Jessica Huntley, veteran political and cultural activist dies at 86

October 16, 2013 in Blog

London mourns the passing of one of its inveterate activists in the struggle for social liberation and against racism in schooling and education. Jessica Huntley, co-founder and director of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications and bookstore in West Ealing, passed away at Ealing Hospital yesterday morning, 13 October, following a short illness. She was 86 last February.

"Jessica Huntley" by Robert Taylor (Photo: Connecting Stories)

“Jessica Huntley” by Robert Taylor (Photo: Connecting Stories)

I first met Jessica in 1967 at the West Indian Students Centre (WISC) in Collingham Road, Earls Court, which hosted community meetings on a wide range of issues to do with the Caribbean community in London, including political and economic issues in the countries from which we had not long come.

WISC became a rallying point for a community, a platform from which students from the Caribbean engaged with the struggles and social life of migrants in all works of life and a ‘home’ for the Caribbean Education Association which soon morphed into the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA).

Jessica and Eric, her husband of over sixty years, established and ran one of only two black publishing houses in the UK. They established Bogle-L’Ouverture towards the end of 1968, after a popular and fierce campaign against the Jamaican Government’s decision, under Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, to ban the late Dr Walter Rodney from ever returning to Jamaica and to his post at the University of the West Indies, where he had taught after returning from the University of Dar-es-Salaam in 1967, combining his academic work with political activism and worker organisation among workers and peasants in Jamaica.

Rodney’s message resonated with the poor and dispossessed in that island and especially with the Rastafarian Movement. The ban led to mass protest in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, including what became known as the Rodney Riots.

It is small wonder, then, that when Jessica and Eric Huntley and a small committee of comrades who had been active in the anti-ban campaign met and decided to establish a publishing facility and bookshop, they decided to name it after Paul Bogle, a revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-plantocracy leader of the Morant Bay Rebellion in St Thomas, Jamaica, in 1865, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution some seventy five years earlier.

Walter Rodney provided the newly formed Bogle-L’Ouverture with his account of the background to the ban, including his work among the working and peasant classes and his assessment of the politics of the day. His seminal work ‘The Groundings with my Brothers’ thus became Bogle L’Ouverture’s first published title. Read the rest of this entry →

Jayne Cortez: one last word

February 9, 2013 in Blog, Speeches

On February 6th, professor Gus John joined Jayne Cortez’s friends and fellow poets, writers and performers in New York to celebrate her life and work. Here’s Gus John’s tribute, which was read out during the ceremonyRead the rest of this entry →

Gus John joins Jayne Cortez celebration

February 9, 2013 in Blog

It was a huge honour to be invited to join Jayne Cortez’s friends and fellow poets, writers and performers at the celebration of her life in New York on Wednesday, 6 February 2013.

The celebration took place in a most fitting venue, the Great Hall of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859. The building — today a New York City landmark — quickly became a common meeting place of intellectuals, inventors, tinkerers, and people from across the social strata. Perhaps its greatest feature was the Great Hall.

"Lisette Santiago" by Margaret Busby (Picasa - BY-NC-ND 3.0)

“Lisette Santiago” by Margaret Busby (Picasa – BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The Cooper Union website records that:

The Great Hall of The Cooper Union has stood for more than a century as a bastion of free speech and a witness to the flow of American history and ideas. When the hall opened in 1858, more than a year in advance of the completion of the institution, it quickly became a mecca for all interested in serious discussion and debate of the vital issues of the day.

The Great Hall was the platform for some of the earliest workers’ rights campaigns and for the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the women’s suffrage movement and the American Red Cross. To the Great Hall’s podium has come a pageant of famous Americans — rebels and reformers, poets and presidents. Before they were elected, Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama all spoke there. Besides Woodrow Wilson, two other incumbent presidents have spoken in the Great Hall: William Jefferson Clinton, who, on May 12, 1993, delivered a major economic address on reducing the federal deficit and Barack Obama, who, on April 22, 2010, gave an important speech on economic regulation and the financial markets.

During the past century’s times of tremendous upheaval, it was through meetings in Cooper’s famous auditorium that the politics and legislation necessary to build a humane city took shape.

In that place, steeped in the history of the birth of social movements, the contestations of ideas and ideologies and the shaping of liberation struggles, some of the most progressive voices and talents gathered to honour an extraordinary woman with an equally extraordinary talent, Jayne Cortez.

In a programme moderated by Danny Glover, actor, film director, political activist, ally and dear friend of Jayne and husband Mel Edwards, poets, academics, musicians, cultural and political activists gathered to honour Jayne Cortez and celebrate her life. Read the rest of this entry →

Jayne Cortez: one last tribute

January 5, 2013 in Blog

We mourn our sister’s passing and give the Creator thanks for her purposeful and inspirational life that enriched us so very much and made us so much stronger and more resolute in struggle.

She was in every sense a kindred spirit and a clarion voice, making the medium of poetry work in ways that many traditionalists found bewildering, especially in the academy.

As synchronicity would have it, we are remembering and celebrating all she gave to us even as we are congratulating our brother Linton Kwesi Johnson for his equally unique bending of the medium in the service of the Jamaican language and his dynamic bilingualism as a world first that eminently qualified him for the Golden Pen award.

May we ever celebrate and validate our prophetic voices and see them as the gifts of the Universe that they are, loaned to us for a purpose and for a time, and abandon the tendency to take them and their presence among us and as part of us for granted.

Our Sister Jayne remains very much a part of us through the impact she has had, the way she touched us individually and through the immortality of her words and of her fighting and liberating spirit. Read the rest of this entry →

Jayne Cortez: A Star is Dimmed

December 30, 2012 in Blog

It is with profound sadness that I write about the passing of Jayne Cortez, globally renowned poet and cultural activist and a dear friend of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books and its successor, the George Padmore Institute.

I was a member of the Book Fair organizing committee and a founder trustee of the George Padmore Institute.

Many will recall Jayne’s electrifying poetry readings at the Book Fair festival and her participation in the literary debates at the Book Fair.  The very first Book Fair in 1982 was opened by the late CLR James and was followed by annual and then bi-annual fairs until 1995.  Jayne attended most if not all and was a star performer at poetry evenings at the Book Fair festival.  She thus became a well-loved member of the International Book Fair family. Read the rest of this entry →