Kavita Ashton reviews Roger Griffith’s Festival of Ideas event.
Roger Griffith, known locally for his work on Ujima Radio and his monthly column in Bristol 24/7, joined Andrew Kelly, Director of Bristol Festival of Ideas, in conversation at the Watershed earlier this week. The evening offered the chance to hear Griffith discuss his authorial debut, the recently penned My American Odyssey: From The Windrush to The White House, alongside a handpicked selection of film clips. In keeping with the book’s themes, Griffith combined fascinating personal stories about his upbringing as a second generation immigrant in Britain and his travels around the US with poignant reflection on their wider relevance in today’s society.
From the West Indies to Britain, the US to Ghana, Griffith is certainly not lacking in connections across the globe. These familial, cultural and historical connections have clearly helped to shape his sense of the world and to consider his place in it, with identity forming a major preoccupation of the evening. His family arrived in England as part of the Windrush generation, and he admiringly describes his elders as ‘pioneers’ who carved out a community in the ‘Motherland’ in spite of the (to put it extremely mildly) less than warm welcome they often faced. The discussion touched on how the next generations’ relationship to Britain is often just as, if not more, complex as their parents’. As Griffith recalled, he was seen as Afro-Caribbean in England, but seen as English when he visited the Caribbean, a contradiction which left him questioning ‘where am I from?’
Image: Roger Griffith with Paul Stephenson, JonCraig.co.uk
For Griffith, praise must be given to the power of music in helping to remedy his generations’ sense of not belonging. Through music such as Reggae, the Black British community was able to trace its history and forge a collective identity – not an easy progression in the racist society of the 70s and 80s, as anecdotes from Griffith testified. A clip from the 1980 film Babylon was fittingly chosen to highlight the importance of the sound system culture as well as the brutality and violence the scene came up against.
History was another preoccupation for Griffith, as his insightful and moving tales of tracing the major sites of the American Civil Rights Movement and the Atlantic Slave Trade proved. The photograph Griffith chose to share from these travels would have taken on greater resonance for the audience members who stayed for the screening of Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama Selma. The image featured the stained glass window donated to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in the wake of the devastating bombing which happened there in 1963, an event depicted in the film.
Griffith has a gift for engaging with cultural and societal issues through his own very personal stories. I look forward to reading My American Odyssey, sure to be filled with more entertaining and informative reflections on both his cultural roots and his routes around America.