“South Africa is a different country, an awful long way away”.
I’m sure that’s what I heard Nick Griffin, the BNP leader say, when asked if he had supported South Africa’s apartheid regime, on Radio 4’s Today Programme on the morning of his election to the European Parliament in June. As if to say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.”
My vote for the Greens in Liverpool was wasted, and Griffin is now my MEP. I remember thinking at the time that there was some potential for me as a Black writer to write an interesting script about his new position, and sure enough, an idea for a screenplay has formed in my little head. I can’t start developing it until after Christmas though, i.e. sometime in November at the earliest. No; that wasn’t a mistake, because for me as a Black performer in the UK, Christmas is the month of October, when councils and venues seek out Black artists to help fill their Black History Month calendars. So I, like thousands like me, am going to work like hell earning as much as half my annual income in October alone, and then trying to live as frugally as possible until next October.
Of course, I’m not complaining about the relatively full diary in October. I also understand why many theatres, in these hard times, look to schedule “Black acts” in the particular month when they are surest of increased awareness and interest about Black History. But what about the rest of the year? Why does “Black History” not offer enough entertainment or educational value, enough spiritual uplift to keep us Black artists in gainful employment all year round?
For example, picture a finely woven story set in say, 6th Century Mali, at a time of plentiful harvest, when regular feasting is accompanied by dancing and storytelling. One evening’s stories would be folk tales describing why and how food, work and power was always shared equally among the people. The next evening’s would be stories told to people by birds who made annual pilgrimages from far off lands where people’s skins were fair, where they have seasons when the ground was covered in something thick and white, which looked like cotton, but when you touched it, it felt cold and then turned magically into water. And when the people slept, they slept under blankets made of gooses’ feathers? Imagine this being devised and performed by a racially mixed group of so-called disaffected youngsters in Liverpool, under the direction of a talented black artist, say sometime in May, as part of a vibrant year-round programme of events designed to keep youngsters engaged in creative activity and engaged with people of different races? Imagine it being funded by the local authority and the police? What idealistic rubbish! Political correctness gone mad!, the BNP would say.
I suggested May because I won’t be available in February: I’ll be performing a play in America – taking advantage of their own Black History Month. And since my play is about one of the finest Americans who ever lived – Paul Robeson, who happened to be black - I’d be crazy not to. Robeson imagined a world where resources would be shared equally among all people, of all races, but was branded a communist and a traitor, and has been practically written out of history. In his country today, as we see a new form of racism emerging in response to the inexplicable mistake of the election of a Black President, Robeson’s story needs to be told all year round, but I’ll settle for February.
Now, in order to evenly distribute my annual earnings, I need to find somewhere to perform the play in June (that Nick Griffin script had better be finished by then). Where in the white world is Black History not celebrated? Belgium? Now, here’s an idea: I can approach my MEP to help promote my Robeson play around Belgium in June next year. Surely, he would be happy to carry out his duty of representing my interests in Europe? Unless of course he decides that it’s about an American, and as we know, America is another country, an awful long way away (nothing to do with Belgium). Maybe I should write something about King Leopold. Now, that’s one hell of a story!
Mr. Griffin, I love you, and I’m really, really glad you’re my MEP. You just have a way of getting my creative juices flowing...