Review of Memoirs of a Black Englishman

7 Mar

The year is 1963: thousands march in protest at a bus company’s refusal to employ non-white staff. A handsome and charismatic young black man addresses the crowd about Martin Luther King and the global struggle against racism. But this isn’t taking place in pre-civil rights Alabama or Mississippi. It is happening in Bristol, and the young black man is Paul Stephenson. It is partly thanks to his work that Britain is a more tolerant and diverse nation today.

Stephenson’s remarkable life story is inextricably tied to the eventful history of Black Britain. He was born in London in 1937 to a West African man and a mixed race Englishwoman. As an evacuee in World War II, Stephenson fell in love with the English countryside, its cattle auctions and rolling cornfields. His return to the capital was less pleasant. Despite Britain having just defeated a racist dictatorship abroad, white bigots would hurl bricks and bottles at the young Stephenson as he walked down the Romford Road. A little later, the very first Jamaican immigrants to Britain were to arrive on the Empire Windrush.

By the time Stephenson was working as a youth leader in St Pauls in the early sixties, his personal experience of racism had evolved into a political mission to defend the 3,000 West Indians now living in Bristol: ‘I didn’t want them going through the nightmare I went through’. One organization responsible for that nightmare was the Bristol Bus Company and its ‘colour bar’ preventing the recruitment of blacks and Asians. Stephenson started a campaign to boycott the buses, earning the support of figures as wide-ranging as the then Bishop of Bristol, the High Commissioners of Trinidad and Jamaica, cricket legend Sir Learie Constantine and Tony Benn (who provides the rousing foreword to this book). Stephenson took everything that was thrown at him – physical assaults, threats to his family, defamation in the media – with astonishing good humour. Indeed, everywhere in this book the prose sparkles with Stephenson’s warmth, generosity and optimism.

The campaign succeeded in August 1963, and Raghbir Singh became the first non-white bus conductor in the city. Bristol and Britain had taken a vital step forward. Since then, Stephenson has been no less busy, taking up such causes as Apartheid, police brutality, and the ubiquity of slave trader Edward Colston’s name among Bristol landmarks.

Skilfully researched, these memoirs explode the myths that racists still trot out today. We are reminded of how Jamaicans and other colonial subjects were originally invited to Britain, how these non-white peoples constituted a tiny fraction of the total number of arrivals, and how the state has tended to demonize black immigrants while favouring whites.

Another strength of this book is its seamless transitioning between past and present, using the lessons of history to illuminate contemporary problems. While Stephenson shows how injustice was overcome yesterday, he warns against liberal complacency today; ‘in a world of poverty and prejudice, [black civil rights] have to be constantly fought for and improved.’

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, Winter 2011.

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