John La Rose
Linton Kwesi Johnson
John La Rose, who has died aged 78, was the elder statesman of Britain's black communities. Like Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, Fidel Castro and Frantz Fanon, John belongs to a Caribbean tradition of radical and revolutionary activism whose input has reverberated across continents. The depth and breadth of his contribution to the struggle for cultural and social change, for racial equality and social justice, for the humanisation of society, is unparalleled in the history of the black experience in Britain. He was a man of great erudition whose generosity of spirit and clarity of vision and sincerity inspired people like me. John was not only my mentor, friend, comrade, he was like a father to me. He was the most remarkable human being I have ever known.
A poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist, cultural and political activist, John was born in Arima, Trinidad, where his father was a cocoa trader and his mother a teacher. At nine he won a scholarship to St Mary's College, Port of Spain, where he later taught before becoming an insurance executive. He later also taught in Venezuela. Culture, politics and trade unionism were central to his vision of change. He was an executive member of the Youth Council in Trinidad and produced their fortnightly radio programme, Noise of Youth, for Radio Trinidad. In the mid-1950s, he co-authored, with the calypsonian Raymond Quevedo (Atilla the Hun), a pioneering study of calypso entitled Kaiso: A Review (republished in 1983 as Atilla's Kaiso).
One of John's favourite sayings was "We didn't come alive in Britain," an allusion to the struggles that had been waged by Caribbean peoples in the Caribbean against colonialism and for workers' and people's power. In the 1940s in Trinidad, he helped to found the Workers Freedom Movement and edited its 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 Trinidad general election 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 that wanted a more radical and democratic union. The rebels prevailed in the 1962 union election and John became their European representative, a position he held until his death.
Soon after he arrived in Britain in 1961, he was again engaged in activism. In 1966 he founded New Beacon Books, the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop and international book service in Britain. In that same year, together with the Jamaican writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite, he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement. In 1972-73, he was chairman of the Institute of Race Relations and Towards Racial Justice, which published the radical campaigning journal Race Today, edited by Darcus Howe.
John was also involved in the Black Education Movement in the 1960s, particularly in the struggle against banding, and the placing of West Indian children in schools for the educationally sub-normal. He founded the George Padmore Supplementary School for West Indian children in 1969 and was one of the founders of the Caribbean Education in Community Workers Association. That organisation published Bernard Coard's groundbreaking How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971). He was also instrumental in the founding of the National Association of Supplementary Schools in the 1980s and was its chairman for a couple of years.
In 1975, after a black schoolboy was assaulted outside his school by police in the London borough of Haringey, John, together with concerned parents, founded the Black Parents Movement to combat the brutalisation and criminalisation of young blacks, and to agitate for youth and parent power and decent education. By then the Race Today journal had severed links with the Institute of Race Relations and was now the journal of the Race Today Collective. The Black Parents Movement allied with them and with the Black Youth Movement.
This alliance became the most powerful cultural and political movement organised by blacks in Britain, winning many campaigns for justice against police oppression, agitating for better state education and supporting black working class struggle. It was the alliance which formed the New Cross Massacre Action Committee in response to an arson attack which resulted in the deaths of 13 young blacks in 1981, and mobilised 20,000 people in protest. John was the chairman of the action committee and gave tremendous support to the bereaved families.
In 1982, John was instrumental in the founding of Africa Solidarity, in support of those struggling against dictatorial governments in Africa. That year he also became chairman of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, whose founding members included the Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In response to the rise in fascism and xenophobia, John helped to found European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice, bringing together anti-racists and anti-fascists from Belgium, Italy, France and Germany. He made a short film on the Black Church in Britain for a special Caribbean edition of Full House, which he produced for BBC2 in 1973, and co-produced and scripted Franco Rosso's documentary film Mangrove Nine, about the resistance of the black community to police attacks in the popular Mangrove restaurant in London.
One of John's greatest achievements was the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-95), organised jointly with Bogle L'Ouverture Books and Race Today Publications. He was joint director with Jessica Huntley of the book fair and, after the withdrawal of Bogle L'Ouverture, its sole director. 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 the radical ideas and concepts and their expression in literature, politics, music, art and social life." The book fair was, indeed, "a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and people who inspire and consume their creative productions".
The George Padmore Institute, a library and educational research centre housing materials relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe, was established in 1991 and chaired by John. He was also the editor at New Beacon Books and of their journal, New Beacon Review, and published two volumes of his own poetry, Foundations (1966) and Eyelets of Truth Within Me.
John could have been anything he wanted, but he was without ambition. He preferred to stay in the background and make things happen. He was a man who dreamed of changing the world.
He is survived by his first wife, Irma, and their sons Michael and Keith; and Sarah White, his partner, and their son Wole.
Lawrence Scott writes: My good Trinidadian friend from Arima, my "pardner", had a remarkable insight into the people he met in his varied personal and political life. He made people feel he knew their history, because he listened and remembered. I experienced this as a Trinidadian living in London for whom life here was made more possible by the intuitive understanding of John. I will miss him for this. Making a home in Britain while carrying a living sense of the Caribbean was a creative tension he achieved and helped others achieve.
When we first met we engaged in a passionate discussion of Trinidad's teachers' trade union politics. He was a West Indian renaissance man, a poet as well as an oilfield workers' trade unionist and campaigner. His poems are as powerful as were his rhetorical skills with the megaphone. The world passed through his kitchen and his bookshop; you were as likely to meet a coalminer or steelband man, novelist or chef, dancer or theologian.
Last Christmas we had dinner in his small kitchen with friends from South Africa and Nigeria. He spoke passionately about the politics of Chavez's revolution in Venezuela. He saw the world through the prism of Trinidad's creole culture, and believed it to have changed Britain entirely. He has left us two legacies: New Beacon Books and The George Padmore Institute. It is there he will continue in spirit, listening and remembering the history of ordinary people. It is there we can go to meet him any day.
· John La Rose, intellectual, trades unionist, campaigner, poet, born December 27 1927; died February 28 2006
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