When the story of radical politics in Britain during the second half of the 20th century comes to be written by future historians, pride of place will surely be given to the black activists drawn from the post-war generation of migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. This thought occurs after reading reviews of Familiar Stranger, the recently published collection of autobiographical essays by Stuart Hall, who was – in Tim Adams’ words in the Observer – ‘perhaps the most significant figure on the British intellectual left over the course of the last 50 years,’ and learning of the death of Darcus Howe, who once described himself as having come from Trinidad on a ‘civilising mission’, to teach Britons to live in a harmonious and diverse society. Fresh out of university in the early 1970s and fired up by student and anti-apartheid protest, I drew inspiration from these black activists and the struggles they spearheaded, fused with the rebel music of reggae and 2-Tone music.

Darcus Howe was a broadcaster, writer, and activist: an extraordinary and talented advocate of equal human rights for all. You can read the Guardian’s fine and detailed obituary here, so I’ll just draw attention to a few highlights of a remarkable life in this post.

In Trinidad he received a fine education from his parents (both primary teachers) and his secondary school – rather like Stuart Hall and poet Derek Walcott (also recently deceased). No doubt being the nephew of Caribbean intellectual giant CLR James (who among other works wrote The Black Jacobins, the definitive history of the 1804 Haitian revolution, when enslaved Africans rose up to overthrow their colonial French masters and formed the world’s first black republic) was also a significant influence on his intellectual and political development.

Darcus Howe in his office at Race Today, 1976

Howe came to Britain in 1961, was inspired by the Black Power movement, and first came to wider attention in 1970 due to the part he played in the campaign in defence of those arrested during protests that followed police action in closing down the Mangrove restaurant in, a meeting point for the black community in Notting Hill. For 55 days, Darcus Howe led the defence of the Mangrove Nine at the Old Bailey, securing their acquittal.

Darcus Howe addresses a rally for the Mangrove Nine in Notting Hill in 1971
Darcus Howe addresses a rally for the Mangrove Nine in Notting Hill in 1971

In 1973 Howe established the Race Today Collective which began publishing a magazine, Race Today, which proved to be essential reading for radicals for the next decade or so. In its pages you could read contributions by Linton Kwesi Johnson (his first book of poems was published under the Race Today imprint) and Farrukh Dhondy (biographer of CLR James and, from 1984, commissioning editor for the newly established Channel 4 television, where he established Darcus Howe as presenter of The Bandung File, co-edited with Tariq Ali).

Linton Kwesi Johnson and Darcus Howe at the Race Today office in Brixton, 1979

It was Race Today which first brought wider attention to the struggle of female Asian workers who went on strike at the Grunwick film processing laboratories in London in 1976. The dispute lasted two years and ended in defeat, the strikers having been abandoned by the  TUC and their own trade union.

Jayaben Desai, leader of the striking trade unionists at Grunwick
Grunwick strikers including Jayabe Desai stage a hunger strike on the steps of the Congress House
Grunwick strikers including Jayabe Desai stage a hunger strike outside TUC headquarters

Most of all I remember the campaign organised by Darcus Howe following the New Cross fire in 1981. The deaths of 13 black young people from a suspected racist attack in south-east London had been met with indifference by the Thatcher government, most of the press, and particularly by the police. On a working day, Howe organised the largest ever political demonstration by black people in Britain: more than 20,000 people, the vast majority black, marched through London.

Howe (left) rallies anti-fascists, in Lewisham, 1977
Darcus Howe (left) address an anti-racist rally in Lewisham, 1977

Then came the major confrontations in Toxteth and Brixton. I recall how the arguments being articulated by Howe and others in the pages of Race Today had been taken up and debated in Liverpool 8 before the riots of that summer.

For three more decades, Darcus Howe continued to be at the forefront of thinking and action concerned with racism and discrimination in Britain. As Kehinde Andrews wrote in the Guardian:

As we remember and celebrate his life and influence and mourn his death, the best way to remember Howe is as someone who gave voice to a politics and community that was often overlooked. He made a lot of noise and he drew a lot of attention to the struggle for equal rights and justice – and since these battles are far from over, it’s exactly what we should continue to do.

Stuart Hall addresses a CND rally in Trafalgar Square in 1958

Stuart Hall was another giant force in post-war intellectual life on the left in Britain. Born in Kingston into an aspiring Jamaican family, Hall received a classical English education in Kingston before winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. He was instrumental in creating the idea of multiculturalism – a respect and empathy for different identities within the bounds of nationality – and, as founding editor of the New Left Review, director of the first cultural studies department at Birmingham. He offered an inclusive alternative to the politics of division.

