Pauline Black, Black by Design

Pauline Black’s painfully and beautifully candid memoir did more than provide this month’s bookclub with understandings of one young woman’s growth into a fiercely independent figure, respected and influential in the world of music and beyond; it also fleshed out for bookclubbers many of the stark contradictions of the cultures in which she – and they – grew up, and from which Black felt so often alienated. Black emerged as someone who embodied, survived on, and at times exploited the myriad faultlines in British postwar culture. Capable of self-fashioning and refashioning, and marketing herself before the music industry presumed to do it for her, Black was not only culturally mixed, but also, in her early stage presence, defiantly androgynous, as the book’s evocative photos proved. As such, Black by Design offered many stories in one, with surprises along the way: perhaps the biggest was saved until the end, when Black investigated her birth mother and father (it would spoil the surprise to reveal what happens in her quest!).

We wondered why members of a community that more or less explicitly espoused racist views would want to adopt a mixed-race child, and then terrify that child with the haunting presence of ‘Janet Sparks’, a black girl gone-bad. Yet we were struck by how Black’s adopted family could have resisted the urge to ‘white flight’ (and not emigrate to Australia) because they knew they could not leave Pauline behind (and she wouldn’t be allowed in). We discussed what it was that attracted sieg-heiling idiots to gigs, fronted by Black, where the music and the bands of the 2-Tone stable celebrated cultural integration, and promoted the dignity of all marginalised minorities. We were moved by the idea that Black’s introduction to Black history was in a white middle-class friend’s house, listening to Langston Hughes’ ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, and by how Black then subsequently educated herself about that history in Romford Town Library. Black didn’t grow up with the music that made her famous. But, like some of our other memoirists, she made new homes for herself amongst amenable people (not least her solid, steadfast husband Terry, who was, like Black, adopted), and so she found ways to channel her anger and passion, and others’. Reading Black’s book, like listening to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, revives the heavy dread and resistance of the late 70s and early 80s, states which lived on in the 90s, when Black was mistaken for a toilet attendant in Selfridges because of how she looked. So Black by Design made us ask: despite so much progress, has enough been done to change the conditions that make righteous anger necessary?

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