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Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir, By Pauline Black
Thursday 01 September 2011
Pauline Black's earliest memory is of vomiting, at the age of four, on to a pile of sheets that had been cleaned, starched and ironed by her mother. "She was not amused but then again it was her own fault," says Black. "She shouldn't have told me I was adopted."
The product of an affair between a white teenage girl and Nigerian man, Black was put up for adoption after her birth in 1953 and taken in by a white middle-aged couple from Romford; 25 years later she became the lead singer of the ska revival group The Selecter. The group's espousal of racial equality and multiculturalism was demonstrated by the varied skin colours of its members, though some people didn't appreciate their ideology – notably the skinheads who chanted "Seig Heil" at gigs while giving the Nazi salute.
Black by Design contains inevitable tales of rock'n'roll excess, but it is more than a musical memoir. Black paints a vivid portrait of simmering racial tension in Britain after the Second World War, when immigrants arrived to begin the process of reconstruction, and in the 1980s, when unemployment and deprivation brought it to bubbling to the surface. This is also an intelligent and affecting account of life as a black child in a white family, feeling "like a cuckoo in somebody else's nest".
The casual racism displayed by Black's extended family is quite startling. There was an aunt who criticised Black's "Brillo pad" hair, yet kept hidden on her bookshelves a copy of Mandingo, a notorious pot-boiler about a mixed-race relationship; and a cousin, a gas meter-reader who talked tauntingly of the "darkeys" whom he claimed lived "12 to a room" and subsisted on cat food.
As the only woman in an otherwise male band, Black was to feel a similar sense of isolation in The Selecter. Britain's original "rude girl", she approached her job with a fearlessness and determination that carried her through a subsequent acting career. In 1991 she won a Time Out award for her stage portrayal of Billie Holiday.
If Black is hard on bandmates who struggled to cope with the pressures of life on the road, she is equally candid about her own weaknesses. She takes few prisoners, which what you would expect from a woman who has spent a lifetime taking a sledgehammer to race and gender barriers. With Black by Design, one hopes she will get the recognition she deserves.
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