Remembering Race Today and a History of Radical Publishing in Britain

June 2023

Given the limited means, improvisation, and sheer audacity of Black struggle, it is perhaps fitting that from 1974 to 1988, a central node of Black power in Britain should operate out of a squat in South London. At the heart of Britain’s Black community, 165 Railton Road in Brixton housed the offices of the Race Today Collective, a campaigning organization that sought to advance the cause of Black Power, fight for women’s liberation, and support the anticolonial movements of the Third World. Race Today, its publication, editions of which are collected in the 2019 volume Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A “Race Today” Anthology, offered a piercing analysis and trenchant critique of political and social events in Britain and beyond, adopting an unorthodox Marxist approach that placed race, gender, and social class at its core. However, founded as the liberal monthly publication of the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today took on its radical form only after a series of organizational coups. The first, led by Ambalavener Sivanandan, wrested control of the institute from Chatham House, lynchpin of the British foreign policy establishment, and turned it into an antiracist organization. The second saw Race Today break from the institute completely and relocate to the front lines in Brixton. This coup was led by its then editor Darcus Howe, the maverick Trinidadian activist who was a former British Black Panther member and one of the Mangrove 9, who were acquitted on charges of inciting a riot in a landmark 1970 trial that saw the first judicial acknowledgement of evidence of racial hatred in London’s Metropolitan police.

There on the ground floor of the Brixton squat, the Race Today team set to work. Eight women formed the backbone to the production in editing, contributing articles, typesetting, and graphic design. They included the former members of the British Black Panther movement Leila Hassan, Mala Sen, and Barbara Beese. The basement, meanwhile, was reserved for political education and as a hub to build bridges with other communities of resistance, such as the wives of the striking coal miners that in the 1980s presented a formidable challenge to, but were ultimately crushed by, the Thatcher government. The top floor was occupied by C. L. R. James, the itinerant Trotskyite and Pan-Africanist who, now well into his eighties and on the last leg of his global tour of revolution, continued through Race Today to exert considerable influence over British radicalism. The publication took seriously his injunction to “recognize and record” the struggles of the working classes, at a time of great social flux and political upheaval in Britain and beyond.1 Less a self-appointed vanguard of the working class, the collective saw itself as trying to capture the intellectual energy, the new society that had already been bubbling to the surface of the Black community.

Little was off limits. Race Today gave voice to the cultural explosion of the 1970s and 1980s, including the poetics of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jean “Binta” Breeze and the groundbreaking films of Menelik Shabbaz. The publication also formed a mas band that went on to win a string of awards at the Notting Hill carnival. Above all, the magazine was keen to showcase culture on its own terms, as Leila Hassan, its one-time editor, writes: “Race Today did not subscribe to a politics of integration into the status quo, but sought to change the sociocultural structures that sustained oppression against minoritized groups.”2 For Howe, meanwhile, politics and culture were inseparable: “We bear in mind that mass revolt sharpens the sensibilities of existing artists, dumps the frauds and generates the presence of new personalities.”3 Yet even if, as the poet and filmmaker Imruh Bakari writes in 1984, “black theatre is pregnant with dynamism, optimism, and controversy,” it was still met with an attitude of skepticism and disdain by the guild of English theater critics. About one particular critic, Bakari adds: “[They] seemed perturbed about the Jamaican dialect of the play, recommending ‘why not speak “English” so that we all can understand?’”4

The fervid blend of publication, political protest, and cultural insurgency recalls another, short-lived but by no means insignificant publication also based in Brixton. Founded by the Trinidadian Communist Claudia Jones in 1958, the West Indian Gazette newspaper, by combining reports on the day-to-day experiences of Caribbean folk in Britain with the latest from the anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia, had a formative influence on African Caribbean identity in Britain.5 The Gazette also sponsored a Paul Robeson concert in London and made history when it held Britain’s first Trinidadian-style carnival in 1959. Founded in 1966, John La Rose and Sarah White’s New Beacon Books followed a similar community-forming model in North London, as did Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, founded in West London by Guyanese emigrants Eric and Jessica Huntley. In 1982, New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture, along with Race Today, launched the International Book Fair of Radical and Third World Books, perhaps the high watermark of Black radical literary culture. Held on twelve occasions between 1982 and 1991, participants included the recently deceased Ama Ata Aidoo, Amiri Baraka, Carolyn Cooper, Édouard Glissant, Pearl Springer, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Describing the inaugural fair as an “outstanding success,” Howe summed up the literary foment of the day: “A veritable deluge of books, pamphlets, and leaflets have been published, ranging from the literary to the sociological to the sharply political.”6

