Black and white photograph of Beryl Gilroy with her students in a classroom, overlayed with one of her typescript drafts for a novel

Woman version: Beryl Gilroy's Black Teacher

Beryl Gilroy was a pioneering teacher and writer. Tracing the critical reception of Gilroy's unconventional autobiography, Sandra Courtman argues for Black Teacher to be read as literature that is part of a tradition of black women's writing as a survival strategy.

Beryl Gilroy, the pioneering writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist of the ‘Windrush generation’, was born in 1924 in British Guiana, where during her twenties she trained and worked as teacher. Her gifts were acknowledged in Guiana and she expected to be valued and welcomed when she arrived in London in August 1952. Initially, however, the prejudice and racism of her prospective employees prevented her from securing a teaching post. Today, Gilroy is well known as the first black head teacher in London and for her contribution to multi-racial education. Yet her autobiography based on these experiences, Black Teacher (1976), is rarely read or considered as literature.[1]

Black Teacher is an unconventional autobiography and is Gilroy’s experiment with an intermediary form – somewhere between fiction and autobiography, with a distinct non-linear structure. Autobiography more usually begins with childhood and progresses through the formative stages of the author's life. Black Teacher, however, begins in the present from the perspective of a conquering heroine. The narrator then shifts the time frame back to her expectations on leaving university and moves forward from 1953. It has 13 short chapters depicting spirited battles which see her finally get work as a teacher, followed by a promotion to headship. The text contains several episodes which depict Gilroy’s encounters with the British workforce and the low-paid jobs she was forced to take during the period that she was rejected for teaching appointments. When later discussing Black Teacher, Gilroy said that there was a need ‘… to set the record straight. There had been Ted Braithwaite’s To Sir with Love [1959] and Don Hinds’ Journey to an Illusion [1966] but the woman’s experiences had never been stated.’[2]

Photograph of Beryl Gilroy

Black and white photograph of Beryl Gilroy with primary school pupils in a classroom

This photograph shows Beryl Gilroy with pupils in a classroom. She documented her career in education in her unconventional autobiography, Black Teacher (1976).

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Recovering Black Teacher as literature

Before 1976, the year that Black Teacher was published, Gilroy wrote a series of children's readers largely due to her frustration with the racist teaching materials she found in her classroom cupboard. Arguably, Black Teacher was published for its contribution to 1970s debates on Britain's failure to provide relevant materials and methods for a culturally-fair education. It appeared at the right time to become useful as a sociological and educational tool. But this categorisation would restrict its value to content, and served to discourage readings that would approach it as literature, specifically in the genre of life writing.

Gilroy's book is recognisably a woman's version of E R Braithwaite's To Sir, With Love, covering similar fictional and autobiographical terrain and sharing something of Braithwaite's style. To Sir, With Love was published in the late 1950s, before the so-called ‘problem’ of multiculturalism had been forced on to the political agenda prompting a new 1976 Race Relations Act.[3] In contrast, Gilroy's experience attracted the attention of the media in 1973. She was asked to read a short piece on her experiences on the BBC's Woman's Hour, and was immediately solicited by the publisher Cassell to write a full-length work. But whereas Braithwaite's book was promoted as a good story – ‘The best-selling story of a negro teacher in a tough school in London's East End’[4]Black Teacher was received as disturbing information rather than narrative.

On its publication in 1976, Black Teacher was reviewed as an educational resource and its reviewers were other teachers who were grudging in their praise. For example, Roy Blatchford, an English teacher at Stockwell Manor Comprehensive School, was among the critics who dismissed Black Teacher. In his review for the Times Educational Supplement he suggests that its writing quality is uneven and that its ‘message’ may be uncalled for:

This is, at times, a well-written, sensitive, often moving tale of school life, but the author can be embarrassingly over-sentimental and cloying in her repetition of anecdotes. Does she really remember all those interchanges down to dropped Hs and 'Sucks and Knickers to you Miss'?

