Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV

In her first column on television and pop culture, Bim Adewunmi explores the progress made by non-white characters on British telly.

Last Sunday night I felt, like Obi Wan before me, a great disturbance in the Force. No one had died, thank goodness, but my Twitter feed was abuzz with activity. The euphoria was evident: “What's this advert??” tweeted a friend. “Never seen so many black people in a prime-time advert in my life!!” Another replied to the post with: “British peak time ad full of black people. #WellINever”. My favourite was: “Listen... the way I almost snapped my neck, by doing a double take cos there were still black faces on the second time I looked up!”

Yes, there was an ad, full of black people, on terrestrial British television, during one of the most watched programmes on a Sunday night. The Force was properly disturbed.

The advertisement – starring singer Janelle Monáe and a coterie of attractive, well-dressed people, hanging out – was for Sonos. I have only a vague idea what the product does, despite the ad being about a minute long. But more importantly (for me, not Sonos) the ad was a small thing highlighting a much bigger thing: the – slowly – increasing presence of people of colour on television. Let me qualify that: we (or at least one version of us) have been on telly for a long while now. I’ve watched a lot of television, and I remember that much. What I’m talking about here is the evolution of people of colour on television. Things are still far from perfect, but that have got so much better than when I was a child or even a teenager. Back then, spotting brown people was like a game of Where’s Wally? except instead of the distinctive striped jumper of our cartoon hero, they were sporting assorted stereotypes, from aggressive criminal to street kids in need of a hot meal and a chance meek ‘model minority’ – tokenism at its purest.

I remember reading a Sidney Poitier interview in which the Oscar-winning actor spoke about his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He spoke of the character Dr John Prentice’s qualities, and the thinking that he had to be perfect in the context of the movie. Not merely "very good", but absolutely perfect, a paragon: a highly-educated and qualified doctor, and a world traveller (stopping off to give talks at the UN, as you do). I read later that he was going to be written as divorced, but it was decided to make him widowed, to complete his "perfect" image. He had to be utterly above reproach in order for white audiences to embrace him as an equal. But more than that, he had to counter the prevalent representation of black people onscreen.

Here and now, in 2012, we’ve reached the latest stage of our evolution onscreen: we are "normal". We are just like everyone else. We’re not over what I call the "Poitier Exemplar" just yet, but we are slowly moving past it. Monáe – hanging out and listening to music with friends – did not look entirely dissimilar to me and my life (pompadour and expertly tailored suit notwithstanding).

That’s what struck me the most about seeing it – in a world where the default experience of "normal" is "white", and more and more people of colour are finally being seen as possibilities when casting the default. Seeing that ad was seeing a reflection of what my life looks like. At the start of the ad, it was Janelle Monáe and friends, evolving into a black woman and her friends, and ending on just a woman and her friends. It’s the normalcy that strikes. Finally.

And most fantastic of all, it’s all over telly. My current favourite black woman on television is Vod (played by Zawe Ashton) on Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, a role that has almost nothing to do with her melanin. She is a fully-formed character, written as a rounded individual, and a full part of the world she inhabits. In US TV (and also on More4 at the moment), Kerry Washington is kicking arse and taking names as Washington power player Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal. Keeping her company is Mindy Kaling’s new comedy on Fox as well as Brit-doing-an-accent-and-wielding-a-baseball-bat Archie Panjabi in the superlative The Good Wife on NBC. Other casts with a dose of melanin that sidesteps tokenism include the very funny Happy Endings (will it ever return to E4?)and New Girl (Lamorne Morris’s Winston is fantastic if somewhat underused).

Some Girls. Source: BBC

But wait, there’s more! BBC3’s new comedy Some Girls follows four teenage girls and has a black lead in Adelayo Adedayo. The rash of ads in the run up to the orgy of consumption that is Christmas has yielded a bumper crop of "normal" brown folks too. Sainsbury’s has a black family with the little boy doing the dishes to the surprise of his parents, and Tesco’s campaign also makes use of another, sipping on champagne in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Baileys’ Blondie-soundtracked ad features several hues and shades. As a lifelong telly addict, I can’t lie: it’s all kind of thrilling.

There is still a need for the Poitier Exemplar, for we are not yet at the Promised Land in terms of the narrowness of our represented reality (hello, Top Boy). But what struck me the hardest about Sunday night was that we’re firmly on the way, and that is A Good Thing.

Viva from Some Girls. Source: BBC

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder