Trinidad Memorial at OWTU 2006

The Trinidad Memorial Tribute to John La Rose organised by the Oilfield Workers Trade Union on 8 April 2006 Gus John John La Rose in the Cause of Social Liberation Across the Continents

Address given by Gus John, Founder Trustee of the George Padmore Institute and Forty Years John's Friend and Comrade, at the Oilfields Workers Trade Union Memorial Celebration

8 April 2006

It is not often that we enjoy the privilege of being nurtured by a legend in his own lifetime. Those of us who knew John and worked with him, those of us across the continents whose struggles he identified with and made his own, whose cultural, academic and political interests he adopted and cultivated, enjoyed that rare privilege. The privilege of being taught and mentored by, and of engaging in struggle with, one of the political and intellectual giants of the 20th century; one to be numbered among the likes of George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire.

One of John's more poignant reminders to those of us involved in struggle in the British context was that 'we did not come alive in Britain'. Encapsulated in that simple but powerful affirmation was the message that we as Caribbean people, we as post colonial people, had a 'life experience with Britain' outside of Britain which, if we understood and evaluated it sensibly, would provide us with the tools for understanding and tools for action in the context of our 'life experience with Britain' in Britain itself.

And it is that context of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism that so inspired the young La Rose to adopt a Pan-Africanist and International Socialist vision and praxis.

John Anthony La Rose was born in 1927 in a Trinidad, a West Indian colony, that had already had a long history of working class struggle dating back to the latter decades of the 19th century, not least the struggles spearheaded by the Trinidad Workingmen's Association. There were those to guide the young La Rose who had themselves lived through the 'water riots' in 1903 and the massive surge of working class and peasant revolts throughout the 1930s. They had witnessed the birth of a labour movement strong and bold enough to challenge King and Empire, despite the eagerness of the British to dispatch warships and mobilize military resistance to organised workers' and peasants' power, in order to protect their economic interests and keep their 'subjects' subjugated. It was a labour movement gaining momentum in a string of islands small in size but with a growing global consciousness.

Key players in that movement had not only a sense of themselves and a developing confidence in their power, they also had an understanding of Britain's role in under-developing Africa and the West Indies, an understanding of the ravages of Empire and of mercantile capitalism, whether under the Coat of Arms of King Leopold and the Belgians or King George and the British. So that by the time Neville Guiseppi and Arnold Tomasos introduced John to Marxist thought and ideology, he already had a very clear sense of the need for social transformation and the rebalancing of power into the control of workers and peasants in Trinidad and the West Indies and for a movement to combat the oppression of working people everywhere.

Small wonder, then, that one of the first set of publications to come from New Beacon Publishers was the reprint in 1977 of Arthur Lewis' Labour in the West Indies - the Birth of a Workers Movement, with a seminal 'Afterword' by Susan Craig.

I have no doubt that other contributions in this forum will deal with John's pivotal role in the Workers Freedom Movement in Trinidad in the 1940s, in the Federated Workers Trade Union and in the West Indian Independence Party. In order to situate John's engagement with people and causes across the continents in his life experience before arriving in Britain, however, let me make a couple of observations about John's engagement with culture and politics. John developed a keen interest in music, literature and art and in the link between cultural expression and politics, a link that was as evident in the so-called 'high art' among the elite in the society as in the folk language, stories, and art forms of the workers and peasants. At a time, therefore, when steel band music, stick fighting, calypso singing and other such popular arts were being frowned upon by high society, John La Rose was finding deeper meanings in such popular expression and in their revolutionary potential among the masses of the people. It was not surprising, therefore, that in the middle 1950s, he co-authored with the calypsonian Raymond Quevedo – Attila the Hun – the first study of the calypso, originally entitled Kaiso A Review and subsequently published as Attila's Kaiso (1983)

That fundamental belief in the integral relationship between culture and politics led John to be as concerned about writers, visual and performing artists, footballers, cricketers, musicians and storytellers and their art in the context of human endeavour and social transformation, as about political activists in the struggle for social liberation and against political repression. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, poets, sculptors, dramatists and other artistes are among the many people whose development and critical perspective he encouraged and whose progress mattered to him. It is that same belief that inspired the formation in 1966 of the Caribbean Artists Movement by John La Rose, Andrew Salkey, Eddie Kamau Brathwaite and Sam Selvon.

