by Roger Griffith MBE – Author, Lecture Consultant and recipient of Bristol Lord Mayor’s Medal
I first arrived in Bristol with my Mum in 1974, post her divorce from London and lived in a street that still bears the name of a slave-merchant: Colston Road in Easton. It was an irony that was lost on me back then, with little spoken of Edward Colston’s slaving history. I did not know how his past would cast shadow and light on my future.
At an important time for all children – moving from junior to senior school – we moved again finally gaining a council flat. It was in Lawrence Weston a place that I or friends I would never see again, had never heard of. If Mum and Dad were shocked by the conditions when they arrived from the Caribbean, then after multicultural north London and Easton, this was like getting out of a warm shower and being tossed into an ice-cold bath.
At my first day of senior school, I had no idea growing up Black was going to be how I was judged in future. I befriended another Black boy, Colin and grateful for the comradeship of my white friends. We survived with a few tribulations but even fewer qualifications.
Looking back, we were human cannon fodder for the local Avonmouth factories and warehouses we lived alongside. We had been breathing in toxins from the incinerators and smelting works whilst we played for years. Colin, myself and a handful of Black youths however had to deal with the ritual racism. This ranged from name-calling to being told by teachers that we had ‘chips on our shoulders.’
I left school in 1981 and along with spots and an interest in girls, questions about my identity arrived. The events swirling around me, police harassment, lack of representation, unemployment, violence, uprisings/riots in Bristol and Britain forced me to look at who I was. I was told repeatedly to go back home, but where was that exactly?
On visits to family in London they would make fun of my Bristolian ‘farmer’s accent’. When I eventually visited the Caribbean, they sent me back with a smile, calling me English bwoy! I was nearly 30, I had never been made to feel English in my life. Being British with its multiple identities and diverse nationalities, home to immigrants since before Roman times, sat more comfortably with me.
During my rise from trainee to senior housing manager, I worked the repair telephone lines for Bristol City Council. I was told tenants could barely understand me as I was speaking too fast. I worked hard to change to a more cultured tone. Little did I know I would have the last laugh by becoming a radio presenter in addition to serving 11 years as Executive Chair for Ujima Radio.
A street-phrase here, a touch of patois there, my Bristol burr grounding it all. My voice and street smarts provided more unexpected dividends. In trips to the USA, I’m afforded a privilege that my African-American cousins do not have. I have talked myself out of speeding tickets from notorious police forces as well as gaining quizzical looks and warm company from Black and White Americans alike.
My parents had paid the price for me, learning more about Shakespeare than African civilisations in their colonial curriculums. Everyday walking home past the towering sugar-cane fields that our forebears toiled in. Their sweat and blood made Bristol and Britain rich, through sugar, cotton and tobacco. Britain’s financial centres expanded, other cities such as Birmingham manufactured guns and instruments of torture to restrain the enslaved.
My trips to my Caribbean family members who had made USA their home fascinated me. It was inspiring to watch Mum’s brother, Uncle Clarence become the first and only Black Bishop of Connecticut in 1981. Like many teenagers across the world Black America spoke to my soul. First through the music of Motown, the grace of Muhammad Ali, the power and politics of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Then came layers of cultural imprints to enlighten me, from Mayou Angelou, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, Alice Walker and more with their stories of self-expression.
My Grandfather spent his final years in Manhattan, with my Uncle Sam who now lives in Berlin. On his one and only trip to Bristol in 1985 we visited the grave of the enslaved Scipio Africanus in Henbury. My son, Laurence had been born weeks earlier and I imagined his ancestral spirit flowing to a future generation. My sister, a Rastafarian, moved to Africa and she informed me of African empires kings and queens, which later I heard referenced in reggae lyrics. In line with her wishes she is buried in Ghana and post-Covid I hope to connect her roots with my routes in my future odysseys and chronicles.
Both my parents are from Guyana, formerly British Guiana geographically in South America but politically and culturally it is very much part of the West Indies. The question of identity and home is complicated. I call it my identity boomerang! I cast it out toward the Americas, watching it arching across to Africa. Then skimming back across the Atlantic Ocean landing into my hands as I stand on Bristol’s harbourside.
Here I discovered fortunes amassed from stolen and trafficked lives I never knew but feel a connection to. Buildings, streets, squares, monuments and pubs such as the Seven Stars were home to abolitionists. The cobbled streets of King Street, the home of Bristol Old Vic, were built with tainted origins. It was here I saw my first play and would later work together in partnership with Bristol Post hosting City Conversations on race. Despite reading of efforts to obscure its past, as Dr Madge Dresser outlined, history could not be removed, hidden or buried. It surrounds us.
Though anger at injustices of history flared, it did not ease my pain, only study and research would be a salve. I took a fresh look at my parent’s journey and rediscovered the Windrush Generation to rebuild Britain post World War II. They arrived as citizens with rights that would be denied to some decades later.
