Ohajuru, M.I. (2020) Before and After the Eighteenth Century: The John Blanke Project. In Grezina, H. G. Britain’s Black Past (pp 7-25). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
Some time ago Professor Gretchen Gerzina invited me to write a chapter for the book she was editing, developing the black histories she first revealed in her ground-breaking 2016 BBC Radio 4 series Britain’s Black Past. In her radio programme Professor Gerzina vividly brought that past to life as she discussed and debated the lives and times of black folk with experts as they walked together through the places those people lived – the streets of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and elsewhere. Professor Gerzina had the idea to bring the scholarship she uncovered in Britain’s Black Past radio program together in a book which would include not just contributions from those whose research featured but from others reflecting how the field of research has developed since then, and to move beyond those working in academic institutions to include an actor, a lawyer , a museum curator and independent scholars like myself. The result is Britain’s Black Past edited by Gretchen Gerzina and published by Liverpool University Press.
I was humbled and honoured to be invited to make my contribution when I looked at the names Professor Gerzina had invited to take part in the project, many of whom whose worked I had admired and used as part of my own reading and research into Britain’s black history. My chapter is about the John Blanke Project, and further honoured to have it as Chapter One in the book. In the chapter I discuss the genesis and the Project, how it has developed over the years and concludes with my ideas on the importance of the humanities and the imagination at the heart of the project. This was my first time in print and Professor Gerzina was so helpful and considerate, suggesting edits, both in content and style for which I was very grateful. She made the writing editing process much less daunting than I had anticipated, for which I thank her. On the subject of thanks, I would also like to thank Stephen B, Whatley for allowing me to use his version - a beautiful modernist charcoal drawing - of John Blanke in my chapter.
I was particularly pleased to read Kathleen Chater’s chapter on the recovery of Britain’s black past through family and community histories, which mentions What’s Happening in Black British History workshops, for which Doctor Miranda Kaufmann and I are the co-convenors. We bring together academic and community historians just as Professor Gerzina has done in Britain’s Black Past to tell an inclusive story making black British history not just about a black past but a shared past. You can order the book from Amazon or direct from Liverpool University Press.
I was delighted to see an article in the Times last week which featured the black sixteenth century trumpeter who played at the Field of Cloth of Gold event. However now I am saddened to see of the 68 comments on article that the most recommended comment with 35 recommendations was the one by PUSHKIN , they questioned “the insistence of the PC lobby to randomly place black actors in historical dramas” went on to be concerned “that young people will watch black actors playing key historical figures in European history and believe this to factual representation.” ALBION with 28 recommendations was equally concerned at “the blatant hypocrisy of the progressive left; white people cannot culturally appropriate anything of colour”
Both PUSHKIN, ALBION and their fellow recommenders are missing the point of the arts be it a play or a book they are works of the imagination 'formed from images or ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses' (Oxford English Dictionary). Their imagination, their senses have failed them. The imagination needs to be challenged and informed, their senses stimulated by critical thinking and an up-to-date world view, in doing so the imagination knows what is fact and what is fiction.
Fake news thrives in a world which does not question it, accepting it as factual, as truth. That essential debate between the imagination and critical thinking challenges such news. In same way Shakespeare plays, many of the comments were concerned about, which had all black casts or black actors in roles they believed were written for white actors are designed to challenge ones world view through your imagination – it gets you thinking, using ones imagination !
So I would urge PUSHKIN, ALBION and their fellow recommenders to open their minds, relax, think creatively and use their critical thinking and imagination - you never know they might discover something new about themselves or their world.
I have very high-resolution - 60meg - images of John Blanke’s two appearances from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll, I also have a quarter size 5 metre facsimile of the complete Roll. I have seen countless images of him on line, copies of copies as well as my John Blanke Project’s seventy two interpretations and imaginings of him and his image. So, I can say with some confidence I know what John Blanke’s image looks like what I did not know was what John Blanke’s image felt like until I saw the actual 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll from where those many photographic reproductions came. Last Friday morning I saw the actual Roll itself at the College of Arms.
