Barbara Blake Hannah is a Jamaican writer, journalist, filmmaker, and cultural consultant in the Jamaican government. She emigrated to London in the 1960s and worked as a PR executive for the Jamaica Tourist Board. In 1968 she became the first black TV journalist in the UK working for the BBC. In 1972 Blake Hannah returned to Jamaica as a PR Officer for the Jamaican film The Harder they Come and subsequently joined the Rastafarian religion, and articulate campaigner for acceptance of the religion. In 1984 she was appointed an Independent Opposition Senator, the first Rastafari to sit in the Jamaican Parliament. Barbara Blake Hannah’s book” Growing Out”, was recently published with a new introduction by Penguin Books UK.
Jenny Mein is in conversation with Barbara Blake Hannah May 2022
What did you aspire to be when you were a child?
When I was a child I wanted to be a dress designer, because I loved to draw clothes for the dolls in the cardboard cut-out books we used to play with as a child. Then I wanted to be a best-selling novelist like O. Henry and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I used to read a lot and they were my favourite authors.
Who has been your greatest influence?
Without a doubt, my greatest influence has been my father, the journalist Evon Blake, who set the example for me as a writer, as someone who earned their living by writing. From I was born I saw my father sitting at his typewriter, writing, writing, writing. He published a monthly magazine SPOTLIGHT that was usually all his own work because he always quarreled with the journalists he hired because they never wrote as well as he expected them to. He was also a very political man, friends with all the leaders of that time, not just Jamaican Government politicians like Bustamante and Manley, but also the Caribbean leaders like Bradshaw, Cheddi Jagan, and Marryshow. I got used to being around people like them from an early age, so I fit in comfortably when I met people like them in later life. My father grew me up to be brave and fearless, making my sister and I swim with him far out from the beach to the deep sea, then swim back to shore by ourselves. We could swim well, so we knew we couldn’t drown, but I had to have the courage to press on with confidence till I reached the beach. I still benefit from that exercise.
What has been your most favourite journey?
My favourite journey was going to Hollywood in 1999 with my son Makonnen. I had been to Hollywood twice, years before he was born on visits to stay with my movie star girlfriend Vonetta McGee. But this time was really lovely. Mak was part of a team with two American tech teens who had built a website working online for ThinkQuest, an international student website design competition, and they were flown to Los Angeles for the finals with several other youths and their teachers. As Mak and his two friends were all home-schooled, we mothers got to accompany them as their ‘teachers’ and ThinkQuest had laid on a real superstar visit for us all, first-class hotel, celebrity scientists as speakers, and all sorts of lovely prizes and surprises.
Not only did Mak’s team win an award. The best part was when we all were taken on a tour of the Warner Brothers theme park, driving down Bob Marley Boulevard through amazing sets recreating scenes from some of the famous blockbuster movies. We saw train wrecks, floods, sets of Old England, spaceships, and the African jungle, it was exciting, surprising, and huge fun. Then they gave us dinner in a huge sound stage, where actors dressed up as famous movie characters and chatted and posed with us. Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra were some of them. Marilyn Monroe was quite fascinated by Makonnen and his dreadlocks, posing beside him with a red lipstick pout for the cameras.
On the return journey, as we were boarding the plane and walking through First Class with Mak carrying his huge award, a man smiled and told him Congrats. Turns out the man was one of the most famous and richest American computer game designers, one of Mak’s heroes and idols. Makonnen was speechless that this man knew what the award meant, and had praised him. It really was my most favourite journey, and I have been to Cuba in Fidel’s time, met Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a was a film festival judge behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, but this was definitely the best.
Your earliest London memory?
I remember my first look at London, driving in from landing at Heathrow, and thinking how huge it was, how un-pretty, how there were so many white people and not a single Black face to be seen! It was quite a shock being in a place where instead of the Black and brown faces I was used to, instead everyone was just White. Not a friendly face in sight!
What advice would you give to young women who are beginning their careers?
