Remembering John La Rose (1927-2006)
John La Rose (1927-2006) was a political and cultural activist, poet, writer, publisher, and Chairman of the George Padmore Institute and Archive (www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org).
La Rose’s life and work had impacts on several continents, but it is arguably in Britain that he had his greatest influence. La Rose was born in 1927 into a middle class family in Arima, one of colonial Trinidad’s small but long-established towns. He was educated, like most from his background, at Roman Catholic schools. On completion of his secondary education at Trinidad’s St Mary’s College, one of a handful of prestigious secondary schools modelled on the English grammar school, La Rose became a teacher at that same institution, before moving on to work for Colonial Life Insurance company, the first Black-owned insurance company in Trinidad.
La Rose early developed an interest in culture, both the ‘high’ arts of classical music, painting and poetry, as well as the ‘popular’ cultural forms of Trinidad: the carnival and calypso. Notwithstanding its location in a tiny colonial territory, Port of Spain in the 1940s was home to several literary, musical and other artistic societies, and La Rose was active in these. Despite his secure upbringing, he was early aware of the racialised class distinctions in colonial Trinidad, but his transformation to an insurgent intellectual and activist would be spurred by study of Marxist and anticolonial literature, much of which was banned in Trinidad at that time. Trinidad saw ferment against the colonial order in the 1930s and again in the 1940s, as the colony was affected by international capitalist restructuring. This period saw the development of an organised and articulate movement for independence from Britain, one that cut across class and ethnic lines. It was this movement that provided La Rose with a space in which he could develop radical ideas and put them into practice.
In 1948 the Marxist study group of which he was a member joined with the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association to form the Workers Freedom Movement – an organisation dedicated to struggle for an improved standard of living for the working class. La Rose further deepened his involvement in anticolonial politics when he became an activist in the West Indian Independence Party, formed in 1952, which agitated for a federal, self-governing Anglo-Caribbean, and for a democratic socialist society. He would pay a heavy price for his socialist politics. After a 1953 trip to Eastern Europe, as a delegate to the World Federation of Trade Unions congress, he found himself blacklisted as a dangerous subversive on returning home: the cold war affected even the tiny English colony of Trinidad. That 1953 trip was to prove another important turning point in La Rose’s life. After travelling throughout Eastern Europe with his friend Lennox Pierre, a leftwing lawyer, he came to realise that what they saw there was not the socialism that had shaped their political vision. This realisation motivated him to rethink the socialist project and to develop an ‘autonomous socialism’, a conception of which stayed with him throughout his life.
After 1953 La Rose found himself unemployable. He was dismissed from his management job at Colonial Life Insurance Company, on account of his involvement in radical politics. In order to earn a living he gave private English lessons to Venezuelan students in Trinidad. His political work continued, in association with his then partner, Irma. The two married, after having been involved in overlapping circles of friendship and political work. He moved to Venezuela in 1958, where he had family and other connections, and there he worked as a schoolteacher while continuing his political, cultural, and trade union activities. His relationships with Venezuelan radicals would endure throughout his life.
La Rose moved to Britain in 1961, intent on studying law with a view to having the possibility to later pursue an independent profession in Trinidad and thus not be subject to the power of conservative employers. He settled in London, maintaining close links with the Caribbean. Not long after his arrival, La Rose met Edward Brathwaite — a poet and student of West Indian history from Barbados — and Andrew Salkey — a BBC journalist from Jamaica.
Perceiving a lull after the initial impact in the 1950s of the first works of George Lamming, Roger Mais, Samuel Selvon, and Vidia Naipaul, the three felt that something needed to be done to place Caribbean arts and letters back into the cultural spotlight in Britain. In 1967, the three migrant Caribbean intellectuals and artists decided to start a forum, the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), to foster the meeting of Caribbean-descent students, artists, and writers living in Britain. Concerned with the history, politics, and culture of the Caribbean and its growing Diaspora, CAM was a space for discussion, work was presented and critiqued, public meetings were held, and an arts journal was launched. Active until 1972, CAM events helped to expand interest in Caribbean and other Third World literature, which contributed in important respects to the growth of the New Beacon publishing house and bookshop.
New Beacon Books was started in 1966 as a publishing house in North London by La Rose, with the support of British-born Sarah White (his previous marriage having ended, White would remain his partner until his death). New Beacon positioned their publishing and bookselling activities in relation to a radical intellectual tradition in colonial Trinidad that went back to the end of the eighteenth century. “New Beacon” was intended to recall the Trinidadian “Beacon” literary and critical circle of the late-1920s and early 30s, in which CLR James was involved and which was a high point in the development of a relatively autonomous intellectual tradition in Trinidad, well exemplified by two pioneering cultural journals founded in that period: The Beacon and Trinidad. New Beacon’s first publication was a volume of poetry by La Rose himself. At the same time as starting out in publishing, New Beacon launched a book service, which would shortly grow into a bookshop.
