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Radical childhoodsSchooling and the struggle for social change$

Jessica Gerrard

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780719090219

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719090219.001.0001

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‘Give them pride in their blackness’1

‘Give them pride in their blackness’1

the emergence of the Black Saturday School movement and real and imagined black educational communities

(p.122) 5 ‘Give them pride in their blackness’1
Radical childhoods

Jessica Gerrard

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the emergence of the BSS movement. First, in order to understand the intellectual and political influences on the late-twentieth-century black politic, the historical and political genealogy of black resistance is examined. Second, contextualising the emergence of the BSS movement within broader of black politics. This chapter explores the historical circumstances that led to the inception and consequent proliferation of BSSs across England, including the institutional racism of state schooling. Finally, exploring the projection of a black community and selfhood, the placement of ‘blackness’ as a foundational conceptual tenet of BSSs, and the collective cultures they fostered, is considered. In this discussion BSS curricula and schooling practices are examined, revealing diverse experiences and understandings of class, race and gender in the creation – and projection – of collective black cultures in BSSs.

Keywords:   back resistance, blackness, class, race, gender, education and the state, institutional racism, state schooling, curriculum, black culture

This chapter explores the emergence of the BSS movement. Firstly, in order to understand the intellectual and political influences on the late twentieth-century black politic, the historical and political genealogy of black resistance is examined. Secondly, contextualising the emergence of the BSS movement within the black politic, I explore the historical circumstances that led to the inception and consequent proliferation of BSSs across England, and which gave fuel to their emancipatory impetus. In particular, the influence of the traditions of self-help and black radicalism is considered. Finally, exploring the projection of a black community and selfhood, the placement of ‘blackness’ as a foundational conceptual tenet of BSSs, and the collective cultures they fostered, is considered. In this discussion the core basis of the BSS curriculum and experience is examined in reference to the articulated intentions of the schools. Here complexly interwoven narratives of class, gender and race can be seen moving in and through BSS practice and the ways that teachers and students created understandings of community and self within the educational space of the BSS.

The ‘black presence’ in Britain: empire, resistance and the BSS movement

In order to understand the social context within which BSSs emerged, and the intellectual and activist tradition from which they borrowed – and distinguished themselves – this following discussion explores the history of black resistance in Britain. An obvious starting point for the story of BSSs is the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948. Marking the initiation of the significant migration from Africa and Caribbean to Britain after the Second World War, it offers a useful historical ‘moment’ in which to signify the ensuing ‘black presence’ in Britain. Certainly, as will be explored below, it is in the life experiences of this first- and second-generation settlement that the BSS movement can be traced. (p.123) However, this period does not constitute the inaugural ‘black presence’ in Britain,2 and neither was it the sole defining moment that shaped BSSs: the BSS movement actively drew on traditions of black resistance that can be traced to the heart of empire and its practices.3 In the words of the prominent black community campaigner and BSS organiser John La Rose, echoed by ex-BSS organiser Sophie in her interview – ‘We did not come alive in Britain.’4

British imperialism had already brought Africa and the Caribbean, and pervasive practices of racism, into the project of British nationhood and wealth.5 Within this historical context, for both the ‘British subjects’ of the colonies, and the relatively small black British populace of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, imperialist racism had already made its impact felt.6 Against experiences of subjugation and powerlessness that characterise much of this history, there is a genealogy of struggle and resistance that has served as a crucial foundation for subsequent black social movements in Britain, including – of course – BSSs.7

From the colonies, centuries of rebellious activity against European imperialism created a shared historical consciousness for the black diaspora.8 Both atypical triumphs, such as the Haitian revolution against the French, and more familiar repressions, such as the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica some thirty years after the British Slavery Abolition Act, were reclaimed in the construction of black political identities and communities.9 Indeed, the London radical black bookshop Bogle L’Ouverture was jointly named after Paul Bogle, leader of the Morant Bay Rebellion, who was controversially captured and executed by British forces, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution. Paul Bogle was also the name given to one of the first black youth clubs in London.10 In addition, enduring cultures of resistance, such as music and song, can also be found within slave life as men and women struggled against enforced illiteracy and the repression of their heritage, and traced into late-twentieth-century black politics and culture.11

Complementing these black diasporic popular memories of colonial challenges are the concurrent struggles for rights and recognition within Britain itself.12 Here a duality of experience, mediating the historical lineage of imperialism alongside a contemporary placement as a ‘dark stranger’ in Britain, created an intellectual tradition that was both influenced by, and critical of, progressive and radical currents within ‘indigenous’ Britain.13 Consequently, black Britons often joined in alliances with ‘indigenous’ leftist or liberal campaigners.14 From William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn, keen revolutionary socialists of the (p.124) early nineteenth century, to early twentieth-century public office-holders and social campaigners such as Sylvester Williams (Fabian Society) and Richard Archer (LP), there has been a consistent black presence in radical working-class movements.15 Such associations – across temporalities – reflected political commonalities and shared criticism of imperialism and British racism.16 The CP, for example, was one of the first working-class organisations to campaign against the trade union ‘colour bar’ in the early and mid-twentieth century.17

Such partnerships, however, were not trouble-free. The omnipresent racism and sexism within the working-class left meant black men and women were often left defending their rights within the ‘radical’ milieu before an ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, audience. Frustrated by this, by the late 1950s many Caribbean participants of the CP, for example, had left in order to develop more salient analyses of race, class and social power.18 In Britain, then, there also emerged a specifically black politic that was pivotal to the development of a common black political consciousness. Influenced strongly by early twentieth-century Pan-Africanism, this diverse political field supported a range of prominent black thinkers into the mid- and late twentieth century.19 Here, the analyses of black oppression of such activists as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey and George Padmore assisted to create a shared critique of Eurocentric Marxism and British communism while maintaining many core tenets of socialist ideology.20

Reaching across the Atlantic, and building upon previous political traditions, this intellectual current was central to the emergent black politic of the 1960s. By this time, black political and cultural networks began to establish new formations as the growing British populace of African, Caribbean and Asian migrants grappled with their collective experience of racism and inequality.21 Barred from trade unions, rejected from shops and rental accommodation, though many were able to secure employment, the lives of these black migrants were patterned by a constant struggle against ubiquitous racism.22 In response, the black community began creating networks of support and a range of community, welfare, cultural and church-based organisations through which to articulate their identity and assert their rights.23 This cultural and welfare activity was supported and complemented by a concurrent black politic, which connected analyses of their experiences in Britain with a critique of the ongoing repercussions of empire.24 Naming initiatives after key black political thinkers (for example, C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey and George Padmore all had BSSs named after them), this black network explicitly positioned itself within the existing tradition of black radical thought and activism.

(p.125) In this way, the 1960s and 1970s were characterised by the creation of a distinct black counter-public within which scholars, activists, artists, writers and students came to share their analyses and prescriptions for black liberation.25 Incorporating men and women from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, black activist circles attempted to develop shared critiques of class and race inequality in Britain and to forge cross-cultural networks. For many, such alliances were principally about ‘social change and political agency’, and developing joint conceptions of their experience as an ‘under-class’, imbued with racism and imperialist politics.26 Indeed, the community organising at this time was also a response to violent attacks against the African, Caribbean and Asian communities – an experience that would also become important for BSSs. BSS teacher Nelson, who had arrived in Notting Hill in 1955, explains that following successive violent attacks ‘there was a lot of feeling brewing in the black community because things were happening … and it seemed we could get no redress’.

The first-ever London Carnival, launched in 1959 by the communist activist and West Indian Gazette editor Claudia Jones, for example, aimed to engender strength and pride in the black community following the shock of recent Nottingham and Notting Hill violence.27 In August of that year, Nottingham ‘experienced a short outbreak of anti-black rioting’, followed by intense media focus on race relations in Britain.28 In Notting Hill, Kelso Cochrane, a thirty-two-year-old Antiguan, died from stab wounds after being attacked by a gang of six youths in the spring of 1959.29 The influential West Indian Standing Conference (WISC) was also established in the wake of communal violence in 1958, taking its purpose as giving a voice to, and making organisational space for, the West Indian community and acting ‘as “a bridge between the English and West Indian communities”’.30

In addition, black bookshops constructed themselves as ‘book services’ – bookshops-cum-social centres – which published and circulated black literature and political material, forming the basis for social and activist networks.31 Complementing this, following in the tradition of Claudia Jones’ West Indian Gazette (1958–64), a range of black press outlets provided a means to construct a common knowledge and shared community by bringing news of the diaspora, black arts and culture, anti-imperialist struggles, and a critical analysis of British social and economic life.32 At the same time, the Caribbean Artists’ Movement brought together political, intellectual and artistic interests to inform the articulation of black identities within Britain.33

