A Public Lecture at the British Library to Mark
50 Years of New Beacon Books
3 December 2016
I am presenting the lecture with the help of a number of extracts from that wonderful film ‘Dream to Change the World’, a film which links John La Rose’s early life and political activism in Trinidad & Tobago with his political and cultural activism here in the UK throughout the rest of his life. At this point, let me acknowledge my sincere thanks to Horace Ove for that excellent film and for allowing us to use it in telling the story of 50 Years of New Beacon Books.
A couple weeks ago, at the George Padmore Institute, we also celebrated 50 Years of CAM, the Caribbean Artists Movement.
We are gathered here today in the 10th year of the death of John La Rose, the inspiration behind the founding of both institutions, institutions that constitute historic political interventions in the ongoing and troubled process of ‘Changing Britannia’.
So, today is a day for celebration, celebration with pride and treasured memory. Celebration of 50 Years of New Beacon, 50 Years of CAM and 40 years of John La Rose with both.
New Beacon Books is one of the most important and influential institutions in post-war Britain. For the last 50 years it has operated on the axis of culture and politics, epitomising the symbiotic relationship between the two; on the axis of communities’ struggles for self-determination and for fundamental rights and entitlements and on the axis of struggles for racial equality and social justice in a nation that has failed and stubbornly continues to fail to acknowledge the political and policy imperative that the legacy of empire and of its colonial past has placed upon it.
New Beacon Books was founded by John La Rose in 1966 and became the first African heritage publishers and booksellers in the UK. La Rose had had a ‘life experience with Britain’ in his native Trinidad & Tobago prior to continuing to chart a life experience with Britain right here, in a nation seeking to redefine and reconstruct itself after two devastating world wars in less than a quarter of a century.
John La Rose had not only been engaged in radical and revolutionary politics, he was immersed in the literary tradition of Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean generally. When La Rose was still a toddler, CLR James started the ‘Beacon’ group which was dedicated to writing and promoting literature that dealt with ‘ordinary life’ in Trinidad. Between 1931 and 1939, they published the ‘Beacon’ journal which carried short stories about ordinary folk and their lives in their communities, as well as novels based on the struggles of workers and peasants that were framed within the politics and dynamics of race and class in colonial Trinidad. As a teenage activist, therefore, La Rose was nurtured within that tradition and was inspired by the creative writing and political commentaries of a vibrant generation of writers and political theorists.
Let us now hear from John himself and from others about that formative stage of his life-long political journey.
By the time John left the Caribbean to come to Britain, therefore, he had formed a view of the world. He had seen evidence of imperialist plunder and exploitation, of the relationship between labour and capital accumulation, evidence of people’s struggle for economic and cultural emancipation, evidence of the strength of a united labour movement and of the lengths to which the oppressive state would go to subdue the people and crush their will as they struggled for self-determination and for bread, freedom and justice.
John was nurtured as a young activist, not just by Caribbean intellectuals, but by the lessons of the courageous struggles of the masses of working people at home and abroad, people who demonstrated strength in unity of organisation and of purpose, against the might of colonial police and armies.
The great American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass famously said:
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them!
Frederick Douglass (1857)
The enslaved and subjugated peoples of the Caribbean knew that very well. And that is why, throughout history, in the face of the barbarism of the British Crown and the colonial armies of Europe, they resisted, rebelled and revolted. From the revolution of enslaved Africans in Haiti, to the Morant Bay rebellion and the massacre by Governor Edward John Eyre in Jamaica, to the labour revolts across the Caribbean in the middle to late 1930s, history recorded the most profound examples of struggle in the Caribbean against enslavement and barbarism on the plantations, against state oppression and capitalist exploitation and for fundamental freedoms and human dignity.
That history also taught John La Rose the familiar patterns of colonial domination and subjugation, through religion, through schooling and education, through the peddling of cultural supremacy and the forcible erasure of the culture that colonised people carried and created, through psychological warfare and the systematic process of making the colonised to deny their very essence and adopt mindsets that affirmed white supremacy and cultural hegemony, while apologising for and bemoaning their blackness.
So dominant and prohibitive were those processes, that we were coerced into being apologetic about ourselves, our capacity to interpret our world, to interpret colonialism to itself, to tell our own stories, to critique and debunk the colonialists’ representation of us and to shape our own destiny as nations and as people with a common history and a common African heritage.
The Caribbean project therefore had two main purposes. One was to struggle against colonialism and against people like ourselves who were only too eager and happy to be handpicked, groomed, deployed, validated and if necessary defended militarily to be efficient neo-colonialists in the service of the Crown, in the service of the plantation economy and in the interests of western capitalism. The other purpose was to forge an identity as creative people, with a creative spirit and capacity that was not crushed and obliterated by enslavement, but that empowered and inspired us to make sense of our existential reality and to be actors on the world stage.
But, if colonialists engaged with us in those familiar ways and installed neo-colonialists to succeed them and take care of business at home in their interests, they did even worse as we left the colonies to come to the ‘Mother Country’, here to experience the racism that was in the very DNA of the nation. We were expected to abandon the self-assertiveness we had practised back home and the experience of struggle in the cause of freedom and human liberation and of sharing our stories that had made us what we were.
But, what we leave, we carry.
We bring what we are and we are what we bring. And that is how we engaged with the society that we found. But, we don’t just bring what we are, we also bring what we have the potential to be, what we have the capacity to grow and become. And that capacity includes impacting upon the society and changing it, even as we too are changed by it. We therefore discover not just the society, its physical and human geography, its multiculturalism in all its whiteness, its customs, traditions and cultural norms; we discover ourselves and one another and become identified as a people.