Republishing works from the critical intellectual tradition of Trinidad was a central part of New Beacon’s early publishing activity in the UK. In 1969 New Beacon republished a book written by a nineteenth-century Trinidadian autodidact, John Jacob Thomas, a Black rural schoolteacher who was perhaps the most important Trinidadian intellectual of the nineteenth century. Thomas published a foundational text of the radical tradition in Trinidadian literature, 1889’s Froudacity. This was a response to James Anthony Froude’s The English in the West Indies, which was highly critical of the capacities of the formerly enslaved to govern themselves.
From the mid-1960s La Rose became involved in the Black Education Movement, including the fight against Banding (i.e. the racist placement of West Indian children in schools for the Educationally Sub-normal). In 1969, he founded the George Padmore Supplementary School, one of the first of its kind, and helped to found the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association, which published Bernard Coard’s influential How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. Later in the 1980s he helped to found the National Association of Supplementary Schools and was its chairman for two years.
In 1975 La Rose founded the Black Parents Movement from the core of those parents who were involved in the George Padmore Supplementary School after an incident when a young Black schoolboy was beaten by the police outside his school in the London Borough of Haringey. The Black Parents Movement later formed an alliance with the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective, which had, with the Race Today journal, by then separated from the Institute of Race Relations. Together they established a formidable cultural and political movement, successfully contesting many cases against police oppression and arbitrariness, and campaigning for better state education for Black and working class pupils.
La Rose and his associates were consistently involved in a number of transnational political campaigns. They were involved in the British anti-apartheid movement. They worked with Nigerian dissidents. They formed the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya to condemn the repression of the Moi regime. The Black Parents Movement gave >critical support= to the Maurice Bishop government in Grenada during the 1979-1983 revolutionary period. The membership was also instrumental in the work of the Committee against Repression in Guyana (CARIG), which articulated resistance to Forbes Burnham, and in so doing would serve as a rallying point for Guyanese in Britain who had fled the harsh political situation in their homeland. Throughout his life in Britain, La Rose was involved in the work of Trinidad and Tobago’s Oilfields Workers Trade Union; he was their European representative up to time of his death.
The struggles, people, cultural work, and activism in which La Rose was a central figure came together in the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. A major gathering of radicals, Black writers, third-world intellectuals, and activists, this Book Fair took place twelve times between 1982 and 1995 in London, with satellite Fairs in other British cities and in Trinidad. The Fair was founded by New Beacon, Bogle L’Ouverture Books, and the Race Today Collective. Members of these three founding organizations of the Book Fair were all centrally involved with publishing, bookselling, and education as sites of political action and social transformation. The first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books took place in April 1982 at the Islington Town Hall in North London and was attended by some 6000 people over its one-week period. That first Book Fair gathered momentum from the previous two decades of struggles against racism, class oppression, and social and cultural exclusion which had been waged by Black and White progressive activists, as well as by many ordinary people whose main concern was fair treatment in the housing market, in schools, and in workplaces.
The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was significant as a counter-hegemonic site from which to challenge a Eurocentric literary, cultural, and political establishment. It was an element of a strategic campaign aimed to gain, extend, and secure relative autonomy for radical Black and third-world writers, artists, and their work. The political thinking behind the Book Fairs was classically Gramscian: the organizers waged battles against “race” and class oppression in cultural spaces, thereby politicizing and so challenging settled bourgeois conceptions of culture as individual accomplishment and refinement. By shifting literary culture into an already political public space the Book Fairs promoted a democratization of the written word.
The George Padmore Institute was founded in 1991 by La Rose and a number of close associates connected with New Beacon Books, with the intention of establishing an organisational base from which to develop resources, information and archival material available on the Black British population and on the places from which Black settlers originally came. Since its founding the Institute has grown to encompass publishing and public education, parts of its holdings have formed the basis for a schools pack for the Citizenship curriculum in England. Its archival holdings are being preserved and organised for public access through a long term project partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Legacy of La Rose’s lifework
La Rose consistently refused to assume long term leadership of the many social movements he helped to found. He was wary of cooptation by the political establishment. While seeing the role of artists as political in many senses, he took the view that art cannot be reduced solely to the political: he saw creativity interacting with the political but remaining relatively autonomous. He sought to maintain that delicate balance between supporting artistic freedom and using art for political work. La Rose’s life work is characterized by an emphasis on organised struggle against injustice, of careful nurturing and building of political alliances across class, ethnic and national lines. Though the many projects in which he was involved did not achieve all of their aims, they were all characterised by the effort to organize in a democratic and accountable manner. Interested though he was in the social impacts of new technology, La Rose was not of the computer generation. Nonetheless, the hacker ethic of giving back to the community, of working together to push the boundaries of creativity, and of imagining and seeking to build new kinds of collective creative structures, is very much applicable to the life of John La Rose. His considerable talents would have allowed him a high profile academic or professional career; instead he devoted his life to thought, action and organisation in the cause of social progress.