Within this diverse black network, political and cultural interests were entwined and embedded together. Alongside community-based cultural (p.126) and social initiatives, campaigns in the workplace (often operating outside, or with little assistance from, trade unions) contributed to the development of a black political field.34 Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the hostile political climate within which the black activist and cultural circles operated, and which they attempted to challenge. The Caribbean Artists’ Movement, Carnival, black bookshops and community centres all faced serious difficulties in asserting their right to public space and recognition, including fascist attacks and police surveillance and repression.35

The move towards a distinctly ‘black’ understanding in the 1970s engendered new alliances and new points of difference in the various networks. Differences in political priorities created a highly contested field of practice, within which black identities and political projects were diversely understood and pursued. It was within this complex milieu that BSSs forged their own space. Like SSSs, they were localised initiatives, appearing wherever interested men and women had the resources and inclination. Utilising – and developing – the networks of the burgeoning black politic, the parents who established the first BSSs found their impetus in two interrelated experiences of Britain. First, BSSs were a direct response to a profoundly disappointing experience of the English education system, and with this, an ardent desire to struggle for a different world for their children. Second, BSSs were linked to an emergent understanding (and experience) of the social inequalities and class hierarchies within Britain. This second impetus should not be understated. Before embarking on their journey to England, few post-war migrants ‘had seen Europeans in the location of the working class, and certainly not in positions of subordination and conditions of poverty’.36 Experiences of colonisation had fostered the perception that ‘white’ England was emblematic of wealth and power, what Caribbean novelist George Lamming has described as ‘the idea of England’.37 Nelson, for example, remembers the surprise in discovering that ‘even in England a lot of people were unable to read and write’.

These experiences of the first-generation post-war migrants had powerful effects. Facing the interlinking experiences of class and racism, it became ever more important for migrants to form collective spaces of resistance, spaces that transcended national differences in the creation of a politically defined ‘black’ – a process that is explored in more detail below. In addition, these experiences prompted widespread critique and criticism of English class structures and its embedded pseudo-scientific racism. Reflecting on this, Nelson goes on to speak of the shock in uncovering the structural systems of inequality that underlay the English education system. As put by Sophie, ‘coming to Britain we expected (p.127) education to have been better than what we had in the Caribbean. And we learnt sadly that it was not really the case for the working-class people, and perhaps too for the white working-class people.’

Given the ‘idea of England’ that pervaded the practices of colonisation, it is unsurprising that these post-war journeys were often characterised by high expectations. Importantly, however, such aspirations were not only connected to understandings and experiences of European colonial power. The unpreparedness for English class relations was perpetuated by complex experiences of social mobility in the colonies and community traditions of self-help.38 ‘Expectations were rooted’, as Alleyne argues, ‘in these parents’ experiences of the colonial West Indies where the main route to social mobility for lower-class Black people was education.’39 In addition, a tradition of resistance to colonialism had long attached community-based education to the reclamation of knowledge, and culture.40 Indeed, it was the burgeoning independence campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s that gave many migrants at this time their ‘zeal’ and ‘fight’, as Sophie describes it. Personal connections with, and ardent support for, the ‘people’s education’ movement associated with the struggles for independence,41 assisted to link a broad black diaspora dedicated to education.

Thus, the (past and present) tradition of community-based education was powerfully important for the ‘first wave’ BSS teachers. Andrew, Martin, Edward, Nelson and Sophie all referenced the long history of community-led educational initiatives in constructing their own histories of the BSS movement. Connecting the particular experiences of black migrants in Britain in the 1960s and the 1970s with histories of resistance against colonialism and imperialism provided a way for these teachers to challenge the idea that black students are fundamentally incapable or uninterested in education, while also drawing important links between colonial power and class and race in Britain. Responding to a British society that perpetually positioned them as problematic ‘strangers’ in the midst,42 black migrants began to develop collective understandings of their experiences of class and racism. Like so many migrant communities, placing their hopes for a better life on the next generation, it did not take long for parents to turn their attention to their children’s schooling.

The creation of a BSS movement

As with the SSS movement, BSSs emerged within existing political cultures that had already started to create a range of children’s and young people’s initiatives. Established by parents, university students (p.128) and community members in local communities, BSSs were extensions of informal and formal gatherings that decided to turn their frustrations into action. These actions also represented a collective response to the working conditions of many black parents, who could not individually provide the sort of educational, or community, experience that they wanted for their children. As early as 1966, for instance, a black community nursery was established in Reading to assist working mothers.43

This collective impetus was central to the development of the BSS movement. Nelson explains, ‘We were very firm in our view that we needed to help our children … but then we realised that the thing was bigger than just parents helping their own children [so] … people then came up with the idea, which sprung up from individual help with parents and close friends to decided that we want what we call a kind of supplementary education.’ Paul’s school, for instance, began in 1971 when its founder member became concerned that schoolteachers could not understand the children’s Patois language. In response, he used a large car available to him through his job as a chauffer to ‘drive around collecting the children to bring them to the centre where they would learn English’. Similarly Clinton Sealy established the Shepherd’s Bush BSS ‘when he saw many black children in the streets after normal school because their parents were still out at work’.44

In addition, broader community organisations also began to take increasing interest in youth- and education-based projects. For instance, the North London West Indian Association (NLWIA), the local chapter of the highly influential WISC, established its Youth Committee and youth club in 1965,45 and Sophie recollected a number of youth summer camps in and around London in the early 1960s. However, without an ongoing national organisational structure that might have actively sought to document these various education initiatives, such as the NCBSSS did for the SSS movement, it is difficult to identity the very first BSS. Nonetheless, it is clear that by 1968 and 1969 there were a number of BSSs operating across Britain, and that there was a growing collective response to black students’ schooling experiences.

One of the most pertinent issues that underpinned the growing BSS movement was the practice of setting and streaming in English schools, and related to this, the practice of sending ‘underachieving’ students to schools for the ‘Educationally Sub-Normal’ (ESN). Bolstered by the first-hand witness of a small and growing cohort of black teachers and teachers’ aids, parents grew deeply suspicious of the perception of their children as incapable within state schools, and their subsequent placement in the lowest streams, or removal from mainstream schools into ESN schools. Sophie explains:

(p.129) So we had several gatherings and talking about what’s going on with education and how our children were sent into the dustbin schools, special schools was what it was called. And a lot of my generation when they heard the word special they thought it was great. You know? Because in the Caribbean you send your child to a special school, they’re really expected to come out with top marks. But special meant a teacher’s never understand us, they never tried to understand our language … And so our children were sent into these special schools … and I can think about two persons who were teaching at these special schools, and then they realised that what was happening … it was like a dustbin.

In 1965 the Department of Education and Science (DES) lent its institutional approval to the perception of black students as academically inferior. The DES Circular 7/65 entitled The Education of Immigrants makes explicit the ‘problem’ of migrant children.46 Concerned primarily with the ‘difficulty’ of (and necessity for) assimilation, the circular cited acquisition of English as a primary concern, along with the high proportion of immigrant children in some schools and classes.47 Recommending that immigrant children should not make up more than one third of the class, under the heading ‘Spreading the children’ the circular – and the ensuing 1965 White Paper – recommends ‘dispersing’ migrant children across schools via buses.48 In the years that followed, though the policy of dispersal was not adopted wholesale, a number of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) did take up the option of dispersing students among different schools. In Ealing, for example, immigrant pupils were bussed to other borough schools if their neighbourhood school had more than 40 per cent immigrant children.49 Continuing the support of such local uptakes of the policy, the DES again defended ‘bussing’ in 1971 ‘as being solely based on “educational needs”’.50

It is this particular policy event that spurred on the BSS movement, and which politicised many black parents in the process. Specifically, it was the local campaign spearheaded by the NLWIA against Haringey Council’s move in 1969 to introduce a ‘bussing’ policy for its schools, which galvanised black parents’ growing dissent. The Council proposed to ‘band’ schools on the basis of ability testing so that each of the borough’s eleven comprehensive schools would have even numbers of students of differing ability. In the official report to the Education Committee of the Council in March 1969, the dispersal proposal was outlined as being primarily a response to over-stretched educational support services in schools with high numbers of immigrant children.

In a section entitled ‘Impact of intake of immigrant children’, the official report stated: ‘These immigrant children come from various countries and have varied backgrounds. Some are highly intelligent and can take (p.130) full advantage of the education offered, others have language difficulties which involve special instruction … Some half of the immigrant children are West Indians.’51 While reflecting a clear struggle to ‘deal’ with the ‘problem’ of an increase in immigrant students, the report couches its discussion about West Indian students in terms of language difficulties and a lack of staffing support and resources.

