Black boys

June 16, 2019 0 Comments

On the way to give a talk in Killay Library in Swansea last week I passed a pub I remembered seeing before.  It struck me as odd the first time.  Not because of its building or location, but because of its name – The Black Boy.

Years ago such a name might not have raised many eyebrows.  Today it’s more conspicuous and raises acute questions about naming and the named, and about the pervasive effects of slavery on British society.  Daniel Trivedy, Swansea artist and teacher, used Killay’s The Black Boy in his graduation exhibition in Swansea College of Art in 2009, But I wasn’t aware that the Guyana-born artist Ingrid Pollard had earlier made a lengthy study of all Britain’s Black Boy pubs, as part of an extensive work dealing with groups of people we see and yet don’t see in ‘our’ landscape and environment.  At the Baltic in Gateshead when we visited there was a chance to see some of this work, chosen by Lubaina Himid, in a show called Seventeen of sixty-eight, part of the Baltic Art Awards 2019.

Caernarfon

The title refers to the number of surviving pubs bearing the name The Black Boy – a name that seems to go back at least to the eighteenth century.  Caernarfon has a well-known one (Tafarn y Bachgen Du), and there’s another in Newtown, a few miles from Gregynog, where I’m writing this.  In the show are photographs of some of them – Pollard is primarily a photographer – but there’s a lot else: other photos, signs, stand-alone figures, constructions, paper and a video.  You need to pay close attention to get the best out of the whole collection, and it helped to talk to one of the excellent gallery staff on hand.

The title of the first version of the exhibition, which resulted from an AHRC-funded research project in 2002-2005, was Hidden in a public space.  This introduces Pollard’s basic theme: how, although ‘alien’ presences, in this case black people, have long been nominally visible to all, the lives and experiences of the real, named black people in the community have traditionally been hidden or ignored.

Baltic exhibition

‘Nominally’ is true literally as well as metaphorically.  One of the largest items in the show is a life-size pub banner sign, Black Boy, which fills one of the walls, and there are photos of other, pictorial signs.  On one of the older ones the name is partly obscured by foliage, and an abandoned Black Boy pub tracked down by Pollard has lost even its name.  A photo of a modern housing estate looks ordinary until you look closer and notice the street sign in front, Black Boy Wood: the black boy is a contemporary reality as well as a historic survival.  There are wooden figurines of black boys from pubs, one of them placed high on its plinth; by contrast, a video, hidden inside an ’empty’ plinth, shows a demeaning black dancing puppet.  The ‘hidden’ theme continues in a long frieze of paper squares, that seem white and blank until you come up close and see ‘black’ boys embossed on them – ’embossing’ itself is a nominally suggestive technique.  There are also extracts from an unidentified printed book, the text ‘blacked out’ except for sentences mentioning a ‘Black Boy’ – an exact equivalent to the way a black presence can have a superficial, anonymised existence in white society.

Ingrid Pollard

A different kind of erasure has happened more recently, in reaction to sensitivity – and complaints from black people – about some sign representations of the Black Boy.  The Caernarfon Black Boy sign invents a false, ‘buoy’ etymology.  Pollard tells us that the Labour in vain pub in Westergate, West Sussex once had a picture of a black boy in a tub being scrubbed clean ‘in vain’ by a white woman. A competition was held to replace the offending sign, with accompanying explanations, but counter-complainants pressed for the original sign to remain, and the project was abandoned.  Finally the sign disappeared and the pub changed owners.

Ingrid Pollard denies she has any interest in the origin of the Black Boy pubs and signs: ‘the meanings of the text and visual signs have many points of origin and no one fixed meaning’.  This is obvious from one of her ‘constructed’ pub signs, showing a black boy (but with white arms) as chimney sweep: two origins rolled into one.  She’s more interested in the way ‘Black Boys’ stand for the way most people forgot, beyond the initial casual acknowledgement, about the real lives of real individuals.

The most oblique image in the show is a black and white photo of an upland rural landscape – it could easily be Wales – that’s apparently empty.  What is it ‘hiding’?  Pollard doesn’t tell us, but it set me thinking back to my old friend John Ystumllyn, or ‘Jack Black’, the black lad who appeared on various farms in the Cricieth area in the 1750s.  He too arrived ‘anonymised’.  His birth name was unknown in his new country, and his (presumably west African) language was unrecognised as a human tongue.  How he’d arrived in Wales in the first place was forgotten.  On the other hand, the people of Eifionydd didn’t delete him, or the memory of him.  On the contrary, John was clearly cherished by the community.  His talents were recognised, he married a local girl, he worked on several estates, he had his portrait painted, and when he died a local poet wrote an englyn in his praise. 

Excavating stories like these enlightens us.  It helps us understand the variety and complexity of attitudes to black presences in the Britain of the past, and of the present.  Lemn Sissay, in The mystery of the Black boy, a BBC radio programme broadcast in 2008, said that he would not enter a Black Boy pub, and argued that surviving ‘black boy’ pub signs and names should be expunged, as ‘derogatory and belittling’ to black people today.  Pollard, though, disagrees.  So does Daniel Trivedy, who was puzzled that the pictures of the Killay black boy sign had been changed by 2013 into a white boy.  He wrote, ‘to change the sign of the Black Boy pub to one depicting a white boy is to deprive it of its rich, cultural background and deny its place in the ‘true’ history of south Wales’.

There couldn’t be a better way than Ingrid Pollard’s exhibition of bringing black boys to our attention, and getting us to confront and think hard about how we react to otherness.

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