Call to Action - 11 Lessons from an Experienced Activist

Call to Action - 11 Lessons from an Experienced Activist

At the end of 2020, I talked to Mr. Michael La Rose, writer, activist, and Co-director of New Beacon Books in London for the second episode of "Inclusory“. 

For many reasons, this would prove to be a remarkable conversation. When I first came across New Beacon Books online while researching London bookstores for a different article I spontaneously thought that it would be very interesting to talk to the people who run the shop about the role of black literature in the fight for social justice for the black diaspora across the globe in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I would soon learn, that I had guilelessly stumbled across a London flagship for African, Asian, Caribbean, and Black British literature and culture, a research center and a place of legendary activism.

New Beacon Books was founded by Michael’s father, John La Rose with his partner Sarah White, in 1966 (1) as a bookstore and a publishing house. John La Rose had realized the necessity of describing the colonial past and the postcolonial experience from the point of view of the colonized – New Beacon Books would become the headquarters of this operation. Starting with nothing more than a few boxes over the years the London institution found a home in Finsbury Park and an expansion with the adjunct George Padmore Institute, also founded by John La Rose, a research center for black Caribbean, African and Asian art and history. With its foundation already having been an act of political and cultural activism New Beacon Books was always more than a publishing company or a bookshop. It became a center for political activism with groups and movements forming there between the books. Michael became an activist in his own right and amongst many other things co-founded the Black Youth Movement that fought against police brutality and fit-ups and was active from 1970 up until 1990. 

The discovery of a legacy in the fight for social justice evokes mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is respect and gratefulness for the sacrifices of the ones who came before for the change they have already achieved for the benefit of future generations. Then, there is disbelief and shock at the realization that what they fought for then, activists fight for today and that these same issues prevail and are still not overcome. Finding out about the Black Youth movement naturally drew the comparison with the Black Lives Matter movement. The United States are a different country with a different history, of course, however, the histories of slavery and of colonialism are clearly linked. Furthermore, Great Britain is self-critically facing the racist part of its colonial past and the systemic racism of its postcolonial present also only very recently (as do many other countries in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement). 

On “Inclusory” Michael told me that he went to the Black Lives Matter marches with his grandchildren. Against the backdrop of his lifelong activism, this particular intergenerational activity seemed quite touching. Throughout our conversation, it also became very apparent that he, much like his father, wants to teach younger generations about black British history and that he sees New Beacon Book's role as first and foremost an educational one. What it boils down to is knowing the history and taking action in the face of civil injustice. And reading, of course.  Listening to him talk about the continuity of history seemed similarly comforting and admonishing. In it, who he calls the “social media activists” become part of a timeline. They may have changed the game but they are still part of a tradition. In a time where child activists have to hold adults accountable who fail to raise to their unwritten intergenerational task of protecting them and their futures, the fact that he as a representative of a much older generation of activists acknowledges that they follow in a tradition is remarkable in itself. As is the similarity in mindsets when comparing his reasoning with many of the younger generation's activists.

There are many quotable thoughts Michael La Rose verbalized on “Inclusory”. 
Here are some of them, paraphrased and put in a nutshell for the sake of adhering to the rules of a catchy bullet list: 

  1. Mass movements are temporary. Their importance lies in a raising of consciousness which hopefully persists. A specialized bookshop and cultural center like New Beacon Books depends on mass movements which makes business volatile.
  2. Whoever owns the narrative defines history: Knowing about the struggles is power because the struggles never stopped. They continued from slave trade to colonialism, to neocolonialism and the struggle against neoliberalism. John la Rose’s generation, who was part of the generation of struggles from slave trade to trade unions to battles for independence, brought the struggles to Britain in the 1950s. When he realized the rulers kept them away from the history of previous generations' struggles he founded New Beacon Books.
  3. Information about your history is power and publishing is a technique to obtain it. Turning New Beacon Books into a press meant fighting the dominance of Metropolitan publishers and their control of information.
  4. Community is above-all important: Activism as in John La Rose’s case is often most effective when it involves many people with similar ideas working together. They then provided the ground on which the “Black Parents Movement" and the “Black Youth Movement” could be formed. First came the heroic generation (John La Rose), then the rebels (Michael La Rose).
  5. What made the Black Lives Matter Movement so distinct from previous black rights movements such as the Black Youth Movement was that it involved social media on an unprecedented scale, that the white population in the US visibly showed their support in unprecedented numbers (Michael talks about a “liberation of progressive Whites”)  and that it was global.
  6. Words alone do not change anything, however, they can support, inform and give direction – this is the importance of culture.
  7. On the one hand, the dominance of metropolitan publishers lessens creativity and diversity. On the other hand, black culture and art are now mainstream – publishers see money in it and a broader public can access the material which potentially helps to move equality along.
  8. Literature and poetry help internally processing the trauma of oppression. Novels can celebrate aspects of culture while still exploring the consequences of “mental slavery” (Bob Marley, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o).
  9. Connect with the younger generations and meet them where they are: As the struggle of independent bookshops continues, New Beacon Books is set up to connect with the new generation of activists – the social media generation - and is rooting for their support.
  10. Lifelong learning is key. Michal quotes his father who said: “You go to school for schooling but you can educate yourself anytime.”
  11. The main power of an activist lies in their ability to transform ideas into action: Michael states that the Caribbean peoples’ tradition goes back way past John La Rose, but John La Rose was able to “crystalize it into action”. He stresses the importance of putting ideas into action in order to “make a better world.”

Listen to our full conversation here

(1) “The Story of New Beacon Books” on https://www.newbeaconbooks.com/

CONTACT New Beacon Books

www.newbeaconbooks.com

@newbeaconbooks

https://www.facebook.com/newbeaconbooks/

CONTACT George Padmore Institute (founded by John La Rose, research center, library)

https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/

MORE on Michael La Rose

https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/Trustees/michael-la-rose

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Tatjana V. is an academic with a passion for intercultural communication, human rights and peacebuilding, children's rights, new technology, lifelong learning, literature, film and media culture.... Show more
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