Revealing more strident opinions about the incapability of black students, it was a leaked Council document that prompted parents to rally together in their opposition to the proposal. In a ‘Guardian Special’ on 14 April 1969, the journalist Malcolm Dean publicised the leak just one month after the official report in the article ‘IQ Stigma on Immigrants’.52 The document, Dean states, clearly points to the underpinning assumption within Haringey Council that ‘immigrant children in general, and West Indians in particular had lower IQ than English children’.53 To be sure, the difference in temper between the leaked and official documents makes plain an embedded racism. The leaked document, signed by the Vice-Chairman of the Education Committee, A. J. F. Doulton, contains a section headed ‘Immigrants as a social problem’ within which reference is made to the ‘fundamental problem’ of migrant children.54 Doulton states that, ‘On a rough calculation about half the immigrants will be West Indians at 7 of the 11 schools, the significance of this being the general recognition that their I.Q.’s work out below their English contemporaries. Thus academic standards will be lower in schools where they form a large group.’

For Doulton, this is a state of affairs that must be addressed – he asserts: ‘It is hard not to conclude that events should not be allowed to take their course’. Demonstrating awareness that the targeted dispersal of migrant children would cause a public furore, he suggests ability banding as a means to get around the ‘problem’. He predicts: ‘A head-on assault on the problem, whereby a limit is set on the percentage of immigrants in any one school, will fairly certainly produce an outcry – immigrants not permitted to the school of their choice will shout about racial discrimination, non-immigrants will object that their children are being unfairly handicapped.’ In the end, Doulton concludes that ‘a less direct solution must be sought’, namely, ability-based banding of schools.

Rallying against Haringey Council, the local campaigns that ensued from the leaking of this document gave a public voice to the concerns and frustrations of black communities across England. Joining together with the Greek Parents Association to form the ‘Haringey Advisory Centre for Education’, the NLWIA led a fervent campaign to end the banding policy.55 The challenge wrought by Haringey parents rested on two primary criticisms: first, that the Council’s actions undermined (p.131) parents’ control and choice over their children’s schooling; and second, that the ‘problem’ lay in the class inequalities of England, racist presumptions and poorly resourced schools, not with migrant children or their families. As put by the NLWIA, ‘the class stratification of the society ensures the conception of good educational facilities and opportunities for the elites and largely neglects the needs, potentials, and capabilities of the rest. … West Indians cannot accept the responsibility for a situation, which they have neither fashioned nor controlled.’56 Supported by many teachers and head-teachers in the area, Haringey parents protested vehemently against the plans.

The analysis developed within this campaign context was given further currency in 1971 when Bernard Coard published his seminal text How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System.57 In this book Coard documented the oversubscription of West Indian children in ESN schools, and, as the NLWIA did, challenged the notion that this resulted from innate differences in IQ. In contrast, Coard outlined the explicit and implicit ways in which the English education system actively supported the continued academic failure of black children. He targeted in particular the placement of black students in ESN schools, low teacher expectations and the denial of black culture, identity and history within the schools. Coard argued that by ‘belittling, ignoring’ and ‘denying’ of black culture, mainstream schools ‘destroyed’ black children’s identities.58

Crucially, Coard connected his analyses of the British education system to a wider critique of British capitalism. He argued that an education system that preoccupied itself with preparing ‘our children for the society’s future unskilled and ill-paid jobs’ was clearly related to the active recruitment, and consequent settlement, of workers for ‘unskilled’ and ‘dirty jobs’ from the colonies following the Second World War.59 The influence of this book cannot be overstated. It was, as Martin described it ‘a bombshell’.60 Supported by other sources that also sought to document the systematic processes of educational disadvantage,61 Coard’s book reflected existing, and increasing, discontent within the black community.62 Alongside his recommendations for the immediate reversal of school policies regarding black children and ESN schools, Coard urged the black community across Britain to open their own nurseries and supplementary schools. He suggested that ‘[t]hrough these schools we hope to make up for the inadequacies of the British school system, and for its refusal to teach our children our history and culture. We must never sit idly while they make ignoramuses of our children, but must see to it that by hook or crook our children get the best education they are capable of!’63

(p.132) It was around this time that what had previously been small localised educational initiatives started to become a BSS ‘movement’. Providing particular encouragement for this growth was the concurrent establishment of the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA), which started to meet at least by 1970. In 1971 writing in its newsletter CECWA argued ‘all black teachers, youth officers and others (professional or otherwise) to throw their lot to help any Supplementary Black School which might be functioning in their area’.64 CECWA’s call to action did not go unheeded. In the years that followed Andrew recalls ‘the proliferation of geographical schools all over London: each little area had their school and community organisations’. Undoubtedly, CECWA was central to the growth of the BSS movement. It hosted talks, conferences and seminars on the topic of education, including discussions of Coard’s book, and drew many BSS organisers and teachers into its activities.65 Its first chair, John La Rose, had particular impact on the BSS movement. Having arrived in Britain in 1961, by 1966 John La Rose had established the radical black store and publishing house New Beacon Books through which to support black writing from across the world in Britain.66 Indeed, it was New Beacon Books that published Coard’s book in 1971, and La Rose who was active in the campaign against Haringey Council.

In addition, a diverse range of black activists and intellectuals were drawn to the BSS movement. This included, for example, Jessica and Eric Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Books, London’s Winston Best, Ansel Wong, Waveney Harris, Lemuel Findlay and many more.67 Also, the work of Gus John and others assisted to connect BSSs in Birmingham and Manchester with the burgeoning national BSS movement.68 In addition to these more well-known names, BSS meeting minutes and school pamphlets are filled with messages of gratitude to the many local activists who sustained the BSS movement: Peter Moses BSS, for example, notes the work of Sandra Edwards and Tony Monroe along with Jessica Huntley,69 while Winston Best in Foundations of a Movement mentions Richard Riley, ‘very much an unsung hero’, and Tim Phillips.70 And of course, in addition to these names available in the public domain, were the many teachers I spoke with and the men and women they talked about in reflecting upon their BSS experience.

This local character of the movement was reflected in its spread across England. The BSS movement was certainly not limited to inner and greater London. As black communities resolved to create the educational opportunities and experiences they wanted for their children themselves, BSSs appeared across England. Oxford, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester, for example, were all host to BSSs. And yet, (p.133) while arising in – and responding to – diverse local contexts, BSSs found common purpose in their desire to promote black culture and identities and to challenge systems of educational failure in state schooling: in the words of a Manchester BSS, an undertaking to ‘make sure that all black children of Manchester are kept out of the schools for the Educationally Sub-Normal’.71 Thus, the spread of BSSs throughout the 1970s clearly indicated a common concern for educational opportunity. However, these schools were by no means unified in their approach. Emerging informally, like SSSs BSSs were assuredly local in character. Given their fragmented nature, and in the absence of an ongoing national organisation that may have retained comprehensive records (like the NCBSSS), it is difficult to assess the exact scope and scale of BSSs. Nevertheless, it is clear that these localised individual projects did expand to what could be described as a movement. Regular conferences, talks, and seminars provided opportunities for BSSs to share experiences and to coordinate activities.

To be sure, BSSs made various attempts to create regional and national alliances and associations. As early as 1970 a meeting of BSS teachers, with John La Rose as its chair, met to discuss collaboration of BSSs in London, listing eight schools known to be operating: Paul Bogle Youth Club, Shepherd’s Bush Welfare Association School, South East Blackpeople’s Association, Notting Hill University for Black Studies, Islington Card School, Marcus Garvey School, C. L. R. James School for Black Studies and West Indian Youth League.72 Two years later, London BSSs launched a Coordinating Council of Black Supplementary Schools (CCBSS), which aimed to provide support to existing BSSs. Circulating a letter to BSSs in London, the CCBSS suggested that it could assist by ‘devising a common education policy’ and curriculum for BSSs, as well as distributing resources and information, and even ‘perhaps a journal’.73 And while the Council continued to meet at least until 1974, at which time fifteen schools were officially aligned, there is no further evidence of its operation into the late 1970s.74

Throughout the 1980s similar attempts were made again to institute cross-school coordination, this time at a national level. Nelson and Martin both spoke of these initiatives and their importance in providing points of connection with fellow BSS teachers and organisers. In 1982, and again in 1987 following a lacuna in its activities, BSS teachers created a National Association of Supplementary Schools (NASS).75 By this time, BSSs in London had proliferated to at least sixty.76 As Clinton Sealy put in a discussion paper proposing the establishment of an ‘Association of Supplementary Schools in London’, ‘the time is ripe for setting up an umbrella organisation’.77 Undoubtedly, these organisations (p.134) did remain somewhat London-centred. Edward suggested that these organisations were ‘made up [by people] principally from the London area’, with ‘others coming in from provincial cities’. Nevertheless, these transient ventures did assist in establishing personal connections across BSSs, and in supporting the cultural resources for a national movement, however London-centred. Indeed, while in operation, NASS did, in Edward’s words, ‘a lot of things: we had a research and archives committee, and an education and public events committee’.

