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Cy Grant and
Reclaiming Art and Culture from the Western Supremacist Paradigm

HCA Report:
The Case of Leicester City
November 15, 2016
Begging Your Pardon,
Marcus Garvey
November 22, 2016

A talk in tribute to Cy Grant at a 'Remembering Cy Grant' event

British Film Institute, London South Bank

12 November 2016

 

W     hat I want to do in the time I have is to situate Cy’s cultural activism, which also defined his journey, within the wider movement in our post-War project of ‘Changing Britannia’. A movement in which art has played and will continue to play an essential part, both as cultural expression and cultural resistance.
I want to begin by reading the text I wrote at Cy’s request for the cover of Blackness and the Dreaming Soul…. And I quote:


‘Subtitled ‘Race, Identity and the Materialistic Paradigm’, this
autobiographical reflection is a real odyssey as the author has
personally blazed a number of trails from his childhood through
his experiences of being shot down in the Second World War,
qualifying as a barrister, founding the first black arts centre in
Britain, performing plays and working as a broadcaster. It is an
extraordinary journey by any standards, all the more so for its
insights as a participating observer of the dominant Western way
of life. Cy brings a fresh perspective to the intrinsic limitations of
a worldview based on duality, alienation, exploitation, greed and
materialism. Building on his understanding of the Tao Te Ching,
he proposes a harmonious philosophy of non-duality and human
interconnectedness with nature. His holistic outlook is radically
multicultural, and implies the new vision of mutual respect and
the end of Western monopoly on valid definitions of reality. He
criticises in detail what he calls the seven pillars of the prevailing
paradigm, suggesting that a true awareness of the unity of life will
bring about radical change by going to the very root causes of our
predicament. A truly liberating book’

In Blackness and the Dreaming Soul, Cy effectively demonstrates how what I have described elsewhere as the ‘tools for analysis’ and ‘tools for understanding’ he honed through his study of the Tao te Ching, of the myths and symbols of African traditional religion and the essence of African spirituality, of the philosophy and politics of Aime Cesaire, how all of that aided his conversion from one who was angry and ever raging against the racism, xenophobia and materialism of the country he made his home, claiming his inheritance as it were, to someone who no longer gave to others the power to infect his inner core and to create an imbalance between him and the primordial energy of the Universe.

Cy came to realise that people, governments, systems and circumstances might do things which make us feel a certain way (the way most of us in this space, I suspect, felt on the morning of 24th June and even more shatteringly on the morning of 9 November… Allow me to digress for a moment. I imagine Leonard Cohen thinking: Having spent my entire life encouraging the world to embrace peace and love, break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing one another and from making us all that we can be, mending divisions and setting people free, do I really want to live in a world led by that fellow? I’m a true celebrity, I’m getting outta here!)…, things which make us feel a certain way, or which shape and fashion our reactions and interactions; they might even help to determine how we see the world if not the purpose of life, but WE are responsible for what we become. The challenge for him was therefore to convert his anger and rage into a more positive and creative energy, to nurture the inner self and protect the core of his being such that it could not be dented by other people’s omissions or commissions; above all, to continue to believe in our capacity to act collectively to triumph over adversity and bring about change.

In 1974, Cy, founded the Drum Arts Centre, with John Mapondera, Tania Rose, Margaret Busby, myself and others. We all shared Cy’s vision of and commitment to building a non-racialized theatre and performing arts industry in Britain.

Drum provided a showcase not just for black acting talent but for the products of black playwrights. Drum is credited, inaccurately as it happens, as being Britain’s first black arts centre. But, Cy built upon and was influenced by the pioneering work of Edric Connor and Pearl Nunez Connor who founded the Negro Theatre Workshop and the very first black-owned and black-run theatrical agency in Britain, the Pearl Connor Agency.

Indeed, Cy’s Drum Arts Centre was itself preceded by an often forgotten but highly influential and historically significant cultural creation, the Keskidee Arts Centre. Keskidee was founded in 1971 by another son of Guyana, the architect Oscar Abrams (who died in 1996). It epitomised the symbiotic relationship between culture and politics and was at one and the same time a community development and community resistance hub, a theatre company, an art gallery, a suite of studios, a library and a restaurant. Keskidee was pretty much the only space where pioneers of the visual and performing arts could create work, have electrifying conversations… and yes, sparks did fly sometimes…, produce and direct plays, write and perform poetry, record music and devise community responses to schooling, policing, the activities of the Far Right and much else besides. The world of theatre in London and the provinces owes a huge debt to Keskidee for incubating an African theatre-going constituency and for facilitating the development of artists such as: Rufus Collins, Yvonne Brewster, T-Bone Wilson, Anton Phillips, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Pat Maddy, Emmanuel Jegede and many more. Under the direction of Rufus Collins and Yvonne Brewster, the Keskidee Theatre Workshop was producing plays and nurturing playwrights some three years before Cy brought us together to form Drum.

