Pauline Black’s memoir, Black By Design, is a fascinating story of identity politics, racial awareness, self-discovery and, yes, music. The lead singer for the legendary 2 Tone band, The Selecter, delivers a deep read, touching on adoption issues, race in Britain, and the groundbreaking 2 Tone musical movement that aimed to move the conversation — and the dance — beyond black and white.
Raised by white adoptive parents, bi-racial Pauline Black tells of the questions, fears and confusion she faced growing up in post-war Britain. Captivated by Malcolm X, the American “Black Power” movement and, particularly Marsha Hunt (Mick Jagger’s “Sweet Black Angel”), Black begins to find her identity through them, first donning a blue beret — as no black ones available — and later growing out her hair in an Afro. Her new in-your-face look was, in her words, “one small Afro for Pauline, one giant poke-in-the-eye for schoolboykind.”
When she discovers ska, the music that would pave the way for her career in The Selecter, she is fully aware of the irony of “a bunch of white skinhead girls turn(ing) on the only black kid in school” to Jamaican music. Her introduction to reggae, ganja and the musicians that would become The Selecter are also endearingly recounted with the author’s obvious sense of wonder.
Her perspective on The Selecter and the 2 Tone movement — a post-punk music style that fused Jamaican ska with punk and championed racial harmony — are particularly insightful. Being largely a black band, The Selecter faced a problem opening for the more racially balanced Specials, the kings of the 2 Tone scene. Writing more political material from a black perspective, “the predominately white audience…found it difficult to identify with us. The identifying markers were not there.” She further breaks down some of the band’s divide: “Acceptance and identification are two different things. To be really successful, an (audience) not only has to accept the message, but also identify with them… because we’re all basically tribal in our youth. We never gave people, black or white, the chance to identify with us.”
Black is equally adept breaking down the genius of bands uniting under “Walt Jabsco,” the 2 Tone logo character created by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers. “It was like a corporate kinship, a unique vision that people could buy into…and gave our audience…of many, varied races and backgrounds, a chance to absorb a radical political statement, while getting on with the serious business of dancing.”
Great stuff….I just love that last line.
That problem also extended to a lack of radio play, eventually dooming the band: “The chief problem (with) American radio is there was black music and there was white music…and 2 Tone music didn’t lend itself to either side of this accepted racial barrier.” The Selecter would soon break up.
Pauline Black’s story, however, does not end with her band’s. She would go on to co-host a UK television programme, cover Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential run, and become an accomplished stage actress, again with a focus on black consciousness. The Selecter would also reform and is a successful touring entity to this day.
Black By Design is not your standard “rock star” memoir. Not by a long shot. She dishes on many of the musicians and pulls no punches — The Specials’ Terry Hall and Jerry Damners particularly do not fare well. Her insight on all things music is sharp, pointed and witty. But a significant portion of the book deals with Black’s confusion and struggles with both her adoptive and birth families, as well as racial issues that define her life and work. It is a richly rewarding tale of personal growth, racial identity and how art and music played a part in her journey.
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