For Black History Month, Counterfire asked activists today to tell us about their black hero and how they provide inspiration in our struggles today
Angela Davis personified the spirit of social and political upheaval in the late 1960s: she was a black revolutionary – a communist who also supported the Black Panthers – and a university lecturer. When she was arrested in 1970 for her political activity, she became an international icon. Not only did she work tirelessly to bring different movements together – against war, racism, sexism, and the prison system – she also attempted to theorise the intersection between women’s liberation, race and class. She understood in a fundamental way that the struggle for women’s rights and for black liberation was connected to the struggle against capitalism. She wrote extensively about the condition of women’s lives under slavery, about the prison industrial complex, imperialism and resistance. But Angela Davis also inspires hope. She is an antidote to pessimism, arguing not only for the possibility of revolution but the necessity of being a revolutionary.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at SOAS, University of London and is a member of UCU. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (2011).
The Trinidadian born political activist Claudia Jones is rightly celebrated as one of the founders of the Notting Hill carnival, but this was just one of many contributions she made to the struggle for a better world. She first became politicised in the USA after her family moved to Harlem in 1924. She grew up witnessing racism and the harsh treatment of poor whites and decided to join the American Communist Party. She swiftly rose to become National Director of the Young Communist League, but was deported to London in 1955 following four politically motivated jail terms.
In 1958, from a small office at 250 Brixton Road, she launched Britain’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, which campaigned for an end to colonialism, a united West Indies and the fair treatment of Britain’s black communities. Later that year, in response to a series of racist attacks in Notting Hill, she organised a carnival which took place in January 1959 at St Pancras Town Hall. It was sponsored by the West Indian Gazette under the slogan ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’. The template inspired the founders of the Notting Hill carnival which first took over the streets of West London in 1964, the same year Jones died from a heart condition and tuberculosis brought on by a lung condition dating back to her American jail terms. Paul Robeson read the eulogy at her funeral and she is buried in Highgate Cemetery next to Karl Marx.
Dave Randall is a guitarist, producer and composer. He is the author of Sound System – The Political Power of Music (2017).
Anna Rothery made history last month when she became Liverpool’s Lord Mayor. Despite having the oldest continuous black community in Europe, it is incredible that Councillor Rothery is the city’s first black Lord Mayor, taking office when the previous Lord quit over complaints after he posted racist video. Anna is Toxteth born and Councillor in the Princes Park ward which is home to the majority of the city’s black and racial minority communities. She has worked on business and community development initiatives for more than 25 years and now works as a consultant for Migrant Workers North West. She is an active campaigner around Operation Black Vote - the scheme to get more black people into politics and a central organiser of Liverpool Supporting Grenfell. Anna is a keen supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has welcomed him to the city on numerous occasions.
Madeline Heneghan is the co-director of Writing on the Wall. She is the author of Great War to Race Riots (2017)
My black hero is William Cuffay, the mixed race working class son of a Kent woman and a slave from St Kitts. He worked as a tailor in London in the early 19th century, was a keen trade union organiser who helped lead a strike for a 10 hour day (8 hours in winter) in 1834, for which he was sacked and blacklisted. Cuffay joined the Chartists and helped plan the great demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 to present a petition to parliament for the vote and democracy. The march was held against a background of revolution across Europe and agitation at home and was met with a massive show of force by the authorities.
Cuffay was extremely critical of the leaders’ decision to abandon the march in the face of the state’s threat. He continued to agitate in big meetings and protests across London, and joined with Irish nationalists to prepare an insurrection in the summer of 1848. Plans were discovered and Cuffay was one of those arrested and convicted on the evidence of police spies, who had infiltrated the Chartists’ Wat Tyler brigade.
Transported to Tasmania, he never returned to England, but continued his radical politics for the rest of his life.
Lindsey German is the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. She is the author of many books including How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (2013) and is the co-author of A People’s History of London (2012).
Pemulwuy was a Bidjigal man of the Aboriginal Dharug nation, an area outside what is known today as Sydney, Australia. Aboriginal nations had been custodians of this land for 60,000 years when invading British ships landed on their shores in 1788. This invasion almost led to the destruction of the first nations people of Australia but Pemulwuy was a warrior, and an Aboriginal resistance fighter who led his people in guerilla warfare for 12 years, burning crops and killing livestock. They fought with weapons inferior to those used by the British, striking fear in the minds of the colonisers. He fought for his land, his people and a culture that had sustained millions of people on one of the driest continents. Pemulwuy was part of the oldest continuous civilisation and his brave struggle is an inspiration to me and all Indigenous, Black and anti-colonialist peoples around the world.
Paul Fredericks, lives in Melbourne, Australia and is a member of Counterfire.
In a small church in Rogers, Texas, women wear their Sunday best and fan away the unbearable heat. Baptism, scolding of sinners, and celebration of redemption are ceremonies which brought the African American community together. This was also the backdrop against which the leading light and choreographer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) grew up and began forming his art, which would change the lives of dancing women and men forever. His great piece, Revelations, endures still as a testament of humanity and the joy of togetherness. But it is also against the history of racism, violence and exclusion this piece persists. Ailey said: “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” The company he founded, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the first to champion African Americans in dance in the USA, continues to spread the message of humanity over violence across the world.
Dana Mills is a writer and activist. The author of Dance and Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries (2016) she is currently writing a biography of Rosa Luxemburg and further work on dance and radical politics.
No discussion of Black History Month is complete without the inclusion of the LGBT community. So often in history the community is misrepresented and poorly documented despite being at the heart of our struggle for rights and inclusion.
Audre Lorde the American writer, feminist and activist who described herself as a 'black lesbian mother warrior poet’ is the epitome of JUST that.
While black LGBT icons are often erased from the queer and black narrative, Audre Lorde placed herself at the forefront campaigning for civil rights, women’s rights and liberation.
As activists we understand the intersectionality of our movements; gone are the days where women’s rights or BME rights come second, and gone are the days where queer rights come last. Lorde paved the way to prove paths to liberation are not at odds, but rather intertwined.
Shadia Edwards-Dashti is a journalist and activist
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