Get Up! Stand Up!

February 10, 2011 — Comment

Written by Colin Prescod

Colin Prescod, the IRR’s chair, addresses the sixth Huntley Archives conference ‘Get Up! Stand Up!’

This year’s conference centres on struggles for Black community in Britain, waged over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s.

For Caribbeans, in particular, these local UK struggles were at first part and parcel of a broader politics of liberation and freedom – anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, and therefore anti-racist. The campaign slogans of the time were militant. And that militancy inflected our poetry and song. ‘Get up, stand up!’ urged poet-musician Peter Tosh. The mood was insurrectionary. The most radical of us aspired to establishing our own non-exploitative, non-capitalist, democratic ‘bespoke’ socialisms, back home. Cuba’s was a very Caribbean revolution.

Eventually, as migrants began to put down roots in the UK, there was a turn to ‘here to stay, here to fight’ struggles. For a relatively brief moment, maybe a decade and a half, alongside other migrant-settlers with colonial pasts – from the Indian sub-continent and from continental Africa – we forged the idea of ‘Black’ not as a label for skin colour but as a political colour: the colour of resistance to all race and class injustices.

We fought back against insults and physical attacks in public places, as well as against being reduced, in effect, to a second-class citizenship. These struggles were about belonging – about the right to have full and fair access to citizens’ rights, and about the conditions on which we were prepared to belong. We were going to have to change this place, if we were to live here in a dignified way. And given that the existing systems and institutions were not geared to the kind of liberation we aspired to, a further tenet of these early campaign struggles was the centrality of ‘self-help’ strategies.

We demonstrated and protested loudly about inequalities in schooling, housing, healthcare, law enforcement, and policing – and at the very same time, we set up our own community supplementary schools and social and legal advice centres. We objected to political disenfranchisement and exclusion – and at the same time we formed our own political orgnisations and campaigns, some liberal, some revolutionary. We railed against the whiting out of our part of the story, in relation to the official versions of British history – and at the same time, by religious as well as secular routes, we set up any number of organisations and events devoted to de-colonising our minds. We raged about ill-informed media reporting, as well as the about the absence of properly researched literature on the Black experience, contemporary and historical – and at the same time we encouraged scholarship and new writing by and about Black experience, and we established newspapers and magazines, as well as publishing houses and specialist book-shops. Of all these things the Huntley Archives speak volumes – because Jessica and Eric Huntley were initiators and participants on the frontline of the entire spread of these campaigns.

Back then, campaign struggles supported resistance and nurtured rebellion. This was the burden of our tradition – from invasion and capture, to transportation, to plantation enslavement and indenture, to colony, and now to migration and settlement in Britain. The full weight of all this history culminated in explosive street rebellions, peppering the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. The summer of 1981 marked the apogee – when there were riots, simultaneously, in more than thirty UK towns and cities.

The establishment cracked. We were offered anti-racist and equal opportunities legislation, of a sort. Some of us were even recruited to join the untransformed mainstream. We also witnessed a multitude of multi-culturist and diversity policy initiatives.

And yet, in October 2010, some three decades after that summer of 1981, the state’s very own Equality and Human Rights Commission report revealed the facts that today in the UK proportionately more young Black men are incarcerated than in the USA; that Black youth (2-3 per cent of the population) are fifteen times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts; and that Black Caribbean and Pakistani babies are twice as likely as white babies to die in their first year. This is devastating evidence of the persistence of race and class discrimination, aggravated now by a rampant ‘Islamophobia’.

Back in the day, we resisted imaginatively and rebelled courageously to some effect, but we did not make a revolution. We won significant anti-racist battles, but we did not win the war against racism.

This conference is asking a question of our ‘now’. We need to do more than just reminisce about some glorious past age.

Related links

London Metropolitan Archives

Download a flyer for this event here (pdf file, 549kb)

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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