streets have never been paved with gold, I am humbled and proud to accept the rewards of my ancestral dividend. This allied to the work of many, many friends and colleagues has helped me to reach my potential and achieve recognition.
Roger Griffith M.B.E. Author, Broadcaster and MD of 2morrow 2day Community Consultants
Follow me on Twitter – Rogerg44 Instagram 2morrow 2day
Roger is pleased to announce he has been a made an Associate Director at TRACE a part the Paper Nations and will be Independently chairing their governance group working with Professor Bambo Soyinka
Paper Nations is a creative writing incubator based at Bath Spa. They are a team of writers and researchers, working with other cultural leaders to deliver programmes that connect and expand support for writers. Their approach is creative, collaborative and informed by rigorous research into writing habits, communities and networks. They map the writing landscape, identify gaps in provision, create resources and share insights into the lives of writers. Roger was drawn to them by their vision is to make Writing for All; to help everyone enjoy and appreciate the art of writing, regardless of experience or background.
Roger is already an Associate Lecturer for UWE Bristol working to diversify the curriculum with inclusive lectures including in script-writing, English and film making. In addition he undertakes community projects and ambassadorial work as he seeks to promote the value of life-long learning. He is seeking to explore more academic work alongside his writing in 2020.
‘If a race has no History it has no worthwhile tradition. It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.’ So said Dr Carter G Woodson who is the originator of Black History Month (BHM) across the African Diaspora. Woodson came from ultimate humble beginnings, being the son of enslaved parents. He embarked on a programme of self-education working by day and studying by night to become an educator and activist. Woodson argued that increasing social and professional opportunities between people of different backgrounds and races would help reduce racism. He also stated that black history was “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’’ In this guest column to launch BHM 2019 I outline what BHM means to me.
For a variety of reasons BHM has had controversy attached to it. Many like myself bemoan the fact that black history is packaged into one month. To us it can feel like it is too neatly commodified and just like a Christmas tree put back into a box for the rest of the year. I have however reflected on several conversations over the years that have helped me to re-think its overall contribution.
The Case For Black History Month
We are fortunate In Bristol to have a strong vibrant black community to supply events with networks built up over decades of contribution, connections and activism. However, many others new to the black experience or have felt on the edge of that experience are not so fortunate. For them BHM provides many platforms of entry. A white parent who brought up a child alone pointed out to me that there was very little educational support to help bring up the child in a way that reflected the child’s heritage. Another young black man, who had grown up in a rural countryside also confided to me that BHM had helped him understand more about his identity, provided links of support and boosted his confidence. Not everyone has a deep-seated knowledge of their background. Social commentator and activist Patrick Vernon OBE says ‘BMH has influenced and inspired the equalities world to organised similar months, exposing the hidden and excluded histories.’ These include LGBTQ, Disabled and Women’s History Months.
Of course, we can’t confine anybody’s history let alone black history to one month and that argument should be obvious to all concerned. I respect anyone for taking a proverbial NFL knee and sitting out BHM, whilst they ensure black history is represented throughout the year. For me, in my activism there is a practical and pragmatic need to do both. To ensure that the culture that gives us so much pride and inspiration reaches as many influencers and audiences as possible. We need more than ever opportunities that bring us together. During these divisive times we can tackle new emerging themes of intersectionality and demographic changes within and beyond our communities.
Tackling the Barriers of Exclusion with Education and Inclusion
The outcomes, gaps and barriers due to solely the colour of one’s skin are clear and exist across issues of education, employment, the criminal justice system, health and housing. BHM on its own isn’t going to change that, but over the month it does make a compelling case for achievement, celebration and putting these issues to the top of the agenda. All of this work helps to take forward local issues including one of the recommendations from the 2017 City Conversations to have a more inclusive curriculum which reflects the needs of more than 20% of its pupils. Champions like Alisha Thomas an Educator at City Academy, Sibusiso Tshabalala of Cognitive Paths are working with the Bristol One Curriculum Forum and making progress.
Education is always a central tenet of BHM and provides a range of opportunities to learn of the presence and contribution of people of colour in Bristol and Britain over centuries. I can’t wait to see fellow creative Black Bristolians such as Dionne Draper (DAWTA) and Lawrence Hoo (CARGO) who along with many others host contemporary challenging art that will enlighten and entertain.
Sure, we don’t have the numbers of state sanctioned police killings of unarmed black men and women as in America. That does not mean however we should wait for the bar to fall to those deplorable depths. Instead we must tackle the complacency, lack of action and continuing economic and social divides between Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and their white counterparts. A range of academic studies has shown that racism and inequality causes premature deaths, increases, mental health and directly affects the future life chances of our young.
