"What is important about him is he is a very positive character... He is not a victim. He is not downtrodden... He is very successful actually, so it is quite a positive resonance... Because I feel that black characters often tend to be downtrodden victims and I think that must be difficult for some black kids... That isn't true of Jack Ross. He is a successful guy," informed Julian Fellowes.
I've no doubt that the Oscar-winning screenwriter was 'coming from a good place' when he made his pronouncements about the introduction of the first black character joining the immensely popular period drama, Downton Abbey. But, still, it was regrettable that he felt it necessary to justify the inclusion.
Although there had been rumblings in the press that Downton "lacked diversity" it had the hallmark of a 'non-story', really, largely manufactured, I believe, by the media. For instance, I don't recall clamouring from the black community for a character who looked like they did - with threats of boycotting the programme if their demands weren't met; or seeing a gaggle of protestors camped outside Highclere Castle - where the programme was filmed - for that matter. Indeed, at the time liberals were projecting their angst, the black community was preoccupied with weightier matters: for instance, campaigning against the Education Secretary Michael Gove's attempt to remove Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum.
Personally, I'm an avid fan of Downton and I enjoy it for what it is. I don't watch gritty, urban dramas, or programmes portraying the stereotypes that Julian Fellowes was keen to avoid. And, whilst I have no idea how many other black people have been similarly glued to Downton Abbey, there are at least two high profile ones: First Lady Michelle Obama couldn't wait to watch the last series and pulled a few strings to get an advance copy; and musical mogul Sean 'P. Diddy' Coombes' homage in a spoof, Down Town Abbey, in which he claimed to beat Gary Carr [Jack Ross] as the programme's first black character.
But, funnily enough, one of the things I found most interesting about the 'black character' debacle was the knee-jerk reaction from critics who expressed their disappointment that Fellowes had bowed to 'political correctness'. It was ridiculous, they argued, and historically inaccurate. The inference was that there weren't black people in Britain in 1922, when the fourth season begins.
This was far from the case. And it shouldn't have been too difficult for TV producers to do a bit of homework. Arguably, their unawareness might illustrate the need for promoting more diversity, as far as the national curriculum was concerned, and not less. I could make a few suggestions: Peter Fryer's Staying Power; and historian Jeffrey Green, an expert in Black Edwardians, informs that there was "a veritable gazetter" of places in that period which had noticeable pockets of black residents: Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, Lincoln, Bournemouth, Cornwall, St Albans, Rye, Brighton, Crawley, Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Dundee, Manchester, Aberdeen, Grimsby, West Hartlepool and Wigan, among them.
Additionally, scores of black American artists, activists and intellectuals sought refuge in London and Paris in a bid to escape trenchant racism at home, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. However, according to Jeffrey Green, they failed "to observe that British Negrophobia was merely less honest." And neither was Britain without its own problems - as was witnessed when race riots broke out in sea-ports, particularly Cardiff and Liverpool in 1919.
But, herein lay an interesting dichotomy; whilst some blacks from the Colonies experienced blatant discrimination, ex-pats from the United States seemed to fare better. The fictional Jack Ross could have run into a real-life contemporary Edmund Jenkins, a musician from South Carolina who migrated to England in 1914 and studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. Indeed, being a talented black American Jazz musician in Britain in that era opened doors to the aristocracy that would otherwise have been impenetrable.
Jack Ross, we learn, will have a "recurring" part. I'd like to presume that this will translate as him being a fully-formed character with a decent storyline to match. That might be asking too much, though, because the person with whom he will be involved, Lady Rose MacClare, appeared in the last series to be a flighty, frivolous girl. But as far as drama was concerned we saw her potential for scandal: sneaking off to racy, jazz clubs in London and behaving indiscreetly with a married man. Who knows, maybe Jack Ross will be a stabilizing and positive influence.
It would be too daring for Downton to portray art imitating real life I suppose; imagine, for instance, how melodramatic it would be if the characters Lady Rose MacClare and Jack Ross were based on actual individuals from a similar time and circumstance: Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder.
Cunard, a British-American aristocrat and Negrophile, rebelled against her privileged upbringing and throughout her nearly eight-year tempestuous affair with married, black American Jazz musician Henry Crowder, scandalized so-called polite society.
Crowder was by no means an activist but, through him, Cunard learnt about racism in America. Driven, Cunard became heavily invested - both emotionally and financially, becoming an avant-garde benefactor of the Harlem Renaissance; and campaigning tirelessly for the release of the Scottboro Boys. But she almost bankrupted herself by publishing an 850-page encyclopaedic Negro: An Anthology. In it, she insinuated herself in American politics by endorsing Communist James W. Ford's manifesto.
"Today," she wrote as an introduction, "the grandson of a man who was lynched 'to show n******s their place,' the son of a labourer, whose name was changed because 'it don't matter about a n*****'s name no how,' has been brought by a wave of working-class resentment against Jim Crow and lynching, to the position of candidate for vice-president of the United States."
Undoubtedly, Cunard and Crowder's real-life drama eclipsed substantively any Downton plot, but I need to remind myself why I watch Downton Abbey; it's not a history lesson but, unashamedly, light-entertainment.
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