Monday, 14 December 2009

On Black History Month

Black History month (BHM) is perhaps now as ubiquitous in Britain’s inner cities as it is in the USA. The Americans have theirs in February and we have ours in October. It is one of the better ideas we have borrowed from our African American cousins. Here in the UK community organisations, colleges, schools, trade unions and local authorities have all embraced the idea.

For some local authorities, BHM is an opportunity to tick race equality boxes and earn brownie points. Others approach the occasion with the seriousness it merits. The London boroughs of Camden, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark jointly hosted a number of films this year, including one on HIV and another on climate change. Even the venerable V&A museum had a ‘black heritage season’ between August and November. Their events included a talk on Paul Robeson and Othello; a Caribbean film festival; a carnival arts lecture; story telling; and a jewellery making workshop.

Given the popularity of BHM, it was inevitable that it would become more than an annual series of events focussing on our collective past. The fact that it has become a bandwagon embracing all kinds of cultural and educational programmes does not diminish its importance. The Voice, the sole national black newspaper, publishes important historical facts and publicise events, as did their erstwhile rival, the New Nation throughout October. We also get, every October, the annual list one hundred most important black Britons – a list which some would argue is arbitrary.

‘Why is BHM important?’ I was asked that question by a student at the Bridge Academy in Hackney at an event I shared with talented wordsmith and actor, Bashy. I replied, ‘Because we’re British and black history is a very important part of British history.’ I should have added, ‘and because the subject is not taught in schools and institutions of higher learning.’ This is where we differ from the Americans. The year 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of African American and Black Studies in the USA. It was fought for and won during the black power struggles of the late 1960s; Cornell University the main battleground.

A few years ago, after a poetry reading somewhere in New York, a member of the audience asked me if BHM had become as commercialised in England as it had become in the USA. Not knowing the extent of the alleged commercialisation, I paused before replying, ‘Not quite.’

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Legality, Legitimacy and Vigilance

As we all know, the British National Party is a fascist, racist, xenophobic organisation, dedicated, like its National Front antecedent, to fomenting racial conflict. Their politics of hate has promoted and continues to inspire numerous racist attacks against, and murders of, ethnic minorities in the UK. The vast majority of whites have come to terms with the fact the UK is a multi-ethnic nation and find the views of the BNP abhorent. Hence the furore that erupted when BBC Television decided to offer the BNP's leader, Nick Griffin, the chance to participate in 'Question Time', their flagship programme of political debate. Buoyed by the publicity generated by the BBC's cynical ratings ploy, Griffin has announced his intention to contest the Barking constituency at the next general election, where his party has about a dozen or so local councillors.

The BBC defended its decision to give the BNP a platform on the grounds that the party has significant electoral support and that their inclusion was consistent with its public broadcasting ethos. It is the business of government to ban extremist organisations from pubic media, argued the BBC's Mark Thompson, not the corporation's. Moreover, it was argued, the BBC would find itself in a difficult to defend charge of censorship in the courts. The controversy is all but forgotten but, to my mind, leaves a number of unanswered questions.

Democracy is a sham if it is not at least about playing by the rules. In the light of the High Court ruling that the racist constitution of the BNP is illegal, why were they allowed to contest the by-election for Glasgow North East on 12th November 2009 where they lost their deposit? I have asked a number of people this question without getting a satisfactory answer. Yes, the BNP have declared their intention to change their memebership rules which exclude non-whites. But it was with the same racist constitution, ruled illegal, that they contested Glasgow North East. How can a political party whose membership rules are deemed illegal be allowed to contest any election under our electoral laws?

If or when the BNP change their illegal constitution, I am sure they will find a way to circumvent the law, calculating that they will not be inundated with applications from blacks, Asians, Jews and immigrants. I assume that the law under which their constitution was ruled illegal was passed after the election of their 2 members of the European Parliament and their last batch of councillors. But if it precedes their election, what would be the implications for their legitimacy?

The 'significant support' that the BNP enjoys reflect a wider resurgence of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and Russia during the last two decades. It is at times of economic crisis, like the current global crisis, that the enemies of humanity seize the opportunity to exploit the misery of poor working class whites, scapegoating ethnic minorities, igniting ethnic strife. Those of us who know about the history of racist and fascist attacks and murders cannot afford to be complacent. Our watchword must be vigilance.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

About the George Padmore Institute

The George Padmore Institute is as far as John La Rose had reached in the realisation of his vision of change before he died in February, 2006. Established in 1991 by La Rose and a group of political and cultural activists connected to New Beacon Books, the GPI is an archive, educational, research and information centre with materials relating to the social, political and cultural history of the black communities of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe. It is located in the same building that houses New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, London.

