Poet Rommi Smith gives Bonnie Greer a breathtaking introduction. This tiny giant of a woman has a list of credentials to rival any great. Author, playwright, actor, even OBE we know, but also writer of Opera and Musical, Chancellor of Kingston University, member of the Board of Trustees at the British Museum and member of the Academic and Artistic Boards of RADA. That’s quite a list from a girl from the Chicago South-side.
And as we are listening, we are not aware that Greer is also hearing nineteenth century chamber music and a small flute band. She reveals this later, as we learn of her synesthesia; she always hears music, it helps her create, she maps her life by it.
A curious child desperate to avoid boredom, she was encouraged to expand her horizons by her father, urged to question and to feel. She by-passed children’s literature in favour of grown-up stuff, her intellect fed by that pre-internet stalwart, The Encyclopaedia Britannica. She knew from a young age that the mundane would not be enough; she would need to leave. Leave the family, the neighbourhood, the cultural confines and ultimately the country.
In her new book, A Parallel Life, she talks of her father as a great inspiration, her champion. She talks about the injustices conferred on him, a sharecropper-cum-factory worker, who served in WW2, but, like all black GIs, was not allowed to eat at people’s homes, and was housed in segregated barracks. She herself did not know how much of life she would be allowed to take part in. Education was key to getting on, and getting out.
She talks about her hero, James Baldwin, who she met when she was a young rock journalist. She talks so lovingly of this man and his constant battle to find out who he was, his rejection of labels and boxes, a battle, she says, which spurred her on in her own self-discovery. She feels his pain so keenly when she recounts that meeting, him drunk and weeping that he was washed-up, not appreciated, didn’t fit. She ended up comforting him, in the back of a cab.
She talks about Martin Luther King, and how his murder marked the end of a peaceful era of non-violent protest, and that she cannot think about that time.
She talks about moving away, strong feelings that she needed to leave her country, and also her kin. She is married to a white man, because black men are her brothers, not lovers. She has travelled so far from that Chicago ghetto, in so many ways. Did she expect that? Not exactly, but her inner child still says ‘I can do that’ as surely as the woman vacillates.
And of course she talks about that episode of Question Time, when she afforded the then-leader of the BNP the courtesies he would not wish for her.
She mentions MLK once more, and her voice wavers slightly; a tear spills. The audience feels this and there is a quiet gasp. As the lights brighten, there are many handkerchiefs raised to blurry eyes, and a thunderous round of applause.
Also published on Ilkley Literature Festival Review Site