THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

28 November 2016

Foundations of a Movement

Celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books, the UK’s First Black Bookshop and Publisher

At the British Library on Saturday 3 December two events will celebrate 50 years of New Beacon Books: ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm).

‘The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books will be a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, film makers, and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions.’

This 1982 welcome statement by John La Rose of New Beacon Books, Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications heralded the start of the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, which would have twelve iterations between 1982 and 1995. Held at Islington Town Hall in 1982, then at Lambeth Town Hall a year later and at Acton Town Hall in 1984, from 1985 the Book Fair set up its London home at the Camden Centre in Kings Cross. These Book Fairs would prove to be groundbreaking in their mission to place literary and artistic production by people of colour from the UK and around the world at the centre — and by 1995 some 114 exhibitors from nearly 30 countries were attending.

  BF Aerial Shot Islington Town Hall
                Islington Town Hall, 1982

 

The International Book Fairs didn’t come about just by accident, though. They were in no small part due to one of the founders of the UK’s first black bookshop and publisher, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. New Beacon Books was founded as a publishing house in August 1966 by John La Rose, with the active support and assistance of Sarah White. La Rose, who was born in Trinidad in 1927 and who died in February 2006, was a poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist and cultural and political activist. By the time he arrived in Britain in 1961, he had already been engaged for nearly 20 years in anti-colonial and workers’ struggles in the Caribbean. That engagement taught him that colonial policy was based on a deliberate withholding of information from the population, leading to a discontinuity of information from one generation to the next. Publishing, therefore, was a way of establishing an independent validation of one’s own culture, history and politics; and it could also act as a vehicle between generations to build on what had gone before. This is the concept that has been at the very heart of the work of New Beacon since it began.

Around the same time as the founding of New Beacon Books, John La Rose, the Jamaican writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite founded the Caribbean Artists Movement in London — which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In March 1967 Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry reading of ‘Rights of Passage’ (the first part of his seminal trilogy of poems The Arrivants) was organised by New Beacon Books at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London. The event was the public launch of the Caribbean Artists Movement and also publicised the first two New Beacon publications, a book of poetry called Foundations by John La Rose and a book on Marcus Garvey by Adolph Edwards.

From this time, stimulated by the demand for books after the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement, New Beacon also went into bookselling. Demand for black literature increased further as the black consciousness and black activist movements from various parts of the world impacted on the UK. From 1967 New Beacon began producing specialist catalogues of Caribbean materials, which combined works in English, French and Spanish. Later catalogues also included work from Black British, African and African-American writers. The bookshop, which started as a bag of books in a bed-sitter, then moved to the bottom floor of the home of John La Rose and Sarah White, arrived at its present location in Stroud Green Road in 1973.

                 Bookshop

At the start of the 1980s Britain was rocked by a number of riots in the inner cities of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham. The frustration of black youths at years of sub-standard education, being criminalised by an institutionally racist police force and judicial system, and various other factors boiled over into the streets. In some ways, the riots prompted a positive response from both black and white progressives within the UK, who became even more aware of the need for material that gave Britain’s ethnic minorities a positive sense of self and that challenged the everyday racism faced by these populations.

John La Rose and other activist colleagues and comrades in New Beacon had already by this time formed the political and cultural Alliance of the Black Parents Movement, the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective. There was also a unity of purpose with the black radical publishers Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, set up in 1968 by Eric and Jessica Huntley in West London. In the early 1980s, out of the common vision between New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture and the Race Today Collective, was born the idea of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. It was a pioneering vision which would come to fruition in 1982, which would produce twelve Book Fairs and numerous accompanying cultural events at each one – including the iconic International Poetry Nights – and which would pave the way for every British black, Asian and minority ethnic cultural initiative thereafter.

On 3 December 2016, the 50th anniversary of New Beacon Books will be celebrated at two special events at the British Library. ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ by Professor Gus John will sketch out 50 years of Black British activism whilst ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ will capture the cultural vision of the International Book Fairs with a ten-poet reading fest, hosted by Linton Kwesi Johnson.

by Sharmilla Beezmohun

‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm) celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books is on at the British Library on Saturday 3 December. Tickets available at www.bl.uk

For more information on the history of New Beacon Books and related activist organisations, please visit The George Padmore Institute at www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org