Today I had the privilege of viewing an exhibition in a library basement. The Islington (London) Museum is in the basement of the Islington Library, and at the moment they are having an exhibition on Trinidadian-born Briton John LaRose. LaRose wore several hats—poet, publisher and activist. As a poet, he never wrote a children’s book. As a publisher (founder of New Beacon Press, one of the oldest Black British presses), he published few works for children. But as an activist poet publisher, John LaRose had a huge effect on Black British children beginning in the 1960s—even if they did not know it.
First, LaRose was an activist who became involved in anti-racist campaigns in Britain. These included the anti-banding campaign in Haringey during 1969. Banding was used to sort students by “ability” based on intelligence testing (yet the majority of those labelled Educationally Sub-Normal were non-white). Often it meant that Black British students were sent to schools far from their home. LaRose campaigned against it—but he didn’t just go on marches. He set up a Supplementary School in his own home to provide extra tuition for Black British students—both in the traditional school subjects, and also in African history and culture. He taught in the school himself, and arranged field trips to places like the British Museum so students could see evidence of great African civilizations in history. Additionally, LaRose published Bernard Coard’s pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System in 1971. Coard had taught in London, and the work came from his doctoral thesis; it was widely influential in educational circles, especially as counteractive to more traditional discussions of the poor success rate of West Indians in British schools (many of which blamed the West Indians themselves). LaRose saw the value in speaking through many different mediums—protest, teaching, and academic discourse—to improve the lives of Black British children.
But LaRose was also a poet, a founding member of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement in 1966, a group set up to support the creative artists who had come to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The group met regularly until 1972, but even after they stopped formal meetings, LaRose continued to support these writers and artists. Errol Lloyd, a Jamaican-born artist, for example, designed the cover for Bernard Coard’s 1971 pamphlet. Many of the writers that LaRose knew from CAM were later published by New Beacon Press, including fellow CAM founders Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey. The bookshop that LaRose ran (New Beacon Books, which is still open and thriving today on Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park, London) also sold greeting cards created from the artists he knew at CAM, including Errol Lloyd and Aubrey Williams. He continued to support all these writers and artists at the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books, the first of which was held in 1982. The book fairs not only promoted the artists’ and writers’ work, it gave them space to perform and exhibit. Many of the artists and writers that LaRose supported in their early days went on to become children’s book illustrators and writers with other presses. LaRose gave people like Errol Lloyd, Karl Craig, and Petronella Breinburg the support and encouragement—and publication—they needed to go on to be successful.
In fact, the exhibit at Islington Museum nicely captures the spirit of John LaRose’s generosity by showcasing a book that he did not publish. Soon after Bernard Coard’s pamphlet was published, he asked LaRose that the profits from the book go to help another Black British publishing house—Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Bogle L’Ouverture Press—start a line in children’s books. LaRose was supportive, and the first book that Bogle L’Ouverture published for children was one written by Coard and his wife Phyllis, Getting to Know Ourselves (1972). This book was designed to make links between Black British children of West Indian parents and African children, to show their common heritage. Islington Museum have not only displayed all the pages of this book, but also set up part of their interactive table for children with page reprints for museum visitors to color. Some of the pages colored by children are pinned up under the exhibition poster, which shows an image of John LaRose. Although LaRose had nothing directly to do with the publication, he supported thosee involved—being the first publisher of Coard, helping the Huntleys with advice in setting up their publishing house, and supporting the education of Black British children, particularly in terms of their African heritage.
LaRose once wrote that he lived “on the sharp edge of hope/ on the testing road of an unending journey” (in his poem, “Unending Journey”). The hope he had for the future of Black British children had an edge to it for certain—he was constantly battling for them to have more success in their British lives—but his work took root, and continues today through his bookshop (which has a large section of children’s books), his own writings, and his influence on the next generation, people who would become the first generation of Black Britons. Thanks to the Islington Museum for making some of his unending journey visible to all. The exhibition runs until 29th August, in case you happen to be near London.