John La Rose: Dream to change the world

 John La Rose 1981 by Toni Gorton

John La Rose 1981 by Toni Gorton

Poet, essayist, publisher and  activist, John La Rose was all of these and more in a life dedicated to cultural and political change.

Having been involved in workers’ rights movements in his native Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s, he settled in London where he became a leading voice in the  black community.

Eager to demonstrate the integral link between art and politics, he was a founder member of the groundbreaking Caribbean Artists Movement, which attempted to define a black aesthetic.

But he was also a man of the streets and headed a number of now historic campaign groups in the 1960s and ’70s, including the Black Parents Movement.

When he died in 2006 aged 78, his most visible legacy was  New Beacon Books in Stroud Green Road, north London, the first black publishing house and bookshop  in the UK, which reflected his love of learning and the need to spread the word.

In his own words, he dared to “dream to change the world” , the inspiration behind the title of  a  just opened  exhibition into his life and legacy.

Based on photos, leaflets, artwork and  letters,  it covers La Rose’s arrival in London in 1961 and the numerous organisations he became involved with over the years.

La Rose launches the latest book by the Cuban writer Nicolas Guillen in New Beacon Books in 1976

La Rose launches the latest book by the Cuban writer Nicolas Guillen in New Beacon Books in 1976

As such it is as much an important record of early black political struggles and creative and intellectual awakenings as it is of La Rose’s own extraordinary journey.

Debate and discussion were central to his activism and there is  a reconstruction of the famous  table in the kitchen of his home, around which many important ideas were born over cups of tea.

The house was the early home of New Beacon Books, where books were stacked in the front room for distribution to events and meetings.  One photo shows Sarah White, La Rose’s partner, delivering a load of them on her scooter.

It was part of the “blueprint for collective action”,   La Rose’s son, Michael, said at the exhibition’s launch last week. “Start where you are. Start small, build slowly and consolidate.”

And so it proved. From being at the forefront of the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, in which 20,000 people marched through central London in protest at the muted official response to a fire in which 13 black youngsters died, La Rose helped found the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books.

Held between 1982 and 1995 at a range of venues, including the Camden Centre and Islington Town Hall, London, they became landmark gatherings, attended by literary luminaries from all over the world, Wole Soyinka and N’gugi wa Thiongo among them. Its first edition was opened by the Trinidadian scholar and writer, CLR James.

Like so many of  La Rose’s achievements depicted at this exhibition, the fairs demonstrated the power of the dream.

Dream to Change the World: the Life and Legacy of John La Rose is at the Islington Museum, St John St, London EC1,  until August 29

Article first published in Islington Tribune, May 28 2015

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