Small Axe and the legacies of Black culture and resistance in the UK

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, the new anthology series about Black British life in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (available on Amazon Prime in the US) has had critical acclaim heaped on it, and rightly so. The series offers a window on to an important era whose protagonists nurtured radical visions, produced and consumed new genres of style and music, and navigated the everyday complexities of being postcolonial subjects in a waning empire.

These are the children of the so-called Windrush Generation, who began arriving in the country in 1948 from the Caribbean to fill labor shortages in the post-war era, endured substandard housing, low wages, police abuse, and racial hostility from white Britons.

The first two episodes of Small Axe premiered take up political and cultural themes respectively in this immigrant history that is so richly political and cultural. The first story in the series, Mangrove, takes up the courtroom case of the “Mangrove Nine” – nine activists charged with inciting a riot at protest in 1970 against the police targeting of a West Indian restaurant and gathering place in the Notting Hill section of London. We are introduced to British Black Panther founder Altheia Jones-LaCointe (Letitia Wright) and Trinidadian radical Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).

Representing themselves in the trial at the Old Bailey, Jones-LaCointe and Howe turned the tables, putting the British state on trial for its systemic racist brutality. In a brief voice-over read by Kirby, we hear the words of Howe’s great uncle, the Trinidadian historian, social critic and revolutionary C.L.R. James describing the rebelling young Black British as “new types of human beings” in whom “are to be found all the traditional virtues of the English nation, not in decay as they are in official society, but in full flower because these men have perspective.”

While “Mangrove” stays focused on the case of the Mangrove Nine, within a couple of years, Darcus Howe would go on to make his mark on British political life through the magazine Race Today, which began with C.L.R. James’s proposition that Black Britons were not victims, but protagonists who should play a central role in the liberation of the entire British working class. Race Today was a leading force in campaigns around housing, immigration, racist policing, fascist street attacks, women’s liberation, and labor exploitation.

McQueen’s second story, “Lover’s Rock,” takes place nearly a decade later and depicts an all-night house party with Caribbean food and drink, and d.j.s playing the hits of the moment, from Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ to Gregory Isaac’s ‘Mr. Brown,’ to Carl Douglass’s ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ This tableau of Black British working-class life does not focus on politics in any direct way, except in the clear sense that Black Britons carved out their own social and cultural practices on the margins of British society where the threat of police raids and racist attack still loomed. In this sense “Lover’s Rock” is tied back to “Mangrove,” at the heart of which was the defense of the right of Black people to gather socially.

Indeed, Howe’s Race Today magazine would come to focus much of its energy on the question of culture. The arts editor of the magazine was the great Jamaican-British reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, also known by his initials LKJ. In fact the producer and arranger of LKJ’s music, Dennis Bovell, was at the heart of British lover’s rock music as well, plays a character in the film. Early campaigns in which collective members played key roles included the 1976 defense of Notting Hill Gate Carnival, a spirited Caribbean festival in West London routinely attacked by police and threatened by politicians. Creation for Liberation, the cultural arm of Race Today, sponsored tours by writers and performers from across the diaspora including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange; and Jamaican poets Jean “Binta” Breeze, Michael “Mikey” Smith, and Oku Onuora. The question of reggae’s political importance was debated in the pages of Race Today in exchanges between LKJ and Farrukh Dhondy (writing under the name “Red Fred”).

In those decades on the streets, blues parties, and dancehalls Black Britons increasingly began to make sense of their conditions through American soul and Jamaican reggae; through homegrown British outfits like Matumbi, Aswad, and sound system operators like Jah Shaka. Later in the industrial midlands, Steel Pulse, a band from the working-class town of Handsworth openly declared that it would “hunt the National Front” – a far-right, racist political party whose skinhead street thugs who menaced Caribbean and South Asians in the 1970s.

Here is an interview I conducted earlier this year with Race Today editor (and widow of Darcus Howe) Leila Hassan Howe and Black Panther founder and Race Today member Farrukh Dhondy which tells more of the Race Today’s legacy. And here is an interview I did with Linton Kwesi Johnson where he traces the history of the “rebel generation” as he calls it, and discusses the relationship between culture and politics.

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