#nowlistening: Race in Ambridge

Last Tuesday’s episode left me reeling. Not at the all-too-vivid image of Jill in her see-through swimming cossie, imprinted as that now is on my poor innocent mind. Rather, I was suddenly stunned at the implications of radio as a medium without images. It’s obvious, really, but chatting about the aquaerobics class with my co-presenter, @emilybakermusic, I realized that I “knew” that the irresistible Leroy, was black. And when I thought about how I “knew” it, what I ended up questioning was how I “knew” Jill and Carol are white….

On reflection, the presumption came from two places: his name, and the music.

Aunt Jemima: the quintessential Southern black ‘mammy’

A contraction of “Le roi”, the name Leroy (also Leeroy and LeRoy) derives from French, meaning “the king”. And from French, it passed into English culture, no doubt first with 1066 and all that, subsequently becoming popular in the nineteenth century. So far, so white, since the aristocratic history of Europe is hardly know for racial diversity beyond the Caucasian. But, along with names like Tyrone (a county in Ireland), Antwan (Antoine), and Jemima (as in Beatrix Potter’s Puddleduck), the name Leroy has made a long journey from one side of the Atlantic to the other, no doubt following the routes of the slave boats, and simultaneously landing the other side of a racial divide. That “Leroy” might connote blackness in Ambridge is then almost certainly a by-product of the Americanisation of British popular culture, in which films like Which Way Is Up (1977, in which Richard Pryor plays Leroy Jones), and baseball stars like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, have left their own “Leroy is a black name” trace.


Leroy Jones: one contributor to the US image of Leroys as black interwar babies

But back to Ambridge FM’s raison d’être: the music. The end of the aquaerobics class (at 5:45) was signaled by the final bars of UK grime artist Sneakbo’s ‘Zim Zimma’ (2012), and the song taps into a rich intertextual world that signifies far beyond the obvious pun on the “zimmer frames” that many of Leroy’s clients might benefit from. As a genre, grime is quite particularly British; in this sense it differs from the black signification of the name Leroy, with its US origins, but it nonetheless shares an African/Caribbean heritage, albeit a specifically British version thereof. Deriving from a musical lineage that reaches back to Jamaica, through dancehall, drum and bass, jungle, and hip-hop, grime is characterized by quick-fire beats and often features rapped lyrics that focus on the gritty realities of urban life, spoken in a slang based on Jamaican patois. The genre has therefore grown up largely in highly multicultural cities, usually in communities with strong African/Caribbean legacies, and in this way, ‘Zim Zimma’ brings an intense sense of blackness to Ambridge.

And that jars uncomfortably—and indeed humorously—with Carol and Jill, who ooze rural middle-class whiteness. Yet there is nothing to tell us of their whiteness except their rural middle-classness: the 2011 UK census records 95% of rural populations as “White British”, compared with 84.7% of urban areas. Perhaps Leroy resides in the great metropolis of Borchester; perhaps he’s one of the remaining 5% of Ambridge. But we are no doubt also guided in our listening by a sense of ethnocentrism—a kind of default presumption that operates intensely in the white West that people we haven’t seen are themselves white: when was the last time any of us said, “You know him…he’s the white one?”. So I wonder: what might Ambridge look like if only 5% of its residents were white British? And if Leroy were the insider, while his (presumably?) white kingly counterpart–Rex (from the Latin)–were relegated to the aquaerobic outskirts?


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