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Interview: Juliet Coley, founder, BlackJac Media

08 January 2021

‘My mum was 15 when she had me; so I was older than my uncle’

My son, Romeo, was six when I feared that I’d die when I had a quadruple bypass. He’d note down his thoughts and feelings for his play therapist, and my daughter suggested we put them in a book to boost his self-esteem.

He won an award for it, and enjoyed the process so much we helped him research another book every summer holiday: a guide to London architecture, a guide to free London, whatever interested him. He won another award in 2018, and his confidence has sky-rocketed.

BlackJac Media is a publishing company that publishes young, black writers aged seven to 15. I had to take early retirement, but this is my way of giving something back. God’s blessed me with creativity, but not just me. These kids need opportunities to develop theirs. To date, we’ve worked with 37 writers, published 13 books, and the authors and the company have won six awards.

Three of our authors are award-winners, and legends in our corner of the black community, but their books need better distribution to become bestsellers. We’re working on it.

Most of our books are non-fiction, and we give our authors free workshops on research skills, sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This used to be done in computer suites, but now it’s on Zoom.

There’s another book about a family’s cancer journey and how faith helped them. There’s another called My Favourite Parables, and one inspired by George Floyd, by two teenage girls, called Why are they Crying?

Illustration is the most expensive part of the process. We found our first illustrator on Instagram. When I met him, I recognised a portrait in his portfolio: someone my granddad mentored when he was a youth leader. The man had died a few months earlier, and this was his son.

When schools closed, parents were struggling to teach their children, and two of my friends died of Covid. I wanted something positive to come out of this season, and saw it as an opportunity for grandchildren to connect with their grandparents, to learn their stories, which were being lost. The Windrush scandal and all the negativity surrounding that also bothered me. I wanted to flip the script.

Via Zoom, we gave children 100 questions to ask their grandparents, taught them interview skills, and worked on structure and grammar. [Among the stories they found,] the Revd Benita Foster said her father was a farmer and cut down trees on his land to build every New Testament Church of God in St James, Jamaica. Nanna Maureen Reid was two when her sister was sweeping the kitchen on Christmas Eve. The broom handle hit a boiling pot and the water poured over her sister. She died on Christmas Day, and her mum, in grief, went to England and left Nanna behind with her Gran. When she was 11, her mum sent for her. She hated England. No mango trees. It was cold. To escape, she told her mum — a stranger to her — that she forgot to pack her pyjamas. Can she go back to Jamaica to get them?

Grandad Gladstone Dennis loved the animals on his land, and his favourite was a chicken who he’d talk to daily. One day, his family invited guests and they had a fabulous meal. Belly full, Gladstone left the table to tell his chicken all about it. His brothers began to laugh when he couldn’t find his pet. . .

What stands out in all these stories is the happiness, despite the poverty.

My first job was as a television presenter on a black gospel-music programme on ITV. I was a print and broadcast journalist, but I discovered teaching was the best job in the world. The hardest thing was not being able to help all the children succeed. I wanted to save the world.

My teaching career of 20-plus years was in a community school in Tottenham, where I eventually became senior deputy head. I was nominated for Teacher of the Year in my first year, appeared in the Teacher Training Agency’s teaching resource How To Teach English, and was awarded Haringey Council’s Outstanding For All Councillor Egan Award. We were graded Outstanding in all areas, three times in a row, by Ofsted.

We worked our butts off, open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week. I managed the in-house canteen so that all our children were well-fed, and all children who arrived before 8 a.m. were offered a free breakfast. There were problems, but we rewarded the positive. I created an alumni wall to show children what they could also aspire to. There were lawyers, GPs, a cardiovascular surgeon, Ph.D.s, a national chart rapper, three Premier League footballers. . . Results day was always my favourite day. I’d always cut my summer holiday short to be in school celebrating with our students. Two of them in 2018 were among the 732 children in the country who achieved nine grade 9s (old A**).

Yes, many experience racism, and are robbed of their phones coming to school, but they realise education will give them choices. Many were the first in their families to get A levels or degrees. Some working-class white children (boys in particular) didn’t value education because they knew they had a job waiting for them on a construction site.

Value Life was an anti-gun and knife-crime campaign which I created and ran for ten years with school-council members. We organised peaceful marches through the borough, student conferences, and fun days, and made a short film. The school received a Queen’s Award for the campaign, which was an accolade that only three schools, including Harrow College, had achieved at that time. “Everybody Dreams” was a song for Tottenham and a campaign following the 2011 riots.

Most of my awards are at my mum’s house, because without her there’s no me. The Baton Award means most to me, because of its timing. That year I had bowel-cancer surgery and chemotherapy because the cancer had spread. My mum, Romeo, and my chemotherapy buddies all went to the House of Lords to the ceremony. We all say is it’s not the winning but the taking part, but with my mum and family there I wanted to win for them. They were all so happy. The award was named after Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick; so I cheekily invited him to be the special guest at my children’s online book launch during Covid-19. He said yes, and was the keynote speaker.

I grew up on a council estate. Mum was a single parent on a low income; so I was on free school meals. I spent a lot of time with my gran and granddad, aunts and uncles. My mum was 15 when she had me; so me and my aunt were a year apart in age, and I was older than my uncle. My grandmother was a Pentecostal minister; so practically lived at church. When we had convention, it was church seven days a week. The church was our second family, and my faith made me what I am.

Grandad worked for London Transport at night; so he slept in the day. He loved nature programmes. If we were watching television and people were kissing, he would turn the channel over. I resented my strict upbringing, but I realise how blessed I was: learning to cook, hand-washing my clothes, knowing the importance of money, valuing my virginity.

I love the sound of water: the sound of the sea preferably, but I’d settle for the sound of my aquarium.

Children give me hope for the future. Innocence. Positivity. The simple things that make them happy. When I used to buy my granddaughter gifts, the fact that she was more focused on the wrapping and box was a delight. She’s four years old now; so consciously looks for the doll inside.

I pray for peace, and, as a black mother of a 23-year old son, for protection; for families who are struggling from grief, unemployment, food poverty, and mental-health issues now.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with King David. I love his complexity – artistic, human, flawed. We’d have great convo. I’d learn a lot.


Juliet Coley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Our Roots: The inspiring stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, edited by Yazmin McKenzie, is published by BlackJac Media at £9.99; 978-1-83809-453-9. blackjacmedia.com

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