Jamaican Women – 2 Autobiographies

Last week I read autobiographies of 2 Jamaicans female trailblazers in actress Leonie Forbes and journalist Barbara Blake-Hannah.  It was easy to complete both books quickly given neither was over 200 pages.  But what both books lacked in volume was compensated by the revealing content.

Leonie Forbes –  Her Autobiography

Leonie Forbes has been one of Jamaica’s most outstanding actresses and media professionals for the past 50 years. Her autobiography is captured in conversations she held with the poet and educator Mervyn Morris.

Leonie discusses her early days in the parish of St Elizabeth to her teenage days in Kingston where her athletic dreams were curtailed in messy circumstances.

Leonie thinks back to how by chance she fell into radio theatre work in Jamaica (mid 1950s) whilst employed as a typist. She also recalls her time on radio in the early years at the publicly funded Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) and later on in television. She reflects on her time in the UK, theatre training at RADA and working with young actors who went on to international stardom.

Leonie recalls how she gained acting roles in the UK theatre and on TV which included on the doyen of UK police dramas – Dixon of Dock Green.  Leonie chats vividly and with pride about her theatre and media experiences in other countries which I found really interesting.

Leonie’s expands on how her career took off on returning to Jamaica from her acting to  her time at the JBC in various behind the scenes positions. She provides some interesting anecdotes on the work that went into programmes such as the children’s favourite programme of the late 1960s  Ring Ding ( are Ring Ding clip voiced by Leonie) which was presented by Louise Bennett-Coverley.  Leonie also reveals the  drama and chaos on Jamaica’s first breakfast TV show, Morning Time, which she co-hosted with Lindy Delapenha.

Leonie’s views on modern Jamaican theatre is likely to generate strong discussions by  some currently in the business.  She opens up about her  personal relationships and also of her real personality away from the public eye.

The book is a fascinating insight into one of Jamaica’s leading lights during a time of major cultural development in Jamaica. The price ($23 US) looks a bit steep for such quick read; if a sizeable portion of the proceeds is going to Leonie pension package then she is worth every cent.

Leonie Forbes

Growing Out” – Blair Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties”

Barbara Blake Hannah

Barbara discusses her time in two of the most highly regarded high girl schools in Jamaica. Eventually moving into journalism at the JBC. She explains how a chance working experience on a film led to a new life in 1960s London.

Growing Out highlights mainly Barbara’s adjustment in a new and changing world. She describes the challenges she faced as a black woman trying to make it as a journalist in the UK.  Barbara goes into detail at her adaptation to the new way of life – the culture, the food,  the people and the places. I understand her feelings towards Turnpike Lane in North London.

Barbara discusses some of the relationships and friendships she developed . She explains how challenging it was for her – an established journalist in Jamaica – to end up temping in jobs before ending up being the first black TV journalists in the UK.  An achievement that gets occasionally neglected when UK black television history is featured.

Barbara spells out stories of her social activities during a hip period for British culture and how she mixed with personalities such as Sammy Davies, actress Vonetta McGee and Calvin Lockhart. Barbara has lived an unpredictable and dynamic life during that period  which would make some envious  and through that experience she discovered her herself and true purpose.

Growing Out ends with some surprising conclusions. It is well worth a read, especially for those  interested in personal accounts of the experiences of young educated Jamaican women in 1960s Britain.  It is a compelling read and would make an interesting TV drama or play.  [We have had Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Horace Ové’ “Pressure” and Clint Dyer’s “The Big Life“. So why not have such a drama from a female perspective?]

Given I have lived more than half my life in the UK I can fully relate to Growing Out as some of the challenges Barbara faced in the 1960s are as relevant in today’s Britain.

I hope those government officials responsible for the public libraries in Jamaica will stock copies of both books across the island.  It should be done.  Beverley Anderson Manley’s The Manley Memoirs is also powerful story and deserves a place on the public shelves too.  I would rather see such books in the  public libraries than more government funded celebrations of Jamaica’s 50 year of independence.

It is widely accepted that Jamaican women have been the foundation for most of Jamaica’s achievements and achievers. Yet one of the gaps in our history has been the lack of documentation of their lives.  Thankfully this slippage is in  reverse mode thanks to written contributions by those including Barbara Blake-Hannah and Leonie Forbes.

Barbara Blake along with Jane Probyn & Eamonn Andrews

About africanherbsman1967

Sometimes when you cross that bridge, burn that...
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