Cy Grant had an extraordinary life experience with Britain that began in a village in Demerara, British Guiana, in November 1919 at the end of the First World War and ended in London on Saturday, February 13. It was an experience that led him, throughout 70 very active years, to hold a mirror up to British society and to painstakingly interpret the society to itself, even as he groped towards his true purpose as someone who was actively reshaping it and striving to humanise it.
Born November 8, 1919 in Beterverwagting East Coast Demerara, in what was then British Guiana, he was one of seven children, three boys and four girls. His father was a Moravian minister and his mother an acclaimed pianist and music teacher. Cy was surrounded by music and singing as a boy, and he learnt to play the guitar and sing ballads and folk songs at an early age. He was a talented student, practised in the art of conversation and his parents had high aspirations for him. On leaving school, he worked as a notary in the office of a stipendiary magistrate and was determined to study law in Britain, something his parents could not afford to fund.
It is a symbol both of the allure of television and of the way the arts have marginalised black actors that more people above the age of forty remember him only as a singer, broadcaster and recording artist, while those below the age of forty hardly know much about him. Ironically, it is that very process of marginalisation and racial discrimination that Cy spent his entire life in Britain combating. This he saw as a redemptive mission, appealing to white Britain to sweep away notions of cultural supremacy, binary divisions of whites who are indigenous and belong and blacks who don’t, cultures that are mainstream and others that are minority and deemed to be lacking sophistication.
Cy left Guyana for Britain to join the Royal Air Force in 1941, one of some 500 men recruited from the West Indies following huge losses in the Battle of Britain one year earlier and the RAF’s decision to admit non-white aircrew. He trained in England as a navigator and was commissioned as an officer, joining 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire as Flight Lieutenant Grant and part of the seven man crew of a Lancaster Bomber. In 1943, he was shot down over the Netherlands in the Battle of the Ruhr and parachuted to safety but was captured by the Germans and taken to the Stalag Luft III camp near Berlin. In 1945, Allied Forces liberated the camp.
Joost Klootwijk, the 11-year-old son of a farmer, had looked on as the farmer and his wife tried to help the airman, tending to his cuts and bruises and reassuring him that they would keep him safe. Young Joost was very moved by all this, especially at the novelty of this black RAF officer in uniform crashlanding near his home. Cy was betrayed by a local policeman and the Gestapo soon caught up with him. The caption beneath a photo of him in a German newspaper after his capture read: “A member of the Royal Air Force of indeterminate race,” clearly sneering at his racial origin. Cy later made this the title of his book about his war service.
Klootwijk later researched the fate of those who survived the crash, research which enabled his son Hans to write the book Lancaster W4827: Failed to Return, recounting the fate of Cy and the other airmen shot down over the Netherlands. In May 2008, Cy travelled with Kurt Barling to Holland to visit Joost and Hans, both of whom shared his concern that the contribution of Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during World War II had been left out of official records and was likely to be written out of history.
They pledged then to create a website “to provide a permanent archive of volunteers from the West Indies who flew for the RAF, but whose contribution has been generally overlooked.” The website was launched on October 17, 2008, with the names of 70 West Indians who had flown for the RAF. This number has grown to around 440, at least 70 of whom were commissioned and 103 decorated.
On demob, Cy decided to pursue a career in law, but although he qualified as a barrister in 1950 and became a member of the Middle Temple, he could not find work at the Bar. In his words, “This was Britain in peacetime and I was no longer useful.”
He gave up the Bar and decided to become an actor at a time when black roles were still played by white actors with blackened faces and black actors were confined to stereotypical roles. While he had some breaks in this field, these were few and far between, so he decided to use his capacity as a singer and guitarist and earn a living as a musician. This proved a success and in time he became a recognisable voice on radio singing folk songs. He regularly appeared in revues and concerts across the world (Melbourne, Nairobi, Rome, London, Munich). He produced five LPs with labels such as World Record Club, Transatlantic Records, Reality Records and Donegall Records. In June 2009, BBC 2 featured two of his best known 1960s singles, King Cricket and the Constantine Calypso in its ‘Empire of Cricket’ series. Cy was also the first black person to have his own TV series, For Members Only. He hosted other musicians, interviewed guests and of course accompanied himself on the guitar.
With Nadia Cattouse, Earl Cameron and Errol John, he co-starred in the 1956 BBC TV drama about the experiences of Caribbean migrants to Britain after the Second World War, Man from the Sun, written and produced by the BBC TV producer John Elliot. He co-starred with Richard Burton and Joan Collins in the 1957 Second World War film, Sea Wife. Also in 1957, Cy began what was to become a daily appearance on the BBC ‘Tonight’ programme, giving a calypso rendition of the news to words provided by Bernard Levin. Whilst this was seen as bringing some levity to otherwise staid newscasting, Cy’s ability to spontaneously compose tunes and fit the news into verse was highly commended and won him the respect of viewers nationwide. For the first time the country was seeing a black face on TV on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Cy gave up the position after two-and-a-half years, fearing that he would be seen by casting agents and others in the art world as being capable of nothing else. Later, it irritated him immensely, especially in the last period of his life, that most people remembered him “only as a calypso singer.”