 

When in 1981, therefore, the organisers of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books met to plan the first book fair to be held in March/April 1982, John was clear that the Book Fair needed to be accompanied by an International Book Fair Festival. The programme for the First Book Fair Festival included a Forum Black Films in Britain, Forum on Black Theatre in Britain, Forum on Writers and Critics, Forum on Black Publishing, as well as 'A Cultural Experience' — an evening of music (including a performance by the Mangrove Steel Orchestra), poetry and dance.

John La Rose moved to Venezuela in 1958 and lived there, extending his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle and teaching in secondary schools until he left for Britain in 1961. In Caracas, he reconnected with his friend and comrade, Rafael Cadenas, who had been exiled to Trinidad by the dictator Perez Jimenez. John's cultural and political activism and anti-colonial struggles in Trinidad and Venezuela, prepared him well for the political struggles he embraced in Britain around education, workers' rights, publishing, policing, immigration and independent organisation of workers, parents and students. He founded New Beacon Books, the first specialist Caribbean publisher, bookseller and international bookservice in 1966. New Beacon has not only stood the test of time, remaining the most successful and organized venture of its kind in multi-ethnic Britain, it has also given impetus to and supported the development of other black publishers and booksellers, including Bogle L'Ouverture Publications, one of the original organisers of the Book Fair.

John La Rose shared his experience unstintingly and provided newcomers with a sense of direction with regard to the relationship between publishing and bookselling and the advancement of culture and politics in society, especially in the context of the development of social movements and the struggle for social liberation and against oppression in all its forms.

As a bookseller, John generously shared his vast knowledge with school children, college and university students, teachers, parents and community activists. Indeed, it was through publishing and bookselling, and later through the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third world Books, that John influenced political struggles across the globe and met and nurtured cultural and political activists from across the continents. His home became their home, their University seminar room, their political enclave, their one-to-one consultation room, their overnighting space, their social and pick-me-up space. In time, comrades became friends, from the African continent, from the USA, from Central and South America, from across the Caribbean, from continental Europe, from the Indian Sub-continent, from the Middle and Far East.

On March 13, 1979, Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement seized power in Grenada in a bloodless coup against the tyrannical and murderously repressive Eric Gairy and his 'mongoose gang'. The Alliance of New Beacon Books, the Black Parents Movement, the Race Today Collective and Bogle L'Ouverture Publications sent telegrams of solidarity to the leaders of the Revolution and to Caribbean heads of state calling on them to recognise the new People's Revolutionary Government.

Four years later, when the People's Revolutionary Government and the Central Committee of the New Jewel Movement had split and Bernard Coard induced a catastrophic power struggle, placing Maurice Bishop under house arrest, John and the Alliance again dispatched telegrams, this time warning Coard to desist from his reckless actions, guarantee the safety of Maurice Bishop and consider themselves accountable to the Grenadian masses.

John actively supported liberation struggles in other parts of the region, including the Committee Against Political Repression in Guyana and the independence struggles of the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

In 1982 John and a number of concerned comrades, including former detainee Ngugi wa Thiong’o, formed the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, as a response to growing concern about the Kenyan government's campaign of arrests, detentions and harassment of University lecturers, students, writers, lawyers, peasants, workers and members of parliament and the systematic attacks on intellectual, political and cultural life. The campaign focused around 12 jailed political prisoners; eight civil servants, journalists, lecturers and Members of Parliament detained without trial, 12 Air Force soldiers sentenced to death and 1,000 others jailed for up to 25 years.

In 1986, having returned to Kenya, Wanyiri Kihoro, a founder member of the Committee, 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.

Also in 1989, after 25 years of struggle against racist immigration laws and against racism and the resurgence of fascism, John with other comrades founded European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice. In December 1991, a combined delegation from England and Scotland visited the Intergovernmental Conference of 12 European Heads of State at Maastricht to protest their failure to act decisively against racist and fascist murders, 'to draw attention to the rising tide of racism, Nazism, fascism, racial attacks and racist murders across Europe' and to demand that they uphold and safeguard the basic human right of protection of life and limb in every European Community country to which every person is entitled, irrespective of colour or creed, and regardless of whether or not they have the status of refugee or asylum seeker. The slogan adopted by the delegation was: 'Don't Wait until the Ovens Begin to Burn'.

