A Blaze of Creativity
Cultural artist Pearl Connor-Mogotsi is perfectly at home at the speakers' podium. Originally trained in the dramatic arts, Connor-Mogotsi has added an historian's touch. In "Our Olympian Struggle" she portrays a dazzling microcosm of black arts, letters and cultural politics in Britain from the 1950s to the present day. Featured are over sixty renowned writers, intellectuals, dramatists, artists, actors, singers and songwriters.
Part I, presented here, includes tributes to some of the best minds and creative talents: C.L.R.James, George Padmore, Rudolph Dunbar, Cy Grant, Paul Robeson, Winifred Atwell, Tom Mboya, George Lamming, Nadia Cattouse, Andrew Salkey, the Caribbean Arts Movement, and the Notting Hill Carnival. Part II will appear in the next issue.
Pearl Connor-Mogotsi is herself a part of this explosion of black creativity, and a tireless campaigner for cultural arts and theatre. Her honours include the government of Trinidad and Tobago's Humming Bird Silver Medal for outstanding services to the immigrant community in the United Kingdom, and the National Black Women's Achievement Award for Entertainment and Arts in Britain.
"Our Olympian Struggle", written as an opening address to an international bookfair, is more than a personal trip down memory lane. Many will find it an inspiring rendition of the last fifty years of black cultural history in Britain and its Pan-African links.
Connor-Mogotsi's presentation is also a powerful antidote to popular ignorance. It reveals little-known aspects of black/white cultural contact, competition and conflict in British arts and society.
Our Olympian StruggleBy Pearl Connor-Mogotsi
I am here today to celebrate our survival in the face of great odds. We have overcome many difficulties, hardships and pressures in our determination to succeed.
Coming as I did in the 50s from a background steeped in the, culture and politics of the Caribbean, I was reassured by the good relations existing between the new immigrants and the British, who were still flushed with the memory of our wartime contribution.
I found an elite and select group of professionals, writers, artists and politicians amongst whom were C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Sam Morris, Dr. David Pitt and Learie Constantine (both to be honoured later by the establishment) and Rudolph Dunbar, Cy Grant, Winifred Atwell and Edric Connor whom I later married.
Edric was at his peak, singing in BBC Radio series and taking part in stage plays and revues at the Players Theatre, and Cy Grant was singing the news in a BBC magazine programme from 1957-1960. Although this exposure brought him fame, Cy was very frustrated by the fact that none of his other talents as an actor were recognized and he was stuck in a hole of type casting until he broke loose and went to Leicester to play the leading role of Othello demonstrating the extent of his talents. Rudolph Dunbar was conducting at the Albert Hall which was a first for a black Caribbean man and we were all thrilled by his success.
Fifties interest in Africa
Meanwhile, Winifred Atwell was breaking records with her classical honky-tonk piano. She was featured at the Palladium and at other major venues all over Britain. She immortalized the steelband by recording an album 'Ivory and Steel', marrying the old and new in a dynamic combination of rhythm and classical techniques.
Around this time, there was a large contingent arriving from Africa, both of aspiring politicians and musicians. Julius Nyerere from Tanzania, Joshua Nkomo from Rhodesia, Seretse Khama from Botswana (who was to change the history of Southern Africa by his marriage to a white woman), and Tom Mboya from Kenya, the ill-fated young lieutenant of Jomo Kenyatta, soon to be assassinated.
Caribbean leaders and literature
This brings me to Dr. Rosie Poole, the Dutch activist and writer. She organized a production of protest poetry to be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in the heart of the English establishment, from her collection 'Beyond the Blues', against a background of jazz. Cleo Laine, Nadia Cattouse, Lloyd Reckord and I, performed with great success, poems dealing with the civil rights struggle, 'Rosa Parks' and 'Ma Rainey'.
By the mid 50's, the cream of our literary figures had moved into London. Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon, Vidia Naipaul and Barry Reckord. The BBC established the Caribbean Service, with Earnest Eytle and Willie Richardson producing, and our writers were featured through their plays and novels. Those taking part in broadcasts were Carmen Munroe, Barbara Assoon, Lloyd Reckord, Bari Johnson, Nadia Cattouse and myself. But one of the finest actors working with us was Errol John who won the Observer Prize for his play 'Moon on a Rainbow Shawl', which changed his life dramatically. He became involved in getting his play performed at the Royal Court Theatre and later went on to the United States. But, things did not seem to work out as he expected and he went on to the Caribbean and then back to the U.K., trying to find his dream realized. This was not to be, and he died frustrated and alone without the support which he needed.
Many Africans were flooding into England for education and work and Wole Soyinka, studying at Leeds University, began writing for the Theatre. By the mid sixties his plays were being performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and at the Royal Court Theatre.
Early in the 60's Jack Hylton brought the first Township Jazz musical 'King Kong' out of South Africa to the West End and this had a tremendous impact on audiences who had only heard of that troubled land and were stunned to find this great music, song and dance tradition pouring out on the stage. Then came two amazing plays by Athol Fugard, 'The Island' and 'Sizwe Bansi is Dead' demonstrating the plight of the people of South Africa under apartheid and the conditions under which prisoners were living on Robben Island.
The year 1966 saw the first World Festival of Black and African Arts held in Senegal, with a great foregathering of world famous black and African writer and artists, including Langston Hughes and Marpessa Dawn. The Negro Theatre Workshop established by me in 1965 was sponsored by the Commonwealth Office to attend and represent Great Britain. There was now a distinct improvement in relations between us and the host country only to be shattered by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech which brought an overt increase in prejudice.
Kamau, Kelso and Claudia
Notting Hill Carnival (the finest Street Theatre in Europe), took off in 1965, but we cannot forget the effect that the murder of Kelso Cochrane had on the whole community of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, coming as it did after the race riots in 1958/1959. These events brought a cohesion and understanding amongst the Afro-Caribbeans which was lacking before and eventually brought them all together in the celebration of Carnival.
Claudia Jones did much to promote it in the early stages as did Amy Ashwood Garvey wife of Marcus Garvey. It was around her home that we all foregathered to mourn Kelso Cochrane's death. Amy had worked closely with CLR James and George Padmore in getting support for Haile Selassie in his struggle against Mussolini. She was also instrumental in organizing the 5th Pan African Congress.
The development of carnival was constantly challenged and provoked by the powers that be, bringing as it did crowds of people mixing freely together on the streets of Notting Hill in inter-racial harrnony. It was the tenacity and perseverance of the practitioners and local people whose support for this annual festival caused it to survive and prosper.
See Part II- in The Chronicle
Source: Opening Address at the
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