It was a brilliant, awesome, humbling, extraordinary experience to see the actual Roll, itself, in the flesh, up close, after seeing so many countless reproductions - I was star struck - It looked magnificent, a five-hundred and eight year old document still radiant after all those years. Its reds, greens and blues were still wonderfully luminous. The widespread use of gold leaf throughout the length of the Roll really brought the images to life, from its use in portraying the chains of office of the many figures in the Roll, the ceremonial and jousting tack on the horses and of course the man himself – Henry - each of his appearances is evidenced by much use of gold-leaf on his figure as well as his tents, his horses and his entourage to emphasise his magnificence.
Such is the fragility of the Roll its unrolling for conservation or photography and the like happens very rarely, almost once a generation, though in future this may change. I was truly honoured and humbled to be invited to be part of a small group including myself, Dr Miranda Kaufmann and the College of Arms team to witness its unrolling.
It was unrolled before us in stages, from one roll to another. The eighteen-meter roll was exposed about two meters at a time. From John Blanke’s opening appearance, the parade of the gentlemen of the court, the heralds and persuviants, Henry and his fellow challengers, the central joust scene with Henry and Katherine and the closing scenes with John Blanke and Henry. As it was unrolled and re-rolled each two-meter was discussed and ideas exchanged with much speculation and reflection between us on the characters’ parts in the Roll and the Tudor court and its times.
Now two days later I am still excited, with mental flash backs to what I saw and felt at the time. I cannot at this time say why I was there, other than it was part of a bigger project, when it happens I will be writing about it for sure, meanwhile I would like to leave you with a thought that occurred to me at the time and has not gone away.
Should we return the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum to Nigeria, The Maqdala in the V&A to Ethiopia, Ashanti gold trophy head in The Wallace Collection back to Ghana?
These objects are revered in their respective countries as those institutions hold on to them with the cognitive dissonance of acknowledging their ‘problematic’ entries into their collections, these pieces were looted, stolen from their original homes, while at the same time continuing to hold on to them with the argument they provide a secure home for the object for the public to view them. I believe that this dissonance really needs to be resolved with the objects being returned to their original homes and owners.
Now I see the Roll in the light of those ‘problematic’ works.
Imagine if the Roll was held by an institution in another distant country, with Britain’s requests for its return being ignored. I would not be alone in being outraged, pressing for its immediate return. It is a document of national importance and significance produced at time when Britain was undergoing great changes. The elaborate Romantic back story to the Tournament of the nineteen year old Henry VIII and his fellow challengers jousting to win the maiden’s heart along with the black trumpeter, John Blanke were cultural and visual evidence for those changes as the Tudor court sought to embrace Europe and its idea, in direct contrast to what is happening today through BREXIT.
I would demand its return. The many photographic reproductions, no matter how detailed could or would ever be a substitute for the actual object. The Roll had a physical and emotional presence that could have no surrogate. Yes, I could have a good idea of what John Blanke and the Roll looked like but in no way can any of those copies or reproductions let me know how it felt to be in the presence of the actual Roll.
So now I am even more convinced we should, no must, return the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum to Nigeria, The Maqdala in the V&A to Ethiopia and Ashanti gold trophy head in The Wallace Collection back to Ghana so their rightful owners can move on from looking at reproductions to feeling their cherished object’s actual presence.
I would like to close by thanking all those who made this happen for me. I will write more about them and the event once the Project is concluded meanwhile they all have my eternal gratitude.
6th May 2019
Had the the great pleasure of delivering a John Blanke Live ! Workshop with Ebun Culwin at L'Esterre RC Primary School in L'Esterre, Carriacou one of the islands in the tri-island state of Grenade in the Caribbean.
While staying with friends in L'Esterre we were introduced to one of the teachers at the local primary. I couldn't help asking here if I could do Workshop at the school and to my delight she said yes! The workshop was arranged for 1pm Tues 2nd April.
All the staff and students made Ebun and I very welcome, even calming my nerves as I was unsure how the technology would work or could they understand my Liverpool accent. Needless to say the technology worked seamlessly and despite my accent the students seemed to understand me as the many hands that went up and their correct answers to my questions looking for feedback. Their attentiveness and enthusiasm made it a great experience.