In the late 1950s, Geoffrey Bridson a BBC radio producer wrote a Caribbean folk musical, My People Your People, which featured Cy Grant, Nadia Cattouse and Ewan McCall as singer actors and a Caribbean choir assembled and trained by Pearl and Edric Connor. The musical told the story of a brother (Grant) and sister (Cattouse) arriving in London just prior to the Notting Hill riots. In 1965, Cy played Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester to huge audience appreciation and equally good reviews. He successfully auditioned for Laurence Olivier and had stage appearances in London and New York. But Cy became disillusioned with theatre and the obstacles black actors faced in getting roles that matched their abilities, and in 1972 he returned to the Bar only to find that there was no greater enlightenment there either.
He determined, therefore, to take on the theatre establishment on his own terms. In 1973, he founded DRUM Arts Centre with the Zimbabwean actor, John Mapondera and fellow trustees, including Chris Konyils, Tania Rose, Helen McEachrane, Gurmukh Singh, Eric Smellie, Margaret Busby and myself. DRUM set out to be a springboard for black artistic talent and a lever for the society’s own regeneration and enrichment through a growing awareness and celebration of its own (white) multiculturalism and the importance of other people and other cultures. DRUM collaborated with Steve Carter of the Negro Ensemble Theatre in New York and staged a number of productions right up until 1979, including Bread by Mustapha Matura, the Gods Are Not To Blame by Ola Rotimi and Sweet Talk by Michael Abbensetts.
When he was setting up DRUM, Cy wrote to his friend Laurence Olivier asking him to be a patron of the arts company. Olivier flatly refused, accusing Cy of being separatist. That was a cause of bitter disappointment for Cy. As he told me at the time, “These people are simply incapable of seeing the world through our lenses, incapable of imagining for just one moment what it must be like for us to experience their system which to us is anything but as open as they would have us believe. They therefore see our self-organisation as an affront.”
Cy broke with Mapondera in 1978 and started Concord Multicultural Festivals “to celebrate the cultural diversity, that is the reality of life in Britain today, via the authentic arts of all cultures, particularly unrecognised local arts.” Between 1981 and 1985 Concord mounted 20 multicultural festivals in major theatrical venues in cities in England and Wales. These were followed by two county-wide festivals – in Devon (1996) and Gloucestershire (1997).
Writing on Black History Month as late as October 2009, Cy noted about Concord: “Even today the Arts Council have not acknowledged what we achieved and could still do to foster good relations within society. They still are locked in the same pattern of condescension and separation. As far as I can see nothing much has changed in the last 20 years – just lip service to multiculturalism.”
Two major influences in Cy’s life which helped determine the direction of his artistic expression and his writing since DRUM were Aime Cesaire, poet, politician, philosopher and architect of negritude, and a Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching. He produced and performed Cesaire’s epic poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal) as a one man show, touring Britain for over two years. He was later to say of Cesaire: “His revolt against Europe is what worked on me in a subliminal yet positive way. It wasn’t just a revolt against racism, colonialism and the excesses of European culture but a call for a return to our native human values, to recognise that Nature is alive and bounteous and that we should not abuse her.”
In his seminal work, Blackness and the Dreaming Soul: Race, Identity and the Materialistic Paradigm (published by Shoving Leopard 2007), he brings together his reflections on the Tao Te Ching and on Cesaire as well as the influences upon him of African mythology and of Egyptology. He rejects the dualism of western culture and argues that white society must first discover new ways of seeing itself in order that it might comprehend and value the ‘otherness’ of its indigenous black citizens. In his essay The Way of the West (2008), he argued that the black man having reclaimed his authentic history and recovered his lost soul, must not fall into the trap of aspiring to assimilate into the so-called civilized values of his former oppressors. On the contrary, he must search out a different way. One obvious route would be to revert to the traditional values of community and caring; celebrating the intrinsic goodness of ancient African life and rites of passage; the ‘being’ mode as opposed to the ‘having’ of Western culture, encapsulated in the concept of Modimo, where all life is sacred. Critiquing Black History Month, Cy argued:
“White children as well as Black [who still experience racism] should learn that all our histories are inextricably linked, so changing the way they perceive themselves and the world. Before we decide upon a calendar of socially relevant events, we would do well to look again at who and what we are and begin to know like Cesaire that “the tree of our hands is for all.”
In the last couple years, Cy wrote copiously and did everything with a new urgency, especially after he became ill. He particularly wanted to see his war memoirs, essays and poems packaged as curriculum in schools, colleges and universities.
Cy Grant died at University College Hospital on Saturday, February 13, aged 90. He is survived by his wife Dorith, whom he married in 1956, two daughters and one son, another son from an earlier marriage and one sister. (Gus John)