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'The movement created Darcus': In conversation with Leila Hassan Howe

The BFI’s upcoming programme from African Odysseys explores the life and activism of Darcus Howe, a broadcaster, writer and revolutionary who fought actively against racial injustice in Britain and beyond for over 50 years.

Through a series of talks and screenings at BFI Southbank from the 5th - 14th of November, Howe's legacy is remembered by guests including Tony Warner of Black History Walks, writer and exec producer Farrukh Dhondy, and Race Today Collective founding member and activist Leila Hassan Howe. Screenings will include TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA: IS THIS MY COUNTRY?, WHITE TRIBE, TROUBLE IN PARADISE and DARCUS HOWE: SON OF MINE.

Central to the Black Power movement of the late 60s and 70s, Howe organised many political campaigns, such as the historic Mangrove Nine trial in defence of the Mangrove Restaurant, and edited the Race Today journal for 11 years. Race Today, established in 1973, discussed race relations in Britain and the world, and Howe’s editorship radically transformed it into a collective that took action far beyond journalism itself.

Darcus Howe. Image credit: Shades of Noir

sweet-thang had the absolute honour to sit down briefly with Howe’s widow, Leila Hassan Howe, to talk about the activism of their time.

Zoe Thompson: What did publishing and broadcasting mean for highlighting Black radical thought, and how did the Race Today Collective facilitate that?

Leila Hassan Howe: So we were a collective of activists. All of us had come from the Black Power movement of the late 60s and early 70s. I was in the Black Unity and Freedom Party, Darcus in the Panthers, and other members of our collective were in the Brixton and Croydon Collective. So we had been very active, and all of these organisations had newspapers. We believed that the way to inform others of what we were doing was by publishing.

When Darcus took over Race Today, which existed as a journal before his editorship, he, in discussion with his great uncle C.L.R James, decided he would build an activist collective around a journal. It was a small collective. It wasn't a mass organisation.

There were more women than men in the collective, which sometimes isn't known. And we went around publishing a journal with a mission to record and recognise. We did not want it to be an academic or sociological journal that interpreted what people were doing to the wider community. We wanted the voices of those themselves to say what they were doing. So we were a vehicle for that.

We encouraged debate because we felt as a young community that the only way you can develop is through discussion and by conveying your ideas to someone disagreeing with you. - Leila Hassan Howe

Race Today Collective. Image credit: Novara Media

Side by side with the big political movement of the 70s, there was a huge artistic and cultural movement. A whole section of the magazine was called Creation for Liberation, and that was about the theatre, music and poetry movements happening at that time. The magazine talked about international politics as well because we were very conscious of what was going on in the Caribbean, in Africa, and elsewhere.

ZT: What was the daily routine of the Race Today Collective?

LH: We were activists. We would wake up in the morning and there were always things going on, whether it was campaigning against the police, engaging with issues in education, schooling, housing. We weren’t a group of intellectuals who decided we would do something, we were very much allied to what was going on from the ground. I think that was Race Today’s strength because it went from ‘73 to ‘88. So you're looking at a journal of 15 years of young activists publishing, discussing, clarifying.

We wanted different ideas as well; we didn't agree with everything that we published. There was no huge editorial team. We encouraged debate because we felt as a young community that the only way you can develop is through discussion and by conveying your ideas to someone disagreeing with you.

We squatted in the offices of Race Today, getting there probably around ten or eleven. And then we would stay until two or three in the morning. During that time, people visited us to tell us different things. We would read politics from all around the world and just discuss what was going on in our communities and whether we should intervene. It was a very fertile time.

ZT: I read that you described that time as a “political euphoria”, specifically concerning the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981. Can you say more about that feeling?

LH: Although things were hard, we had decided early on that we weren't going to be victims of racism. We were going to do something about it. We were on the move. We felt that we were creating change and we knew we were creating change, and we were happy to do so. And it was not a burden. It was something which we thrived on, which we believed in, and it helped us develop as people as well.

ZT: On a point of comparing the political landscapes of the 60s through to the 80s to now, what would you say defines radical Black thought/activism?

LH: One thing I try to make clear is that I am not an activist now, and because I'm not, I'm happy to say I don't know. I've read some of the material from Black Lives Matter - I was at one of the demonstrations myself. And of course, the big difference has to be social media and the way people connect as opposed to how we used to mobilise. We had to go and speak to people. I think when you engage with people and you're talking in a room with them, it’s different.

For example, when we were supporting Asian workers in Leicester on a strike, we went up to Leicester and we lived in their houses and we worked with them. That was the nature of our activism. I'm not sure that's the nature of activism now, but I don't have insight into how all radical political activists, apart from what you see online, live their daily lives. I know many of them have jobs, and I hear a lot of talk about being “exhausted”. It was never like that for us.

I do know young Black radicals, but because I'm not active at the movement, I don't have insight into daily what their lives are, or what they push for. I'm not going to say this is a criticism, but one of the things that people say to me about the Black Lives Matter movement is that we don't see what they stand for published anywhere. It probably means different things to different people, but that's why there isn't that cohesive ideology coming out of that movement. When I grew up, there was a cohesive ideology that came out of the political movements. I think activism just takes a different shape now, but I wouldn’t be able to comment on that shape.

ZT: I can see how activism has changed shape in that sense - from the physical spaces and proximity to how we communicate and mobilise with each other now.

Something that interests me is thinking about how space and identity interact with each other. In Travels with my Camera: Is This My Country? Darcus contemplates the theme of identity, revisiting his past growing up in Trinidad to ask who identifies as British. I know that you had quite a diverse upbringing as well. What did that conflict between British, “non-British” identity mean to you?