We asked the pupils to finish their drawing with their individual "I imagined John Blanke as ....." statement. Here are a few examples: Jahleel imagined John Blanke as a hard working man and demands respect, Isaish and Edmund imagined John Blanke as a raster guy , David as a big tall man, Jaylonie as a brother so he will play with me, Renard simply as me, Renaldo as great fellow, Jahbori as my uncle . There were 51 contributions summed up in the word cloud below....
...and here are some random samples of how L'Esterre RC Primary School wonderfully imagined John Blanke...
Ebun and I would like to thank the staff and pupils of L'Esterre RC Primary School for their brilliant contribution to the John Blanke Project.
Carriacou, GRENADA ,
3rd April 2019
Oliver Chris the director and writer of RSC production Ralegh: The Treason Trial tweeted about a four point letter of complaint, from a spokesperson for party of eight from Market Harborough , advising him the production 'could have so much better' if he had addressed their issues.
At number four was the observation 'we found it hard to believe that in 1603 there were any black people participating in the trial'
This is as ignorant as those commentators on the BBC who inspired me and the John Blanke project claiming it would be historically 'inaccurate or inauthentic' to have a black person in an Elizabethan drama or Quentin Letts when he claimed that it was 'politically correct casting' to have black characters in an RSC production of a 17th century play.
The eight could check their facts or read Miranda Kaufmann's Black Tudors especially her chapter on Francis Drake's African assistant, Diego
These responses are why the John Blanke Project is so important as it challenges this ignorance thru having such folk use their imagination and read the histories.
Henry’s search for a fourth wife disturbs his entire court, can John Blanke’s return soothe matters ?
Jack Benjamin – John Blanke
Having had the pleasure of meeting the cast of The Court Must Have a Wife in rehearsals, where they gave me a personal performance of what is the opening scene of the play, in the unromantic setting of a London rehearsal room in everyday clothes, I was looking forward to seeing the real thing, in period dress in the dramatic setting of Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace.
Ade Solanke sets her play The Court Must Have A Wife in the summer of 1539 when a tired, gout ridden Henry is looking for a new wife following the death of Jane Seymour, his mood swings sets the entire court on edge, few feel safe or comfortable. The redoubtable Thomas Cromwell plans the feasting and disguising to hopefully seal the treaty he negotiated for Henry to marry the German princess Anne of Cleves. John Blanke has returned to the court and perhaps can through his music and worldly experience placate Henry.
The play is set in the long rather than the more familiar round, Sam Curtis Lindsay, the play’s director moves the action, at pace from one end of the Great Hall to the other using the full length of the Hall to great effect. In doing so he gives everyone in the audience the opportunity to see and sense the characters at close hand almost eavesdropping on some conversations, as the action is so close at times.
My expectations from seeing the rehearsals were far exceeded. The setting in the Great Hall is stunning with the Hall’s vast arched roof , its beams and supports edged in gold and with its walls draped in magnificent sixteenth century tapestries depicting the life of Abraham.
The costumes where magnificent several of the characters wore black including Thomas Cromwell, Maria – John Blanke’s mother and Lady Margaret Bryan, but the costumes where not simply plain black they were all sumptuously black with much use of black silk and satin details set against black velvet and with high lights in white, silver and gold colouredfabrics and lace while the gold and fur of Henry’s garment is simply magnificent, a dramatic and fitting contrast to the sombre black of his subjects.
My favourite scene of this short play for me is the duet, really looks like jamming, between Henry VIII and John Blanke. Henry strumming what looks like a lute and John with his trumpet, together playing a piece which, I can only guess was written by Henry. A scene I had imagined for my own John Blanke movie UNFUFILLED: Europe 1533. It was a delight to see it actually brought to brilliantly to life in such a wonderful setting!
My only gripe is not with the play, or its settings, it is to do with its promotion. There is nothing in the gift shop about the play not even a copy of Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story I would have expected to have seen a copy of the play ideally with some John Blanke merchandise and as a minimum a simple A5 flyer introducing the play and players along with the writer and director I am sure this latter failing can be corrected easily.
