In 2009 Sophia Jackson interviewed Stephen for the Screen Nation Awards magazine on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the publication of his ground-breaking book Black in the British Frame.
Sophia: Screen Nation founder Charles Thompson said that Black in the British Frame is his favourite book and this made up for all the reviews you didn’t get. Now that the book is celebrating its tenth anniversary, please summarise it in your own words.
Stephen: It is an attempt to document the first century of black British film and television and recognise the pioneering actors, writers and directors who helped to shape this genre. I wanted to make sure that this history wasn’t lost.
Sophia: What contribution do you feel the book has made to this history?
Stephen: I do not wish to sound immodest, but it is a ground-breaking book. When I look back over the ten years since it was published in 1998, I am disappointed that there hasn’t been a succession of books on the subject. I can count on one hand the books that have been published about black British film and television, and Black in the British Frame counts for two of them, having been published in 1998 followed by a revised edition in 2001.
Sophia: Why do you think this is?
Stephen: British publishers and literary agents are white and middle-class and they are not interested in engaging with black British histories. I have tried to change this, but no one wants to listen. I recently spoke to a literary agent who still refers to black writers as “coloured”. It made me cringe.
Sophia: What will people gain from reading the book?
Stephen: From the feedback I have had, from general readers, media students and professors of film and television history, they really appreciate the book because they learn about the pioneers, and the positive contributions they made. Black in the British Frame is not an academic, theoretical study. It is a thoroughly researched history which acknowledges the early, formative years and what black actors, writers and film-makers were trying to do back then, in a British context. Readers are shocked and surprised at what was achieved, against the odds, in the days when racial stereotypes ruled! But I would like more black actors to read the book, learn about their predecessors, and become more informed about the subject.
Sophia: What inspired you to write the book?
Stephen: The interviews I had and the friendships I made with some of the pioneers and survivors of black British film and television: Earl Cameron, Isabelle Lucas, Pearl Connor, Nadia Cattouse, Frank Singuineau, Pauline Henriques, Thomas Baptiste, Carmen Munroe, Cleo Sylvestre. There are too many to list here. They were and are wonderful people who led extraordinary lives and had fascinating acting careers but they were not being remembered, or acknowledged in the history books. The ones I have mentioned here all became great friends. Some of them have passed away, and I miss them terribly, but the rest are still with us, and they are still acting. Earl Cameron recently had a nice part in the film The Queen starring Helen Mirren. It’s amazing to think Earl started his film career in 1950, and he’s still going strong.
Sophia: What doors opened for you after Black in the British Frame was published in 1998?
Stephen: None, really. No access to the mainstream. None of my black interest books, and I have had many published, have been reviewed in The Guardian, The Independent or The Times Educational Supplement. After fifteen years I recently cancelled my subscription to the film journal Sight and Sound in protest at them not reviewing my biographies of the black screen actresses Elisabeth Welch, Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen. Why should I support Sight and Sound when they ignore me? I have yet to be recognised as someone who could be interviewed by The Guardian or BBC Radio 4 about black film history, or black British history, and also my work in the community as a police advisor. But I have a strong belief in myself and the work that I do. I have never given up. I am determined to make an impression in the mainstream one day!
Sophia: Why are you so passionate about black British film history?
Stephen: Because I am passionate about secret histories which are ignored, forgotten and overlooked. I bit like me, really! My work is a secret history that is also ignored, forgotten and overlooked! Also, we are so dominated by American culture, music, and politics. I am on record as saying that Britain is a colony of the United States ! All I am trying to do is offer an alternative black history which has a British context. But those of us who work in this field are up against the American influence. And it is strong, and dominates.
Sophia: Tell me about the documentary you have just finished making?
Stephen: Aunt Esther’s Story is a fifteen minute documentary, made in my living room, with no money. It tells the story of my adopted aunt, a black working-class Londoner born before the First World War. We used archive footage and family photos to tell her story, and the aim was to demonstrate to people, especially young people, that short documentaries can be made without money, and can be included in film events and festivals. It has been seen all over the place: Peckham Multiplex, Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum , the bfm International Film Festival. I am very excited about this, because the feedback I have been getting from audiences has been so positive, and heart-warming.
Sophia: This year’s Screen Nation awards magazine is celebrating sixty years since the arrival of the Empire Windrush. What does this mean to you?
Stephen: It is a significant landmark in the history of black people in Britain but to appreciate its importance we have to know what came before. It was not the beginning. It was one of many, many landmarks. Windrush is an event that prompts us to remember
Newsletter 53In March 2009 the following article was published in Newsletter 53 of the Black and Asian Studies Association.
