Incendiary black working-class heroes
April 5, 2012 — Review
Written by Chris Searle
A book on black British strugglers opens up new vistas.
The other week I wandered down to Paradise Square, a vestige of Victorian Sheffield where the Chartists held their tempestuous meetings over a century and a half ago. There, on those cobbles, the black revolutionary William Cuffay, his parents from St. Kitts but he himself born during their ocean crossing to Britain and ‘cradled in the vast Atlantic’, made his rousing speeches on behalf of the whole working class of England, ‘levying war on the Queen’ and championing the Charter’s huge scope for social and political betterment.
Hassan Mahamdallie’s pamphlet, Black British Rebels: Figures from working class history is a marvellous and revelatory read. You can read its forty incendiary pages on a couple of bus rides, or for me, during an early morning rail commute across the Pennines. Very briefly, but with a powerful eloquence, it tells the stories of six inspiring black working-class leaders: Olaudah Equiano, born in Nigeria, a slave and then a ubiquitous anti-slavery militant; the mighty Cuffay, eventually transported to Tasmania and even there he never stopped resisting oppression; Robert Wedderburn – the ‘unquenchable firebrand of Regency London’; the Mumbai-born Communist MP for North Battersea from 1924, Shapurji Saklatvala; the Trinidad-born and New York-forged rebel of West London and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, Claudia Jones; and the precious Jayaben Desai, born in Gujerat in northern India, expelled from East Africa with thousands of others from Asian immigrant families only to become leader of the Grunwick strike in Willesden, north-west London in 1976-77. She mobilised the predominantly women workforce at a photography developer’s firm and gave new confidence to British workers all over the country for the anti-Thatcher struggles in the years ahead.
Each well-illustrated and telling narrative in the pamphlet is but an introduction to further and more detailed reading on each of the subjects, and Mahamdallie gives plenty of references to enable the reader to move on and learn more from longer and fuller works.
His true stories make our cities come alive in new and educative ways. Teachers and parents can introduce them to young people at home and school and together find the places in Manchester, for example, where Equiano poured out his oratory; or visit Claudia’s tomb, near to that of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery and walk the streets that she walked in Ladbroke Grove; or trace the site of the 1848 massive Chartist assembly on Kennington Common. Mahamdallie’s pamphlet is a key text for school history lessons and opens up new revolutionary vistas of struggle and experience for all of us, adults and children.
Buy a copy here
Black British Repels: Figures from working class history by Hassan Mahamdallie is available from Bookmarks for £3.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.