We hear plenty of Nig-Nog, Nig-Pig and Wog hurled in her direction, about segregation in the loo, and her fight to be black and accepted. Her trials in the fifties were deplorably the common lot for the immigrant. None the less, is it worth yet another voicing? Can the publishers seriously ask that the book should be taken to heart by educationalists and parents?[5]

Blatchford is embarrassed by racism and seems to want to consign these incidents to the 'trials [of] the fifties’, precisely at a time (in the mid 1970s) when racial tensions were at a high. Even worse, he suggests that Gilroy’s difficult rise to a headship was accomplished with more ease than the book depicts:

A few years off for her own mixed-marriage and private play groups, and the charismatic Mrs Gilroy swept back to the North London school where she is now head-mistress, denouncing licence, proclaiming classroom freedom, combating parental slings and arrows, suffering little kids, cuddling and comforting.[6]

Blatchford thus dismisses Gilroy's personal achievements, attributing them to a 'charismatic' personality rather to a combination of courage, determination and skill. His review trivialised the importance of Black Teacher and the book went out of print after 1976.

Today, we can choose to read the text differently. Life writing published by a black woman in the post-war period, especially a full-length autobiography of a Caribbean woman’s experience of migration and exclusion, is rare and vital. Even though Black Teacher is owned as an autobiography about real experiences, it is narrated as a story. Black Teacher is literature that may offer us an imaginative experience of what it felt like to be a black woman in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

‘I wrote to redefine myself’

We might now read Black Teacher as life writing that confronts the thorny construct of a colonial identity. Throughout, the text charts the ways in which this identity is re-formed in the metropolis whilst the subject’s self-esteem is extremely fragile. The heroine of Black Teacher is at times boastful, defensive, aggressive, kind and humorous. She is a flawed human being in the process of finding her place in an alien society that failed to appreciate her and in which racial abuse was rife. Reflecting this instability, the narrator’s voice slips between a third-person 'pedantic' narrator who is confident, professional and self-assured and the autobiographical 'I' which is much more provisional and self-doubting. Gilroy moves the narrator between the multiple identities that she has created in order to deal with difficult situations.

Whilst Gilroy's humour and fighting-spirit were generally celebrated by reviewers, Edward Blishen found Black Teacher flawed by occasional moments of ‘self-applause’.[7] Blishen may have been affronted by Gilroy's ‘self-applause’ because it simply ‘isn't British’ to brag about one's achievements. Like Blatchford, he too seems reluctant to name incidents as racist, referring to them as the ‘usual difficulty.’ But read openly and without embarrassment, we can see how identity is being reconstructed as a response to the author’s sense of loss and alienation. The ‘self-applause’ and Gilroy’s need to cast herself as a pioneering multi-cultural teacher may be a necessary over-compensation for the denial that she had faced from institutions, parents and employers. This therapeutic narrative strategy is evident in the following extract:

Prejudice showed by innuendo and implication and I reacted by over-compensation. My classroom became my obsession. I used it to prove to myself that I was once more the gifted teacher – the teacher who had been acclaimed in a faraway country. (Black Teacher, p. 95)

Black Teacher is part of a tradition of black women's writing as a survival strategy that her reviewers may not have known. However, in a later essay Gilroy places her work firmly in this tradition:

In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight.[8]

Lastly, it is worth highlighting that one of the revelations of Black Teacher is its representation of a black woman’s body.[9] In Britain, Gilroy could not avoid being perceived as an exotic creature subject both to fetishisation and fear. In Black Teacher, Gilroy challenges these skewed responses by foregrounding her humanity. She writes casually about bodily functions, such as urination or menstruation, in a way that was unusual for the time. These discussions relate to encounters with others who perceive only an unknowable ‘difference’. In the following example, Gilroy is working as a filing clerk for a mail order company and relates one of her daily experiences with the absurdity of her colleagues’ ignorance:

When I came out, [of the toilet] Sue eyed me with a look of prurient curiosity.
‘Not bein’ rude,’ she said, ‘just bein’ inquisitive. What do natives do when they…’
‘Go to bed?’ I asked.
‘You know,’ she said, self-consciously gesturing, ‘your monthlies.’
‘You mean when we menstruate?’ I asked.
She nodded,
‘Well Sue,’ I replied with mock seriousness, ‘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.’ (Black Teacher, p. 23)

This fantastical solution to the practicalities of menstruation is typical of Gilroy’s patience and humour. It also exemplifies how she used her writer’s imagination to challenge habitual prejudices that ‘the mysteries’ of the black woman’s body often provoked.

Recognition and legacy

Despite facing critical neglect during her career, Gilroy’s achievements were finally recognised late in her life, and she has been honoured by UK and US academic institutions.[10] She is now acknowledged for her pioneering role in terms of black women’s achievements. However, she would have liked to have been remembered as a good writer in the same way that we think of Margaret Drabble or Iris Murdoch. She badly wanted to avoid being marginalised by any literary or black-feminist political label. In her life, she often had to carry the burden of representation in the way that white British-born writers have not.

