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A Magazine for Sheffield

Floella Benjamin A love letter to Floella Benjamin

I adored Baroness Floella Benjamin when I was 5 years old. 40 years on, she is changing the world.

A photo of a smiling Black woman

Floella Benjamin

Chris McAndrew

Dear Floella,

I last wrote the words "Dear Floella" in about 1982, when I wrote to you at Play School. I adored you then and, after seeing you speak in Sheffield on Sunday as part of Off the Shelf, I adore you even more now.

You were a comforting presence in my life and, hearing you speak at the weekend, I was moved to know how conscious you were, even then, of the importance of your role.

Because while being an elephant and going through the round window (always my favourite) might look superficial, there was something profound about your presence.

You told us on Sunday about people who contacted you then, and still tell you to this day, about the heartbreaking circumstances they were living in, and how you were the only person who loved them. They turned on the TV and there you were, exuding warmth.

What was incredible, hearing you speak, was to find that you did indeed love them. You loved us all. It wasn’t an act.

Of course, as a small child, I had no idea how ground-breaking it was for you to be on my TV at all, or to have your hair in beads, or to read stories in a Trinidadian accent. From realising that your early ambition to be the country’s first Black female bank manager was futile, to going on to be central in the move to make illustrations in children’s books (and on Play School) more diverse, to getting laws changed, to becoming the chancellor of Exeter University, to being responsible for the National Windrush Monument in Waterloo Station, you have gone through a lot of “firsts”.

Now a Baroness, you still campaign for children, you still champion children, and your passion for children’s rights is palpable when you speak.

When I mentioned you to my friends (as “the queen of my childhood”), as well as reminiscing about our childhood TV viewing, several who are teachers said they teach their primary-school children about your life. You told us on Sunday that your story is taught to Sheffield Uni teaching students so they can go on to tell future generations about your impact and your influence.

You have written books, including your latest, What Are You Doing Here?, which tells your life story and the devastating experience of your parents leaving you in Trinidad for several years when they first moved to London. When you followed them to the UK with your siblings, despite the love you felt from your parents once again, you were subject to explicit, violent racism whenever you left the house.

A photograph of a smiling Black woman

Floella Benjamin

After four years of fighting every racist you met, you had a revelation and turned your smile into your “armour”. But this does not mean you gloss over the difficulties you faced then, and the difficulties that children and people of colour in this country still face. When you addressed two young girls directly in your talk, the power you were handing them was almost visible.

Floella, you made me cry on Sunday, and not many people can do that. They say never meet your heroes, but you are more incredible than I could ever have imagined. Whereas my 5-year-old self loved you for your songs and your smile and your warmth, at 45 I see a woman who didn’t take that for granted and who, despite immense challenges, is not cynical about the world and her place in it.

You fought for your place in this world and you are aware of the impact you had, as well as the responsibility this gave to you. You didn’t shy away from the love shown to you by your viewers and fans. You leaned into it and used it to change the world.

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