- Darcus Howe: A Political Biography by Robin Bunce and Paul Field
On 9 August 2011 Darcus Howe gained international attention during a bbc interview about England’s riots following the police shooting of a young Black male, Mark Duggan. The interview started on the wrong foot when Fiona Armstrong referred to her interviewee as Marcus Howe. It quickly deteriorated when Armstrong suggested that Howe was “no stranger to riots.” Howe took exception and quickly corrected Armstrong: he had never taken part in a riot, but had been involved in demonstrations that ended in conflict. He then politely informed her that she “sounded idiotic” and that she should “have some respect for an old West Indian Negro.” (259)
The bbc interview went viral. For many, it was the first time that they had heard Howe’s voice, or even heard of him. [End Page 278] Yet for more than 40 years, Howe had been one of Britain’s most prominent political figures having been, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, at the fore-front of Black radical politics in England. In their important book, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, co-authors Robin Bunce and Paul Field trace Howe’s political trajectory while offering a window into British society through the prism of Black radical politics.
Darcus Howe, né Rhett Radford Leighton Howe, was born in Trinidad in 1943 and raised in the southern Trinidadian rural village of Eckels. A good student, he attended Queen’s Royal College, the country’s elite school, on an exhibition scholarship, just like his uncle C.L.R. James had done years before. But despite his privileged secondary education, he grew up in modest surroundings where he gained an appreciation for the Caribbean underclass, race (especially important given Trinidad’s large Indian descended population), working-class struggles, and Trinidad’s popular culture, including the steel pan and carnival.
Howe carried these impressions with him to London in the early 1960s at a time when Blacks were arriving in large numbers as part of Britain’s ongoing post-World War II reconstruction. But while Black labour was needed in the country, the growing physical presence of Blacks was unwelcome to many and racist attacks, police brutality, and sensationalist anti-immigration outbursts in the media and by politicians fueled racial antagonism. Howe’s initial plan was to pursue a career in law, but he was increasingly drawn towards politics and he abandoned his studies for the movement, eventually leading to his involvement in Race Today.
Race Today was not simply the most important Black popular journal of post-war Britain. In covering Black, Asian, and white working-class struggles alongside events in Africa, the Caribbean, and working-class struggles in Europe, it also became one of the most important popular political journals in the UK. One of the strengths of the journal was its appreciation of the relationship between politics, art, and popular culture. Considerable pages of the journal were devoted to both established and aspiring artists, including renowned poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who also worked as an editor for the journal and canonized Howe in the famous protest song “Man Free (for Darcus Howe).”
But as Bunce and Field show, Race Today was also a political collective that was actively engaged in the very struggles that it covered in its pages. The Race Today Collective rallied people of African, Asian, and to a lesser extent Euro-English descent in the fight towards social justice. Howe was a close associate of C.L.R. James who, in his notion of self-organization, had long argued that so-called ordinary people have the capacity to organize themselves without the leadership of a vanguard party. James also argued that small organizations could play an important role in helping to facilitate social change. Under Howe’s leadership, Race Today became a vehicle through which ideas and actions could work in symbiosis as people rallied and organized to radically change a Britain that was in need of radical change.
As a political biography, Darcus Howe is not only an important chronicle...