Until that set of circumstances changes every action count and every opportunity must be tried and taken. This is why Black History Month matters to me. To build awareness and as an engagement campaign to fight against the daily injustices of racism…all year round.
Roger was delighted to be selected as a contributor for the Home for heroes series by Festival of Ideas alongside BBC TV author and historian David Olusoga and MP Alan Johnson by the Festival of Ideas season. He writes ‘it was probably my most difficult composition yet and deeply personal and emotive a journey I describe as The Good The Bad and The Ugly.
Homes for Heroes 100 is a programme of coordinated community projects, events and publications marking the centenary of the Housing Act 1919 and the development of large-scale council estates in Britain. David Olusoga and Roger Griffith have contributed brand new essays’ on their experiences of growing up in Council Housing. (50) https://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/themes/homes-for-heroes-100/
Read the article in full here and the book is availble freely from Festival of Ideas
Homes For Working Class Heroes
Large-scale council housing came into being through the 1919 Addison Act with a vision to build homes ‘fit for heroes’ returning after the First World War. Over time, this vision evolved into one of providing homes that would be a sanctuary for people needing to build – or rebuild – their lives and for those on lower incomes looking for affordable rents. Council housing was a lifeboat for my mother and me from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s. After her divorce, my mother chose to move to Bristol. We lived in one room in a house of multiple occupation in Easton for over a year in 1975/76 and shared a bed that was no more than a big piece of foam on the floor. Mum’s efforts to gain more secure and stable accommodation were eventually successful. We were offered a council flat on the top floor of a three-storey block without a lift, on a 99 percent white working-class housing estate on the outskirts of Bristol in Lawrence Weston. Mum didn’t drive, we were miles from friends and our black culture. My mum – not one of life’s complainers – got a job in nearby Shirehampton and made the best of our new environment. Aged 11, I befriended an older girl at Lawrence Weston Comprehensive School who was also dating the local hardman.
I was not untouchable, but I did now have someone to watch over me as no one messed with ‘Sally’. My quick wits meant I made a range of friends from different backgrounds. You could count the number of black families on the estate on one hand. I forged friendships with one family through Colin White and we became each other’s best-man at our respective weddings. Another friend, Tony ‘Pilch’ Pearce, is now a teacher in Brighton, a place we then only knew through our Subbuteo football teams. Due to my mother’s insistence I addressed all my friends’ parents as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. This meant I often got invited to ‘tea’, something my West Indian upbringing had no reference of but I intrinsically knew was an important occasion. I was always grateful for the cakes and sandwiches that would’ve sustain any cricketer at Lords. While I played with their children, these various parents would fill the gaps in the void left by the rest of my family being more than 120 miles away in London. We lived without fear of life’s everyday dangers. Soon we had a tight gang of kinship rather than terror. We fought, argued, laughed and cried together. Whenever one of our brood got into trouble, we took the musketeer approach. All for one and one for all. The youth clubs, boxing gyms and a plethora of sporting clubs kept most of us away from the glue-sniffers, speed-freaks and junkies.
At Avon Boys’ Club, we honed not only our football skills, but also developed sporting prowess in table tennis, darts, snooker and many other games. We learned teamwork, camaraderie, sportsmanship and time-keeping, even if I’m still working on the last one. We were drilled in a never-give-up attitude, no matter how better the opposition or inclement the weather. I left school without qualifications, unprepared for what life would want from me because I didn’t have any expectations. I don’t remember a single conversation about furthering my education, let alone visiting a university. This is an irony I begin most of my lectures with today, as I’m now a part-time lecturer with UWE Bristol. Poor schooling meant my brothers-in-arms and I were viewed as cannon fodder for the nearby industrial factories at Avonmouth that belched toxic waste into our living space.
We were catapulted without a safety net into an adult world. Packed pubs beckoned us to an oasis of adventure. It was solace for those seeking to escape the routine with alcohol, music or the chance of a sweet illicit encounter: to turn the daily grind into a physical one. An honest day’s work or a small loan from a mate could sometimes be found to alleviate rising debt as unemployment levels reached one in ten levels (three million), making prospects for the unskilled bleak. The pubs on the estates were homes to midweek darts, skittles and pool teams and pre- and post-match meeting places for local football teams if you weren’t watching your beloved Rovers or City play away. When he was a young boy, Marvin Rees and his sister Dionne briefly became our downstairs neighbours. Their mother Janet, like mine, had been grateful for the sanctuary and safety of a council home – though not for the local abuse. Our mothers became lifetime friends and I’m still proud that the young boy I saw then is now the Elected Mayor of Bristol.
