Making the future we face the future Britain we want

January 7, 2014 in Blog, Gus talks, Papers by Gus John

In 1970, a full thirty years before The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, sponsored by the Runnymede Trust and Chaired by Professor Bhiku Parekh published its report (which was speedily buried by the British establishment), the late CLR James ended a rousing address to three hundred black youths at the Metro Youth Club in Notting Hill with these words:

‘Your future is Britain’s future and Britain’s future your future.  If you succeed, Britain will succeed.  But, if Britain fails you, it will have a hell of a job saving itself’.

(In Police Power and Black People, 1972, Derek Humphry and Gus John, Panther Books Ltd)

Between November 2011 and October 2013 Race on the Agenda (ROTA) delivered the Shaping the Future seminar series, which considered some of the main challenges facing London’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children and young people and their families, following a difficult economic period and wide-spread policy reforms and public spending cuts.

In August 2014, Professor Gus John will have been 50 years in the UK, having arrived in 1964 as a theological student.  In contributing to the seminar series, Gus drew upon his many decades of political activism, community development and academic research, including his tenure in the London Borough of Hackney as the UK’s first black director of education and his seminal study of youth policy and youth and community work in 16 towns and cities in England:  ‘In the Service of Black Youth -  a study of the political culture of youth and community work with black people in English cities’ (1981)

We strongly recommend the final report of the Shaping the Future seminars which is now available from the publications pages of ROTA’s website. Read the rest of this entry →

The Alfred Fagon Award 2013

December 2, 2013 in Blog, Gus talks, Speeches by Gus John

Each age has its own part to play in its destiny, its own mark to leave on time.  Each generation has its own mission to fulfil or betray.

Frantz Fanon

On Friday 29 November, I had the honour of presenting this year’s Alfred Fagon Award at the Tricycle Theatre. It was there in 1996 that a number of Alfred’s friends and family met and decided to establish an award to celebrate his life, acknowledge his contribution to theatre as a playwright and actor, honour his memory and keep his spirit alive by supporting the work of playwrights from the African Diaspora in the UK. A £5,000 prize is awarded to the writer who has, in the opinion of the judges, written the best stage play of the year. New as well as established writers are encouraged to enter.

Diana Nneka Atuona receives her award from Professor Gus John. Credits: Alfred Fagon Award

Diana Nneka Atuona receives her award from Professor Gus John. Credits: Alfred Fagon Award

The 2013 Alfred Fagon Award, the 17th, went to young playwright Diana Nneka Atuona for her first play, Liberian Girl, a play in which she explores the impact upon communities of Liberia’s devastating 14 year civil war.

On 29 August 1986, Alfred Fagon collapsed and died from a heart attack while jogging near his home in Lambeth, South London.  The police established that a heart attack caused his death and that he lived in an apartment in the building near where he was found.  They claimed that they could find nothing to identify him or find any information about family or friends and therefore arranged for him to be buried as unknown in a pauper’s grave.  It was some two weeks later that his agent, Harriet Cruickshank, was alerted that something was wrong when the BBC notified her that Alfred had failed to turn up to a meeting.  Among his belongings in that same apartment were his passport, letters from Harriet herself and from the Arts Council.

Alfred’s debut as a professional actor was in Mustapha Matura’s Black Pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1970.  This prompted him to write 11 Josephine House which was staged in 1972 at the Almost Free Theatre in London by director, Ronald Rees. Ronald Rees also directed Mustapha Matura’s As Time Goes By in 1971 at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival, Royal Court and the ICA with a cast that included Alfred Fagon, Stefan Kalipha, Mona Hammond, Oscar James, Robert Coleby, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Carole Hayman, T Bone Wilson and Tommy Eytle.

By the time of his death, Alfred had written and produced a number of other plays, including No Soldiers in St. Paul’s; In Shakespeare Country produced by the BBC in 1973, a play about the struggle to define and project black personality in a country dominated by Shakespeare; the Death of a Blackman’ (1975); Four Hundred Pounds (1983) and Lonely Cowboy (1985). Read the rest of this entry →

Where Now for Black History Month?

