A Family Called Abrew

Fascinating documentary about the Abrew family, recounting their history in the early 20th century. There’s Lottie Abrew, a dancer, contortionist, stage performer, and activist. Her brother Charlie is a boxer and war veteran. Her other brother Manuel was also a boxer, beating Benny Lynch 3 times but forbidden from competing for the title because he was black.

It’s strange because usually a career in showbiz or sport is coveted because of its celebrity, but as different family members point out, it was really the only sector in which Black Brits could get work, and their ambitions in much more mundane professions were frequently thwarted by racism. Accordingly, Manuel’s wife Clementina Abrew is very proud that she manages to make it as a dressmaker. This despite the fact that Clementina acted in small roles in films, sometimes alongside her husband, like in The Proud Valley starring Paul Robeson. You would think meeting and working with a big Hollywood star would be your goal, but to her, the fact she is able to make her living in an ordinary job is what gives her a great sense of achievement.

This is a repeating theme throughout the family’s stories, that work could be found playing “the exotic”, but it was much harder just to be accepted as an everyday person. In that way the contribution and history of Black Scots is erased, because they are always seen as coming from ‘away’, or seen to be exceptional. Playing an African village native in a movie fits in with the British idea of black people far more than being a dressmaker or engineer whose family has been here for generations.

Still, the story of the Abrews is one to be celebrated, tracing their tenacity and resourcefulness. It is also fascinating to hear about black community life in the inter-war era, a subject that is not given much attention. Really great that this oral history was captured.