I was the first of family to be actually born in what they called Motherland. Far from hating my city, I became fascinated by its complexity, nuances and perspectives. I sought balance without diluting my beliefs or values. l discovered the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott and met Paul Stephenson, Barbera Dettering, Roy Hackett and Leo Goodridge. These civil-right campaigners taught me that social activism was a duty. They had served Bristol well and passed on the torch of community service to my generation. I went back to night school as an adult to get the qualifications, I failed to achieve as a boy. I studied at a range of community learning venues from St Pauls to Stoke Lodge to help me realise my potential and harness more offers of support.
I watched Bristol begin its own re-invention, shedding some of its past like a snakeskin. Teenage nights out at Tiffany’s and Trinity gave way to the rise of the Bristol Sound. Formerly blighted districts in Easton and Southville became well-heeled family playgrounds. Exclusive cultural institutions started to become inclusive activism centres of expression.
Bridewell Police station – a place where I spent a few mornings cooling off and where innocent victims of stop and search would wait in the cells with fear – was remodelled as a youth centre of Creative Youth Network. It also became home to Ujima Radio. Here is where we won a host of awards including National Diversity Champions and Best Community Radio station.
My downstairs neighbour in Lawrence Weston and friend, Marvin Rees, became elected mayor of Bristol. I worked with his predecessor George Ferguson as part of the Bristol Bus Boycott 50 committee to get a plaque erected for the Bus Boycott leaders at the bus station. Like any city, our blemishes are there for the world to see, inequality is too rife, homelessness remains an issue, the traffic is almost a cliché and the criticism can cut like the tip of a sword. However from my global travels, the only Utopia I ever visited was a nightclub!
These are my homes and spiritual identities from birth to present-day. I’m North London. Tottenham. Easton, Lawrence Weston. Filton. Bristolian. English. European. West Indian and Caribbean. African. Of the African Diaspora. British. All complicated and complex, intertwined and immersed identities that I have grown to love. Trying to discard any one of them would be like attempting to function fully without an organ. Possible, but it would not bring out my best self.
I’m no longer subjugated by Bristol’s past. Instead I’ve reclaimed it, reinventing new opportunities for myself and others. From its unruliness and dispossessed to its elites and cliques. Bristol is my city, where my friends are my family and where I continue to be schooled, now lecturing at UWE Bristol.
It’s where I return after my adventures. The cider binges have been replaced by red wine stains. The lusty fumbles have grown into true romance. Every day, I live unapologetically me.
Being Black. Being British. Being Bristolian.
Bristol, My Brizzle – a poem by Roger Griffith
Let me enlighten you with this my tale of Brizzle,
Of a city that can crack, pop and sizzle.
There have been times when rizla’s and buildings have blazed a-light,
Where flames of hope and despair once burned bright.
Queens Square and St Pauls both erupted with a bang,
Whilst at Harbourside fireworks, church congregations and bus boycott’s we sang.
Hills and money divide Bristol into many enclaves and districts,
Its postcodes separating our health as well as its riches.
I’ve lived and worked along points of its map,
From Carnival camaraderie to roles in media, kindness pours like cider on tap.
Avonmouth Docks and factories used to give me an honest day’s pay,
I now travel north, south, east and west, through hubs that host motorways.
Up the Portway I once travelled to rebuild my career, south of the river,
Driving through the might Avon Gorge and across the Feeder.
I was no angel but for Black lads Hartcliffe was a place where we feared to tread,
Fear not, the people I met cheered and fed me instead.
Its history from the Wills’ tobacco trade gave me hidden connections,
To unpaid enslaved labour that built the cities revenue collection.
East-side is where I and many migrants first arrived finding shelter,
Safety in numbers, food from our homelands and support structures.
Tech and Industrial innovation gave the city lasting legacies and landmarks,
Concorde, Clifton Suspension Bridge, ss Great Britain, plus the zoo is quite a lark!
Look upward for Hot Air Balloons filled with gas high in the sky,
And hum along to great Bristol Sounds as the evening eases by.
Visitors from all corners of the globe, flock to admire our street art,
Whilst vegan delights are feasted upon and kooky fashions pile up in shopping carts.
Our many parks are our treasured green leisure spaces,
But the traffic to watch Rovers’ play can darken fans faces.
We are left of centre, the only place for right wingers is with a ball at Ashton Gate!
Whilst our pride in our culture boosts the economy as a new Hall name awaits.
Now the statue that shall not be named has been torn down,
New love for the city can be found.
Merchants today must demonstrate their environmental social justice credentials,
So that many more can realise their potential.
On our accents please remember to roll those Rs. Drive, mind the cycle lanes!
Alright mi babber is their essential refrain.
Must pay respects to our city’s unsung heroes, famous daughters and sons,
Too many to mention just visit our libraries, museums or ask our universities Dons!
Post-Covid, I’m confident our future is bright, so now it’s time to rest my bald dome,
And even with our sullied past. This is a place that I’m proud to call home.