In 1945, 21-year-old Beryl Answick graduated with a first class diploma from the teacher training college in Georgetown, capital of what was then British Guiana. Guyanese education at the time was rigid and the (tamarind) rod much in evidence: ‘Children … were expected to know certain facts, the relevance of which did not always matter,’ she remembered. Chafing at these conventions, Answick (who became Beryl Gilroy on her marriage in 1954) moved to London in 1951 to study educational psychology at the University of London. She was one of very few teachers from the Caribbean in England in the 1950s; another was her friend E.R. Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, with Love (1959), a catalyst for her own later self-reckoning in Black Teacher. When she began to look for a teaching post, Gilroy was frustrated at every turn, the target of a widespread suspicion founded in an ignorance that could be described as folkloric were the baiting about cannibalism and washing not so vicious. In her memoir she presents herself both as object and subject of her story. Both perspectives offer first-hand testimony of wrongs done and not dusted.
First published in 1976, Black Teacher records the bewildering self-consciousness inflicted on Gilroy by British society: ‘My life at school was clouded by an obsessive interest in my “blackness”. It seemed that no one could forget it … It was difficult, at times, not to become the traditional black with the traditional chip on the shoulder … there was, for instance, the usually unspoken implication that there was something sinister about “black hands”.’ She ‘began looking at my hands, almost as if I were seeing them for the first time … I was nervous about picking things up. I was especially nervous when it came to buttoning up the children’s coats.’ Rather than endure the staffroom, she took refuge in her classroom at lunchtime.
Children, she writes, ‘are not born with race and colour prejudice. They absorb it from the adults around them.’ Gilroy countered the bigotry, or at times the simple stupidity, of colleagues, parents and the children who parroted what they heard, with a storyteller’s verve. When asked by one of her co-workers what ‘natives’ do when they have their ‘monthlies’, she replied: ‘Well, Sue, we swim! We jump into the nearest river and swim and swim for miles. Some of us swim for three days and some for four, but that’s what we do.’ Her account of London in the period is as sharp as anything by Barbara Comyns or Muriel Spark. Her phonetic transcriptions of accents, while dated, bring into earshot a teeming cast of characters – East Enders, posh North Londoners, Italian immigrants and so on.
As a child Gilroy was considered ‘sickly’, and at the age of two was given over to the care of her maternal grandparents, who lived in the region of Berbice, looking across the Corentyne estuary towards Dutch Suriname. This luxuriant tropical scenery and soundscape appears in several of her compatriots’ work, in the poetry of Grace Nichols and David Dabydeen, and, especially, in the fiction of Wilson Harris. (I once invited Harris, a long-time resident of Chelmsford, to talk about what it was like to live in Essex: he wrote back to say that he had no idea – his mind was always in Guyana.)
Gilroy’s grandmother was a smallholder and herbalist, and there were many aunts, too, who passed on local stories. One of her first enthusiasms was botany, which later inspired her writings about nutrition. At twelve she was finally sent to school in Georgetown, where she did outstandingly well. Black Teacher doesn’t hark back to those times or hanker for home, but in later books like Sunlight on Sweet Water (1994) and Leaves in the Wind (1998) Gilroy drew on her knowledge of local flora and fauna, as well as the proverbs, rainforest ghosts and wisewoman lore of her family.
In London, after endless humiliating days waiting in labour exchanges, Gilroy took temporary jobs, as a filing clerk in a mail-order sweatshop and as a uniformed maid to Lady Anne (no surname given), a determined supporter of the empire. Often sympathetic in her descriptions of others, particularly women and children, Gilroy can also be unsparing. She notes that Hilda, the ruthless manageress of the sweatshop, keeps a special needle to pick her teeth. She captures the precarity of working-class life: her workmate Mave is abandoned by her boyfriend, who absconds to Australia with their baby boy. Mave swallows two hundred aspirin with a bottle of gin. Gilroy offers to deliver a wreath to the funeral parlour and discovers that none of her co-workers is attending the ceremony, even though it’s taking place during their lunch hour. This is one of her early encounters with – what? Stiff upper lip? Fear of someone else’s misery? Revulsion against failure? It was as though, Gilroy writes, that in killing herself Mave had erased any ‘right to their affection … Now she was gone and they wanted her to drop out of mind.’
