How to sum up Pauline Black’s biography Black By Design. I could try and get away with a tabloid style headline, but that might not tell the full story, I am aware your time is scarce, so without further ado…
Serpent’s Tail goes 2-tone with Pauline Black
Serpent’s Tail has acquired the rights to the memoir of singer and actress Pauline Black. so reads the headline on Selecter’s official website. Thanks to Pauline, for both intriguing extracts of her Essex childhood in Romford, the subject matter of the first mini-extract; the second taster is a snapshot from her first-hand account of 2-tone, Coventry in those early Thatcher years, the label, movement and gigs. Apart from the press release commentary below and my opening question, all you will read is from the author Pauline Black.
But first a brief recap on how the Black by Design book was described in part, in the book press release breaking the news of the new title…
Oli Munson of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency sold world English language rights to Black by Design to Pete Ayrton, publisher, and John Williams, editor at Serpent’s Tail. It will be published in late summer 2011.
Black was the lead singer of ska band The Selecter. After the group split in 1982, Black developed an acting career in television and theatre, appearing in dramas such as The Vice, The Bill, Hearts and Minds and 2000 Acres of Sky.
Ayrton said Black’s book would be a “wonderful addition” to the list. Among other recent music titles Serpent’s Tail has published Jah Wobble’s autobiography Memoirs of a Geezer.
Ayrton added: “A 2-tone memoir, a women’s insider account of the music business and a story of growing up as a black child in a white family, Black by Design is brilliant in many varied ways.”
Black said: “I believe that Black by Design has found the perfect home at Serpent’s Tail. I have long admired their maverick commitment to new voices and in particular the diversity and breadth of their catalogue… It is an enormous thrill to be on such a list.”
So read on, for your first taste of Black By Design…
Publisher Serpent’s Tail has acquired the rights to the memoir of you, as a child, singer and actress, which will make a great read when released on August 4th. Was it good looking back? I figure with so much focus and in detail in mind, to chart the highs…
“I began writing “Black By Design” in Autumn 2008. It took me two years to thoroughly research and complete. I had kept many diaries and press cuttings over the years, so I had many useful references, which obviously helped my memory.
It had a few alternative titles before I settled on Black By Design. Having grown up in Romford, I initially thought that I’d highlight my cockney Essex girl credentials, so the first title was “A Bird’s Eye View”, after writing a few chapters this metamorphosed into “Not All Essex Girls are Born Equal” until half way through writing it, I settled on “Black by Design”. Not just to be cute and get my name in the title, but because the phrase just popped out on the page and seemed so entirely apt. In three words it summed up the journey that I had been on for the past half century.
Many issues arise when a mixed race child has their origins legally stripped away at birth. Much is made these days of the undesirability of placing black children with white families in this country. We now have many checks and balances in place whereby such children are kept in touch with their birth mothers and their adoptive parents are encouraged to teach the child about their ethnic origins. No such thing was in place when I was born. My name, origin and identity were erased in a book, which resided at St. Catherine’s House and was cross-referenced with a new identity and a new name. Not only that but the working class family I was adopted into held many of the casual racist attitudes that pervaded Britain in the fifties, when colour bars in clubs and race riots in Notting Hill were rife. In such a hostile environment, they were eager to erase my colour too, so they brought me up as a little white girl. I’m not blaming my Mum and Dad, they didn’t know any better. The book begins just as I’m about to start school and my mother has the onerous task of explaining my origins. It was obvious, even to my myopic Mother that my future all white school-friends, would probably zero in on the “elephant in the classroom” and notice that I was black, and ask why both my parents were white. From that first realization of my altered familial status, I was on a journey to regain my real identity.
“My earliest memory is of vomiting the breakfast contents of my stomach onto a pile of starched white sheets that my Mother had just finished ironing. I succeeded in Jackson Pollocking all of them. She was not amused, but then again it was her own fault: she shouldn’t have told me that I had been adopted.”
Excerpt from Black By Design: copyright Serpent’s Tail
Six months ago I sang at a charity concert in aid of British Hospices, with a few other 80’s ex-pop stars. I happened to be sharing a dressing room with Toyah, and Carol Decker of T’Pau. Toyah kicked off the discussion about the pros and cons of having revealed all in her published memoir, when Carol Decker suddenly chipped in with: “Yeah I wrote a book, but nobody wanted to publish it, apparently if you haven’t had an unhappy childhood, been sexually abused as a kid and had a difficult time after becoming famous, then nobody is interested. I guess she must be right, because all of that is in my book, but I hope written with some wit and wisdom.
