Inspiring the next generation

A foreword to the Black Britannia exhibition by photographer John Ferguson.

young man holding a camera

"The aims of this exhibition are simple enough - to celebrate the contribution made to British culture and public life by Black people over the last few decades.

The achievements of these individuals, however, have been far from simple. Breaking through the glass ceiling that still exists for Black people in British society even today still requires persistence, ambition and guts.

In some parts of Britain, the kinds of role models young Black people grow up with are almost entirely negative. This exhibition is an attempt to redress the balance. It is very much a personal selection, but all those featured here have succeeded in their chosen professions because of unflinching determination to reach their full potential. Whether they excel in ballet, art, politics or sport, medicine or firefighting, they all share particular qualities - dogged perseverance, a refusal to conform to stereotypes, and an ability to overstep prejudice. What they have in common is that every one has the power to inspire the next generation.

It is not a myth that Black people have to try harder in order to reach the same goals that their white contemporaries take for granted. The playing field may be tipping, but is still very level. Young Black people today must confront a prevailing sense of failure before they even enter the arena of adult life. And no wonder when there are so few visible positive role models - especially away from the sporting and musical arenas - to inspire them to achieve the full sum of their potential. The negative culture of fear and rejection is slowly being eroded, but what prevails is a residue of disillusionment that is difficult to eradicate.

There are no quick fixes here. Recognition and achievement come from hard work and determination. These people in these photographs have not just reached their position by luck or heritage; they have each had to push back the boundaries that are in place. Attitudes in Britain have definitely changed over the years for the better. When both my parents arrived from Jamaica in the late 1950s to take up jobs in nursing and engineering, life was infinitely harder. To me, they were the original Black pioneers. Two decades later in the 1980s when I first entered the media world that was Fleet Street, I arrived wide-eyed and excited about seeing my pictures printed in the national press. Today Black people are still drastically under-represented in media, but in 1986 prejudice - amongst a vocal minority - was rife. For every boss and colleague that judged me by my photography not my colour, there were those who made it abundantly clear they saw me in terms of my colour first. Like many of my fellow Black contemporaries I came to a decision that I would never allow that prejudice to affect my efforts and distract me from my goal of becoming the best photographer I could be.

Some 20 years later scope for advancement is improving slowly, and it is time to challenge the mental chains that are still holding back a generation. This means not just challenging the expectations of the white mainstream, but also encouraging young Black people themselves to challenge their own negative mindset about what they can achieve. There are opportunities now in this country that our grandparents could only have dreamt of - and we owe it to them to grab these chances with both hands.

One of the subjects I photographed for the exhibition is the young ballet dancer Shevelle Dynott. Shevelle took part in a dance initiative at his primary school in Brixton at the age of seven. The Lambeth 'chance to dance' scheme propelled him into the spotlight - but his success was not achieved without much sacrifice and discouragement. Once he was even booed off stage by his whole school during one of his performances, which led him to consider giving up on his dancing. Fortunately Shevelle persevered and is now part of the prestigious English National Ballet company, with whom he has travelled extensively around the world.

His dancing has also opened many doors, and given him new opportunities that otherwise would not have come his way. His success has made him a well-deserved role model and a champion for young Black people many of whom would not have thought of ballet as career option. Shevelle's achievements have paved the way for other young people to believe that with passion and commitment they too can overcome the barriers and prejudices that can prevent them reaching their goals.

Growing up, I had my own heroes that helped me challenge prejudice in my own life. Many of them - individuals like Charlie Williams, John Conteh, Joan Armatrading and Bill Morris - are included here. This exhibition is my own attempt to give something to the next generation of young Black people. If only one young person is inspired to change their lives by the achievements of these Black pioneers, then the project will have been worthwhile."

John Ferguson, 2008.

"It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in
diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter their colour - equal in importance no matter their texture.

Our young must be taught that racial peculiarities do exist, but beneath the skin, beyond the differing features and into the true heart of being, fundamentally, we are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike."

Maya Angelou, African-American poet, writer and civil rights activist.