Peter Fraser asserts that her writing is ‘her chief legacy’.[11] However, her legacy extends to the ground clearing that enabled subsequent generations of black women writers to claim a space from the 1980s onwards. Andrea Levy understood the timeliness of her award-winning novel Small Island (2004), saying: ‘I think this country is kind of ready to listen to that story now. It’s been 60 years since the Empire Windrush came…’[12] Writing at the ‘wrong’ time and in the ‘wrong’ gender, the work of Beryl Gilroy was subject to misunderstandings and neglect. But Gilroy was the ultimate outsider who broke down barriers to clear a cultural and creative space for subsequent generations. As Fred D’Aiguar observes in his ‘Letter to Beryl Gilroy’:

Let us return to your talented offspring Beryl Gilroy. Your son grows up seeing his mother’s trailblazing example as a daily and living thing. … As a result of witnessing her daily practice and by virtue of his proximity to her, that child is destined to succeed in a space cleared by her energy and initiative.[13]

In a sense, many black writers who came after Gilroy benefitted from her courage and initiative. In more general terms, the post-Windrush generation continue to be inspired by their elders to carve out a permanent space for creative and cultural diversity. They are moving nearer to the point where they achieve status as important writers and artists who no longer have to represent anything but their own imagination.

Footnotes

All page references are to Beryl Gilroy, Black Teacher, 2nd edn (Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1994; first published Cassell, 1976).

[1] Peter D Fraser, ‘Beryl Gilroy’ obituary, The Guardian (18 April 2001) <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/apr/18/guardianobituaries.books> [accessed 13 August 2018].

[2] Beryl Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, ed. Joan Anim-Addo (London: Mango Publishing, 1998), p. 9.

[3] The 1965 Act had already legislated against racial discrimination in the community, such as the discriminatory exclusions that regularly operated in pubs, clubs, restaurants, on buses and in parks. The 1965 Act also made illegal the charge of 'Deliberate incitement to racial hatred’. Signs that were common in the 1960s – for example 'Vacancy. No blacks need apply' – were legislated against in 1968. The 1976 Race Relations Act outlawed indirect discrimination, such as the setting of conditions of employment that were, in effect, discriminatory.

[4] E R Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love, 9th edn (London: Coronet, 1993; first published Bodley Head, 1959), back cover blurb.

[5] Roy Blatchford, 'To Miss... with love', The Times Educational Supplement (27 August 1976), p. 16.

[6] Blatchford, 'To Miss... with love', p. 16.

[7] Edward Blishen, 'A Hard School', The Guardian (22 July 1976), p. 16.

[8] Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, p. 209.

[9] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1978) and Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (London: Routledge, 1975).

[10] For more discussion of the contradictions inherent in Gilroy’s reputation and critical attention, see Sandra Courtman, ‘Not Good Enough or Not Man Enough? Beryl Gilroy as the Anomaly in the Evolving Black British Canon,’ in A Black British Canon?, ed. by Gail Low and Marion Wynne-Davies (London: Palgrave, 2006), pp. 50–74.

[11] Peter D Fraser, ‘Gilroy [nee Answick], Beryl Agatha (1924–2001), teacher and author’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., ed by David Cannadine (Oxford: OUP, January 2005),<http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-75721> [accessed 11 October 2017].

[12] 'Andrea Levy’s Small Island looks at post-war immigrants', The Jamaica Observer (17 April 2005), p. 5.

[13] Fred D’Aiguar, ‘Letter to Beryl Gilroy’, Callaloo, 39(4) (2016) 756–801(p.759).

© Sandra Courtman

This article also appears on Discovering Literature: 20th Century.

Banner: © The Estate of Beryl Gilroy. The manuscript text is from Gilroy's novel In Praise of Love and Children.

  • Sandra Courtman
  • Dr Sandra Courtman is a freelance writer and former Programme Director for Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield. Her publications focus on Caribbean and Black British writing, specifically, West Indian women’s writing during the post Second World War period. Her recent publications include ‘The Transcultural Tryst in Migration, Exile and Diaspora’ in Volume 9 of the Palgrave series, The History of British Women’s Writing 1945-1975, edited by Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins (2017).