For Claudine, working in Birmingham, collective events such as conferences and seminars provided an opportunity to stay connected with BSS across England. Though such opportunities did not solely occur through national forums such as NASS. Within cities and regions, BSSs joined together in a range of capacities – to celebrate students’ work, to discuss campaigns and to share ideas.78 Claudine explains, ‘I remember lots of conferences up in Manchester … all without a formal structure as such, but all knowing that we were part and parcel of the same movement. So, we’re up in Birmingham, but we know the London lot, the Manchester lot, the Leicester lot.’ Despite a lack of documentation concerning the exact number of BSSs across England throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it is clear that the schools constituted a ‘movement’ and were avenues for, and spaces of, black dissent and activism. Of course, while numbers are always a useful referent for historical understanding, the significance and meaning of BSSs is found in their cultural and social import for those who participated in the schools. This was a movement that gave expression to a discontent with the English education system, to a deep commitment in educational opportunity, and to a pride in black history, culture and knowledge.

Constructing blackness: real and imagined educational communities

‘Black was a political colour’

It is essential for the children to establish confidence in themselves and realise that they have inadequacies because they are black. This confidence is undermined when the image they constantly confront is that of the white person always at the top, always taking the lead. Lack of black people at the head of organisations would reinforce the myth that black people are incapable of doing anything on their own without the help of the white associated groups. Therefore we have opted for an all black organisation.79

Taken from the aims and objects of the Marcus Garvey BSS, this excerpt captures much of the political (and educational) intent in developing black educational spaces. In an attempt to counter the privileging (p.135) of European culture, knowledge and authority that pervaded state schooling, employment and social institutions, BSS activists work to reclaim, and assert, black identity and history.

This objective is clearly seen in the political trajectory of the BSS teacher Peter Moses, whose life was cut short by leukaemia in December 1972, just months after assisting to establish the Marcus Garvey BSS. Indeed, the Marcus Garvey BSS ‘Aims and Objects’ quoted above were published as part of a leaflet commemorating and celebrating the life and activism of Moses. Later, in 1986, the announcement of the founding of the Peter Moses School describes Peter as ‘always active in black politics’ and central ‘to the movement which was emerging to provide supplementary education for our children’.80 As with many activists of the early 1970s, Peter’s commitment to the BSS movement arose out of the critical awareness provided by Coard’s book. Brother Clarence writes that when he and Peter attended a lecture by Coard on 1971, they resolved to become part of the BSS movement.81

Like many others, Peter Moses’ commitment to the BSS movement was born out of his political activism more generally. Moses was a foundation member of the Black Active Militants, which worked in collaboration with the Black Liberation Front (BLF). Central to the politics of these organisations was an assertion of black identity in the face of racism. Moses, and others, were concerned with bringing positive, and politically charged, black identities to black children and young people: ‘You are black not coloured, you do not have to accept what the white people dish out for you!’,82 or, as put by the journal of South London BSS Ahfiwe, ‘the inseparable tie is our blackness’.83 One BSS organiser put it this way in a BSS newsletter:

  • Can’t escape confrontation
  • Living with frustration
  • Man tell me ‘bout ‘education’
  • Say it a passport to liberation
  • But find I’m losing out some way
  • Not many roads to choose.
  • Can’t run from REVOLUTION
  • “Evolution” was never a solution
  • Those who always take
  • Find it hard to give
  • Fabrications and lies –
  • That’s no way to live …
  • Don’t tell me we all the same now
  • Don’t fill me with confusion
  • 400 years you tell me I’m Evil
  • (p.136) Don’t give me more illusions
  • Don’t tell me ‘bout you history –
  • ‘bout Churchill and Lincoln
  • And Kennedy and de Gaulle,
  • Listen to me about Malcolm X,
  • George Jackson, Patrice Lumumba,
  • Fanon – Nelson Mandela
  • Do we have to write it in blood?
  • Do we have to refine it with wars?
  • Are you taking it in?
  • Or do we have to bang down your doors?84

Borrowing from and adapting the ideological apparatuses provided by the US Black Panthers, developing upon the existing traditions of Caribbean radicalism, and influenced by the British Black Power movement, there emerged a highly localised and ‘fluid’ black movement.85 Although diverse, this black cultural field gave political and linguistic clarity to the growing critique of – and challenge to – collective experiences of racism and social inequality. At its foundation, ‘blackness’ attempted to incorporate struggles against racism in the African, Caribbean and Asian communities. Common experiences of racism in schools, the workplace and community brought Asian and African Caribbean communities together in a number of campaigns throughout the 1970s and 1980s.86

The persistent and unifying experience of racism defined the cultural and political terrain within which black politics – and the BSS movement – made its mark. Black young people and parents were central to the campaign response to a number of key incidents over this period. This included the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar by a group of five white youths in 1976,87 the ‘New Cross massacre’ house fire that killed thirteen young people in 1981, and which the black community suspected was a racist arson attack,88 and the death of the solidarity activist Blair Peach at an anti-fascist rally in 1979.89 Moreover, in addition to fascist attacks on black bookshops, police surveillance and criminalisation of black young people (often while on their way home from their local state schools, as will be discussed below) literally brought home the necessity for campaigns for change.90

This wider social context was fundamental to the politics of blackness. As Alison explained, for many BSS organisers, ‘black was a political colour’, which explicitly aimed to include Asian, African and Caribbean interests within a united challenge to racism in education. Such intent gave rise to both adult and children’s education initiatives. In addition to the growth of BSSs across the 1970s, a diverse range (p.137) of adult community-based black education projects also emerged. At the Holloway Institute, courses for adults on Swahili and Black Studies were offered, while a series of lectures entitled ‘Political economy of the black world’ in November 1974 focused on ‘the structural problems associated with the economy of Black countries their interrelation with the politics of power and exploitation’.91

Cultures of blackness

In BSSs, teachers aimed to bring the politics, identity and culture of blackness to children and young people embedded with high expectations of academic achievement and potential. In doing so, they created the educational and cultural spaces in which both teachers and students could explore what it meant to be ‘black’. Alisha and Andrea, for instance, both credit BSSs with awakening an awareness of, and commitment, to black culture and identity. For them much of this emerged informally through the wider functions of the schools in providing opportunity to explore black culture, food, music and literature. In her recollections, Alisha emphasised the influence of the cultural activities provided by her BSS, summing up her schooling experience as being ‘taught to make Caribbean food, doing a bit of maths, and taking part in performances’. Such activities are also documented throughout the archived documentation of BSSs. Schools organised black drama performances, music, poetry readings, chess clubs, football clubs, film showings and ‘cultural evenings’. George Padmore BSS, for example, wrote to parents to advertise an upcoming cultural evening, in which: ‘The students of the junior and senior schools have arranged a programme of drama, songs, poetry readings, dramatised readings of texts used in our normal classes. There will also be guest artists.’92

Both Alisha and Andrea emphasised the importance of diversity and difference when reflecting upon the conception and practice of blackness within their BSSs. The practices of blackness within BSSs involved continuing personal and familial heritage, at the same time embracing multiple traditions. Reflecting on the racism experienced by people from ‘India, Jamaica, Barbados etc’, Southall’s People’s Unite Educational and Creative Arts Centre sums it up in their third objective, ‘To work for the fundamental aim of unity, trust and understanding’.93 For example, Alisha (now a BSS teacher herself) spoke of the importance of her BSS in carrying on Caribbean traditions from her parents, and as a space in which to meet black people from other backgrounds, which in the case of her neighbourhood was the local Pakistani community. Andrea also noted similar experiences, though in her case it involved creating spaces of (p.138) black educational opportunity for both the Caribbean and African communities. She recollected:

The other interesting thing about the school was it mixed Caribbean, African and mixed-race kids, because when I was in primary school there was a lot of racism from Caribbean kids towards African kids, as most Caribbean kids had been born here – of my generation anyway – and a lot of the African kids were first-generation … I think it was quite good that the school brought together information about these two different continents and areas … at least exposing you to a little bit of information of other parts of the diaspora.

Andrea’s school therefore attempted to practise an inclusive, but diverse, blackness: one that aimed to both transcend and recognise difference in its development of a collective blackness. Andrea talked of this as also occurring through the curriculum of the BSS. She spoke of the power of learning ‘basic knowledge’ of African and Caribbean geography, history and culture in her BSS in developing a sense of black self.

