EARLIER this year, during those halcyon days before Covid and the death of George Floyd, ‘a panel of experts’ was invited by the founders of the 100 Great Black Britons campaign to finalise a list from the thousands of nominations submitted by ordinary members of the British public for consideration.
Now the final list, which ‘celebrates high-achieving black British individuals over the past 400 years,’ has transmogrified into the form of a book titled, unsurprisingly enough, 100 Great Black Britons.
According to the Guardian, ‘A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to pay for a copy of the book to be sent to every secondary school,’ and it seems clear that the authors intend to use the book as a way to contest the Government’s refusal to add more black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) history to the National Curriculum.
For this British expat, reviewing the final 100 has proven to be a voyage of discovery and a means of becoming acquainted with aspects of a nation I left nearly 40 years ago, but for which I continue to bear that love ‘too deep for tears’.
‘The past,’ observed the novelist L P Hartley, ‘is a foreign country.’ But the present, at least as far as the nation of my birth is concerned, can also feel very foreign at times, and I was painfully aware of this as I read through the list.
Unknown to me were the model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf, not to mention George the Poet, whose website describes his creative output as ‘a genre-defying mix of music, poetry, storytelling, and personal narrative’.
While the name Stormzy was familiar to me through reading about his faux épater les bourgeois performances at Glastonbury and his profanity-laden chants attacking Boris Johnson, I had no idea how formulaic and mediocre his music actually is until I willed myself, fortified by a second brandy-and-soda, to watch an excerpt from one of his concerts on YouTube recently.
As is usually the case, it is those not included on such lists who stand out. Where, for example, is the great Shirley Bassey, whose international reputation exceeded that of any other female vocalist from the UK during the 1950s and 1960s? And why no mention of the charismatic and word-perfect Sir Trevor McDonald, the only British newsreader my American wife can identify?
For Dr Rakib Ehsan of the Henry Jackson Society, the worst omission is that of the great cricketer and anti-racism campaigner Sir Learie Constantine, whose radio broadcasts to the Caribbean during the Second World War helped rally West Indian support for Great Britain during her hour of need and contributed to his becoming Britain’s first black peer in 1969.
Instead, says Ehsan, we find listed an assortment of ‘contemporary politicians and academics whose primary contribution to public life has been peddling toxic racial identity politics’. Race hustlers like the MPs David Lammy and Dawn Butler, together with academics like Kehinde Andrews, author of that compulsive ‘beach read,’ The Psychosis of Whiteness.
To be sure, such lists are easy to dismiss as patronising to the identity singled out for special attention. Were I a woman or a person of colour, I feel sure I would find these sorts of lists pandering and insulting.
George Eliot was a great novelist because she wrote great novels – or at least one very great novel indeed, Middlemarch, possibly the greatest novel in the English language – and not because she was a woman.
Duke Ellington wrote music that will live in perpetuity and belongs on any list of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, not because he was of African descent, but due to his genius in writing music that distils life-affirming resilience in the face of suffering and oppression, and speaks loudly to people regardless of time or place.
Which brings me to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the greatest British composers of classical music who ever lived, and whose absence from the list is a disgrace.
Born out of wedlock in the slums of Holborn, London, in 1875 to a white English mother and an African father from Sierra Leone, Coleridge-Taylor became, despite his race and the circumstances of his birth, the darling of Edwardian England.
He was wholeheartedly embraced by Britain’s musical establishment. Sir Edward Elgar described him as ‘far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men’, and used his influence to help advance the young composer’s career. After attending the premiere of Coleridge-Taylor’s masterpiece, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, an elderly Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote that he was ‘much impressed by the lad’s genius’.
In 1904 Coleridge-Taylor visited the United States for the first time, arriving to great acclaim and being dubbed ‘the African Mahler’ by the not-easily-impressed orchestral musicians of New York.
After being received at the White House by President Teddy Roosevelt, a rare honour in the era of Jim Crow, the young composer was lauded by black civil rights leaders such as Booker T Washington and W E B Du Bois, the latter seeing in his career ‘the fulfilment of black potential once granted the opportunity to develop in relative freedom’, and ‘an augury of the future of the black man and of race relations in general’. So great a legacy did he leave in America that one can still find schools there named in his honour.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a composer of genius whose abundant gifts were recognised and championed by some of the finest musical intelligences in Britain and America around the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, his life and career acted as an inspiration to others of African or part-African descent, and to those, regardless of race, who sought an end to the racial discrimination that disfigured the age in which he lived.
His untimely death in 1912 was lamented as ‘an irreparable loss to British music’ by the Royal College of Music, where he had studied violin and composition.
‘Huge crowds,’ reported the Daily Sketch, attended his funeral in South London, at which ‘a delegation of mourners from South Africa (left) a floral tribute in the shape of Africa at the composer’s grave’.
And yet this prodigiously gifted, refined and highly civilised man has not made it into a book of the greatest black Britons, a book in which, to quote the journalist Rod Liddle, the ‘ghastly or mediocre or both’ are to be found in great abundance.