'H istory is the basic science," was a phrase often quoted by Eric Williams, the Oxford-educated Trinidadian who became the Caribbean nation's first prime minister following independence in 1962. The maxim was also dear to his compatriot John La Rose (1927-2006) and, during an emotional and uplifting celebration of his life at the South Bank Centre a fortnight ago, the St Kitts-born, Leeds-bred, New York-based writer Caryl Phillips reminded a packed audience just how much history meant to La Rose. He was not the only one to pay tribute to the man who passed away last year but is wholeheartedly recognised as a seminal force in both the history of black British publishing and political activism.
Other eulogies came from the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who worked with La Rose on the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya in the 1980s, Gus John, the Grenadian who became Britain's first black director of education in Hackney, and Horace Ové, the Trinidadian director of Pressure, Britain's first black feature film.
Jamaican-born, Brixton-blooded Linton Kwesi Johnson, the champion of dub poetry, whose texts boldly documented the struggles of West Indian immigrants and their offspring, also made a presentation. But perhaps the greatest acknowledgement of La Rose's legacy came in the shape of a spellbinding performance by Kamau Brathwaite, the Bajan poet and academic. He read from his epic, Rights of Passage, the poem that launched the Caribbean Arts Movement.
Founded by La Rose, Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey, CAM stood as a pioneering platform for the cultural self-empowerment of black Britain. Other initiatives, such as the launch of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, and New Beacon, Britain's first black publishing house and bookshop, would flow from it.
Written in 1967, the year Allen Ginsberg, Stokeley Carmichael and Angela Davis all lectured at the Dialectics of Liberation in London, Rights of Passage is a literary milestone. It's a work that affirms the legitimacy of Creolised English, the place of the unique lexicon and speech rhythms of the Caribbean in the world of letters.
Without the enfranchisement of this oral culture, this "nation language", there would have been no dub poetry. And there would be arguably fewer publishing opportunities for today's practitioners of black British vernacular or paradigm-challenging narrative such as Courttia Newland, Bernardine Evaristo, Dorothea Smartt or Anthony Joseph, to name but a few.
Of course La Rose, Brathwaite, Salkey and other key figures of the CAM-New Beacon axis, such as Anne Walmsley and Sarah White, La Rose's wife, were not the only pioneers in black British publishing. Margaret Busby co-founded Allison & Busby; Arif Ali launched Hansib; Glenn Thompson, Writers and Readers; and Jessica and Eric Huntley founded Bogle L'Ouverture.
Driven by the same sense of purpose as La Rose and White, the Guyana-born Huntleys believed in a strong cultural and political base for the black British community in order to consolidate its position in a frequently hostile society. Black History Month didn't exist in the 1970s, and neither did the internet. So somebody had to issue black history books. Somebody had to be brave enough to do it.
Browsing the catalogues of Allison & Busby, Hansib, New Beacon and Bogle L'Ouverture, you can find many titles that are part of the bedrock of African-Caribbean studies and scholarship. Between them, these publishers made available landmark works such as CLR James's History of Negro Revolt, Adolph Edwards' Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney's The Groundings With My Brothers, Edward Reynolds' Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, J J Thomas's Creole Linguistics and Horace Campbell's Rasta and Resistance. Maybe this selection is better than what's available on the net today.
The living link between the work of New Beacon and Bogle L'Ouverture is Linton Kwesi Johnson. In Dream to Change the World, Horace Ové's film about La Rose's life and work, Johnson describes La Rose as his mentor, a catalyst for his growth as a writer, as well as a key figure in the black experience in Britain. It was the visionary Huntleys who published Johnson's acclaimed debut collection, Dread, Beat and Blood. In 1978, the poems were set to the sinuous, hypnotic arrangements of master producer Dennis Bovell, one of the essential bridges between the reggae and punk scenes, and they made an even greater impact.
On the sleeve of the record of Dread Beat there is a photograph of Johnson holding a megaphone and addressing a crowd outside a police station under Babylon's watchful eye. The image graphically encapsulates the struggles of the black community at the time.
What is more important, though, is the list of abbreviations used in the piece "Man Free", which was written for Darcus Howe, long before he took to crossing swords with Joan Rivers on national radio. Forget BNP and think BPM, as in Black Parents Movement. Forget BMW, and think BSM, as in Black Students Movement. The CDC was the Carnival Development Committee, and the RTC the Race Today Collective.
All the above were organisations that La Rose and the Huntleys either had a hand in creating or were actively involved in. Social consciousness was nothing without campaigning, and that meant the nitty gritty frontline engagement like marching against atrocities such as the New Cross fire in 1981 as well as writing letters of protest to the establishment. This union of political and cultural activity, the belief that one reinforced the other, has bolstered those who've followed La Rose and the Huntleys.
Times are markedly different now, and there is less militant action among their successors but a spirit of independence has been kept alive in a wide range of contexts. We're talking about the agencies and magazines such as Spread the Word, Centerprise and Sable; publishing companies as disparate as Pentimento, Paublo, Peepal Tree, Tamarind and X-Press; all of the many actors on many stages in black British literature from Kadija George to Peter Fryer and Patrick Vernon via Jan Blake and Tuup of Players and Tellers.
An African proverb says if you don't know where you're going, look at where you've come from. John La Rose and the Huntleys are where artists and laypeople in the black British community have come from. These trailblazers understood that awareness of culture and politics, past and present, is a prerequisite for any future evolution. History is indeed the basic science.
'A Musical Tribute to John La Rose', featuring Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Bovell, Randy Weston, Jayne Cortez, Denardo Coleman, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Keith Waithe, takes place on 4 March at the Camden Centre, London at 7pm. Tickets (£25) are available from New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, N4 , tel 020-7272 4889