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A Great Day

A Great Day – Reviewing the moment (originally written for Sable LitMag, December 2004)
Nii Ayikwei Parkes

 

Manuel Vason’s camera has winked. 50 people, labelled the “movers and shakers” of Black Literature in Britain, have been seduced into celluloid immortality, and night has fallen. The photograph he took will henceforth be known as the Great Day photograph, but the still image doesn’t tell the whole truth. It tells you what happened at a specific moment. As one of the many people I interviewed for this piece put it, “gatherings like this are not necessarily representative.” I couldn’t agree more; all photography is mere symbolism.

 

When one considers the logistics of getting 50 invited people together on the same day, the photograph could not possibly be representative. Some have mourned the absence of people like Caryl Phillips, Roy Heath, Dorothea Smartt and Bonnie Greer. Others, like Malorie Blackman, noted the space where Benjamin Zephaniah should have been. In truth some of the missing (80 persons in all were invited according to reliable sources) were invited but couldn’t make it. The photograph won’t tell us that.

 

Being a linguist, and thus sensitive to the weight and colour of languages, my main criticism of the event will be the wording. In my opinion, the use of the phrase movers and shakers or, as the organiser Melanie Abrahams of renaissance one put it, those who have made an impact, raises the possibility that people will point at the picture and ask if such and such a person has ever moved and shaken anything more than their head or backsides. It provokes comparison. The Great Day in Harlem photograph, the inspiration for this event, worked precisely because it didn’t label itself or claim to be pivotal. A relatively unknown photographer put the word out that he wanted to take a picture of jazz musicians for Esquire and people turned up. He expected 12; he got 57. It didn’t matter that Duke Ellington was out of town on tour because Art Kane never said this was a photograph of movers and shakers in jazz. It was only later that the accolades came.

 

Of course, I agree with Kevin Le Gendre’s assertion that 50 is too small a number to fully represent the “movers and shakers,” and that is something for Black British Literature to be proud of. I even agree to a degree with Lemn Sissay’s humbling point that “with so many incredible people [at the shoot] it is simply arrogant to spout off about who wasn’t”. However I believe that the event would have been better dubbed a gathering of 50 persons in Black British Literature – no qualifications. The connotations of movers and shakers are too strong for me to unquestioningly accept an image that some important movers and shakers, for whatever reason, could not appear in.

 

That said the photograph does have a role to play. In a society where many people find it hard to name four Black writers, this picture says, in Malorie Blackman’s words, “we are here!” She adds, “When I was at school… I didn’t know there were any black writers.  I found out differently in my mid 20s but I think that’s much too long to wait.  Black and white children in this country will hopefully grow up knowing differently – and the photo event will help in that educational process.” Valerie Bloom, an award-winning writer of Jamaican heritage, concurs. She believes the shoot has given visibility to Black British writers in a way that has not been done before but thinks we will have to wait to see what impact it has. One of Valerie’s early publishers, Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture, argues that more effort should have been made to reach out to those African and Asian writers who paved the way. She also thinks that a dictionary of African and Asian writers would enhance the concept of the shoot and remind us of many other writers – dead or alive. The opinions are many and varied, and inevitably so. 50 people are an incredibly small number of people to represent Black contributions to British literature. Add to that an element of selection and the banner of those who have made an impact, and you have a lengthy debate on your hands.

 

One of the most telling quotes in the aftermath of the Great Day in Harlem was one by a 74-year-old Benny Golson who in 2003 was interviewed for the Star Ledger in New Jersey, USA as one of eight survivors from the photograph; “It was just a photograph. Even when it appeared in Esquire … I had a copy and I threw it away. Then, years later, I wished I had that picture.”

 

This photograph will not have the luxury of being “just a picture”. It was built up as a momentous occasion and with that inclusion or exclusion became significant. As an African who knows what it feels like to have his history constructed, that makes me slightly uneasy because, seen out of context, the photograph may well come to represent THE 50 movers and shakers in Black British literature. The event itself I have no problem with. I agree that it was a positive thing to do. I agree that it is significant, although like Lemn Sissay I believe that “it is not more significant than the writing.” I also share Linton Kwesi Johnson’s belief that it is “good for posterity”. Finally I agree that, as another respondent put it, “if the spirit is right, and the reasons sound, then this need not corrupt the action.”

 

The Great Day event captures a moment in time, calcifies and fossilises it for eternity, but let us leave some indication that the dinosaurs caught in this flash flood of publicity, were not the only dinosaurs that existed. Keep the picture. Change the name. And, now that we have the technology, could someone photoshop the escalator out of the picture? It’s just not cool!

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