I was annoyed when my car was broken into for its stereo and belongings, devastated when I was burgled, pleased when security doors were introduced to stop drunken passers-by using the ground floor of our block as a toilet. I became a father at 18 and had years of unemployment as my life swung violently out of my control, much like the rest of the country. Around me, I watched predominately black housing estates like St Pauls, Toxteth and Tottenham – three miles from where I was born – rise up in flames and rebellion fuelled by the humiliating ritual of aggressive stop and search policing. I miss the banter and camaraderie of life on the estate. It could be vicious yet have the most acerbic observational humour of the finest stand-up comedians. It certainly helped to build my character, sharp tongue and canny pragmatic skills in response to an array of insults and challenges.
There were no safe spaces and this sink-or-swim approach to growing up is not recommended for the faint-hearted. Gossip was given verbally, not via text and, in this vital currency, key information was exchanged such as where the local suspected paedophile lived. Our resilience meant we drew up a verbal risk assessment and would take the long way around that spot lest the troll come out to ply us with cheap alcohol or worse. We walked or cycled everywhere, using today’s quaint relics such as telephone and post boxes as landmarks. As I grew older, I became more aware of the ritual racist abuse. I recall one vicious attack that took place when I was alone at a bus stop, which left me physically and mentally scarred. It was carried out by two assailants who shouted ‘Nigger’ at me, individuals who hated what they didn’t understand. I was lucky, I got up: Stephen Lawrence in similar circumstances did not.
Survival skills were honed over many skirmishes with a range of authority figures that were coming into my life. When my mum moved, I had the right to continue to rent our flat. Living next door to one of the largest ports in the country, stolen goods were in ready supply. Our estate was full of its own Del Boy clones and dealers trying to make a living. Televisions, pirate videos, fake goods, drugs or whatever you required could be delivered to your front door for the right price without you having to leave your home. Nobody, however, was going to give any public ratings, because talking to anyone beyond your circle or crew was forbidden. Inevitable adolescent tensions appeared in our gang and, like many boybands, we split up.
My local, The Giant Goram, like other pubs that acted as social clubs across the country, has disappeared as we now suggest a ‘Netflix and chill’ instead of a rallying cry of ‘Cider I up, landlord!’ Loyalty, straight-talking and a pragmatic no-nonsense approach to life are values I learned from living on that estate and still hold today. These values were identical to those I inherited from my family who were part of the Windrush Generation. When they arrived, they didn’t get homes for heroes, just signs that read ‘No Blacks. No Irish. No Dogs’. Excluded from council lists, some ‘parderned’ together in informal cooperatives to buy their own homes so they could make a major contribution to Britain after the Second World War. I went to evening classes in secret, self-taught myself about my black culture, gained confidence, discovered who I was and dedicated the rest of my life to become all that I could be. I chose to ‘move out’ as a career beckoned belatedly at age 25. In addition, circumstances and maturity changed me from an estranged father to a lone parent caring for my son and a fresh start was demanded. More irony came as I became a trainee housing officer in Hartcliffe for my landlord Bristol City Council in 1991. I turned my life of living in council housing into an 18-year career, rising to the rank of senior housing manager before redundancy in 2009. Clint Eastwood was our Hollywood hero back then and I describe my time in Lawrence Weston as ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. The reality for a skinny, small, black kid on the brink of adolescence without immediate family or friends meant life was tough, but it was also the making of this man.
Roger will be hosting Urban Word Collective at Bradley Stoke Library, Fiddlers Wood Lane, Bradley Stoke, South Gloucestershire, BS32 9BS – 22nd October 2019 7.30-9.30
Get your FREE ticket here http://bit.ly/UWCSGREN breaking news the event will be opened by Bradley Stoke Mayor Tom Aditya
South Gloucestershire Race Equality Network and South Gloucestershire Council present Urban Word Collective a diverse collective of storytellers and musicians. The event takes place at Bradley Stoke Library, where they will be performing poetry and music. The event is hosted by Roger who will providing context for Black History Month and a selection of readings. The event features poets Fellow Dread, Pearl Kofi with African Drumming by Rubba.
To mark Black History Month 2019 LibrariesWest have launched a reading list featuring books chosen by Roger Griffith (@rogerg44 ), a successful West of England author, social entrepreneur and local radio personality. The book list features authors from around the world featuring writers lived experience. Roger has selected, biographies, poetry, history, current affairs and books for young people. Roger said “This is a very personal list of books that will challenge people’s thinking and help understand the rich and varied lives from across the African diaspora. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did selecting this list! Please let me know what you think and feel free to let me know your personal favourites and why.”
Celebrating Windrush Day and achievements of the pioneers who came to rebuild Britain after World War Two and laid the foundations for future generations in business, politics, sport, music, culture and more