Her stint as a lady’s maid begins ominously. Lady Anne commends her posture and says: ‘I suppose you come from a long line of carriers.’ But the relationship changes. It’s a mark of Gilroy’s independence of mind that she is able to acknowledge her employer’s qualities. She admires her elegance, her possessions (the porcelain teacups), and unexpectedly declares that ‘with her I found my own identity – learning how important was a knowledge of both family and country’. There’s also a superb comic cameo at the British Empire Reading Rooms, when Colonel Manson-Trot, asked to stand in for Lady Anne (who’s been called away to a committee), declares: ‘Count yourself lucky your allegiance is not to the French. No stamina, the French.’
In 1954, she at last finds a teaching job, at a convent school in Bethnal Green. When the headmistress, Sister Consuelo, ushers Gilroy into her new classroom, the children dive for cover under their desks, shrieking. Only one boy, John, stands firm, saying: ‘I ain’t afeared.’ The children are often hungry, unwashed, shivering in threadbare hand-me-downs, only able to express themselves through blows and screams and tears. This was shocking to Gilroy and her fellow immigrants from the colonies, who arrived full of illusions about life in the metropole. But Gilroy saw the energy inherent in her pupils’ ‘naughtiness’. She was a success: the kids started to learn and they loved her, too. She picked up on fragments of their home lives and turned them into stories and drawings; she emphasised play, music, dance, games of tag and blind man’s bluff. She didn’t reprimand or censor jokes, even when filthy. She was unconventional: when a little boy lashed out at another child, she smacked him on his hand, but then gave him a family of dolls to play with: ‘Tell the dolls what you did! They want to hear it from your own mouth!’ Her approach was influenced by the work of Friedrich Froebel (she took a degree at the Froebel Educational Institute in the early 1960s), the founder of Kindergartens, who rejected rote learning and urged teachers to foster responsiveness, imagination and curiosity.
Her success was hard-won. ‘Each day,’ she writes, ‘it was as if I was going into a boxing ring where any breach in the defence would put me flat on my back … all I wanted was to be left alone to do my job without feeling I was always being watched, assessed, measured and compared.’ Echoing George Lamming, who came from Barbados, she writes: ‘Living as I did in the country of my skin, all the methods I used had to be acceptable to white observers.’
Black Teacher was met with hostility when it first appeared. Gilroy was accused of boasting and of exaggerating the prejudice she had faced; for her part, she complained her account had been softened in the editing. In To Sir, with Love Braithwaite had glowingly described his eventual success in an East End classroom, but he wasn’t censured. A black woman’s claims, however, were seen as vanity.
Gilroy took a break from teaching after her marriage to Patrick Gilroy, an English scientist who was active in anticolonial circles. She describes the isolation she felt as part of an early ‘mixed couple’ in the suburbs, where she brought up their two children: Paul, the historian and author of There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, and Darla-Jane, a dress designer and teacher (Gilroy herself looks super stylish in the photographs in this book; her outfits have been included in exhibitions at the V&A). It isn’t hard to see in Paul Gilroy’s work his mother’s refusal of racial essentialism and separatism, a connection between her approach and the stress in his writing on the Black Atlantic on the possibilities of mingling, merging and transformation. (It would have been interesting to have appended to the new edition their thoughts on their mother’s approach, as well as an account of, and strategy for, racism in schools today.)