In this way, the black alliances forged through and in BSSs aimed to avoid strict narrow cultural definitions of ‘black’.94 Rather they looked to what Brian Alleyne describes as a kind of ‘tactical essentialism’ – a broad inclusive and flexible common notion of black that attempted to incorporate a range of cultures and ethnicities. In many ways, the power of these alliances lay in the community-based organising that BSS teachers and students participated in outside, but related to, their participation in the BSS movement. For example, the BPM was founded in 1975 following the brutal beating and arrest of Cliff McDaniel, son of a friend of the BSS organiser John La Rose. Based in London and Manchester, the BPM had links with similar organisations in Nottingham, Rugby, Northampton, Reading and Ipswich.95 Forging links across different communities, the BPM proudly included African, Caribbean and Asian parent groups and supplementary schools.96

Indeed, by the late 1970s, parents, community members and students from a range of backgrounds were brought together in a range of campaigns and inclusive organisations. This included the ‘scrap sus’ campaign, which actively monitored, exposed and publicly dissented to the targeted use by police of stop-and-search powers on African, Asian and Caribbean young people.97 Such campaigns and organisations created an intergenerational organising space for black men and women, across a range of cultures.98 This also included a range of similar alliances led by black young people. For example, having a close relationship with the BPM, in 1975 the Black Youth Movement (BYM) was formed.99 One year later, in response to the murder of an Asian teenager in Southall, the Southall Youth Movement was established. Connected to the rise in (p.139) women’s organising, the 1973 the Brixton Black Women’s Cooperative was established,100 and later, in 1978, the Southall Black Sisters and the Organisation for Women from African and Asian Descent.101

Undoubtedly these organisations and campaign collectives at the very least affirmed the need for black unity. However, this was never an easy task. Most, if not all, of the groups above went through extensive periods of self-reflection as they attempted to create inclusive spaces of blackness.102 This was a concern that also reached the BSS movement. Though aiming for inclusive black cultures, invariably the expression of collective identity ran into difficulty and contestation. Indeed, it is important to note that while BSSs created educational spaces imbued predominantly with Caribbean and African culture, Asian communities also established their own independent initiatives, such as the Indian Workers’ Association Supplementary School, established in 1971, and the Bengali East End Community School, in 1977.103 As Andrew explained, ‘… it became the ideal this notion of blackness. And at the time it was a political term that incorporated all minority groups. So the distinction between Asians, Africans and other communities didn’t really dominate. So there was a kind of uncritical assumption of victimhood through race, and [then] that became challenged and became something for us really to look at.’

Blackness and social class

In addition to tensions and differences concerning the articulation of blackness, the BSS movement also hosted a variety of perspectives surrounding class politics. Underpinning many of the alliances was the common experience of class inequality in Britain. Described, for example, by Gus John as a black working-class education movement,104 BSSs often combined critique of class and race relations in order to analyse their and their children’s experiences in Britain. Black children were understood to share in the inequality experienced by their white working-class peers, but to have this further compounded by racism.105 Edward, for instance, talked about the intensification of social class through the proliferation of racist practices throughout social relations. He asserted that the fundamental difference between white and black working-class experience came in the ways in which racism pervaded not just institutions (schools, workplaces, trade unions), but in and through community and public life.

The coupling of race and class (albeit a reconstituted notion of class) presented as a recurrent theme across the interviews. Teachers understood their work as challenging racist practices and at the same time (p.140) the historical processes of class constitution in Britain. Consequently, their work in BSSs was seen to reflect a fundamental challenge to class structures, as Edward explains:

These people were mainly uneducated, working-class people, labourers and peasants from these islands out in the Caribbean sea. They don’t fit well into the stratified class-based education system, except in so far that they belong among the indigenous working class. So for them to have aspirations similar to what middle-class people in the system automatically expect was effrontery.

Along with Edward, Daniel, Sophie and Martin also perceived their work as necessarily connected to broader working-class campaigns for social change. Importantly, such connections often occurred at an organisational distance from traditional leftist groupings. Daniel, for example, was deeply sceptical of the apparent emphasis placed on party recruitment, rather than campaign aims, by many radical and socialist working-class organisations.

Others in the BSS movement were less concerned with building alliances across the working class. These teachers argued not for black activism rooted in working-class politics, but a movement of black men and women into the middle class in order to effect change. Nelson, for example, embraced more fully the notion of social mobility: ‘we were aspiring middle classes … we became middle classes through the professions when we became doctors and lawyers and things like that’. Invariably, there were complex interconnections between these two positions. As mainstream British education, and the wider social world, contained virtually no examples of black success, BSS teachers commonly emphasised the possibility for black achievement within the existing social structures. Furthermore, the explicit and implicit processes of racism across British society left teachers in no doubt what their main task was. As put by Valentino Jones, teacher and founder of the Josina Machel BSS: ‘Black people know that the main factor behind there children’s miseducation is RACISM. Racism is divisive, obviously it relegates the Black Community to the most disadvantaged position in the social and economic spheres.’106

To this end, mediated by the political commitments of teachers, the celebration of black historical figures featured heavily in BSSs. For instance, Daniel explains that he ‘wasn’t interested in Mary Seacole … we would get [students] to read about famous black figures … that had a class perspective, like Malcolm X’. Even for those such as BSS teacher Julie, who shied from explicit involvement in left-wing and working-class political loyalties, radical historical figures such as Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey were also central to the representation of black success. (p.141) In other words, the portrayal of black accomplishment across the BSS movement correlated achievement with the struggle for recognition and against social class relations in the wider community.

Subsequently, alongside uncovering black histories of strength, the BSS movement also lionised the efforts of local men and women in local pursuits. As often as schools were named after great black leaders, such as the Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Moore and George Padmore schools, they were named after men and women engaged in the everyday struggle for rights and recognition that patterned black community life: Claudia Jones was resolutely committed to the self-organisation of black communities;107 Albertina Sylvester was a black working-class mother involved in a number of community campaigns in North London whose children went to the school named after her;108 and both Lemuel Findlay and Robert Hart were key BSS and community organisers.109 Daniel, involved in the network of London BSSs throughout the 1980s, talked about the significance of naming schools after local activists. He spoke in particular of the importance of reclaiming the history of great black men and women alongside celebrating the everyday struggle of those involved in community activism in the present.

The heralding of past and present local heroes reflected a general reliance on the independent creativity of black men and women to sustain their struggle for rights and recognition. Like the SSS movement, the celebration of local efforts fostered a tradition of class politics that granted importance to the everyday lives and struggles of the working class. In distinction, this new, particularly black, creation of localism understood itself as an independent and novel current. In the opening speech at the Caribbean Teachers’ Conference on 6 April 1974, Rev Wilfred Woods put it this way:

Our task in the black community is essentially different from the task of the society around us. Theirs is the task of keeping the society from falling apart. Ours is a task of creating the right kind of community within this society. So I hope you will not undervalue your potential for creation, that is to say, that you see yourselves essentially as pioneers and because we are pioneers there is no good looking around to find blueprints of what other people did in this situation because it is a comparatively new one.110

Ensuing from their varied political backgrounds, the way in which schools carried out this task varied significantly. For some, like Peter Moses, there was an explicit coupling of BSSs with the political project of radical black organising. Similarly, in London the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP) established the South East London Summer School, the BLF founded Headstart, and both the Black Panthers (BP) and the BLF were involved in the educational programmes in the Grass (p.142) Roots Self Help Community Project.111 In addition, the Birmingham Afro Caribbean Self Help BSS counted among its teachers university students from the organisation Black Unity.112

As community worker Alison explains, for black political parties BSSs were ‘integral to their work … it wasn’t disguised in any way, it was part and parcel’. Reflecting similar political intents were also a number of independent BSSs free from formal political associations, such as the George Padmore Supplementary School (later named George Padmore Community School) established by John La Rose, and Ajoy Ghose’s Malcolm X Montessori Programme.113 Making explicit their desire to promote educational achievement alongside radical black activism, these schools constructed a dual curriculum incorporating black politics and culture, and academic success. For instance, a letter of introduction to the community from the Summer School’s Committee of the BUFP, signed by the radical Caribbean activist Roger Lofters, explained the impetus of the Summer School as lying in ‘children being wrongfully placed in ESN schools’ and in ‘unemployment’.114 The Summer School advertised evening classes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for ‘academic and recreation’ held at Lewisham, Peckham, Brixton and New Cross, including lessons on English, maths, geography, black history, typing and current affairs.115

Examining the curriculum resources and student notebooks from BSSs it is clear that these schools created a politically imbued curriculum in which to foster black selfhood, critical analysis and educational achievement. Offering particular insight into this are the impressive archives left by the North London George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester schools. The curriculum materials of these schools include comprehension exercises on ‘How the slave trade started’, the history of Jamaican trade unionism, and the autodidactic traditions of key Caribbean social activists; dictation exercises on the natural environment; lecture notes on ‘Crusoe and the establishment of empire’; and O level sample papers.116 Similarly, the South East Black Peoples’ Organisation teachers’ meeting in 1969 recommended Harry Haller’s two texts (complete with teaching notes) on Martin Luther King and on the notion of Self-Help.117

Student workbooks reflect this curriculum focus. For instance, a student of George Padmore BSS was given an ‘A’ for an essay on the ‘Emancipation of the British slaves’ in which he concludes that it was not the humanitarian, but the economic factor, which led to the end of slavery.118 Alongside their academic studies, and often embedded within their numeracy and literacy work, student workbooks of the George Padmore and Paul Bogle BSSs reveal that students completed lessons on a range of black-centred topics, including African history and geography (p.143) and black literature.119 In addition, as with the SSS attempt to develop literary cultures around their educational intent, BSSs consciously built their libraries around black culture and politics, a task in which, unsurprisingly, the George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester schools were particularly active, given their connection with the New Beacon bookstore.120