John and members of the Alliance worked closely with members of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, especially throughout the 1980s. In September 1985, John and his comrades started a campaign against Shell and other companies engaged in subverting sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. For one year, we picketed Tesco supermarket, alerting shoppers to the consequences of buying South African goods. In 2002, John and Sarah finally visited the new South Africa as guests of Kole and Margaret Omotoso. While there, he gave a public reading of his poetry attended by some 50 people, including a number of young people. Those young people were among the most enthusiastic members of the audience and showed a keen interest in John's poetry to the extent that many of them later corresponded with him.

But, the country that exercised John the most and in relation to which he engaged with progressive and revolutionary forces the most, both those at home and in exile, is Nigeria. There has hardly been a period in the last half century when Nigeria has not oscillated between political and economic volatility and political repression and instability. John's knowledge of Nigeria, its internal contradictions, its potential and its place in Africa and the world was phenomenal. He encouraged and gave direction to the activities of radical forces of the Nigerian Left, among them people who marvelled at his grasp of the realities of that most complex country. In 1977, New Beacon published Yusufu Bala Usman's hugely important book, For the Liberation of Nigeria.

John encouraged collaboration between progressive forces from the North and the South, from among the Yoruba in the South and the Muslims in the North. Kole Omotoso says of John: 'He reconciled the contending radicals of the Nigerian Left long after these people stopped speaking to one another. While he understood the position of each individual and each group, he wished that we would all remember what the struggle was about and concentrate on that objective of liberation'.

The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books brought all those people from all those struggles in all those five continents together in London, Manchester and Bradford and occasionally in Glasgow and Leeds. It brought them to New Beacon Books and especially to the kitchen at #2 Albert Road where there is a modest but world famous table around which many books have been written, many alliances made, and many plans fashioned for shaping a new world order.

John is no longer among us in the flesh, but he has left us a huge legacy. We are that legacy, as are the institutions he built. And of course, the struggle continues.

Days after we laid John's body to rest, we had word from Siddique Abuabakar Mohammed, one of the forces on the Nigerian Left whom John had mentored and supported for many years, that the State Security Services of Nigeria had raided the premises of the Vanguard Printers and Publishers in Kaduna and confiscated 9,000 copies of the book he had just published. The book is entitled: Obasanjo: The Lust for Power and Its Tragic Implications for Nigeria. They also went to the Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training in Zaria to arrest Siddique for writing the book. A few days before the raid, they had gone to the High Court seeking an arrest warrant to enable them to arrest Siddique but were unsuccessful. A symposium on General Obasanjo's move to amend the Nigeria Constitution to enable him to continue in office beyond 2007 which was organized by students of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, was stopped by the police.

On Tuesday of this week, 4 April 2006, we had further news from Siddique that Operatives of the State Security Services had raided the services of another printing press, Babale Printing Press, in Abuja the Federal Capital, and arrested the General Manager, Ibrahim Omole, and seized the plates of the book. On Monday 3 April, the Vanguard reported that the Obasanjo Government is to file sedition charges against proprietors of the printing press in Abuja which was raided by the security services at the weekend. Siddique notes that "in a language typical of the justification usually advanced by spokespersons of despots and genocidaires, the paper quoted a 'top presidential source' as saying that 'these people are worse than vermin'". Siddique's email concludes chillingly: 'We know what genocidaires do to those they regard as vermin: they murder them'.

Were John still alive, he would say to Obasanjo what he affirmed in 1989 in relation to the 'fatwa' pronounced on the writer, Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini: ‘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.’

John continued, as boldly and passionately as ever: ‘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.’

John is not here to dispatch that message to Olusegun Obasanjo, as in an earlier period he had written in similar vein to Daniel Arap Moi. But, since we are his legacy, we must do so for Siddique and in the cause of freedom and human rights. If we fail to do so in this case and as often as is necessary, John will surely find us wanting. What is more, we will have dishonoured his spirit by failing to do what he, surely, would have done.

Long live the Spirit of Comrade John La Rose.

May he bask in perpetual light with his Ascended Ancestors and with Lennox Pierre, Jim Barrette, Elma Francois, Amy Jacques Garvey, George Padmore, Tubal Uriah 'Buzz' Butler, George Weekes, CLR James, Neville Guiseppi and all his other comrades in struggle.

