Race Matters

Deep Roots - a story of Black British Publishing

The name of John La Rose is synonymous with independent radical Black publishing in Britain and the Caribbean. A committed trade unionist, activist, and poet in his native Trinidad, La Rose came to London in 1961 with sophisticated ideas on the relationship between print and politics formed by the anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean.

The power of British imperialism and colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean stemmed not only from physical force, but from its ability to Name. Like the flora and fauna, the indigenous people of these “new” lands were cut, catalogued, and classified. The data accumulated assisted in consolidating Britain’s power and its ability to manufacture and regulate what was known about “Others” and through colonial educational practice, what they were allowed to know about themselves. The printing press, introduced in the 1400’s, become the machine through which new narratives were recorded; publishers became the channel through which they were disseminated.

“The old publishing firms”, La Rose wrote to a friend in 1969, “[…] grew up within the colonial preferential market, and not only gave us the word but told us how to use it”. Having grown up within a colonial society, he envisioned a tradition of publishing which gave “an independent validation of one’s own culture, history, and politics”. Publication, he wrote, “implies autonomy and initiative-the validation of ourselves. That’s why I founded New Beacon Books”.

John La Rose and his partner, Sarah White, launched New Beacon, one of Britain’s first radical Black publishing houses in 1966, from their bedsit in Haringey. They contributed to the momentum of radical Black activity and debate taking place internationally. They brought back out-of-print works and rare works which illustrated the themes and concerns of New Beacon. Their first publication, a volume of La Rose’s poems, Foundations, served as a declaration of historical consciousness.

La Rose, Barbadian poet, literary critic and historian Kamau Braithwaite and Jamaica poet, novelist, academic and broadcaster Andrew Salkey formed the pioneering Caribbean Artist Movement (CAM). Using their Honda 50 as transport, La Rose and White sold New Beacon publications at CAM events, in addition to distributing friend’s writing, or facilitating their requests for books. The Caribbean Artist Movement grew into a major literary and cultural movement and assisted in generating a cultural resurgence among West Indians living in Britain. As a result of the demand for books CAM produced, New Beacon grew through an informal distribution network into a booksellers and international book service.

Sarah White describes how the book-laden bedsit, the site of New Beacon activity for many years, gave way to larger premises in 1969. While the third floor was rented out to a lodger and the second floor was used for living, the bottom floor of their new house was converted into a shop front for New Beacon Books. The house became a landmark for readers, thinkers and doers from all walks of life, and it wasn’t unusual, to be disturbed late at night by someone hoping to buy a book. In the archives, several correspondents recall with fondness the kitchen table at No.2 Albert Road, a place of impromptu discussion and debate where new and important ideas were born around cups of tea.

New Beacon Books became a hub for local community activism and as an independent publishing initiative, played a vital role in the struggle Black people faced against police brutality, criminalisation, unemployment and racism in Britain. Among many initiatives, La Rose and White were part of the Black Education Movement in the 1960’s which agitated for better state education and founded the George Padmore Supplementary School for West Indian Children in 1969. New Beacon’s first best-seller would be Bernard Coard's ground-breaking ‘How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System’. The nation-wide Alliance of the Black Parents Movement that emerged from the Black Education Movement would become “the most powerful cultural and political movement organised by black people in Britain”.

In addition to social and educational reform, New Beacon worked with Black publishing peers, Race Today Publications and Bogle L'Ouverture Publications in pioneering the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-1995). Introduced as a unique "meeting of the continents”, the book fair brought together people from across the globe concerned with the Caribbean, African and black diaspora to participate in debates, readings, films, forums in an exploration of links, visions and dreams.

In the period of decolonisation and migration to Britain in which it was founded, New Beacon understood the importance of the role of the writer and the publishing industry in mediating a collective sense of the past. As a publishing house and booksellers, it developed into a fully integrated part of a small but powerful diasporic ecosystem with links ranging from the Notting Hill Carnival to the Oilfield Workers Trade Union in Trinidad. By choosing the path of slow organic growth over the temptation of institutional funding through which many bookshops eventually collapsed, New Beacon worked successfully to establish a form of autonomy within the British literary market. Re-appropriating the means through which identity, history and culture were produced, it handed information and the regulatory power of narrative back to Black communities. In doing so, New Beacon crafted innovative relationships between activism and print and bookshops as a site of education and spatial assemblage.

Learn more about New Beacon Books on their website.

Photograph Sarah White, co-founder of New Beacon Books.

This article was originally published in the second issue of Oomk Magazine.

Get Oomk updates on Twitter or Facebook.
  Share this post

Help us end racism

As an independently funded charity we rely on the support of generous individuals to continue our work.