Of course, schools varied significantly in the ways in which they combined a focus on black politics and culture with a desire to ensure black children and young people experienced academic success. Offering a different emphasis to that of the George Padmore and Paul Bogle schools, for example, Clinton Sealy’s Shepherd’s Bush BSS took a more traditional approach to its educational remit. Alison recalls that this school focused ‘strictly on maths and English’, and was ‘run very much on an autocratic manner’. Importantly, however, a more conservative pedagogical approach did not mean that such schools were less concerned with challenging racist assumptions and practices in schools and in the community more generally. Sealy’s approach was rooted in a concern to undermine structural patterns of black failure, and in the celebration of black heritage and culture.121 As Sealy wrote, BSSs ‘provide a framework in which each child can reach his full potential. Pupils can identify with black adults who are in positions of authority and thus they can relate to their colleagues and to their teachers.’122

In part, the common focus on intergenerational spaces of educational achievement borrowed heavily from the traditions of self-help. As put by Ivan Johnson of the People’s Unite Educational and Creative Arts Centre, ‘There is an old saying “IF YOU KNOW TEACH, IF YOU DON’T LEARN”. Self help is the key to our future.’123 Undeniably, the practices of self-help education for BSS teachers were imbued with the reclamation of knowledge authority, and with this a critical response to social presumptions of black inferiority. In his 1969 position paper, Harry Haller, for example sets out the principles of ‘self-help education’, in which he emphasises the importance of individual love and respect for students, who have experienced years of ‘failure’ in state schools.124

For those who connected their BSS work with analyses of the structural class and race inequalities in British society, self-help education became part of a wider political project. Here, practices of self-help were incorporated within broader struggles for equality.125 In her West Indian World article ‘Self-help groups alone will not achieve change’, for example, Norma Gibbes argued ardently against the notion of self-help education as a panacea. In a critical response she asserted: ‘Good strong pressure groups, and I don’t mean mushrooming organisations which appear to exist for socialising only, can represent us and achieve for us at a National level those things which as individuals we cannot (p.144) do.’126 Similar sentiment was found in the Malcolm X Montessori School programme, which, believed ‘that slum dwellers MUST learn to improve themselves and their conditions by a STAND-UP philosophy and a SELF HELP programme’,127 or in the Sundiata Liberation Centre for Children, which aimed ‘to do more than raise the consciousness of Black Children but to activate the Pan-Africanist concepts and develop them into modes of daily living’.128

Reflecting broader contestations in the black politic, these differences in orientation created a highly contested field of practice within which BSS organisers and teachers constructed their own individual purposes. For example, while ex-BSS teacher Andrew was involved in organisations such as the BLF, and understood his BSS work as unambiguously linked to a broader political agenda, he found himself needing constantly to defend his intent:

So there was that kind of problematic where we had to justify what we were doing, and how and why and if we confronted racism as a result of what we were doing – structural racism … I remember us struggling with some of those things because we were on the receiving end of a lot of the criticisms. We had to find a place for ourselves. Yes we were seeking change, what sort of change did we want? What sort of society were we looking at?

In responding to such questioning BSS organisers and teachers remained resolute in their purpose: across their diverse political orientations all BSSs understood their work as central to the project of challenging racism and promoting black history, culture and identity. Or, as put in the motto adopted for Manchester’s 1978 Roots Festival, a celebration of black education and history: ‘A race without the knowledge of its history is like a tree without roots.’12

Community, gender and blackness

This development of black identity and communality drew heavily on notions of community and family. The events hosted by the schools and the schools themselves attempted to incorporate all family members into their activities. Andrea, whose father taught in her BSS, explains that for her the BSS ‘felt as much about being a community group and networking those families together, as it was an educational establishment’. Likewise, the teachers interviewed for this research often spoke of their attempt to create open spaces within which parents, children and interested community members could be made to feel welcome. For some, perhaps unsurprisingly, the creation of a black community necessitated black autonomy. For example, a 1984 family event at Langham (p.145) School celebrating black historical figures, called ‘Hero’s Day’, advertised itself explicitly as ‘strictly an Afrikan families occasion’.130 This was, as has been explored above, fundamentally linked to reclamation of authority and a need for students (and teachers) to participate in spaces of black achievement and success.

Of course, such decisions were never made lightly. Having many supporters outside the black community, the organisations within the BSS and associated movements often had to make difficult decisions regarding the levels of black autonomy. The BPM, for example, debated the participation of white parents of black children and white partners of black parents.131 Marcus Garvey School explains its decision to ‘opt for an all black organisation’, on the basis that ‘it is necessary for black people to become more interested and concerned with helping themselves without taking the initiative, lead or stimulus from a white group’.132 Over a decade later, in 1986, the Paul Bogle BSS explained, ‘The school is organised primarily for black children, but is open to all children whose parents feel they can benefit from the service we provide.’133 To be sure, for many the inclusion of white children and parents indicated a political commitment to openness and broader community alliances. Both Nelson and Julie, for example, noted the attendance of white children at their BSSs as a marker of their inclusive politics.134

Whether enshrined in an organisational rule or not, the need for black spaces within which to recreate community and familial relationships was paramount for BSS organisers. BSSs attempted to engender black selfhood and history in a wider educational and social context that at best ignored, and at worst denied, this. Nelson explained: ‘We tried to give the West Indian child a flavour of their background, where their parents came from and why they came here. Because I think, and I feel that I am right, that their parents were afraid to tell their children about their background and why they came here and that sort of thing. And I suppose it was better coming from members of the community, which gave the parents then courage to talk about it themselves.’ In many ways, therefore, generating black collectivities was as much to do with asserting black selfhood as it was an attempt to counter an apparent discontinuity and fragility in communities. Many BSSs understood themselves as directly responding to, and intervening into, fractious urban neighbourhoods.

Across the interviews, for instance, BSSs teachers talked about their work as a project of recovering black community and family. Grace, for example, spoke of the ‘concrete jungles’ that foster ‘fragmented’ social relations. Similarly, the East London Black Women’s Organisation (ELBWO), which had as its primary remit the education of women (p.146) and children, spoke in 1984 of ‘alienation’ and a lack of ‘kinship links’ owing to housing estate environments.135 Against this backdrop, Grace’s involvement in a women’s education organisation was a way of ‘supporting each other’ and ‘meeting and sharing’.

The concern to rejuvenate black community and family invariably contained a gendered dynamic. Across the black political field, women were often presented as the defiant survivors through whom the regeneration of black selfhood could occur.136 ELBWO, for example, asserted: ‘Women and the family constitute the backbone of a people and it is therefore a tribute to the black woman that under such a savage and brutal system of oppression she can still recognise the value of her identity, her honour and the fact that we can still speak of a black family.’137 Overlapping with BSS organising, many women’s organisations throughout the 1970s and 1980s devoted themselves to children’s education. In their influential book, The Heart of Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe note the significance of children’s and young people’s activism for black women. ‘For Black women’, they argue, ‘challenging the education system has been part of a wider struggle to defend the rights and interests of the Black community as a whole … since we bear and rear the children, overseeing the institutionalised care provided by the schools – an extension of child rearing – has also been seen as our responsibility.’138

Certainly, for the women interviewed for this project, and those as part of the Black Cultural Archives oral history project,139 connection to family and community were strong motivators to become involved in BSSs. It was often BSS teaching and campaigning that brought women together from different groups and localities. One activist at this time, for instance, reflects that it was the ‘sus’ campaigns that prompted joint action by the Haringey Black Sisters and Brixton Black Women groups.140 Speaking of the BSS movement, she reflected that ‘the why [of the BSSs] was a deep understanding of how our children were being under-educated and miseducated’. ‘The BSSs’, she suggests, ‘demonstrates the capacity to sustain a community structure.’ At the same time, however, as will be explored in the following chapter, the project of reclaiming black identity, culture and educational success through BSSs was by no means restricted to women’s work. Undoubtedly, the political and educational intent of BSSs was one that inspired both men and women. Across England, parents, university students and community members found purpose and commonality in the political and educational enterprise of fostering black success and black pride.

(p.147) Conclusion

As frustration rose in response to racist employment, policing and schooling practices, the BSS movement emerged in the late 1960s within an existing network of community and political black activity. Drawing inspiration from the traditions of self-help education and resistances against slavery and subjugation, the BSS counter-public gave voice to an emergent collective consciousness of racism in children’s education in Britain. Organised locally, like SSSs, BSSs arose where interest and resources allowed, and were embedded within neighbourhood cultures. Importantly, the growth of the movement across the UK had a significant interrelationship with the campaign work of parents to intervene on behalf of their children to challenge racist school and police practices. These schools, therefore were not isolated cultural activities, but embedded within the broader political field.