May his spirit ever inspire and strengthen us for struggles present and to come.

© Gus John

 

Susan Craig-James Tribute to John La Rose

As we reflect on John La Rose as a publisher, I believe that there are five important points that he would want us to note.

The first is his strong sense of history, of continuity between past, present and future. In 1969, he drew my attention to a book by two African-American psychologists, W. H. Grier and P. M. Cobbs, Black Rage. There the authors state:

Even now each generation grows up alone. … Non-black groups pass on proud traditions, conscious of the benefit they are conferring. For black people, values and rituals are shared and indeed transmitted, but with little acknowledgement of their worth.’1

John saw this in the politics and the whole intellectual life of Caribbean people at home and abroad. So he spoke often of ‘a tradition of discontinuity’ and of ‘a history of hiatuses’. Therefore, in his publishing (and in his political work), he set out to redress this growing up alone.

The second idea that permeates all of John’s activity follows from the first. He was always clear that the Caribbean had autonomous,2 cultural, political and intellectual traditions on which we must draw. That is one reason why we cannot afford a tradition of discontinuity. We have to draw on the past to think out of our own heads.

The third idea on which John insisted is that our people were never victims. He argued that instead we have always been – and always will be – ‘protagonists of our fate’. Protagonists. The leading people, the ones whose thought and action will determine our fate. Therefore we have a responsibility to examine our culture and history to see what the exploited, and not only the exploiters, have said and sung and done.

And so: linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, and portraying our people as creative initiators, as protagonists in shaping a better world. These are the first three principles that guided John. They led automatically to the fourth, which is that for him publishing was therefore a political act. To give voice, to affirm and validate ourselves, was an act of empowerment, for it takes consciousness to inform action to change the world. So, for John, the cultural was political, and the political was cultural.

These four strands of thought – linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, being protagonists of our fate, and publishing as political – these are some of the basic ideas that inspired New Beacon Books Limited, the publishing house and bookshop that John and his partner, Dr. Sarah White, founded in 1966.

In keeping with what we have said, the publishing house was named New Beacon Books after the Beacon movement led by Albert Gomes, Alfred Mendes and others in 1930s Trinidad. As you know, The Beacon journal was part of the flowering of West Indian literature that accompanied the anti-colonial labour and political movements of the 1930s.

New Beacon’s first publication was Foundations (1966), a book of poems by John; and the second, because an important figure such as Marcus Garvey was only a name to many Caribbean people, was a book by Adolph Edwards entitled Marcus Garvey, 1887–1940 (1967). That book on Garvey is now translated into French.

The choice of works to publish was deliberate, strategic and of immense significance for Caribbean self-knowledge. In 1969, New Beacon re-issued The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, written by a black school teacher, John Jacob Thomas, in 1869. Thomas, born in 1840 to parents who had been enslaved, was one of the first generation of stalwart schoolmasters after slavery. His is the first grammar of the French Creole spoken in Trinidad, ‘a dialect framed by Africans from a European tongue’, as Thomas put it. And he included a selection of Creole proverbs, demonstrating the succinct wisdom of the people around him.

In 1969 also, New Beacon reprinted Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained, Thomas’ dignified and trenchant response to James Anthony Froude, the English historian, who wrote The English in the West Indies in 1888 to pour scorn on the people of African descent, and to argue that we could never be fit to govern ourselves. All over the British West Indies there were angry responses to Froude in the local newspapers. Froudacity was published as a book in 1889, the year of Thomas’ death.

The reprinting of these two seminal works by John Jacob Thomas was an achievement in itself. But New Beacon went on in 1971 to re-issue C.L.R. James’ 1932 novel, Minty Alley, a story observing life in the barrack yards of Port of Spain. These three reprints, the Creole Grammar, Froudacity and Minty Alley, established New Beacon as a significant Caribbean voice. New Beacon’s publicity stated that they hoped for ‘a critical assessment which no longer accepts a validation from outside the society but provides its own’. Expressing our own sensibility; thinking out of our own heads.

In 1989, the centenary of Jacob Thomas’ death, New Beacon was the only known institution to commemorate the event. John had hoped that The University of the West Indies would have honoured such a remarkable figure, who had worked with meagre resources to produce two books of such lasting value. But it was not to be. And with his characteristic patience he said, ‘Well, we will do what we have to do.’

