J.T. Williams Author Interview

J.T. Williams Bright Stars of Black British History

Author of Bright Stars of Black British History

This month we have something very special: an interview with the author of a wonderful new book about amazing people who helped to shape Britain. J. T. Williams was kind enough to answer our questions!

 

Q: What inspired you to write Bright Stars of Black British History, and what was your process for researching your subjects and shaping their stories into a book?

A: Writing this book was a very special experience for me as it was such a profoundly personal project. I’m British-born, with mixed African and English heritage, so I have always been naturally curious about Britain’s Black past. The inspiration came from discoveries over my own lifetime of extraordinary figures such as Ignatius Sancho, Mary Seacole, Walter Tull, Claudia Jones.

Researching and writing each person’s life story was like going on a unique and special journey with that person. I love the research process! Viewing original archival material really brings the past to life!  Reading books; going to museums and art galleries; listening to the music of the era; visiting places and spaces these people had walked in. You immerse yourself and imagine what life might have felt like for someone all those years ago.

 

Q: One of the wonderful things about Bright Stars of Black British History is that it tells the stories of fourteen unique individuals, and their stories provide many different perspectives. Which story is a personal favourite, and which tales do you find people have particularly engaged with?

A: It was fascinating to see how different people’s stories were linked; connected in some way, because they were all part of a broader story. For example, Dr Harold Moody came to London from Kingston, Jamaica in 1904 and trained as a doctor. When he was refused work because of the colour of his skin he set up a GP practice in his own home. Soon this was an important community hub for Black and Brown people seeking help with employment, housing and education. In 1931 Dr Harold founded the League of Coloured Peoples to assert the rights and improve the welfare of Black people all over the world.

Una Marson, also from Kingston, wrote poems as a young girl and founded her own feminist magazine, The Cosmopolitan, when she was just twenty-three! When she came to London, she stayed with the Moodys and became the editor of the League of Coloured People’s journal, The Keys. As producer of ‘Caribbean Voices’, a BBC radio programme celebrating West Indian writers, she was the first Black broadcaster and programme producer at the BBC.

I love that each of these individual stories are so inspirational; together they speak to the power of community and the ways in which Black people have worked alongside each other to advance rights for all.

 

Q: I imagine that you also came across some interesting historical figures that weren’t included in the final book for one reason or another. Could you tell us about one of them (unless you are saving them for a sequel, of course)?

Selecting stories from amongst others for a collection like this is so difficult and of course there are other people I wish we could have included. The list is long! In this book, I wanted to share the history of Black presence in Britain pre-Windrush, to show that Black people were here long before 1948 – and to explain why.

If the timeline had been different, I would have written about Paul Stephenson, one of the extraordinary people behind the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. When the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ Black people as bus drivers, Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council led a protest that led to the racist employment policy being overturned. Their actions also helped usher in the 1965 Race Relations Act, making racial discrimination in public places illegal.

 

Q: In Bright Stars of Black British History, you write about some extremely serious subjects (especially the injustices of racism and slavery) honestly and in a way that gives them gravity without the stories becoming overwhelmingly grim. How did you go about striking this balance?

In many ways that balance reflects the realities of Black people’s lives in Britain. What so many of these life stories had in common was that each individual faced racism and unfair treatment; but each found ways to confront, challenge and overcome. I wanted to celebrate people’s creativity, their sense of community, their will to resist injustice. The stories in the book speak simultaneously to celebration and struggle, to resilience and resistance, to migration and movement, to challenge and change.

Our history is complex and so has often been surrounded by silence. I wanted to write a book that would create a safe space for honest conversations about this history, which is, after all, British history. As an educator I know that young people are ready to talk about these histories. They are curious, they are open, they are willing to learn, willing to have those challenging conversations. And of course, I wanted to shine a light on these amazing role models for young people.

 

Q: One thing I wasn’t expecting from Bright Stars of Black British History is how brilliantly it brings different places and periods of British history to life, from Tudor Britain to the colonial Caribbean and Twentieth Century London. Was this one of your objectives, or did it just happen naturally as you told your subjects’ stories?

What a great question! I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. Writing life stories for younger people, I wanted to look at the whole arc of someone’s life, right from early childhood. What were the early influences on their decision-making? Place has the power to shape us. The environment in which we grow up, what we see around us, all contributes to who we become. Many of the people featured in the book migrated from one place to another, showing the important connections between Britain, Africa, America and the Caribbean. I wanted to capture the environment of each story in the language. To conjure up each era through vivid storytelling. That way, the reading experience feels like a series of journeys through different times and places.

Angela Vives’ stunning illustrations add such a rich layer of visual storytelling to every chapter. Imagining each person in those settings was a work of deep thinking for each of us. In many cases there was a lack of visual material to draw on, as in the earlier periods, Black people were often either left out of the picture or pictured in ways that caricatured us. For me, it was crucial to create a record, both verbal and visual, that reinstated our dignity and showed us at the centre of the action, as agents and drivers of our own history.

 

Q: In the past you were a schoolteacher – did this experience influence the writing of Bright Stars of Black British History?

Absolutely! Even from my own family history I knew that people of African descent have been living in Britain for centuries. But where were our stories in print? As a mother and as a teacher it was hard to find books I could read with my family, with my classes, to share our rich and varied history.

It is such a privilege to write for young people. Running workshops in schools, I have heard directly from young people that they want to learn histories that reflect a true diversity of perspectives.

When I am writing, I always keep my audience very clearly in mind. I wanted to write a book that young people could immerse themselves in and be inspired by; that educators could use in the classroom with confidence in the quality of the research; that families could read together, knowing that the life stories were written from a place of Black dignity.

 

Q: Your book also features beautiful art by the talented Angela Vives. How did she become involved in the project, and what process did the two of you use to create the illustrations?

Well, the original idea for us to make a book together was Angela’s! While I was working as an educator at the British Library, Angela was taking an MA in Children’s Illustration. Her special area of interest and expertise was around picture book biographies as inspirations for learning. I was running workshops about African Abolitionist writers and I was obsessed with the extraordinary story of the life of Ignatius Sancho, the composer and writer who lived with his family in Westminster in the eighteenth century. Angela suggested we make a book together about him. We approached Thames & Hudson with the idea, and the project grew from there!

Angela’s research process was also very immersive. Conjuring images of the past with Black people at the centre poses serious challenges as there is so little precedent. It’s a combination of deep dives into the historical research and giving space to the imagination to think about the person at the centre of the story. I think her illustrations have a beautiful emotional texture to them. As creatives, we wanted to readers to connect with each ‘character’ at the centre of their own life story.  So this is a history book, but, we hope, rendered with the immersive and emotive power of a gorgeous story collection.

 

We would like to thank J. T. Williams for taking the time to answer our questions. Bright Stars of Black History is a beautifully written book that tells the tales of inspiring people that have largely been left out of other history books. We highly recommend it!