Now, in his posthumously published memoir, Familiar Stranger, Hall describes how, after arriving in 1951, in Britain – a country that seemed like a ‘familiar stranger’ – he soon had to adjust to being regarded as ‘black’ (back in Jamaica and light-skinned, his family had regarded themselves as far removed from, as his  mother would say, the class of people who put a basket ‘pon dem head go market’). But the host nation, ‘ignorant of the subtleties of the Caribbean’s pigmentocracy, cast all immigrant people of colour as ‘darkies’.As Colin Grant put it in his review of the book for the Guardian last week:

For him, the diasporic migrant inhabited a psychic space reminiscent of the ‘double consciousness’ identified by the African American author, WEB Du Bois – a state of being ‘in’, but not ‘of’; ‘belonging to more than one world … but never wholly in both places’.

Stuart Hall with his mother, Jessie, on the boat to England from Jamaica, 1951
Stuart Hall with his mother, Jessie, on the boat to England from Jamaica, 1951

Reading the reviews of Stuart Hall’s book and the appreciations of Darcus Howe’s eventful life this past week, I have wondered whether the sense that we once had of Britain as a nation beginning to change as it responded to the challenge of activists like them, and seeming, even slowly, to accept the idea of multiculturalism, might in fact be a chimera. After the lies and hatreds of last year’s referendum campaign and what feels like a rolling coup d’etat in which the Brexiteers become ever more shrill and aggressive, it feels that way.

It’s worth reading Ishaan Tharoor’s angry piece, ‘Brexit and Britain’s delusions of empire‘, in last week’s Washington Post to get a sense of who this nation is increasingly viewed by others as a laughing-stock. He writes:

Much of the rhetoric of the pro-Brexit crowd centers around the reclamation of British “sovereignty” from technocrats in Brussels. But Brexit proponents have also projected a nostalgic vision of Britain once more asserting itself as a dominant player on the world stage.

In the Economist, Gideon Rachman wrote:

For a Martian historian, the most interesting thing about modern British history would surely be that the country built a massive global empire. But for the Brits themselves, shaping a national story that centres around the war against the Nazis –  rather than the empire – has allowed Britain to nurture a national self-image as champions of freedom and plucky underdogs . . . rather than imperialist oppressors.

Rachman’s comment chimed with historian Timothy Snyder’s argument that when the Brexiteers (or other populist or nationalist movements such as marine Le Pen’s Front National) talk of ‘taking back control’ and returning to a time when the nation stood on its own two feet is fallacious. Because, he argues, the nations of western Europe moved straight from empire to being engaged in the process of European integration. There is no nostalgic point in the history of the last three centuries when nations such as Britain, Holland or France survived the forces of globalisation without the benefits either of imperial dominance or being subsumed in the single market and the European Union.

A perceptive piece by another historian, David Olusoga, in which he discusses the fantasy of ‘Empire 2.0’, concludes:

Yet the most jagged rock upon which the Empire 2.0 fantasy flounders is history itself. Britain in the 19th century was two things simultaneously; the hub of the largest empire on earth and the greatest manufacturing and trading nation the world had ever seen. Yet the formal empire and the trading empire were not the same thing. While the empire, especially India, undoubtedly helped make Britain rich, even at the height of our imperial power we traded more with Europe and the United States than with the colonies. It was to the booming cities of America, and to the slave-driven cotton economy of the deep south, that British capital surged in the 19th century. And while much of Africa was painted imperial red on the maps that famously hung on every classroom wall, Britain did more trade with tiny Denmark than with Nigeria, one of her biggest west African colonies.

The empire, even at its height, never came close to absorbing the majority of our exports or providing the bulk of our imports, and neither will the Commonwealth, no matter how good a trade deal we win. Empire 2.0 is a fanciful vision of the future based on a distorted misremembering of the past. It’s a delusion and, like all delusions, has the potential to lure us into a false sense of security and lead us to make bad decisions.

Finally, a propos Derek Walcott, poet from the small Caribbean island of St Lucia, I found these words in an appreciation by Colette Sensier, a British poet based in New Orleans:

Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem ‘Crusoe’s Journal,’ sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.

Professor Walcott, I think my own island is dying. England is hankering for a time before you could speak, Scotland ponders the unitedness of the kingdom, and voices all over the world insist that places and people can only be one thing or another. I worry that these times will undo the 20th century, will send professors and poets back to their small islands, and then leave those islands to drown.

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7 thoughts on “Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain

  1. Britain will NEVER be civilised until Racism ends- I and my family lived in Liverpool from 1973 until 2013. We suffered the most horrific racism you can imagine. We lived in five areas over 40-years, namely Huyton, Croxteth, West Derby, Dovecot and Broadgreen. The violence occurred daily- our car was destroyed, our home smashed, my parents beaten, my brother put in hospital, my sister having a brick thrown through the window scraping her face and hitting the wall (she was two at the time). At just 11 years old I myself was abducted by two racist pupils from my school- West Derby Comprehensive and forced to go to a nearby desolate railway line for a beating- luckily a man helped me escape. Our family was tortured for forty years in Liverpool yet we got no help from the police or authorities. Luckily I got out of Liverpool, never to return. My last day in Liverpool, I was attacked by two men in a store- the police sigma unit said there was no evidence yet I went back to the store and checked and there was working CCTV. Neither the police will protect you in Liverpool!

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