One of the best things about some projects is their afterlife, and particularly the conversations that continue long after the work has ended. This has definitely been the case with the Balance for Better blanket: our collaborative project celebrating 30 diverse creative women which the KDD team developed with our good friend Felicity Ford. Some of the women Felix and I wished to represent are alive (such as Raman Mundair); some are no longer living, but have surviving family. Where that was the case, wherever possible, Felix and I approached the women’s relatives, ensuring they were happy with the inclusion of their family member in the blanket. One of these women was Dr Beryl Gilroy. As we were producing the blanket, I wrote to Dr Gilroy’s children, Paul and Darla-Jane, and have enjoyed keeping in touch with Darla (who works at London College of Fashion) over the past year or so.
But who was Beryl Gilroy, and why was I keen to include her in our blanket? Well, as well as being a really significant author far too few people seemed to know about, Beryl Gilroy was Britain’s first black headteacher. Born in Guyana, she moved to the UK in the early 1950s, and like many Windrush generation women who came to study and work in these islands, she found that her wardrobe was just one of countless adaptations she had to make to her new environment.
When she arrived in London, Dr Gilroy bought and wore a wonderful two-tone winter wool coat — a garment which now forms part of the the V&A collections, and is also discussed in Carol Tulloch’s book about black British style, The Birth of Cool . When knitting the Beryl Gilroy square in the blanket, I echoed her coat’s two-tone check in a square featuring similar shades of Milarrochy Tweed.
I’d first come across Beryl Gilroy’s work as a student back in the mid 1990s, after reading her son Paul’s seminal work The Black Atlantic and later, an interview, in which his mother’s work and writing were discussed. I was really interested in Beryl Gilroy’s story, and so ordered her memoir, Black Teacher on interlibrary loan. The book was difficult to get hold of, and took a good while to arrive, but when it did, it was definitely worth the wait. I loved Dr Gilroy’s voice – so frank, so real, so wry – and the book really shaped my thinking – about race and class in British communities (like the one I myself had grown up in), about teaching, education, prejudice – many different things. Published in 1976, I found it really odd that this brilliant, incisive and highly imaginative account of a trailblazing teacher’s experience of race, racism, British culture, and the British education system had not received much more attention in the twenty years that separated the book’s publication from my reading of it. But then I thought about the fact that I’d recently read another memoir, by another black British woman – Head above Water, by Buchi Emecheta – which had similarly been written in the 1970s, similarly published by a small, independent press, had been similarly really difficult to get hold of and, from what I could see, remained very little known and infrequently discussed. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about just how marginalised the voices of black women writers were and how important it was that such voices were heard. In recent years, the voices of other brilliant black British women writers like Candace Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo seem perhaps much more mainstream. Yet how much has really changed in British publishing in the quarter century that’s has passed since I first read Beryl Gilroy’s groundbreaking and important book, Black Teacher? Why do so few people know of her great work?
A couple of weeks ago I heard from Darla Gilroy that Faber & Faber are publishing a new edition of Black Teacher, to coincide with the twenty-year anniversary of her mother’s death. The new edition includes a foreword by Bernardine Evaristo. I’m very much looking forward to the book’s publication in August, and to reacquainting myself with Beryl Gilroy’s important story.