Three Lessons I Learnt on Black British History From Evelyn Dove’s Biography

This year has been my year of understanding more about the black British community. I moved to England six years ago and I feel knowing more about the people in my community is important. Evelyn Dove’s biography was one of the books I read this year that helped me learn more about the black community in Britain.

black-cabaret-queen

You may be wondering who Evelyn Dove is. She was the first black female singer on BBC radio and the first black British female singer to work in America.

Here’s the blurb about her biography, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen.

A pioneer and a trailblazer, Evelyn Dove left a mark in the arts industry. She was the first black female singer on BBC Radio and the first black British female singer to work in America, a quarter of a century before Shirley Bassey.

In a career lasting five decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Evelyn Dove embraced the worlds of jazz, musical theatre and cabaret. Refusing to be constrained by her race or middle-class West African and English backgrounds, she thrilled audiences around the world, courted admirers and fans wherever she performed and scandalized her family by appearing on stage semi-naked. Her mesmerising movie star looks and grace captivated those in her presence, yet her extraordinary career was one of many highs and lows.

Evelyn Dove – Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen is illustrated with over fifty rare and unpublished photographs from Evelyn’s private collection, now in the possession of the author.

There isn’t a lot of literature on black British musicians from her time and the author of her biography, Stephen Bourne mentioned in the book, “When I was growing up in the 1970s there weren’t that many books about black British history and next to nothing about black British singers and entertainers.”

I feel this book is necessary because it’s helped me understand the diversity of the black British experience. My grandmother was a Nigerian nurse in the England in the 1960s and I would hear stories from her perspective but reading this helped understand others who worked in other professions like the arts.

What did I learn about black British history from Evelyn Dove – Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen?

Black British history did not begin when the Empire Windrush arrived in England in 1948. I knew quite a bit about the migration from the West Indies and Africa in the 1940s to 1960s but I didn’t know much about earlier migration before this period.

Evelyn’s father, Frank Dove was a man of West African heritage, born in Sierra Leone. He trained as a lawyer in England in the late 1800s. Stephen Bourne describes Evelyn’s father and other Africans who had a similar experience to him as middle class West Africans who were more at home in England than in their home countries.

Frank Dove married an English woman, Augusta Winchester. Frank and Augusta were Evelyn’s parents. Their marriage was interracial but was not illegal. I wondered if their marriage was accepted in English society.

Leading roles for black actresses on British television in the 1950s were almost non-existent. Directors would not cast Evelyn as a middle class English woman, even though she could act the part. Times have changed now and black actresses can apply for mainstream roles.

However, there is a lot of discussion on the under-representation of black and minority communities in the creative industries. That was why I was happy when I was able to support the Black Ballad crowd fund which is a media platform tailored to the black British female audience. I didn’t just want to talk about the under-representation of black people in the media but I wanted to do something about it.

It was difficult for black people in Britain in Evelyn’s time to run arts organisations to represent their work. One of the organisations in the biography, the Edric Connor Agency was set up to represent actors, artists and writers of colour but struggled to convince casting directors that black actors could act.

Our pioneers faced challenges and black arts and media organisations continue to face their unique challenges in the 21st century. I’ll give the example of Black Ballad. Their major challenge was funding and having to depend on advertisers for revenue. They have now created a membership platform where you pay to subscribe to their content.

britains-black-cabaret-queen

Evelyn Dove faced her challenges working in the arts and left a mark in the industry. I would recommend reading her biography if you are interested in black British history. Plus, it has pretty pictures from Evelyn’s life in it.

*Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen was sent to me from Jacaranda Books. 

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