As this is the year of celebrating Windrush and what it means to and for us as Black Britons, I thought I would have a bit of a throwback moment and re-read a book that I first read over 20 years ago or so.
Before there was Courttia Newland, Alex Wheatle and other well-known Black British writers, there was Norman Samuda Smith, who, with the publication of his novel Bad Friday in 1982, was the first Black British born novelist to be published in the UK, and the first novelist to be writing of the Black British working class experience.
Bad Friday is about a young Black teenager, Delroy Bell, on the cusp of leaving school. Set in the mid 1970s in Birmingham, the novel is set against a backdrop of economic recession and record unemployment levels, ensuring that the available options for a Black teen were limited. Still Delroy harbours dreams of becoming a professional basketball player and against his mother’s and teacher’s advice builds his hopes on making it through the upcoming basketball trials that could seal his future. Alongside Delroy’s story are the stories of his friends as they too try to navigate their way to impending adulthood and responsibility with varying degrees of success. Their’s is a search for a decent future with prospects, something they felt denied their own parents and much more than that: respect.
Bad Friday is a snapshot of a piece of Black British history which is at the same time timeless. I was struck by how much of a blueprint or template this novel has set for contemporary writers like Courttia Newland, mentioned earlier, who cites Bad Friday as his inspiration for his first novel The Scholar. The similarities between the two novels are clear, especially Smith’s use of Afro-British patois originating from West Indian dialects and the commentary on life as a working class Black British person. I have to say my favourite parts of the novel were the ones set in the blues or dance, with the sound systems and MCs, reminding me much of Notting Hill Carnival and house parties – which to my eternal dismay I was never allowed to go as a youngster, but more than made up for it as a young adult.
Reading it again, I recognised that some of the issues raised, aren’t that much different to some of the issues still being faced by most young black teens today in terms of that ongoing search for identity and for something more than what their parents had, hence the timelessness of the novel.
When I first read Bad Friday, I just remember being excited to read a book that was about regular Black Britons in a time period I didn’t know much about. I also related to that notion of being a child of immigrants, and having that sense of ‘unbelonging’ for want of a better term as I tried to resolve my relationship with the country of my parents birth and the UK where I was born in order to define my own identity. I’m not sure if that was Samuda Smith’s intention or whether he resolves this tension, but I do know that he started a conversation for and about the new generation of Black Britons which continues today, and that alone is why I’d consider Bad Friday to be a Black British classic.