So much so, that it took some of the natives a long time to understand that the ‘West Indies’ is not one continuous land mass called Jamaica, full of rebellious and talawa people. If I had been given a fiver every time I was asked which part of Jamaica was Grenada, by now I would have been a millionaire. So, we discovered one another in Britain and we were seen as One People, even if we did not acknowledge one another as such.
What we leave we carry; including our history of struggle and our awareness of just how much we had been denied access to knowledge of our own history, knowledge of the contribution of our Ancestors to the evolution of history and the development of humankind, knowledge of the massive extent of their contribution to the economic, scientific and cultural development of Britain and of Europe itself.
What we leave, we carry.
It was not surprising, therefore, that John La Rose chose to call his publishing, book selling and book distribution company ‘New Beacon’ and that his mission as both a writer and a publisher was rooted in what the ‘Beacon’ represented and did in Trinidad society.
It is as part of that genre that CLR James produced his first novel, Minty Alley, which was one of the first titles published by New Beacon Books.
New Beacon therefore had a number of key objectives which were very much related to the state of Britain in the 1960s and the following decades. Broadly speaking, one can identify 10 objectives which could be summarised as follows:
From its inception, New Beacon Books has been organic to the communities whose struggles it seeks to inform and support. Its rootedness in those communities, combined with John La Rose’s leadership as an experienced political/cultural activist and political strategist is evidenced by the following:
By the time New Beacon, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications came together to organise the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books, each of them in their own right and working together had engaged with political struggles and literary and artistic developments and creative products across the five continents. To give just a few examples:
In 1986, having returned to Kenya, Wanyiri Kihoro, a founder member of the Committee against Political Repression and for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, was himself imprisoned without trial. In response to the international pressure put upon Daniel Arap Moi as a result of the campaigning work of the Committee and a barrage of letters from its Chair, John La Rose, a frustrated Moi was heard to exclaim: ‘What does this descendant of slaves know about Kenyan affairs and about Africa?’ One helpful aide, no less affronted than his tyrannical master, then interjected without hesitation: ‘Why don’t you have him arrested?’ John La Rose and his committee continued their campaign in spite of the repressive Kenyan secret service, publishing the campaigning bulletin, Kenya News, until 1989.
‘Believers have their right to believe. Writers have their right to write. Between belief and expression there is a right to statement and counterstatement, to argument and counterargument. That is where I stand. Let those who disagree make their case in the open forums of the world. Death and sentencing to death have never triumphed over ideas and belief. Christianity and Islam are proof of this.’
To digress for a moment, one might observe at this time that the Khomeini fatwa, the burning of the Satanic verses in Bradford in 1989 and the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris in January 2015 all lie along the same continuum and all have the issue of ‘blasphemy’ at their core.
Against that background of solidarity with and active support for struggles and movements across the world, the book fair organisers could be confident, therefore, that when the Call went out for the first and every other book fair, there would be an enthusiastic response from political and cultural activists, including publishers, abroad and at home.
The name John La Rose is synonymous with New Beacon Books and with the movement of which New Beacon Books itself has been a part since its birth in 1966, including CAM, the book fair and the George Padmore Institute.
As evidenced above, New Beacon has never been just about publishing, marketing and selling books. Indeed, its practice these last 50 years has been consonant with the 10 objectives listed at the top of this paper.
It has undergirded a political movement and inspired many generations to find and use their voice and to connect with current and past struggles and learn from our advances as well as our defeats.
Despite that history I have charted thus far and the incontrovertible impact New Beacon and its satellites have had on political life in post-war Britain, the sad fact is that a large percentage of people born in 1980 and after have not even heard of New Beacon Books or John La Rose.
Maybe that’s not no surprising when one considers that most people in the media would also have heard of neither.
A quick anecdote in this regard. When John died in February 2006, Ngugi wa Thongo and I were invited to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to talk about his life and work. We were interviewed by John Humphreys and Edward Stourton. At the end of the interview, Edward Stourton accompanied us out of the studio and said: ‘I cannot believe that this man has done so much and been such a huge cultural figure right here in London and I have not even heard of him. I really must find out some more about him and the work that you all do’.
Such is the reality of marginalisation of our contribution to Changing Britannia and our efforts to get this nation to wake up to the fact what we are not on the margins looking in but very much part of the process of transforming the society and helping it to understand its internal contradictions and to be at ease with itself.
So, where now for New Beacon Books?
As you gathered for this lecture you will have been handed a statement indicating the changes there have been in the operation of New Beacon Bookshop and that are planned in 2017. There is no doubt that New Beacon like so many other independent publishers and small bookshops have had to confront many challenges, from on-line shopping to Kindle, electronic publishing and much else. These changes have markedly impacted the viability of small bookshops. It is reassuring to learn that the publishing and bookservice will continue. I want to suggest, however, that ways be found of enabling New Beacon Books to continue to perform the following key functions:
The international book fair provided opportunities for young people, including aspiring writers and cultural activists, to self-educate and make sure that, in Mark Twain’s famous words, they never let their schooling interfere with their education. I regularly meet many who tell passionate tales of how much the book fair and book fair festivals contributed to their education, self affirmation and self development.
If New Beacon has never been just about book selling, the challenge for that historical movement and for us is how to shape and structure it to perform all the above functions and more, so that in the same way that John La Rose built upon the praxis of the Beacon group and the political and cultural movement of which they were a part in Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean in that volatile period of Caribbean history, New Beacon could continue to inspire new generations and help shape their struggles as they build a new order in Britain, long after the likes of me have popped my clogs and popped along to the realm of Ancestors.
And talking about ‘Ancestors’, it is now 10 years since John La Rose joined them. Let us remember him through some poignant tributes that his comrades shared the day we celebrated his life and returned him to Mother Earth.