Our black British historical icons of tomorrow are here – let’s not wait 50 years to celebrate them

Generations of greats have either had no recognition at all, or failed to receive their due when they deserved to. We have to scream their names from the rooftops  – now 

Seun Matiluko
Sunday 13 October 2019 12:55
Former PE teacher pays tribute to humble world champion Dina Asher-Smith

These past few weeks have been incredible for black British millennial and Gen Z women. Twenty-three-year-old Dina Asher-Smith from Orpington became the first British person to win three medals at one major world athletics championships; 26 year old Katarina Johnson-Thompson from Liverpool broke the British world record in the heptathlon at the same world championship; and Don’t Hate The Playaz became the first British TV show to have an all-black female panel, with many of the panellists being in their twenties and thirties.

Millennials, which, according to the Pew Research Centre, includes anyone who is any age from 23-38 this year, and Generation Z – anyone who is 22 or younger this year – are two of the most successful demographics of our time. While it’s important that we recognise the contributions of all-black British public figures, the younger generation of brilliant writers, actors and directors, is worth highlighting now. Particularly black women. As feminist scholar Angela Davis has said in the past, blackness is often “implicitly gendered as male,” often erasing these experiences. So it’s important that we recognise them now in their own right.

And what’s more, we cannot wait until 2070 to celebrate them. Unfortunately, black British people and particularly black British women often do not get their shine in the UK when it’s due.

Many have talked about having to move over to America to get the opportunities they only dreamed of in Britain, with popular comedian Gina Yashere, known to many of us through her work on the Lenny Henry Show, remarking that she had to move to America to get a real break in her career. Perhaps it unsurprising that black British comedian London Hughes said, albeit controversially, that “there are no black female household names in the UK, bar Naomi Campbell”.

Of course, there are many black female household names but because black female icons have often been underappreciated and under-celebrated in the British press, many have not got the recognition that they deserve.

Take Evelyn Dove, for example, this 1920s and 1930s jazz singer was once lauded as Britain’s own “Josephine Baker”. Born in London to a Sierra Leonean father and an English mother, she was the first black singer ever on BBC Radio, someone who performers like Little Simz, Leona Lewis and even Sade Adu are indebted to, yet until this year, most had never heard of her. While popular for two decades, she struggled to find work in post-Great Depression England and died in relative obscurity in 1987, only coming within mainstream attention this January when she was celebrated in a Google Doodle.

There are other black female figures who many of us, namely millennials and GenZ’ers, grew up with. There was Angela Griffin, playing the sole black female teacher on Waterloo Road and some of the biggest soaps on British TV for years. And Freema Agyeman, who broke barriers as the 10th Doctor’s strong, intelligent and quick-witted companion in Doctor Who. And lest we forget the lack of recognition of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who many of us remember from the film Secrets and Lies, for being the first black British Oscar nominee. These women have yet to receive their flowers and should not have to wait 100 years for recognition.

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And even if we were to solely focus on athletes, why aren’t Ethel Scott (the first black woman to represent Great Britain in an international athletics competition) and Tessa Sanderson (the first black British woman to win an Olympic gold) mentioned in the same breath as record-breaking white figures like Sir Steve Redgrave or even black male figures like Linford Christie?

We need to make sure we don’t reproduce the mistakes of the past and continually shout loudly for our current generation of greats. The likes of Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson deserve to be on all the billboards and chat shows, and to be the “poster children” for future international championships and Olympic Games – and to never be lost in the forgotten archives of history only to be remembered decades, or even centuries, later.

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