November 3, 2013 in Blog, Gus talks, Papers by Gus John

"African Diaspora" by beautifulcataya (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“African Diaspora” by beautifulcataya (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most every year at this time, a debate ensues about the purpose, merits and direction of Black History Month (BHM), a debate fuelled in the main by frustration about the focus of BHM programmes over the preceding four weeks. 

On Thursday 31 October 2013, some 1,000 people gathered at the Church of Christ the Redeemer in Allenbury Road, Greenford, for the funeral of the publisher and political activist Jessica Huntley and to acknowledge and celebrate her distinctive contribution to British schooling, British social history and Black History over the last half a century.

One of the many educational and inspirational events Jessica organized and contributed to in the period before her death was a debate in November 2012 about ‘the way forward for Black History Month in the UK’.  On 22 February 2013, Nubian Jak organized a symposium at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London, on a proposal for an annual ‘African Heritage Month International‘ celebration in February.  On February 23rd, the 8th Huntley Conference was held at the London Metropolitan Archives. This also marked Jessica’s 86th birthday and turned out to be her last conference.

I was unable to contribute to the Huntley debate but wrote this paper for the Africa Centre symposium.  I reproduce it here because among the very many discussions that took place around Jessica’s funeral about the many projects she was actively involved with up to the day before she passed on, was one about her take on the future of Black History Month. Read the rest of this entry →

Book review: “Black Star – Britain’s Asian Youth Movements”

October 28, 2013 in Gus talks, Reviews by Gus John

“Civil liberties, from a working class point of view, are about having the space in which to engage in political struggle – to organise alternative bases of power which can lead to the transformation of society, to record the struggle as it progresses and to express, in theory and in practice, an independent class position. This space is always contested and the occupation of any part of it carries no security of tenure…” (Ian Macdonald QC)

This extract from a review of E P Thompson’s ‘Writing by Candlelight’ (1980) by the internationally renowned immigration and human rights lawyer, Ian Macdonald QC, captures in every detail the historical significance of the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) in Britain which helped to define and reconfigure the ‘political culture’ in Britain in the 1970s through to the late 1980s.

Anandi Ramamurthy has ensured, through her study of the AYMs, that the politics they made and their dismantling of the settlement the state and the Labour Party thought they had reached with Britain’s South Asian population would not be written out of the history of post-war Britain and of the growth of South Asian communities in the UK. Read the rest of this entry →

“To the barricades!”

May 20, 2013 in Blog, Gus talks, Open letters by Gus John

On 13th May 2013, Diane Abbott MP put out a call to the 10th London Schools and the Black Child (LSBC) Conference: “Black Children & Education: After Gove, where next?”.

"Michael Gove at Chantry High School" by Regional Cabinet (Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

“Michael Gove at Chantry High School” by Regional Cabinet (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

For the past 13 years, the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) has been campaigning for equality and justice in schooling and education and against the practice of excluding a disproportionate number of African heritage children.

Diane Abbott has demonstrated a passion for schooling and education over very many years, especially on account of the schooling experiences of children of African heritage.  In 1999, she held two conferences in her constituency the London Borough of Hackney on ‘Hackney Schools and the Black Child’.  In 2000, the third of these was held which, like the previous two, attracted some 400-500 people.  In 2002, Abbott joined forces with the newly elected London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and started the London Schools and the Black Child conferences which ran annually until 2009.

Those conferences proved very popular with African parents, teachers and community activists, some 2000-2,500 of whom attended most years.  However, although the focus of the conference was schooling and the ‘black child’, fewer than 50 black school children attended in any one year.  The conferences generated a great deal of heat and excitement, but typically very little action.  They allowed for no resolutions or demands to be put to government and each succeeding conference failed to focus upon whatever action those who attended in the preceding year may have taken in their communities in response to the issues debated.

Meanwhile, the Labour government of the day continued to pass laws, whittle away rights and allow schooling practices which were as detrimental to ‘the Black child’ as anything the Conservative administration had done prior to the Labour victory at the polls in 1997.  Yet, year on year, the Education (or Schools) Minister would attend Diane’s conference to tell ‘the black community’ what the government was doing to raise standards and tackle the endemic underachievement of African Caribbean children in the schooling system.

Diane Abbott intends that this conference would address the question: “Black Children & Education: After Gove, where next?”.  Some of us might think it even more pertinent to ask the question: “‘Before Gove, what?“.  Read the rest of this entry →