Although there was no national ongoing organisational structure, BSSs created what could be defined as a ‘movement’ through their informal national networks, sustained by regular correspondence, the black press, conferences and campaign alliances. Informally and formally associated with the broader black politic and political organisations, the BSS counter-public was characterised by diverse interpretations of its educational remit. For some the educational success of black students served as the primary guiding motivation, while for others, this was more tightly connected to a class analysis and campaign work in other arenas.

Underpinning the work of all BSSs was an attempt to celebrate and inculcate identities and shared experiences of black selfhood. Informed by their campaign alliances, BSS teachers articulated a united and broad understanding of blackness, which extended from the Caribbean, into Africa, and for many into Asia as well. This political and cultural identification with blackness drew BSSs into creating genealogical links with black history and geography for the students. Unsurprisingly BSSs diversely interpreted the creation of common cultures of blackness, reflecting their multifarious political positions, localities and social aspirations.


(1) GPI, BEM/3/2/1/1, position paper by Robert Hart for consideration of the Steering Committee of the West Indian Education and Welfare Association, n.d.

(2) C. Bressey, ‘Forgotten histories: three stories of black girls from Barnardo’s Victorian archive’, Womens History Review, 11:3 (2002), 351–74, p. 352.

(p.148) (3) P. Fryer, Aspects of British Black History (London: Index Books, 1993).

(4) J. La Rose, ‘We did not come alive in Britain’, Race Today 8:3 (1976), 62–5.

(5) Fryer, Staying Power; E. Scobie, Black Britannia: A History of Blacks in Britain (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1972).

(7) See C. J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

(8) T. R. Patterson and R. D. G. Kelley, ‘Unfinished migrations: reflections on the African diaspora and the making of the modern world’, African Studies Review, 43:1 (2000), 11–45; S. Hall, ‘Negotiating Caribbean identities’, New Left Review 209 (1995), 3–14; Robinson, Black Marxism.

(9) M. Phillips, ‘Separatism or black control?’, in Ohri, Manning and Curno (eds), Community Work and Racism, pp. 103–20; D. Simon, ‘Education of the blacks: the supplementary school movement’, in B. Richardson (ed.), Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children (London: Trentham Books, 2005), pp. 64–71.

(10) Roxy Harris and Sarah White (eds), Foundations of a Movement: A Tribute to John La Rose on the Occasion of the 10th International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (London: John La Rose Tribute Committee, 1991), p. 16.

(11) P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Verso: London, 1993); Alleyne, ‘The making of an antiracist cultural politics in post-imperial Britain’; W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘How negroes have taken advantage of educational opportunities offered by friends’, Journal of Negro Education, 7:2 (1938), 124–31.

(12) See B. Schwartz (ed.), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

(13) B. Schwatz, ‘Stuart Hall’, Cultural Studies, 19:2 (2005), 176–202. The term ‘indigenous’ is used often throughout scholarship to describe the relationship between the white and black left in Britain. The term, of course, is problematic given the struggles of race and nationhood of the Irish, Welsh and Scottish peoples, and the constant transformation of what constitutes an ‘indigenous’ Britain. It does however have usefulness in signalling the particular experience of difference felt by black immigrants in coming to Britain, and it is in this spirit that the term is occasionally adopted herein.

(15) Fryer, Staying Power; e.g. Adi discusses Desmond Buckle’s involvement in the CP in ‘Forgotten comrade’.

(17) E. Smith, ‘“Class before race”: British communism and the place of empire in postwar race relations’, Science and Society, 72:4 (2008), 455–81; see also J. Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The Communist Party of Great Britain 1951–1968 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2003), pp. 105–36.

(18) See K. Morgan, G. Cohen and A. Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920–1991 (London: Rivers Orman Press, 2007).

(p.149) (20) C. Freedman, ‘Overdeterminations: on Black Marxism in Britain’, Social Text, 8 (Winter 1983–4), 142–50; H. Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism and West African nationalism in Britain’, African Studies Review, 43:1 (2000), 69–92; e.g. BCA, GARISSON/4/6, G. Padmore, ‘Communism and Black Nationalism’, Brooklyn, n.d.

(21) C. Waters, ‘“Dark strangers” in our midst: discourses of race and nation in Britain, 1947–1963’, Journal of British Studies, 36:2 (1997), 207–38; B. Carter, C. Harris and S. Joshi, ‘The 1951–1955 Conservative government and the racialization of black immigration’, in K. Owusu (ed.), Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 21–36.

(22) R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (London: Little Brown, 2004); Fryer, Staying Power; T. Sewell, Keep on Moving, The Windrush Legacy: The Black Experience in Britain from 1948 (London: Voice Enterprise, 1998); for personal reflections on this period see D. Henry, Thirty Blacks in British Education: Hopes, Frustrations, Achievements, ed. R. Ruddock (Sussex: Rabbit Press, 1991).

(23) S. de Tufo, S. Randle and J. Ryan, ‘Inequality in a school system’, in Ohri, Manning and Curno (eds), Community Work and Racism, pp. 75–87.

(24) J. Solomos, B. Findlay, S. Jones and P. Gilroy, ‘The organic crisis of British capitalism and race: the experience of the seventies’, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (ed.), The Empire Strikes Back, pp. 9–46.

(25) D. C. Thomas, ‘Black radical tradition – theory and practice: black studies and the scholarship of Cedric Robinson’, Race Class, 47:2 (2005), 1–22, p. 6; Smith, ‘“Class before race”’.

(27) D. Hinds, ‘The West Indian Gazette: Claudia Jones and the black press in Britain’, Race & Class, 50:1 (2008), 88–97; see also A. Dawson, ‘Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry and the political aesthetics of carnival in Britain’, Small Axe, 21 (2005), 54–69.

(28) Fryer, Staying Power, pp. 376–7.

(30) Scobie, Black Britannia, p. 237; S. Hall, ‘Black diaspora artists in Britain: three “moments” in post-war history’, History Workshop Journal, 61 (2006), 1–24.

(32) C. Williams, ‘We are a natural part of many different struggles: black women organizing’, in W. James and C. Harris (eds), Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain (London and New York: Verso, 1993), pp. 153–13; B. Schwartz, ‘Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette: reflections on the emergence of post-colonial Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 14:3 (2003), 264–85; Hinds, ‘The West Indian Gazette.

(33) Alleyne, Radicals against Race, pp. 33–40; L. James, ‘The Caribbean Artists Movement’, in Schwartz (ed.), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain, pp. 209–27.

(p.150) (34) R. Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (Aldershot: Gower, 1987).

(35) Dawson, ‘Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry’; Alleyne, ‘The making of an antiracist cultural politics’. GPI, BPM 6/1/1/1, press clippings and descriptions of the Fascist attacks on radical black bookshops across the UK.

(36) W. James, ‘Migration, racism and identity: the Caribbean experience in Britain’, New Left Review, 193 (1992), 15–55, p. 26.

(40) E.g. G. Livingstone, ‘Dilemmas of race-rememory buried alive: popular education, nation, and diaspora in critical education’, in M. W. Apple, S. J. Ball and L. A. Gandin (eds), The Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Education (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 370–86; Alleyne, ‘The making of an antiracist cultural politics’.

(43) C. Tulloch, ‘The Reading Collective, 1967–68’, Race Today, 4:3 (1972), 95–7.

(45) Winston Best in Harris and White (eds), Foundations of a Movement, pp. 12–19.

(46) S. Tomlinson, Race and Education: Policy and Politics in Britain (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2008), p. 30.

(47) I. Grosvenor, ‘A different reality: education and the racialization of the black child’, History of Education, 16:4 (1987), 299–308.

(49) M. Grubb, ‘Ealing: Goodbye to busing?’, Race Today, 4:6 (1972), 206–7.

(51) GPI, BEM/1/2/3, ‘Report to the Education Committee on Comprehensive Education’, London Borough of Haringey, March 1969.

(52) GPI, BEM/1/2/3, press clippings.

(53) GPI, BEM/1/2/3, press clippings.

(54) GPI, BEM/1/2/3/16, Confidential: Haringey Comprehensive Schools, A. J. F Doulton, 13 January 1969.

(55) GPI, BEM/1/2/5, pamphlet, ‘Protest grows against banding in Haringey: parent’s strike threatened for Autumn 1970’, statement issued by the Haringey Advisory Centre for Education, 25 January 1970.

(56) GPI, BEM/1/2/3/10, ‘Proposals of the NLWIA concerning the education in Haringey schools’, December 1969.

(57) B. Coard, How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain (London: New Beacon Books, 1971).

(60) The recent oral history testimony of Black women activists collected by the Black Cultural Archives also confirms the importance of Coard’s book: BCA, BWM12J. See also B. Bryan, S. Dadzie, and S. Scafe, The Heart of Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (London: Virago, 1985).

(61) J. Stephen, ‘Statistics Back West Indian Complaint of Unfairness in Schooling’, The Times (9 June 1971), p. 2; Black Peoples’ Progressive Association and Redbridge Community Relations Council, Cause for Concern: West Indian Pupils in Redbridge (Ilford: Author, 1978).