Spreading the Word Stephen Bourne
On 21 June 2008 a youth attempted to rob two young school friends in my London borough. One of the victims, a 10-year-old, was stabbed. The local police contacted me and informed me because, for almost ten years, I have been a member of our Critical Incident Panel. It is a voluntary position, offered to me in 1999 by the police in my borough because they wanted to engage with local people, and provide a forum for key players in the community to consult with them about critical incidents.
For me, the stabbings and deaths associated with young people in my community is becoming too painful to endure. It grieves me that two of the youths who have died in my borough in the last decade were pupils at the two schools I attended: Damilola Taylor (Oliver Goldsmith in Peckham Road ) and Michael Dosunmu (St Michael and All Angels in Camberwell). I have always wanted to make a difference in my community and I believe I do so by working in partnership with the police with other like-minded members of my community, but I also wear another hat.
I describe myself as a historian of black Britain , and my eleventh book, Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945, is due to be published next year. This is a career that was never planned. Instead it has evolved over years of painstaking hard work, for very little monetary gain. I pay my rent and bills by working part-time as a library assistant. My books are labours of love, and it has proved to be a very rewarding experience.
My working life couldn’t have started more unpromisingly. I was raised on a council estate in Peckham and left school at sixteen with no qualifications. It was the 1970s, the post-Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ period, and an ugly time. Racism was on the streets, and I watched in horror as the National Front (NF) marched past my bedroom window along Peckham Road . Enoch and the NF wanted Britain ’s African and Caribbean settlers to “go back home”. However, the notion that black Britons existed before the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 was not a historical discovery for me, but a simple fact of my family life. My Aunt Esther was born a black Londoner before the First World War, and adopted into my family by my great grandmother during the Second World War.
It saddens me that my black history books - and many others on black British history - have never been reviewed in a broadsheet, or properly acknowledged on radio or television. And yet, in spite of the media’s indifference, my books have sold because I have taken responsibility for much of the promotion myself: giving talks during Black History Month, and leaving flyers on trains and buses.
Perhaps if the media gave authors like me a higher profile, it wouldn’t be such a struggle to reach young black people in this country who are not informed about their past. What appals me is that the institutional racism authors such as myself experience from literary agents (I have been rejected by fifteen in the last three years), most of our publishers, and the media, is denying young people the true history of our nation. In the school curriculum, on television, and elsewhere, they are not informed about black Britons from our past. When you look at black interest sections of libraries and bookshops, I would say that at least 90 per cent of the books are imported from America . It isn’t the fault of libraries and bookshops, it is just that so few us working in this field are supported by British publishers. With the exception of the Crimean nurse Mary Seacole, there are only a handful of books about black British historical figures aimed at young people. However, there are books for children about African Americans like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. There is nothing wrong with teaching our young about African Americans, or the South African leader Nelson Mandela, but damage is being done by making their British counterparts invisible.
My latest book is a short biography of Dr. Harold Moody, aimed at young people. He was once described as Britain ’s Dr. Martin Luther King, but in my community no one knew who he was, even though he has an English Heritage Blue Plaque on his home in Peckham, and a local park named after him. Several educational publishers rejected the book before my local authority, Southwark Council, agreed to fund it. Launched at the ‘I Love Peckham’ festival on 14 July, I hope the book will make a difference to young black people. It has already inspired a group of lads from the Harris Academy in Peckham to write and perform a short play about Moody’s life. I often think about the ‘hoodie’ who attended one of my Black History Month talks at Peckham Library, and was shocked by the photograph I showed him of a Jamaican RAF officer in the Second World War. In disgust he informed me that “no one told me about him at school”.
If more black youths were informed about ‘ordinary’ black people like my Aunt Esther, historical figures like Dr. Moody, the West Africans and West Indians who supported the British war effort, and many others who have helped shape this country, then perhaps they will have a better understanding of their history, and a stronger identity with the past.
When historians of black Britain - against very difficult odds - have their books published, we are ignored by the very media that can do much to spread the word, and help change the situation. And yet this is the same media that, in November 2008, made a huge fuss about the publication of the list of members of the British National Party. There were debates in the ‘liberal’ press (The Guardian, The Independent) and on BBC Radio 4, but this is the very media that discriminates against the good work of historians of black Britain . I find this hypocritical and long for the day when Britain ’s liberal-thinking media takes a long, hard look at itself, and its hypocrisy, and properly acknowledges the work of writers like myself and many others.