Having said that I thoroughly enjoyed the play, seeing something fresh and new each of the three times I saw it. I very much look forward to seeing it again before it finishes 2nd September 2018.
Ade and Sam have really imagined the black Tudor trumpeter and the cast have brought their respective imaginations to life – fully recommended !
......and thanks to the cast (complete cast list and biographies here) for the ultimate selfie!
The evening opened with a brilliant trumpet fanfare from MUSICIAN Corporal Lawrence Narkom Michael HISTORIAN introduced the project as a reaction to the imagination failure by those who cannot imagine a black character in a seventeenth century play or that there were black and brown folk at Dunkirk . Miranda HISTORIAN gave a scholarly introduction into to John Blanke and his place in Henry VIII's court. Graeme ARTIST spoke passionately about how synaesthesia influenced his portrayal of John Blanke and how his trumpet was the voice of the King. Mengistu ARTIST enthusiastically imagined John Blanke cleaning his trumpet after a performance with the crowd watching on admiringly. Robin HISTORIAN knowledgeably compared John Blanke to great black trumpeters who impacted black history: Louis Armstrong , Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, had John Blanke had the same impact? Semma ARTIST presented how she showed John Blanke in reflective mood after a performance wandering about himself and his life. Linett ARTIST introduced her my freestyle calligrafffiti artwork based on his petition's layout she calligrafffitied as John Blanke might I was here and I was exceptional! Jan HISTORIAN showed us how exceptional his portrait was as at the time nobles and elites were depicted by their coat of arms not their image. Sheba POET performed her poem in Jamaican Patois celebrating his presence and achievements in Henry VIII court Sharon ARTIST presented John Blanke as her son - strong, charismatic, creative, black man - using Adinkra symbols to emphasis his qualities. Phil RAPPER HISTORIAN gave an understanding of John Banke's presence thru rap , showing how it demonstrated England's changing, up coming place and role in Europe. Paul ARTIST talked about the challenges of finding the face and the composition for John Blanke as there were many ways he wanted to portray John Blanke. The evening closed with Corporal Lawrence Narkom MUSICIAN playing The Last Post.
Feedback on the Evening
Really enjoyable WhatsApp AN
Amazing Such a wide range of artists etc., all united by their passion for this history. Twitter MK
Phenomenal evening tonight, what talent, imgination and knowledge, looking forward to next one Twitter PM
A good evening...enjoyed it very much too. Facebook PW
Excellent evening...such an inspirational project. Facebook SA
Playfully combat[s], ignorance about our past Twitter CF
An interesting and inspiring evening last night - history, poetry, rap and art all rolled into one amazing event Twitter JP
A wonderful evening of thought provoking words and pictures circled round with JB's clarion calls. email KS
A wonderful evening, it was so good! email SB
A great evening on Friday - congratulations to you and all participants email JM
Lett's Daily Mail review of the The Fantastic Follies Of Mrs Rich is why I continue with the John Blanke Project.
Lett's imagination failed him, as does his understanding of history. The result is this ignorant racist response to the black character in the play:
Was Mr Wringer cast because he is black? If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product. I suppose its managers are under pressure from the Arts Council to tick inclusiveness boxes, but at some point they are going to have to decide if their core business is drama or social engineering.
A failure of his imagination , a denial of the history and playing to his audience - essentialising, stereotyping black folk to fit his and their's racialized and racist agendas and ideology.
The response from the RSC was appropriately measured
Our approach to casting is to seek the most exciting individual for each role and in doing so to create a repertoire of the highest quality. We are proud that this ensures our casts are also representative of the diversity of the United Kingdom, that the audiences which we serve are able to recognise themselves on stage and that our work is made and influenced by the most creative range of voices and approaches. .
They unlike Letts can imagine the black characters in Stuart England
It's 2018 and still some think black folk in Britain should be excluded from portrayals of British history on stage and screen despite the evidence and why we still need to imagine the black Tudor trumpeter John Blanke and other black characters from British history.
If you have a library card you can read on line Dr Miranda Kaufmann' s entry for John Blanke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB) the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century.
Alternatively you can listen to the Oxford DNB podcast: