The Sharp Edge of Hope: John LaRose and Children

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.

How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971) by Bernard Coard. 51pp.

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.

From the exhibit, a selection of children's books--only one of which LaRose's New Beacon Press actually published, but all of which he supported in some way.

From the exhibit, a selection of children’s books–only one of which LaRose’s New Beacon Press actually published, but all of which he supported in some way.

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.

Children's coloring pages at the Islington exhibit: proof that LaRose's unending journey of influence continues.

Children’s coloring pages at the Islington exhibit: proof that LaRose’s unending journey of influence continues.

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Sharp Edge of Hope: John LaRose and Children

  1. Beverley Naidoo

    It’s so good to see the seminal work of John La Rose remembered as inspiration for the “unending journey”. John and his wife Sarah offered founts of knowledge at New Beacon Books which I began visiting as a young teacher in north London in the late 1960s, looking for books not only for myself but for my young students many of whom had been born in the Caribbean. Bernard Coard’s pamphlet made absolute sense of the struggles in which I found myself engaged in a ‘comprehensive’ secondary school where my ‘remedial’ class was effectively segregated from the rest of the school’s ‘mixed ability’. I wrote about those years in a personal essay ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ that I included in an anthology I later edited, Free As I Know, named after Accabre Huntley’s beautiful short poem (first published in her collection At School Today by Bogle-L’Ouverture, set up by her parents).

    When I became a parent, it was to New Beacon that I looked in the early 1970s for books with affirmative images of black children. There were precious few but it was there that I found imports from the USA (e.g. by Jack Ezra Keats, John Steptoe…) and where I was introduced to Petronella Breinburg’s and Errol Lloyd’s vibrant Sean books. In 1985, the La Roses also stocked my Journey to Jo’burg when it came out in its original Longman education edition. Most bookshops would only stock books in ‘trade’ editions. What mattered to the La Roses was the content and I have no doubt that they were part of spreading the word that helped the little book begin its wider journey. The road John wrote about as unending, remains as testing as ever, if not more so. But thanks for this posting and reminding us of his phrase “the sharp end of hope”. Let’s hope this exhibition from the George Padmore Institute travels far and wide.

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