John La Rose

Radical bookseller and publisher who campaigned for social and racial justice - particularly in education

Poet, publisher and activist, John La Rose was a beacon in the political and cultural life of Britain for 45 years. No other person has been so consistent in struggling for social and racial justice and empowering communities to put an end to racial oppression.

The founder director of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, held in London, Manchester and Bradford between 1982 and 1995, he was later chairman of the George Padmore Institute in London, an archive and research centre on the history of black communities in Britain, which he co-founded in 1991.

La Rose was born in Trinidad in 1927 into a staunchly Roman Catholic family. He attended the prestigious St Mary's College in Port of Spain, later returning there to teach. His family, the church hierarchy and his tutors at St Mary's saw him as good material for the priesthood, but John's perspective on the role of the Church in Trinidad society and in relation to colonialism and imperialism was too radical for him to nurture that aspiration for very long.

He developed a keen interest in music, literature and art and in the link between cultural expression and politics, a link as evident in so-called "high art" as in the folk language, stories and art forms of the workers and peasants. At a time when steel-band music, stick fighting and calypso singing were frowned upon by the élite, La Rose found deeper meanings in such popular expression and in their revolutionary potential among the masses. In the middle 1950s he co-authored with the calypsonian Raymond Quevedo ("Attila the Hun") the first study of the calypso, published in 1983 as Attila's Kaiso: a short history of Trinidad calpyso.

He helped to form the Workers Freedom Movement in Trinidad in the 1940s and edited their journal Freedom. He became an executive member of the Federated Workers Trade Union and later General Secretary of the West Indian Independence Party, contesting a seat in the 1956 Trinidad general election. He was also involved with the struggle within the Oilfields Workers Trade Union for a radical, democratic and more representative union. From 1958 La Rose lived in Venezuela, where he taught in secondary schools, before leaving for Britain in 1961.

His political and anti-colonial activities in Trinidad and Venezuela - part of what he later described as his "Life Experience with Britain" outside Britain - prepared him well for the political struggles he embraced in the UK concerning education, workers' rights, publishing, policing and immigration. In 1966 he founded New Beacon Books, in north London, a specialist Caribbean publisher, bookseller and international book service. It has stood the test of time, remaining the most successful venture of its kind in polyethnic Britain, and has also supported the development of other black publishers and booksellers.

La Rose and cadres within New Beacon provided educational material - for English literature, history, geography, science - for use in both black supplementary schools and in mainstream education at a time when children were fed an unashamedly white and Eurocentric curriculum. As a bookseller, La Rose shared his vast knowledge with children, students, teachers, parents and community activists; he gave them the courage and the ammunition to challenge education providers about the absence of black and Third World representation in their curriculum and pedagogy.

He combined the development of New Beacon Books with community struggles against banding in classrooms, against the bussing of black children from their neighbourhoods to schools in areas with fewer black people, and against the scandalous practice of placing excessive numbers of West Indian children in schools for the educationally subnormal (ESN). Whenever he attended community meetings, rallies or education conferences, he could be depended upon to set up a bookstall.

In 1969 he had founded the George Padmore Supplementary School, the first such school in London. Starting with his own sons around the kitchen table, later to be joined by their friends, La Rose discovered the limitations of the content of the schooling black children were receiving and especially the low expectations teachers had of black children. He decided that, if black parents did not take steps to repair the damage schools were doing to children, underachievement and a lack of belief in their own ability would come to characterise the schooling experience of West Indian children.

La Rose helped to found the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association which drew national attention to the ESN crisis in 1971 by publishing Bernard Coard's How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. This groundbreaking little book propelled the development of the supplementary school movement. But successive governments continued to ignore the achievement of these schools. It was only in this Labour government's first term that the education establishment acknowledged that "Saturday" schools had been providing for years the kind of service that Tony Blair was promoting as part of his raising-achievement agenda, through homework centres, Easter colleges and the rest.

La Rose was a member of the council of the Institute of Race Relations in the early 1970s, serving as its Chair in 1972-73. He was Founder Chair of Towards Racial Justice, the political arm of the institute, which gave a new, radical, direction to the development of the journal Race Today.

In 1975, he founded the Black Parents Movement after a black schoolboy was beaten up by police outside his school in Haringey. The Black Parents Movement later allied with the Black Youth Movement, the Black Students Movement and the Race Today Collective. That alliance was poised to lead the national response to the massacre of 13 young black people in a fire in Deptford in January 1981. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by La Rose, organised a Black People's Day of Action on 2 March 1981, an event which brought some 25,000 people, predominantly black, to command the streets of London in protest.

In 1966, La Rose founded with Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey the highly influential Caribbean Artists Movement, an organisation that encouraged less well-known Caribbean and Caribbean-heritage artists. The work of CAM members had a profound influence on the growth of the black movement in education and later on the development of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books.

Organised by New Beacon Books, Bogle L'Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications, the first book fair was held at Islington Town Hall in London in March 1982, with C.L.R. James giving the opening address. Bringing together publishers, writers and artists from across five continents, the fair exposed a wide range of radical black books to a huge European audience, and provided a forum for sharing information about political struggles all over the world.

La Rose also found time to edit the half-yearly journal New Beacon Review and to write essays and poems. He published two volumes of poetry, Foundations (1966) and Eyelets of Truth Within Me (1991).

After the book fair ended in 1995, La Rose led the George Padmore Institute, a black history information centre, which stands as a monument to another giant in the anti-colonial movement. Padmore, also from Trinidad, played a pivotal role in the influential fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945. It was this conference that spurred the West Indian independence movement that so preoccupied the young John La Rose.

Gus John

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