When Floella Benjamin was at school, she made a deliberate decision to lose her Trinidadian accent and fit into mainstream British society.
If today’s pupils were similarly adaptable, the former children’s TV presenter believes, they would have less to fear from racism or bullying.
“You don’t lose your identity if you’re confident in who you are,” she says. “You have to be able to adapt to fit the situation you’re in, and you have to be able to communicate. You build your assets, and build and build, until you’re confident. My smile is my biggest weapon. You tell me something and I smile at you. It mustn’t be a false smile. It’s got to be a true smile, where you discover who you truly are and you’re confident in yourself.”
Baroness Benjamin – who is best known as the former presenter of the BBC’s Play School, which she joined in 1976, and is now chancellor of the University of Exeter – was speaking to TES to mark Black History Month.
Turning racism into a positive
Her family emigrated from Trinidad in 1960, when she was a child. The story of these years is told in her autobiography, Coming to England, which is currently celebrating its 20th year in print. It is still studied in classrooms today.
As a schoolgirl in South London, Lady Benjamin was proud of her West Indian accent. However, when her teacher called her a “guttersnipe”, she made the decision to acquire a received-pronunciation accent at school and to keep her Trinidadian accent for use at home.
“That teacher did me a huge favour,” she says. “She almost jolted me into position. If someone’s seeing you like that, you must prove them wrong. After that, I was the idol of her class. She would say, ‘Why can’t you all talk like Floella?’”
She was, however, also bullied by her classmates for being different. “When the boys were calling me names, I used to dig my nails into the palms of my hands, because I was determined not to cry,” she says. “They’d have to finish eventually.
“I want to give children strength not to be afraid. So it’s not a negative; it’s a positive. Every single thing that happens in life, good or bad, you should see it as a positive. You learn how to use it to your advantage.”
However, Kauser Jan, assistant headteacher at Bankside Primary in Leeds and a member of the NUT’s Black Teachers’ Conference Steering Group, disagrees.
“It’s like me saying women wearing short dresses are asking for it,” Ms Jan says. “Nobody should ever say that. So why do we think this is OK? Because a black person is saying it, we think it’s OK?
“It’s almost giving a green light to people: ‘by being racist, you’re helping me.’ Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of racism – which I’ve been on many occasions – knows that it can never be a positive experience.”
However, Heidi Mirza, professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out that, during the 1960s, Caribbean children were often sent to remedial lessons with pupils who had special needs.
“I think Floella belongs to a particular generation,” Professor Mirza says. “A generation where it was a very difficult transition into education and into schools here. There was the idea that we have to fit into British culture, British values, British way of life.
“The post-colonial sensibility was very much still one of patronage. Despite the horrors of slavery and repression, we were brought up with gratitude. You had to be strategic to get on and fit in. So Floella is right to see the positives, because you can either get angry and drop out, or you can learn the ropes, which she’s done very well.”
The price of acceptance
Today, Professor Mirza says, Black History Month is often marked by artists and musicians such as George the Poet and rapper Akala, who question the whitewashing of British history. However, she adds, for immigrants in the 1950s and 60s, becoming British meant ignoring the fact that Britain was built from the blood and sweat of non-white people.
“Black people had to be non-threatening and smiley and happy,” Professor Mirza says. “Then you’re rewarded. That’s part of the process of assimilation: the child has to give up who they are, in order to be accepted.
“Floella was strategic, but she didn’t have any choices – only to pull herself through the system. And she’s achieved a lot. But could she have been someone else?”
Lady Benjamin phrases this slightly differently. “If I’d carried on with my Caribbean accent, do you think I’d have been where I am, being the chancellor of Exeter University, sitting in the House of Lords?” she says. “Uh-uh.”
The life and times
Lady Benjamin was born in Trinidad in 1949 and came to England in 1960. She is best known as the former presenter of children’s TV programmes such as Play School and Play Away, and she now runs a film and TV production company.
Her autobiography, Coming to England, was published in 1995, and was followed in 2010 by The Arms of Britannia, an account of her teenage years.
She was appointed OBE for services to broadcasting in 2001. In 2006 she was made chancellor of the University of Exeter, where she famously hugs graduates rather than shaking their hands.
In 2010, she was introduced to the House of Lords as a life peer nominated by the Liberal Democrats, with the title of Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham.
Black Britain: the untold stories
Black History Month is being marked by a new exhibition, 60 Untold Stories of Black Britain, which celebrates the lives of the first black British middle class.
It gives a voice to Caribbean immigrants who passed through British schools in the 1950s and 60s. Photographs of interviewees are accompanied by audio accounts of their experiences, as well as a documentary film.
The exhibition is currently being displayed at Goldsmiths, University of London. www.60untold.co.uk