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Professor Gus John: Fighting the higher power

ACTIVIST, ACADEMIC AND GRIOT: Professor Gus John, pictured here at home in north London [PHOTO CREDIT: Rod Leon]

WHEN PROFESSOR Gus John first arrived in Britain from Grenada on August 20, 1964 to study theology at the University of Oxford, the civil rights movement was well underway in the US and reverberating around the world.

A few months after John’s arrival, Malcolm X debated at the Oxford Union (December 3, 1964) and Martin Luther King Jr had on December 6, 1964, addressed thousands of people at St Paul’s Cathedral en route to collect the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

It was a time of political turbulence and consciousness-raising, or as John puts it, “yes, there was a lot going on”.

For John, then training to become a Catholic priest of the Dominican order, it was becoming harder to reconcile his rapidly developing political beliefs with the behaviour of the church and “its engagement or, indeed, collusion with the apartheid regime in South Africa” and lack of support of liberation movements.

PUBLISHED

By 1967, in the same year that Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton published Black Power, John broke from the church and under the tutelage of men like John La Rose, the founder of New Beacon Books and later chairman of the George Padmore Institute, started a lifelong journey as an educationalist, political activist and committed Pan-African.

He tells The Voice: “I respect Christianity but I am an active practitioner in the Yoruba tradition, so I would be called a babalawo [father of secrets] and I embrace the Ifá tradition wholly and unapologetically. In fact, ever since I was a child that was what the elders in my village did.

“Religion is about taking care of the soul and reap the rewards in heaven,” John explains with a cynical laugh. He adds: “If you are going to stand up for Jesus – and that is fine I will sing the hymn with you – it also means standing up for justice. What good is it if everytime my neighbour is conked on the head, I rush round with plasters to patch up their wound but don’t concern myself with who it is that is doing my neighbour harm and what I can do to stem that abuse of power? It doesn’t make any sense. I am not turning the other cheek to anybody. I am not that masochistic. You hit my cheek once, you won’t get the opportunity to do it again – no matter who you are.”

STINTS

John, who now lives in Golders Green, north London, after stints lecturing at universities in Manchester and Glasgow, was certainly up for the fight.

While in Oxford, he had been involved with Caribbean children whose fathers worked at the Austin-Morris car plant and mothers at the John Radcliffe and Churchill hospitals who were having a testing time in school, where many were considered ‘educationally subnormal.’

He became a member of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), credited as Britain’s first civil rights organisation, founded by fellow Grenadian, Lord Pitt, and by 1981, John was the northern organiser of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee following the tragic deaths of 13 young black people who burned under suspicious circumstances.

John helped to mobilise support for the Black People’s Day of Action on March 2 of the same year which made history as one of the largest demonstrations led by people of colour ever held in Britain.
By 1989, the father-of-six was breaking barriers again as the country’s first black director of education, at the London borough of Hackney.

These events and others are now the subject of the documentary Fifty Years of Struggle, screened at the British Film Institute (BFI) last Saturday, featuring a Q&A session hosted by Guardian journalist Gary Younge who flew in from Chicago for the occasion.

John is pleased with the results. He explains: “The film documents the struggles I have been involved with, but it’s about the movement. It features interviews with the people I know, lots of archival material and it ends in a very exciting way. Young boys and girls reflect on the film, on how much they knew or didn’t know about those events, what they considered the significance of the film was and the way they see Britain in the future.”

CHANGE

Pondering today’s climate, John adds: “If there is one thing that bothers me it is that there is a sense of being defeated or a lack of belief that by acting collectively you can bring about change.

“In the Sixties we had a common understanding of what the dangers were, what the issues were. A common experience of visceral racism. We united around various struggles. What concerns me now is that all we have done since the 1960s, the work we did at CARD which led directly to the enactment of the 1968 Race Relations Act outlawing discrimination in employment and so on, all of those struggles, people today don’t understand them. They believe they are starting from scratch with no foundation to draw from as they determine to organise themselves to face the future.

“I see my role now as helping young people to understand and fill the gaps in their own education.
“It’s the reason that I write as I do [prolifically, on his blog]. It’s about making sure no one can say after I passed on that I did not make a contribution to future generations of black people. We have a historical responsibility to record those things to assist young people, not just in understanding them as dead history but how it influences what they do now.”

One of the biggest changes, says John, is less enthusiasm for black communities filling their own gaps such as supplementary schools to temper the very white Eurocentric curriculum, as well as a lack of independent pressure groups who are not dependent on the state for its survival.

He adds: “Children born in this country going to school and university are really quite bereft unless they take personal responsibility in filling those gaps. They do such a huge disservice to black children born in this country. I can’t think of any proper course that looks at British social history in the post-war period.”

And this is damaging not only to black children, but white children too, John says.
He continues: “There is a complete historical amnesia. There is a view government wants to project of Britain.

KNOWLEDGE

“If history is important, why do the [Michael] Goves of this world circumscribe which segments must be taught in school? Validating some forms of knowledge and not others? It is propaganda of a kind that people would consider objectionable or abhorrent in totalitarian states but that’s what it is.”

In fact, John says one of his proudest achievements was his work with black publishing houses, taking books around the country to professional development centres running seminars on how to build a more diverse curriculum for all children.

“It is important that white British people understand their dependence upon other societies – the food they eat, the clothes they wear – and the conditions under which those things are made; understanding how oppression works within and between societies. If you do that, you prepare children for global living. This wretched place was once an empire. How could you have that presence in the world and want to come back and insulate yourself like Little England? As the famous saying goes, ‘we are here, because you were there’.”

That said, for John, Britain can never be home. He adds: “I have made this place the home of my children, they know nowhere else. Their roots are part of an African diaspora in the Caribbean, a Caribbean diaspora in Britain but we are African and they have to understand what that means to understand themselves.

“To me, Britain is the place where I live. For one thing, it is too spiritually deadening. I am spiritually more grounded in Africa. Even if I spent the rest of my days in this country, I would never get used to the cold and it could never be my home.”

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