LH: So I think Travels With my Camera also talks about the transition that was going on in Race Today because what we realised was that our communities faced two ways. They faced their countries of origin; India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Barbados. As immigrants, they were as interested in those countries as they were in their life in Britain. But because it was very hard for that generation, many of them thought that they would only be [in Britain] short term.

in [Travels with My Camera], Darcus is looking at the transition from “we are immigrants living, working, and educating our children in England” to “we are British and Britain belongs to us” - Leila Hassan Howe

Of course, what happened with their children and subsequent generations is that the desire to return home ceased because people now felt that they were British, and in [Travels with My Camera], Darcus is looking at the transition from “we are immigrants living, working, and educating our children in England” to “we are British and Britain belongs to us”. And that, I think, is the change in the community that I've witnessed; that there's no question now that many Black people think that they're British.

White Tribe (2000) Image credit: BFI

When I grew up, there was always an unease about saying you're British because many people felt they weren't; they were Trinidadians who lived in Britain, or they were Jamaicans who lived in Britain. But you now have a younger generation that does not doubt in its mind that it's British, that a lot of their values and culture are from British society. But because they're Black, they've got an eye to Africa or to Black America, where, of course, Black culture is huge.

ZT: I recently had a conversation with my aunties and uncles, who are second-generation Jamaicans, about this. They were saying that they had a very strong sense of identity because their parents came from the Caribbean. But they also felt undeniably “Black British”. They don’t know if it’s the same for my generation. So it's interesting to see how questions of identity fluctuate. I have a very strong identity as Black British. But I'm not sure how strong my identity as a Jamaican is because when I go to Jamaica, it’s different.

LH: There isn’t that emotional connection.

ZT: Exactly.

LH: In Travels With my Camera, Darcus exemplifies how he has a huge emotional connection to Trinidad, and he did until the day he died.

White Tribe (2000) Image credit: BFI

ZT: Travels With my Camera, among other films in the programme, highlight the continuing theme of documentation and recording. This makes me think about how legacies and lives are ‘stored’ as archives. What do you think about that?

LH: So Darcus's archive is at Columbia University, sitting next to his great uncle, C.L.R James. Colombia negotiated with us to have Darcus's archives sit there. But we're now in discussion with Columbia about getting the archive digitised, whilst making sure it is put in the context of the movements of that time. And of course, we've discussed that we want that to be accessible, but we also don't want people just to download it and do what they like with it. So we're having that discussion right now. The Black Cultural Archives have Race Today. We’ve begun to talk to the BCA about us digitizing it ourselves.

Luckily for us, Columbia wants to work with us to digitise Darcus's archive. So you can be sure that when it finally goes up, it will be accessible, but it will also be in a context. It won't just be material for you to take something out, use yourself and put it in a completely different context than it was meant.

Darcus never believed in individual effort. Darcus built a collective because he believed in collective action - Leila Hassan Howe

So I think archives are important. Of course they are. But I think context is equally important. And we hope to place Darcus's archives in their specific context because otherwise things just appear to be individual effort and Darcus never believed in individual effort. Darcus built a collective because he believed in collective action. So this is what we will show in his archive. Although of course I'm going to say he was a great man, Darcus always believed he was the product of a movement. He didn't believe he created the movement. The movement created Darcus.

He didn't want to achieve in mainstream society either, which seems to be pushed for people to do now. He had no desire to get any kind of honour from the Queen. He didn't want any kind of status within the society. So that's important too because so much emphasis nowadays is brought on this “individual achievement”. Individuals doing this, getting this job, having this amount of money.

There was a current in our politics that wasn’t about individual achievement, despite believing that individuals should have the basis where they could achieve. It was not the be-all-end-all of what our struggle was about.

ZT: I can see that highlighted in the ethos of Race Today because it wasn't concerned with using fancy political jargon and centring the voices of a few public figures. It was a space for a collective and it represented that broad collectivity.

Off the back of Here to Stay, Here to Fight (Pluto Press, 2019) which is a record of the Race Today archives, would you say that it is almost like a resource for future generations?

LH: Race Today was always for people who thought; people who were thinking about their lives. It wasn't for mass consumption like a beauty magazine or something - that was never our aim. Darcus always used to make the point to me that being educated didn't make you an intellectual, and that you could be intellectual as a working-class person without a huge academic education behind you. So what our magazine aimed to do was just get people who were thinking to think more about what was going on and to come up with solutions.

And that's what [Here to Stay, Here to Fight] is aimed at. You have to want to think about race and racism to want to read the anthology, so it's not a popular book in that sense. It's not a biography, it's not someone telling their story. This is very much about people who are thinking about race and racism in society. That's what the book is aimed for.

Image credit: Pluto Press

ZT: Do you know much about zines as a medium?

LH: Not really, but I'm learning that now. Every year, Race Today used to produce an art magazine that was just devoted to culture, which was edited by Linton [Kwesi Johnson], but it was only on music, poetry, art, theatre, and had some discussion pieces as well.

For the fifth anniversary of Darcus’s death, which is April next year, we're producing a commemorative issue of Race Today, which will have a lot of arts and culture in it. So we're bringing out just probably the last commemorative issue based on what the magazine used to look like.

ZT: I will be first in line to buy that issue! I am super passionate about DIY publishing and the underground movement from which zines were birthed. I aim to continue engaging with radical publishing and echoing the ethos of journals and spaces such as Race Today.

LH: When I speak to you, I'm more optimistic, because it's people who are thinking about what they're doing rather than reacting to what is going on, and that's what you need. At this time, alternative thought to the mainstream bombardment that we get day in day out about what achievement looks like is the way to go.

BFI African Odysseys explore the life and work of Darcus Howe at BFI Southbank from 5-14 November

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