My first and only bit of advice is SAVE, SAVE, SAVE. Save something from your salary every payday. Invest in health insurance, put away something for your Pension, for retirement. Don’t think you’re too young, or you will earn BIG money one day, or your husband will be rich and take care of your money worries. Build a Savings Account and plan to own your own living space. Start with buying a small apartment, and watch it increase in value till you sell it and buy a larger one, perhaps a house of your own. If you marry a man who gives you a home, you will always have your investment. Rent it out and become a landlady. You will soon have children who will grow up needing somewhere to live. Teach them the benefits of Saving, also. I wish my parents had done that. They always forget. They worry more that you should ‘marry well’ or not get pregnant. Forget that! The best marriages of all can fail, husbands die accidentally or suddenly. But real estate always increases in value. Savings always earn interest. SAVE, SAVE, SAVE.
How much has your life changed since becoming a Rastafari and campaigning on their behalf?
My life has grown better and happier since I became a Rasta. I never used to understand or believe what and who God was, even though I tried to live a Godly life. It was always difficult to believe that Jesus Christ ‘died for me’ and that there was a God who was hearing and answering my prayers. Becoming Rasta taught me the deep and true meaning of God in my life and how to live according to the principles taught in the Bible. Rastafari enables me to see God through Black spectacles, as Garvey said we should. Rasta taught me to see the Bible story as a Black story set in Africa, which makes it easier to overstand than a story about the same White people who enslaved my African ancestors so brutally. Rasta taught me that coming from African ancestry is a noble source with an interesting and majestic history that I am proud of, especially the history of Ethiopia. Rastafari offers a different way of looking at life and the world.
The oldest church in the world was recently found by archaeologists at Axum in Ethiopia, dating back to the First Century. I am sure it is the Church Mary and Joseph took the child Christ to after they left Jerusalem. The Eurocentric world wants us to forget that Jerusalem is in North Africa, not someplace they call ‘the Middle East’. They want us to think that the Three Wise Men came over from England. Not so. It all took place in Africa. That’s the real story that we were never told. Seeing life as part of the English world made me feel so inferior. I hated to see myself through the eyes of the British Empire only as a slave descendant. But being a Rasta I see myself as part of a history of Kings dating back to Solomon, Queens like Makeda, Empresses like Zaudito and Emperors like Haile Selassie. I am really happy being a Rasta. I am an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Rasta. I don’t campaign, I just speak my truths.
Where do you live and what do you love most about it?
I live with my son in a rented townhouse in a big complex ‘uptown’ at Constant Spring. There is enough space for me to have a home office, and for him to have a home studio where he does his personal music work when he is not recording an artist in a studio elsewhere. There’s a pool and tennis courts, but I have never used them. What I love most about the complex is the big wide lawn outside that I look out onto in the mornings, with trees that birds nest in and wake me up with their songs. I can see the sun rising over the mountains in the east, and if I tiptoe on the balcony I can see the sea far off in the distance to the south. I started growing strawberries in pots on the steps down to the lawn and I have reaped a few already! Best of all, the neighbours are quiet, with no dogs barking, no children bawling, and no late-night parties. A little bit of heaven, thank you JAH.
Which famous person would you most like to come to dinner?
Angela Davis. The woman who I wished I was in the 1960s, who inspired me to grow out my natural Black hair, who fell in love with George Jackson, who dared to defy the racist American political System, and who is still alive today. I know we would spend a lot of time laughing, maybe finish a bottle or two of chilled white wine.
What is your most treasured possession?
My son’s love.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am completing my biography of the rest of my life, the sequel to GROWING OUT. It’s called GROWING UP – DAWTA OF JAH about my life since returning from England and becoming a Rasta. It’s finished, but it keeps needing updating, as life continues happening, but I think I will stop now and just take a rest from writing. I would love to see JOSEPH – A RASTA REGGAE FABLE, my novel inspired by the life of my friend Bob Marley, made into a feature film. I would love to work on that.
What are your hobbies?
Growing strawberries, social media, enjoying being alive!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Love JAH and live!
What would you like your epitaph to say?
The Lord JAH has been my Light and my Salvation.
Your favourite collection from Jenny Mein Designs botanical bone china collections?
The Ackee Collection is the nicest, but the Poinsettia collection looks spectacular!