New Beacon Books went on to publish an incredibly wide range of works. They included poetry, for example: Martin Carter’s Poems of Succession (1977), Lorna Goodison’s I Am Becoming My Mother (1986); and The Poetry of Nicolas Guillen, the Cuban writer, by Denis Sardinha (1976). There were works on Caribbean language, music, literary criticism and culture, including Kaiso Calypso Music (1990), John’s conversations with David Rudder, and the reprint of the important work by Errol Hill, The Trinidad Carnival (1997). There were works on the political and labour struggles such as a reprint of Arthur Lewis’ Labour in the West Indies (1939/1988), which describes the wave of labour rebellions in the British West Indies in the 1930s; The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited by Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, with a reprint of the Congress’ Report (1992); Elma Francois: The Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association and the Workers’ Struggle for Change in the Caribbean in the 1930s (1988) by Rhoda Reddock; and Khafra Kambon’s political biography of George Weekes, For Bread Justice and Freedom (1988).

In 1982, John helped to found Africa Solidarity in support of struggles against dictatorial governments in Africa. New Beacon’s lists include Yusufu Bala Usman’s For the Liberation of Nigeria (1979), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983).

New Beacon engaged with the struggles of the black population for respect and equality in Britain. One of their early publications was for the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (of which John was a founder). Caribbean people in the 1960s had to fight against the policy of labelling and isolating black children into schools for the educationally subnormal. So they published Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971).

In 1966, with Andrew Salkey, the Jamaican writer, and Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbadian poet and historian, John founded the Caribbean Artists’ Movement which brought together people in all spheres of cultural creation. Its story is told by Anne Walmsley in another New Beacon publication, The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966–1972: A Literary and Cultural History (1992).

The above are only a sample of the output from New Beacon. They published also two issues of New Beacon Review, a journal that ceased to appear in 1986.

One of the extraordinary achievements of New Beacon Books was the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. Started in 1982, the Book Fair rallied workers, intellectuals, artists and publishers from all over the world. It was truly, as the title of the work on the Book Fairs edited by Sarah White, Roxy Harris and Sharmilla Beezmohun states, A Meeting of the Continents (2005). The first Book Fairs were hosted in conjunction with Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications. By the 12th and last in 1995, New Beacon remained the only organizer. These almost annual events allowed an extraordinary range of people to reflect on the important issues of the day, and they gave a stature to the African, Asian and Caribbean communities in Britain that could not be ignored.

In 1991, New Beacon Books gave birth to the George Padmore Institute (GPI), named after Malcolm Nurse (1903–1959), the Trinidad-born Pan Africanist and revolutionary activist, who was one of the organizers of the historic 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester, and who later became an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana. Nurse changed his name to George Padmore in 1927. Outside of Ghana, where the Government has established The George Padmore Research Library of African Affairs, New Beacon Books is the only known institution that has chosen to honour George Padmore.

The GPI is a library and research centre, housing materials relating to the people of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe. It is developing its archives, and has hosted a series of lectures on the black experience in Britain, some of which were published by New Beacon and the GPI as Changing Britannia: Life Experiences with Britain (1999).

This sample of New Beacon’s work tells one plain message: theirs is a formidable achievement.

I said that there were five principles underlying John’s work, but I mentioned only four: linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, being protagonists of our fate, and publishing as political. The fifth principle is his method of building institutions on sacrifice and sound foundations. New Beacon Books started with John and Sarah living in a tiny two-room bedsitter, and travelling on a motorbike with their books in a bag. When I met them in 1969, they had bought 2 Albert Road in Finsbury Park, and the bookshop was then downstairs. They stored their books in the garage. Most of their sales were at events, and their vehicle had grown to an ancient van. Today New Beacon is the biggest black and Third World publisher and bookseller in Britain, with its own business place on the high street. New Beacon Books and the GPI are institutions of which Caribbean people can be proud.

This, then, is John’s legacy to us: not only the publishing but the principles—linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, being protagonists of our fate, publishing as political empowerment, and building institutions on sacrifice and sound foundations. I salute a loyal friend, a teacher and a mentor.

Notes

1 W.H.Grier and P.M.Cobbs. Black Rage. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969. 28-29.

2 He would have said sometimes autochthonous, meaning created on local soil.

(c) Susan Craig-James