Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher is an absorbing memoir that illustrates in detail the everyday racism of 1950s Britain, a world so utterly oppressive and nonsensical to Caribbean migrants. So much so that most described England as merely “disappointing” or, as the author commented, “A strange country, full of the strangest people.”
Our story begins in 1953. Beryl Gilroy, a much lauded and talented teacher from British Guiana, decided to live in the “Mother Country” as she learnt that Britain was pioneering in educational techniques.
Beryl finds opposition and mindless ignorance at every avenue— the teaching employment agency, the office staff, her fellow teachers, parents, and primary school children. Such is the all pervasive nature of overt racism at the time, she even expresses anxiety at giving birth to a mixed race child.
Initially unable to gain employment as a teacher, Beryl works as a temporary filing clerk where she befriends a group of working class white women. The workplace is typical of the time. At one point, the female staff wonder do black women menstruate in the same way as white women? Her male boss is free with verbal racist abuse and Beryl gives as good as she gets.
But it’s the way one of her friends, Sue, turns on her that will stump modern readers. Her departing remarks to Beryl are shocking. “We been mates but I don’t want you to come visiting me, see,” says Sue. “I don’t want them to see me ‘obnobbin’ with nigs and such. Get it?”
At a teaching agency she overhears a clerk say, “She’s very well qualified, most qualified. But she’s coloured…I have to tell you she’s coloured.”
Her first primary school class greeted her with “gasps of terror”, not surprising when we consider their parents’ filthy racism. The parent’s hostility could extend to refusing to allow their kids to be taught by a black teacher. And, if this was not possible, their children at least could act as their racist ambassadors to insult Beryl on their behalf.
In post war Britain, politicians and state mounted a concerted effort to to stigmatise black and Asian migrants. It is into this toxic atmosphere that Beryl came. Yet the picture she paints contains the occasional glimmer of anti-racism as school kids challenge the racism of their parents. Interracial relationships are formed and, in her case, she gave birth to her son, Paul Gilroy, the eminent social theorist.
On a more sombre note, she also documents those relationships that fell foul of the moral code of the time.
The latter third of this memoir focuses on her work as a successful head teacher and in some ways is less illuminating for the modern reader. There are some interesting reflections on teaching primary school kids, clearly she was adapting progressive educational ideas in a hostile environment.
Beryl describes how at one point she became disenchanted with teaching, that for a while it became a mere job, a struggle to survive.
However she finds the means to work in partnership with the kids. “No longer were they a class, but individuals with patterns of thinking, perceptions, and imaginations different not only from those of their peers but different indeed from my own,” she says.
As a head teacher, Beryl makes some typical comments on teacher unions which may raise a rueful smile for those of us working in schools today. Yet a strong labour movement, with the capacity to raise arguments on fighting racism in schools, is partly why things aren’t as bad as they were for black teachers.
The fight for racial justice continues within education. The racist outlook is considerably more nuanced today compared with the experience we witness through Beryl’s eyes in her memoir. But the lived sense of grievance for black teachers continues on in new guises.
The author has a novelistic eye for detail. She provides a fascinating snap shot of white working class life and racial attitudes at the time, which gives us a history lesson well worth a read.