From four and a half years old I viewed the world in monochrome. By adolescence I was determined to define myself in the same way as society saw me, as black. Indeed I went so far as to re-name myself “Black” by changing my surname by deed poll. Job done.
The first section of my book is entitled “white to black”, and deals with my childhood and university years and my first forays into making music in Coventry.
My formative years in the 60’s were made palatable by the advent of the ‘Black is Beautiful” slogan and the spread of the Black Power movement in the U.S. At fifteen I was fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement in America. MLK’s words were potent, but Malcolm X’s were revolutionary and at one time there was a tiny outpost of the Black Power Movement in deepest darkest Essex with me alone heading my own chapter in the privacy of my bedroom while proudly growing the hugest Afro I could muster. Back then I never could have dreamed that in my lifetime a mixed race President of the USA was possible. In Britain black people were mostly absent from TV in the 60’s. There were no black British role models. Gradually over time that changed, but it wasn’t until the seventies that black people began to get a voice in music that expressed how things were for them. The advent of Jamaican reggae music led by the late great Bob Marley was my introduction to conscious music, music with a social and political message. I promptly taught myself guitar and began songwriting and performing my efforts in Coventry pubs in the evenings, while simultaneously holding down a day job as a radiographer in a Coventry hospital.
A hospital background grounds you in ways that are impossible to explain, but suffice to say that there isn’t a human orifice that I have entered without some nasty medical implement in hand! Eventually hard work paid off and I was head hunted by a member of The Specials, who knew some guys who were putting together a band called The Selecter. Apparently they were looking for a lead singer and thought I might fit the bill.
The second part of the book is entitled “black and white” and tells the story of the 2-Tone movement and my involvement with it. Unlike The Specials and Madness, the earliest days of the Selecter remain largely undocumented.
We were the most racially diverse band of the 2-tone bands. We attempted a punky reggae cross-over in pop music labeled as ska music. Our particular sound was often ahead of its time and played out against a backdrop of “bankrupt Britain” and rampant racism. Within 6 months of forming, The Selecter had a top 10 hit and a gold debut album. The 2 tone movement had firmly established itself in the country’s psyche, especially after the 40 date legendary 2 Tone tour.
It was the first time that black and white youth unified themselves with an iconic style and energetic music. The movement defined the agenda for future British multi-culturalism in a way that nothing had before, or indeed has since.
It was homegrown in Coventry, but spread as a sub-culture throughout the world. Considering our music only lit up the charts for a brief two year span it has enjoyed a lasting legacy for the past thirty years and is still known world wide today and burns as one of the very few beacons of racial harmony in today’s mixed up, war hungry world.
I was in the unique position of being the only female to front a 2-Tone band on the 2-tone tour and as such that lent me a new role as one of the few black spokespeople of the generation. After The Selecter acrimoniously split up in 1981, I pursued a solo musical career for a while, but I was also eager to establish myself as a “black voice” in other types of media. I presented Britain’s first all-black programme for Channel 4, “Black On Black” in the mid 80’s working closely with then producer Trevor Phillips, who now heads the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I was assigned to cover the 1984 Democratic Party’s Convention in San Francisco, where Rev Jesse Jackson was standing as the first black presidential nominee. While there, I was lucky enough to interview many of my childhood heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement that had been my inspiration as a teenager and were now Establishment figures. Emboldened by my new experiences, I moved into acting, joining the first all Black British company, Black Theatre Cooperative. This led to roles as the first Black Cleopatra in British theatre and an award winning portrayal of Billie Holiday on the London stage in the early nineties.
The third and final part of my book is entitled “back to black” and deals with my search for my birth parents. My novice detective work surprisingly yielded results within a week. It was an intensely emotional experience that ranged from moments of high comedy to the depths of despair and back again. I found my Mother half a world away in Australia and the man who coloured me black, my Father in Nigeria.
In my opinion, the British mixed race story hasn’t been fully heard. After all, it seems likely that such people are the future for the human race. Brown babies are now ubiquitous in our society, something that pleases me immensely, because I have always thought that miscegenation is the only real cure for racism. As a member of the vanguard generation of brown babies in Britain, I hope that my story may offer a glimpse into Britain’s long troubled journey towards a multi-cultural society and how I dealt with its many nuances.
So I hope this book takes the reader on the journey of a little black girl from Romford in Essex, who uncomfortable with her white upbringing was motivated to design her own narrative until her skin fitted perfectly.
The Selecter were together it seems for only a couple of years, yet I think those few years are poured over by so many and in quite a lot of detail, as they seem to draw so much attention…
The Selecter were unique- and IMHO- remain so.”
Pauline Blacks ‘Black By Design is released august 4th 2011 Published by Serpents Tail.