During her years out of the classroom, Gilroy set up playgroups, took several further degrees and diplomas, and produced textbooks and readers for schools in Guyana. She also began a series of children’s storybooks, ‘The Nippers’, which brought black children into the action as a matter of course (it’s impossible to find copies today). In 1959, she wrote her first novel, In Praise of Love and Children, about Melda, a Guyanese woman who moves to London to join her brother, Arnie. The narrative moves between Melda’s childhood maltreatment at the hands of her stepmother, and the disaster of Arnie’s marriage to Trudi, a German woman. The book was described by publishers’ readers, according to Gilroy, as ‘psychological, strange, way-out, difficult to categorise’, and rejected. She was indignant that the Caribbean (male) writers who reported on the manuscript didn’t seem to understand it. (She exempted from this charge only the radio producer and writer Andrew Salkey, who encouraged her work.) In Praise of Love and Children didn’t appear in print until 1996.
In the late 1960s, Gilroy went back to teaching. She found London much changed, largely for the better: there were now many more children like her own, who had one or more parents from the former colonies or beyond, and she was determined to see them thrive. In 1969, she was appointed head of Beckford Primary School in North-West London, the first black woman head in the city and almost certainly in the country. In Black Teacher, she mentions that there are 44 nationalities at the school; in an interview for Wasafiri magazine in 1986, she says 55. Racist taunts and assumptions still existed, but the mood was brighter. After the Race Relations Act came into force in 1965, she sat on the Race Relations Board.
In his Holberg lecture in 2019, Paul Gilroy argued for a new ‘radical humanism’. ‘In scholastic settings,’ he said, ‘distaste for history increases with increased appetites for sophistry. The resulting combination increases reluctance to approach the central issues of anti-racist ambition and hope.’ He goes on to warn that ‘docile nihilism, resignation and complacent ethnic absolutism reign unchallenged while the seductions of the alt right – to which they are kin – present a growing danger.’ He calls for ‘other kinds of ontological ballast … forms of identification that, in opposition to reified identity, emerge from affinity and convivial contact, place, generation, sexualities and gender’. (Work could perhaps be added to this list.)
Racial tensions have changed idiom since the 1960s, but have hardly disappeared, despite the structures of recognition that have been established. The more startling change, however, which Gilroy could not have foreseen, has taken place in the classroom. During the two main periods of her career, 1954-59 and 1968-82, she enjoyed, as a teacher, some freedom and even a certain standing. According to Black Teacher, she created her own programmes of learning, devised idiosyncratic projects and sensed where her lessons could eventually lead her pupils – she wasn’t just wiping tears, joining in their games or buying a troubled child a hamster. Since then, a succession of education ministers have undermined the status and autonomy of teachers, and conditions for children themselves are greatly altered. When John, the not ‘afeared’ boy, kicked Gilroy sharply in the shins, she decided not to punish him. Perhaps her success with John, who eventually said he was sorry and kissed her name on the blackboard, is idealised. Perhaps she was too indulgent. But for many years now there has been little chance that such behaviour in a classroom would be met with anything other than discipline.
It’s not naive to think that in the 1960s and early 1970s education was improving, and prospects set fair. Teachers and former teachers are today vocal in execrating the rigidity and harshness of some academies and free schools. Children as young as five are sent to Pupil Referral Units and Alternative Provision: in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number of children sent from primary schools to referral units was 1572, while the figures for permanent exclusion from state secondary schools was 7894, with black and biracial children disproportionately represented. Independent schools don’t release statistics, and anyhow prefer to ask that parents withdraw a pupil. The offence is frequently drug-taking, which exists in all sectors of society and is more or less mainstream in many parts of culture.
Beckford School, where Gilroy became head, was named after William Beckford, whose fortune – one of the largest in the 18th century – derived from vast sugar plantations in Jamaica. He is thought to have owned three thousand slaves. His son, another William, the Orientalist and author of Vathek, blew his inheritance by building and rebuilding Fonthill Abbey, a folly which, in a kind of hopeful foretoken, kept falling down. A campaign to change the school’s name and commemorate instead its trailblazing former head was defeated last year. From this month it will be known as plain West Hampstead Primary School. But a mural, or some other permanent memorial, to Beryl Gilroy is planned. As Raymond Williams pointed out (and Paul Gilroy has echoed), we create shared values by choosing our forebears according to our present needs.
Listen to Paul Gilroy talk to Adam Shatz on the LRB Podcast.