The stated aims and objectives of the GPI are threefold: Firstly, to organize a library, educational resource and research centre that will make the materials in its care available for use by the public, both in person at the Institute and through the use of modern storage, retrieval and communication methods. Secondly, the organization of educational and cultural activities including conferences, courses, seminars, lectures, talks and readings. Thirdly, the publication of relevant materials.

Cognisant of the crucial role that education and schooling plays in combating bigotry, ignorance, prejudice and racism; and knowing that its archives is an important resource for the next generation in the humanisation of society, the publishing and public events programme of the GPI is focussed on learning. So together with its archive work, The GPI compiles oral histories, prepare educational materials based on its archives and consults with curriculum specialists in schools and colleges about their use.

The archives that the GPI has in its care consists of the following:

The Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972); The Black Education Movement and the Black Supplementary Schools Movement (1960s to the present); The Black Parents Movement, The Black Youth Movement and the Alliance with the Race Today and Northern Black Collectives (1975- late 1980s); The New Cross Massacre Action Committee (1981); The International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books (1982-1995); European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice (early – mid 1990s); The Carnival Movement (1970-1990s); New Beacon Books (1966- present); The Macdonald Inquiry into Racism in Manchester Schools (1987); and the personal archives of John La Rose. These materials exist in the form of minutes of meetings, letters, leaflets, campaign material, posters, tape recordings, transcripts and photographs. In the case of the Macdonald Inquiry, the GPI has the entire body of evidence submitted to the inquiry; and in the case of New beacon Books, there are rare journals and newspapers and information about campaigns and organizations from the Caribbean, Africa and the USA relating to the interconnections between different communities of the black diaspora.

A substantial part of the archives have been cleaned, classified, catalogued and digitalised and can be accessed from the internet at Indeed, one of the highlights of the GPI in 2008 was the launch of the website.

Let me give you an idea of the eclectic nature of the GPI’s public programmes. Events this year, 2008, include a scholarly exposition by Britain’s leading immigration lawyer, Ian Macdonald, QC titled, ‘Expulsion, Rendition, Detention and Torture’ based on his experience as a Special Advocate which shed light on the US use of torture and indefinite detention to obtain intelligence. There was a conversation between GPI trustee Roxy Harris and James Kelman, the Booker award winning Scottish author around his new novel, ‘Kieron Smith, Boy’ much of which focussed on language. There was a presentation by David Hilliard, founding member and chief of staff of the Black Panther Party in the USA. He spoke about the Black Panther Intercomunal News Service, the party’s newspaper and its impact in the USA and abroad. On the publication of her book, ‘Left of Karl Marx; The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones’, Carole Boyce-Davis talked about the life and legacy of the pioneering newspaper publisher, activist and feminist. Colin Grant, black British author gave an insightful presentation on Marcus Garvey and read from his new biography of Garvey, ‘NegroWith A Hat’. The Guyanese world war two veteran Cy Grant, actor and folk singer read from his book,’Rivers of Time:Collected Poems’. And finally, as a small tribute to the memory of Amie Ceasaire, the GPI hosted a reading from ‘Notebook of a Return to My Native Land’ by Jamaican Actor and theatre director Anton Phillips, accompanied on flute by Jamaica painter, writer and musician, Errol Lloyd.

Now I would like to give you a sense of where the GPI is coming from, a sense of the ideas which underpin its work, by talking a little about its founder, John La Rose.He was an elder statesman of Britain’s black communities. Born in Arima, Trinidad in 1927 he migrated to Britain in 1961 and died in February 2006, aged 78. In the obituary I wrote for the Guardian newspaper, I asserted that, ‘Like Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore.. and Franz Fanon, La Rose belongs to a Caribbean tradition of radical and revolutionary activism whose input has reverberated across continents’. I also said of John that he was my mentor, friend and comrade, ‘the most remarkable person I have ever met’. He was a poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist, cultural and political activist.

One of John La Rose’s favourite saying was ‘we did not come alive in Britain’ alluding to the fact that Caribbean people in Britain had brought with them a tradition of struggle against colonialism. In the 1940s he helped to found the Workers Freedom Movement in Trinidad and edited their journal, ‘Freedom’.