(62) GPI, BEM/1/2/3, NLWIA Press Statement, 22 December 1969; GPI, BEM/4/3/1/1 10, ‘Black children dumped in ESN schools’ in National and International News Bulletin, Black Peoples’ Information Centre: London, 1:4 (20 July 1971).

(64) GPI, BEM/3/1/4/1, 42, Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association Newsletter, No 1, 1971.

(65) GPI, BEM/3/1/4/1, 42, Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association Newsletter, No 1, 1971.

(66) S. Beezmohun, ‘Bridging the gap: The international book fair of radical black and Third World books, 1982–1996’ Afroeuropa: Journal of Afroeuropean Studies (2007), 1–14; Alleyne, Radicals against Race.

(67) T. Issa and C. Williams, Realizing Potential: Complementary Schools in the UK (Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2009); Harris and White (eds), Foundations of a Movement.

(68) I. Grosvenor, ‘From the eye of history to a second gaze: the visual archive and the marginalized in the history of education’, History of Education, 36:4 (2007), 607–22.

(69) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001, pamphlet, ‘Peter Moses SS: about and aims’, p. 1.

(71) GPI, BEM/3/1/1/4, press clipping, Coombes, ‘Manchester: Children Rescued from ESN Pit’, West Indian World (1974).

(72) GPI, BEM/3/2/2/1, ‘Report of meeting held at WISW’, 30 December 1970.

(73) LMA, 4463/D/10/01/001, Supplementary Schools’ Council proposal meeting minutes, 10 June 1972.

(74) GPI, BEM/3/1/2/5/1–3, meeting minutes, Co-ordinating Council of Black Supplementary Schools.

(75) ‘Saturday Schools Go National’, Voice (24 November 1987), p. 2; GPI, BPM/4/2/2/2, National Association of Supplementary Schools correspondence calling for 2nd Annual General Meeting to be held on 30 April 1989, from Mavis Milner-Brown, Secretary, to George Padmore Community School, 23 March 1989

(76) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/003, Catalogue of Supplementary Schools in London, Black Education Unit, July 1987.

(77) GPI, BPM/4/2/2/2, ‘Proposal for the establishment of an Association of Supplementary Schools in London: a discussion paper’, Clinton Sealy, n.d.

(p.152) (78) E.g. Manchester Roots ’78 festival: R. Phillips, ‘Black education finds its roots’, Disadvantage in Education, 2:2 (1979), 12–13.

(79) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001/1, Peter Moses commemoration leaflet, p. 13.

(80) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001, pamphlet, ‘Peter Moses School: about and aims’, 1986.

(81) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001/1, Peter Moses commemoration leaflet, p. 14.

(82) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001/1, Peter Moses commemoration leaflet, p. 8.

(83) BCA, WONG/2/1/1, Ahfiwe: Journal of the Ahfiwe School and Abeng, no, 1, n.d.

(84) BCA, WONG/2/2, Ahfiwe: Journal of the Ahfiwe School and Abeng, no. 2, n.d.

(85) A. Angelo, ‘The Black Panthers in London, 1967–1972: a diasporic struggle navigates the Black Atlantic’, Radical History Review, 103 (2009), 17–35, p. 20.

(86) See Campaign against Racism and Fascism, Southall: The Birth of a Black Community (London: Institute of Race Relations, 1981); Campaign against Racism and Fascism / Newham Monitoring Project, Forging a Black Community: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Newham (London: Author, 1991).

(87) B. Troyna and B. Carrington, Education, Racism and Reform (Routledge: London, 1990).

(88) LMA, 4463/B/08/01/001, press clippings and campaign material.

(89) LMA, 4463/B/02/02/044A, press clippings and campaign material.

(90) LMA, 4463/B/02/03/09.

(91) GPI, BEM/4/2/2/2/1–8, education courses, various leaflets.

(92) GPI, BEM/3/1/3/3/52, December 1974.

(93) LMA, 4463.B/02/02/012, letter to parents and community, People’s Unite Educational and Creative Arts Centre, Southall, n.d.

(94) B. W. Alleyne. ‘An idea of community and its discontents: towards a more reflexive sense of belonging in multicultural Britain’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25:4 (2002), 607–27.

(95) G. John, The Black Working-Class Movement in Education and Schooling and the 1985–86 Teachers Dispute (London: BPM, 1986).

(96) GPI, BPM/4/2/1/3, BPM Supplementary School contacts, n.d.

(97) ‘Sus’ refers to the stop-and-search law that enabled police to harass and target black youth. See M. Clarke and D. Huggins, ‘The scrap sus campaign’, in Ohri, Manning and Curno (eds), Community Work and Racism, pp. 139–45.

(98) E.g. LMA, 4463/B/02/03/001, Battle Front, paper of the BPM, May 1986.

(99) Sometimes the BYM was also referred to as the Black Students’ Movement.

(101) LMA, 4463/B/08/01/001, New Cross Massacre Campaign minutes; IRR, 01/04/04/01/10/07/049, miscellaneous papers of the Southall Black Sisters Project; IRR, 01/04/04/01/12/056, miscellaneous papers of the Southall Youth movement; Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe, The Heart of Race; J. Sudbury, ‘Other Kinds of Dreams’: Black Women’s Organisations and the Politics (p.153) of Transformation (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, Southall.

(102) E.g. Southall Black Sisters Project: IRR, 01/04/04/01/10/07/049. See also C. Connolly, ‘Splintered sisterhood: anti-racism in a young women’s project’, Feminist Review, 36 (1990), 52–64.

(103) Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, Southall; MDXRT, 15/11, East End Community School.

(105) GPI, 4/1/1/2, BPM, ‘Independent parent power, independent student power’, 1979.

(106) V. A. Jones, We Are Our Own Educators! Josina Machel: From Supplementary to Black Complementary School (London: Karia Press / Josina Machel Supplementary School, 1986), p. xii.

(109) Winston Best in Harris and White (eds), Foundations of a Movement, p 58; Lemuel Findlay Supplementary School, ‘About us’, http://lfss.org.uk/htmldocs/lfssabout-us.html (accessed 25 May 2010); LMA, 4463/D/05/ 01/001, Robert Hart Memorial School; GPI, BEM/3/2/1/1, Robert Hart, Position Paper for the Steering Committee of the West Indian Education and Welfare Association, n.d.

(110) LMA, 4463/D/05/01/001, Caribbean Teachers’ Conference notes, 16 April 1974.

(112) GPI, BEM/3/1/3/2/20, Note on Birmingham Afro Caribbean Self Help BSS, 16 November 1970.

(113) IRR, 01/04/04/01/04/01/14; GPI, BEM/3/1/1–3.

(114) IRR, 01/04/04/01/04/01/12, Letter of introduction, Summer Schools’ Committee, Black Power/Panther Education.

(115) See alsoH. Goulbourne, ‘Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain’, David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, no. 2 (David Nicholls Memorial Trust, University of Oxford: Oxford, 2000).

(116) GPI, BEM/3/1/5–6; BEM/3/1/5/5/10–23.

(117) GPI, BEM/4/2/2/3/1–17.

(118) GPI, BEM/3/1/6/12–13.

(119) GPI, BEM/3/1/6; LMA/4463/D/11/03/001–004.

(120) GPI, BEM/3/1/5/1/2, book lists for the George Padmore school.

(122) LMA, 4463/D/05/01/001, Clinton Sealy, ‘Alternative education’, n.d.

(123) LMA, 4463/B/02/02/012, letter to parents and community, People’s Unite Educational and Creative Arts Centre, Southall, n.d.

(124) BEM 4/2/2/3/1–24, educational programmes, 1969; ‘Further notes on self- help education’, Harry Haller, 23 July 1969.

(126) GPI, BEM/3/1/1/4, N. Gibbes, ‘Self-Help Groups Alone Will Not Achieve (p.154) Change’, West Indian World (13 February 1974), p. 11.

(127) IRR, 01/04/04/01/04/01/14, ‘Fun with Learning’, Malcolm X Montesorri School Report 1972/3 (original emphasis).

(128) GPI, BEM/3/2/1/1, position paper, Sundiata Liberation Centre for Children, October 1969.

(130) BCA, EPHEMERA/16.

(131) See different drafts of the BPM ‘Principles of Organisation’ (LMA, 4463/B/02/01/001–2) and meeting minutes (LMA, 4463/B/02/01/009).

(132) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001/1, Peter Moses commemoration leaflet, p. 13.

(133) LMA, 4463/D/11/02/001, Peter Moses SS, About and Aims.

(134) The East London Black Women’s Organisation also notes participation of white women within its organisation: East London Black Women’s Organisation, ‘Black women’s organisation: the role of black women’, paper presented to the History of black People in London Conference (Institute of Education, London University, 27–8 November 1984).

(139) BCA, BWM, oral history recordings.

(140) BCA, BWM22A, oral history recording.