Cy Grant, born November 8, 1919, passed away last week in London. Grant was a Guyanese actor, singer and writer who in the 1950s became the first black person to appear regularly on British television. And while he may be remembered for his Calypso news reports, or performances at St. James Theatre, I think his most important work was through his activism – challenging discrimination through the arts.
In the early 40’s, Grant joined the British Royal Airforce’s first set of non-white candidates, and became one of 500 young men recruited from the Caribbean for aircrews in World War II. After the war, he decided to pursue his original ambition and study law, seeing it as a way to challenge racism and social injustice. He became a member of the Middle Temple in London and qualified as a barrister in 1950. Despite his distinguished war record and legal qualifications he was unable to find work at the Bar and decided to take up acting.
His first role was for a tour in which he starred in a play called 13 Death St., Harlem. He career received a boost after successfully auditioning for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company, which led to appearances at the St. James Theatre in London and the Ziegfield Theatre, New York.
But faced with limited roles for black actors, he decided to increase his earning potential by becoming a singer, having learnt to sing and play the guitar as a youngster in Guyana. This proved very successful and he was soon appearing in revues and top cabaret venues like Esmeralda’s Barn, singing Caribbean and other folk songs, as well as on BBC radio and on his own Associated TeleVision series, For Members Only.
In 1957, Grant was asked to take part in the BBC’s daily topical show, Tonight, to sing the news in calypso. The journalist, Bernard Levin, provided the words and Grant strung them together. Tonight was hugely popular and turned Grant, the first black face to appear regularly on TV, into a household name.
His acting career continued until 1972. A brief return to the Bar reflected Grant’s disenchantment with show business as well as his growing politicization. In collaboration with Zimbabwean John Mapondera, Grant set up the Drum Arts Centre in London to provide a springboard for black artistic talent in 1974. Considered a landmark in the development of black theatre, among its highlights was a series of summer workshops in 1975 at Morley College run by Steve Carter of New York’s Negro Ensemble Theatre.
In 2007, Grant published Blackness and the Dreaming Soul: Race, Identity and the Materialistic Paradigm. Part autobiography, part cultural study and part philosophical exposition, the book tells the story of Grant’s long journey of self-discovery and the major influences upon it.
This post is in thanks to the men and women who, like Grant, dedicated their lives to ending discrimination.