John La Rose: intellectual beacon

Simon Lee remembers John La Rose, the Trinidad-born writer, publisher, and activist

John La Rose. Photograph by Armet Francis/Courtesy www.black-history-month.co.uk

With the death of John La Rose in London, Trinidad and the whole Caribbean have lost a multi-talented intellectual and activist, while the black British community mourns the passing of an elder statesman.

Poet, publisher, filmmaker, cultural and political activist, and tireless campaigner for social justice, La Rose belongs in the pantheon of pan-Caribbean radicals and revolutionary activists along with José Martí, Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Franz Fanon, and Fidel Castro.

Born in Arima in colonial Trinidad, son of a cocoa trader and a teacher, at nine La Rose won a scholarship to prestigious St Mary’s College in Port of Spain. But, like another Trini Renaissance man, C.L.R. James, he eschewed indentureship in academia for the challenge of changing the world. As a young man he embraced the nascent labour and cultural activism of the Anglophone Caribbean’s colonial societies, working towards independence and autonomy. An executive member of the Youth Council of Trinidad, he helped produce its fortnightly radio programme, Noise of Youth, and was instrumental in founding the Workers Freedom Movement, editing its journal Freedom. As general secretary of the West Indies Independence Party, he contested a seat in the Trinidad general election of 1956, after British colonial authorities had banned him from other West Indian islands. A member of the rebel faction of the Trinidad and Tobago Oilfield Workers Trade Union that took control in 1962, he served as the OWTU’s European representative from that date until his death.

After teaching at his alma mater and working as an insurance executive, La Rose taught in Venezuela before migrating to London in 1961, where he was to play a major role in championing, developing, and defining the black community. In 1966 he founded the New Beacon Bookshop, whose name deliberately recalled the Trinidadian Beacon cultural group of the 1920s. New Beacon was the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop, and international book service in Britain, reprinting classic texts like J.J. Thomas’s Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar and Froudacity and James’s Minty Alley, along with such new works as Wilson Harris’s Tradition, the Writer, and Society, Ivan Van Sertima’s Caribbean Writers, Adolph Edwards’s Marcus Garvey, and Andrew Salkey’s Georgetown Journal.

Along with the Caribbean Artists Movement – which La Rose co-founded with Kamau Brathwaite and Salkey, also in 1966 – New Beacon was both a continuation of Caribbean anti-colonialism and a vital resource for combating the alienation experienced by Caribbean and other ethnic minorities within mainstream British society. By making Caribbean and black literature accessible to these communities, La Rose’s intention was to “give some sense of what is important, so they get some sense of what they need to know to transform their lives.

“This pioneering, educative spirit informed all his projects. He became a prime mover in the black education movement of the 1960s, campaigning against the practice of putting Caribbean children in schools for the educationally sub-normal, and in 1969 founding the George Padmore Supplementary School for them. He was one of the founders of the Caribbean Education in Community Workers Association, which published Bernard Coard’s influential How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub Normal in the British School System (1971). In 1975, La Rose co-founded the Black Parents Movement, campaigning against the brutalisation and criminalisation of black youth, and in 1981 he formed the New Cross Massacre Committee, mobilising a protest march of twenty thousand in response to an arson attack that killed thirteen black youths.

Recognised as a leading “Black British public intellectual”, La Rose was called upon to chair the Institute for Race Relations in 1972, and sat on the committee of the organisation Towards Racial Justice, which published the campaigning journal Race Today.

Along with his two volumes of poetry and the documentaries he made on the black British church and the “Mangrove Nine”, two of La Rose’s most outstanding achievements were the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-95) and the founding in 1991 of the George Padmore Institute, a library and archive of the black British experience. La Rose was an inspiration and support to other migrant intellectuals, and mentor to generations of black British youth. His easygoing erudition and generosity of spirit will be sorely missed, while his legacy lives on in New Beacon and the George Padmore Institute.