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STIMULATING DIALOGUE: Dr Paul Warmington

IT WAS Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight interview with Dizzee Rascal after US President Barack Obama’s victory six years ago that got academic Dr Paul Warmington thinking.

The interview highlighted something Warmington had been talking about for decades – how the media scrambles around for an intellectual black talking head when comments are required on anything from social unrest to the election of a black president.

No disrespect to the songwriter and MC Rascal, but it brought into focus a void that exists in Britain – there is a lack of black thinkers who are in prominence.

If people in the US were asked to name a black intellectual or writer, they would soon come up with names such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr, but in Britain it’s different.

Such names don’t roll off the tongue here, which prompted Warmington, a straight-talking senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham, to write a book on it all called Black British Intellectuals and Education: Multiculturalism’s Hidden History.

Warmington argues that black British thinkers have remained sidelined despite a robust roll-call of names such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, Una Marson, Claudia Jones, Ambalavaner Sivanandan and John La Rose.

He hopes the book, published last month, will not only be used in academia but will be a valuable “one-stop shop” to guide people.

“This book is not about me – it’s a signpost to make people aware of black intellectuals, not just in the ebony towers of universities, but those who spearheaded the grassroots black education movements such as Saturday schools and black bookshops,” said Warmington.

“Too often it’s been assumed that black communities are problems that have to be theorised by white intellectuals.

“But the other way of looking at this is how in the middle and late 20th Century Caribbean communities became the most militant drivers of the campaigns that grew around education.”

For Warmington, 50, who is also deputy director of Birmingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Education, opened last year by Doreen Lawrence, the passion for this subject started in the 1980s and 90s in the makeshift warehouse that houses black writing at Third World Publications in Birmingham.

“In that warehouse on the Stratford Road I spent four years shelving, boxing and reading what seemed to be a boundless compendium of black writing,” he writes in the book.

“But now sadly it’s all less widely read and, in some cases, out of print, along with the demise of so many black bookshops.”

One of Warmington’s greatest inspirations was Dr Stuart Hall, the Jamaica-born social theorist, who died last month, aged 82. As head of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall was a father figure to black and white scholars alike who pioneered a way of thinking about British life, politics and culture.

Warmington says: “His teaching and writing spanned the era of black power, the years of Thatcherism and the post 9/11 world. Too modest to consider himself a hero, he was one nonetheless.”

In his book Warmington quotes Hall at the start of one of his chapters: “White discourses have been constructing us as simpletons, as simple-minded primitives, a smiling country people not quite up to the fast ways of the advanced world for centuries ... it is a reading to be refused.”

But Warmington ends on an optimistic note, accepting that black British intellectual life has always veered between “alienation and belonging.”

He concludes: “I have been struck by how so much of what black intellectuals and educators struggled for in decades past has become integral to British education – its absence now unimaginable.”

Warmington’s book is published by Routledge

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