Thursday, 11 December 2014

Black Consciousness and Delma

It was almost certainly a rare sight in a town like Leek in the early 1950s. The black face of little Delma stares out apprehensively at the camerain  February 1950.  She is wearing the school blazer of All Saints School which she was soon to start. Delma’s guardian appears more confident. The Reverend Payton, vicar of All Saint’s was a man in his early 40s. He stands in the doorway of the Vicarage with his wife. Delma aged 10 was the daughter of a Nigerian barrister  staying at the Payton’s for several months before becoming a boarder at Wellington private school in Shropshire. She was enrolling at a local school before moving to Wellington the following Autumn. I imagine that Delma would have been the only person of colour in Leek at the time. I wonder how she would have been treated?  Probably as a figure of curiosity as  all social surveys carried out at the time do not report overt  hostility to black people. Writing in the early 1950s the South African writer Doris Lessing thought that the general positive  attitude to race in Britain then stood in marked contrast to her own country and the decade before black servicemen in the US Army report on the friendliness of British people compared to the segregated nature of society back home.

If there is one characteristic that comes through in the reporting of Delma’s arrival it is a patronising one that was a standard response throughout much of the media at the time of her arrival in Leek coincided with some debate over mixed marriages. As a leading advocate of African self determination the Botswanan leader Seretse Kharma had married a fellow Oxford student a white woman leading to discussion on the subject of mixed marriage.

 However the 50s began to see a change in the question of an African consciousness that begin to see the granting of independence to African countries by the end of the 50s and into the following decade. The seeds were sown not too far away from Leek in Manchester. In 1945 the fifth Pan African Congress held at Chorlton Town Hall was significant politically, coming as it did just months after the end of the Second World War. The war had been fought in the name of freedom, yet around the globe hundreds of millions of people lived in colonies run by  European powers. The Congress brought together a number of important political activists including Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah who went on to lead anti-colonial struggles in Kenya and Ghana. Delma’s own country would become free from colonial rule in 1960 and as a professional her own father may have played a part in the administration of the newly independent Nigeria.

This is not to say that the transition was a smooth one. The 50s saw the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya which was brutally suppressed by British forces, the implications of which are still being played out in the law courts.  It saw ferocity and slaughter in other European colonies most notably in the Belgian Congo and in French North Africa and the consequences of colonial powers arbitrarily drawing a line on a map would eventually lead to a Civil War in Delma’s own country in the 1960s and into the 1990s with the horrors of Rwanda