He was an executive member of the Federated Workers Trade Union, later merged into the National Union of Government and Federated Workers. He became the General Secretary of the West Indian Independence Party and contested a seat in the 1956 General election for the party after being banned from other West Indian islands by the British colonial authorities. He was also involved in the internal struggle of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union, siding with the ‘rebel’ faction who prevailed in the 1962 union election. John La Rose became the European representative of the union, a position he held until his death.

Soon after he arrived in Britain in 1961 he became politically and culturally engaged. In 1966, together with Sarah White, he founded New Beacon Books, the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop and international book service. His vision for New Beacon, named after the Beacon magazine of his youth in Trinidad, was clear and clearly stated in their catalogue: “Growing up in a colonial society made John La Rose acutely aware that colonial policy was based on a deliberate withholding of information from the population. There was also a discontinuity of information from generation to generation. Publishing therefore, was a vehicle to give an independent validation to one’s own culture, history, politics – a sense of self- and to make a break with the discontinuity”.

In the same year, 1966, together with the Jamaican writer and broadcaster, Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and historian, Kamau Brathwaite, he co-founded the Caribbean Artist Movement, providing a platform for Caribbean artists, poets, writers, dramatists, actors, musicians and critics. In her book, ‘The Caribbean Artists Movement: A Literary and Cultural History’, Anne Walmsley writes, “They sought to discover their own aesthetic and chart new directions for their arts and culture; to become acquainted with their history; to rehabilitate their Amerindian inheritance and to reinstate their African roots; to re-establish links with the ‘folk’ through incorporating the people’s language and musical rhythms in Caribbean literature; to reassert their own tradition in the face of a dominant tradition.”

John La Rose was involved in the Black Education Movement in the 1960s, especially in the struggle against West Indian children being placed in schools for the educationally sub-normal. He founded the George Padmore Supplementary School for West Indian children in 1969 and was instrumental in the founding of the National Association of Supplementary Schools in the 1980s. In 1975, after a black schoolboy was physically assaulted outside his school by police in the London Borough of Haringey, John La Rose together with concerned parents, founded the Black Parents Movement to combat the brutalisation and the criminalisation of young blacks and to agitate for youth and parent power and a decent education. The Black Parents Movement joined forces with the Black Youth Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Northern Black Collective which became known as the Alliance. This became the most powerful political and cultural movement organized by blacks in Britain during the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, winning many campaigns for justice against police oppression, agitating for better state education and supporting black working class struggles. When a West Indian party was fire-bombed in 1981 resulting in the death of 14 young blacks, it was the Alliance who formed the New Cross Massacre Action Committee in response to the arson attack, and mobilised 20,000 black people and their supporters in March 1981 to protest the death of the young people and the failure of the police to conduct a proper investigation. John La Rose was the chairman of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. Other organizations which he founded or was instrumental in setting up include Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, Africa Solidarity and European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice.

One of John La Rose’s greatest achievements was the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-1995), organized in the beginning with Bogle-L’Ouverture Books and Race Today Publications. In the call to the first Book Fair John wrote, ‘This First International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World books is intended to mark the new and expanding phase in the growth of radical ideas and concepts and their expression in literature, politics, music, art and social life’. The Book Fair was a tremendous success. It was indeed ‘a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and people who inspire and consume their creative productions.

I would like to conclude this presentation with John La Rose’s call to the 12th Book Fair. He wrote in 1995: “As we come to the end of the century and to the beginning of a new millenium, great vistas of hope and promise announce their presence. The foundations for the universal reorganization and humanization of societies on the basis of the rapid discovery and performance of new technologies are being laid. We are in the portals of a new world in the making, moving towards a new conceptualisation of the world out of the great modern social upheavals, revolutions and constant change; the revolutions from 1789 till now, a greater equalization of power and potential in the world we inhabit. We the peoples of the world,are involved in a new quality of witness to interactions between art, music, dance, language, thought, the theatrical into theatre. Through direct live international television, computers, video or the internet we are witness to the incessant interconnections between ourselves, between politics and economics, the inevitable transcuturation between religions, nationalities, ethnicities and cultures. Visions of change, survival and advancement are marred by doubts, uncertainties and hopelessness about the future; by human cruelties, inequalities, bigotry, sexism, racism and ethnic cleansing. Still many mountains to climb, still many barbarities to be confronted; the struggle to transform promise into reality. But the indomitable capacity of the human spirit to confront oppression and to make and remake change marches forward.”