Book Review: Darcus Howe: A Political Biography

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Darcus Howe: A Political Biography by Robin Bunce and Paul Field (Bloomsbury: London & New York, 2014)

Review by Jo Manby

A lively and incisive biography, dedicated to the memory of CLR James, Darcus Howe’s mentor and great uncle, whose ‘youthful rebellion was symbolized by his skipping his duties to illicitly play cricket’ (p.12), this volume throws into brilliant relief Howe’s importance in the history of radical politics and the struggle for racial justice.

book coverDefiant like his great uncle, but at the same time influenced by his father’s ‘values of Christianity and… love of reason’, Howe used this inflammatory blend to ‘ruthlessly question the injustices and myths of race, class and religion itself’ (p.12).

Born in Trinidad in 1943, Howe spent his first ten years in Eckels village, which was populated by agricultural labourers and some Black Trinidadians employed by the nearby Point-à-Pierre oil refinery. Howe’s father was head teacher of Eckels Village School and led services at the Church of Ascension.

During Howe’s school days at Queen’s Royal College he excelled intellectually for teachers who recognised his potential and he became fascinated by science and reason. Outside school, he ‘easily made friends with the street gang of hustlers, itinerants, gamblers, saga boys and unemployed’ (p.19). Joining mass rallies for independence, he distributed the People’s National Movement (PNM) paper, The Nation, which CLR James had returned to Trinidad to edit at the invitation of PNM leader Eric Williams.

Howe attended the two week conference, The Dialectics of Liberation, in July 1967, which was contributed to by representatives of the Black Power Movement including Howe’s childhood friend Stokely Carmichael. In August 1968 Howe became involved with the British Black Power Movement, forming his own group, the Black Eagles, with its own magazine, a short-lived but impressive publication.

The study then moves into the revolutionary year 1968, with the Prague Spring, barricades in Paris, riots in American ghettos following the murder of Martin Luther King. 1968 and 1969 ‘were [also] an extraordinary period in Howe’s intellectual development’ (p.45). He spent time getting to know and learning from CLR James in London.

Chapter 4 focuses on Cause for Concern, the BBC series that broadcast a 1968 documentary that Howe described as a ‘major watershed in the struggle in which the police and black community were locked’ (Howe 1988: 29)’ (p.51). The episode Equal Before the Law? examined cases of police racism including ‘instances of brutality, arrests on trumped-up charges and the fabrication of evidence to secure criminal convictions’ (p.52).

In 1968, Howe’s dilemma was whether to ‘pursue academic study’ (p.59) at the University of York or join James at the Congress of Black Writers at McGill University, Montreal. He chose the latter, ‘perhaps the seminal event in the international Black Power movement’ (p.59). In 1969, back in Britain, Howe set up Black Dimension, a “Community News Service”, the first issue of which concerned the ‘Police State in West London’ (p.67). Returning to Trinidad in April 1969, he joined the staff of The Vanguard, newspaper of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union.

A Resting Place in Babylon: Frank Crichlow and the Mangrove details the way persistent police raids on the Mangrove restaurant drove away its clientele, and Howe’s solution – ‘the police had invaded the Mangrove; now it was time to march on the police stations’ (p.93). Marches led to arrests, ‘and the arrests to a trial: the most sensational political trial of the decade, which turned Black Power into a cause célèbre, lifted the lid on police racism in Notting Hill and pushed Howe into the media spotlight’ (p.93). Chapters 8-10 deal with the stages of the trials of the Mangrove Nine.

Howe joined the Institute of Race Relations, editing its monthly journal, Race Today. He founded, with others, the Race Today Collective, ‘part of the Brixton community’ (p.154), which from 1982 ‘began looking after the 81-year-old James’ (p.160). Chapter 13 describes Howe’s decade of arrests and time in Pentonville: ‘Half of Brixton was in the exercise yard’ and they greeted him with shouts of “Darcus!”’ (p.177).

Subsequent chapters explore the injustices of the New Cross Massacre, Operation Swamp 81, police tactics at the Carnival, and Howe’s amplified radical journalism in The Bandung File and Devil’s Advocate, and as columnist for the New Statesman. The biography ends with the aftermath of the 2011 ‘England riots’ following the shooting of Mark Duggan, and cites Howe’s recent article in which he advocates ‘time to access our thoughts. Capitalism has been good at force feeding us falsities: racial division, class inequality, alienation and disengagement, a world after capitalism means we must think long and hard again’ (p.265).

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