In 1984, Alby James became the Artistic Director of Temba Theatre Company, which was founded by Alton Kumalo and Oscar James as early as 1972, one year after Rufus Collins, Yvonne Brewster and others founded the Keskidee Theatre Workshop.

In 1986, Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe and Mona Hammond founded the Talawa Theatre Company, with Yvonne Brewster as its artistic director. I was privileged to be its Chair for four years towards the end of the 1990s. Both those companies had and pursued the same vision as Edric and Pearl Connor and Cy Grant before them, i.e., to produce and interpret classical theatre with black actors whom the ‘mainstream’ typically ignored and sidelined, to encourage new work from emerging black playwrights and to encourage, train and guide new dramatists and young actors in particular. After 30 years of innovative work and an impressive record of successful productions and of incubating and nurturing new talent, Talawa remains one of the most respected theatre companies in Europe.

Pearl Connor never tired of making the point that our cultural and artistic creativity was not forged in the crucible of British racism, any more than our identity as Caribbean people was constructed solely upon our experience of having been enslaved. Similarly, she argued, the impetus for our cultural and artistic creation did not derive from our struggle against racism, however much cultural resistance was an essential component of that struggle. As such, her battle with casting directors, theatre managers and above all with Equity, the actors’ union, was invariably about acknowledging and employing African and Asian heritage artistes as artistes ‘per se’ and ‘par excellence’ and not as people to be typecast on the basis of race and ethnicity. This was a battle that Cy also waged relentlessly in his own right.

In a famous letter to Archbishop Michael Ramsay, then Archbishop of Canterbury, one time Chair of the National Council for Commonwealth Immigrants and Patron of the Negro Theatre Workshop founded in 1961, Pearl Connor argued:

‘The coloured immigrant artiste does not want to be a symbol of his race… he wants to be a human being. He wants to be a dancer, actor, singer, working fully at his arts, developing completely his peculiar and dynamic talents and contributing to the world of theatre the fullest expression of his own art forms and culture’.

 

Milverton Wallace of the George Padmore Institute, speaking in 2007 at an education workshop in preparation for the staging of Carnival Messiah at Harewood House in Leeds, had this to say:

“Let me make a modest assertion: The present generation of performing artistes of African, Asian and African-Caribbean heritage now practising their trade in the UK may know nothing about (Pearl Connor) and the other pioneers whose struggles opened the door for them.
That is the prerogative of youth. Nevertheless, every black artiste, young or old, who now makes a living in dance, music and the theatrical arts in this country, owe a big debt to her”.

 

On 30 November 2016, the George Padmore Institute will be marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of CAM, the Caribbean Artists Movement. Founded in 1966, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey, CAM was formed of artists, writers, students and critics, including many from the newly independent Caribbean countries. Members of CAM set out to explore and give expression to their own creative independence through art, drama, literature and other fields. CAM said of itself:

‘The accepted colonial and European norms of what was artistic, beautiful, creative and meaningful was eschewed in favour of self-acceptance and self-critique out of a burgeoning sense of independent Caribbean aesthetics’.

And so it was that During the 1980s, Cy organised and was director of the Concord Multicultural Festivals which sought to highlight for mainly white communities across Britain the need for them to understand and celebrate their own culture, so that they might better embrace and understand the culture of the other communities that made up multiracial Britain, and the interconnectedness of their history as white British with that of the African and Asian communities that were so rapidly changing the social, cultural and economic landscape in Britain, in other words, Changing Britannia!
I have always maintained that one of the principal functions black people in Britain have performed in the last sixty years or so, and continue to perform, is to interpret the society to itself through the prism of our individual and collective experience of it. This has been part of the process of humanizing the society. That, too, has been integral to Cy’s journey and it is that process he embarked upon and wrote about in his later years.

Let me end with some words from Cy himself:

‘The 5th of November, 2009, saw the launch of Erica Myers-Davis’ book Under One Flag, about the contribution of peoples from the Commonwealth who took part in WWII, a contribution which has not been officially recognized. Exactly one year previously, the 5th of November 2008, the very first black President of the USA was inaugurated – a black man in the White House. As if to confirm synchronicity, the book’s release had been put back from October –it had been intended for Black History Month – thus also defying the logic that Black History, or for that matter curriculum studies, should be relegated to one specific month of the year. Our histories are inextricably intertwined – surely the point that Under One Flag is about. These events may not have been simultaneous but the change of climate has certainly demonstrated a marked change in attitudes’.

 

Given the nature of events here and across the pond in the last days and months, Cy and a host of others must be turning somersaults somewhere in the Universe.

 

– GJ