Tag Archives: Supplementary Schools

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.

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Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.

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Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.

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This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.

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Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.

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Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.

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Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.

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Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children

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One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.

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I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.

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Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)

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Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.

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R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.

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.