The essays that comprise Here to Stay, Here to Fight document the resistance of a generation who arrived in Britain from the far-flung colonies of the empire following the Second World War. Met with a raw and unremitting racism—in housing, in work, in schools, in government, and sometimes felt on the receiving end of a police baton—arrivals from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia gradually became radicalized. Their experiences contrasted with the mythical Britain of progress and plenty they had read of in the colonial textbooks. But John La Rose reminds us that it would be wrong to see Black Power as a purely British phenomenon: “We did not come alive in Britain. . . . The encounter with white racism and the manoeuvres of the British capitalist power did not begin in England but in the Caribbean.”7 His editing and organizing experience with trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago were put to good use through New Beacon as well as through myriad other contributions to Black art and antiracist organizing. For La Rose, then, the roots of the British Black struggle could be found in what Sylvia Wynter calls the “ex-slave archipelagos” of the Americas.8 The British struggle was but one part of a global struggle against racism and colonialism, only now it was being waged in the heart of empire itself.

Added to this were the political insights and organizing traditions of South Asian and African arrivals, giving rise to political Blackness, a strategic collective identity mobilizing those with a shared experience of the racism, exploitation, and the violence of empire. Years earlier, the West Indian Gazette had effectively moved to a politically Black position in all but name when it expanded its masthead to the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian News. The British Black Panthers, founded in 1968, had also worked under political Blackness, with Indian-born members Mala Sen and Farrukh Dhondy, who later joined the Race Today Collective. The Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent, established in 1978, also organized in this way. Nor was it uniquely British: Steve Biko had attempted to organize under similar terms in South Africa, as had Walter Rodney in Guyana.

While political Blackness provided a broad enough umbrella with which to contain diverse and disparate communities, Race Today nonetheless attempted to remain attentive to the particularities of each. The specifics of South Asian emigration—Gujaratis with “petty-business acumen” settling in Northwest London; Bengalis “employed in the sweated leather and clothing trades” of East London; and Pakistanis, who while working in the “dark, not-quite-satanic, textile mills” help to turn parts of Northern England from “Mill to Mosque towns”—are laid out in fine detail.9 As are the mobilizations—often women led—against workplace discrimination and against the scornful “Paki-bashing” racism, which peaked in the late 1970s. A June 1976 editorial offered a class analysis of the Asian situation:

The middle-class Asians do not want to fight. They prefer appealing to government ministers and the police to calm things down. Pressing on them are the mass of Asian families who have been facing the attacks on the ground. The latter stand for the mobilisation of the strength and power of the community—mass meetings, mass demonstrations, vigilante groups.10

It is, however, difficult to gauge just how successful such coalitions were in practice. Did they consist of just a small crop of experienced activists, or were the masses themselves moved to act in unison? Mobilizing marginalized, working-class communities to view their oppression in wider, global terms is a difficult task, and the June 1976 editorial goes as far as to chide the Caribbean community for “stand[ing] aloof” amid a surge in anti-Asian violence in East London.11 Still, Race Today members were instrumental in the Bengali Housing Action Group, which organized the largest squat in British history, a challenge to an institutionally racist housing system in the East End of London. After a three-year campaign of direct action, authorities relented, and many Bengalis were rehoused.

The pages of Race Today also provide an invaluable resource about the lives and acts of ordinary Black women. Postwar emigration to Britain radically affected Black women who were often forced to leave their children and sometimes husbands back home. On arrival in Britain, middle-class and educated Caribbean women found themselves reclassified as Black and working class. Like others they took work in the garment and food factories or trained to become nurses, typically earning less than their White counterparts. By 1971 Black women comprised the largest section of the Caribbean workforce in Britain, outnumbering men.12 Stories of these women, Kennetta Hammond Perry writes, present us “with an under-examined archive for interrogating how Black women made sense of the ways in which the gendered process of racialization have shaped dynamics within the working classes.”13 In foregrounding the voices of the women as they navigated the workplace and the home and expressed their hopes and fears, the publication also anticipates Heart of the Race, the monumental study of Black women in Britain by Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, published in 1985. We also see examples of Black women taking the fight to authorities, smashing the myth that Black women did not partake in militant action. One feisty hospital worker, elected to represent her peers in government talks after forty-eight beds were threatened with closure, recalls,

I asked him how he would feel if he fell ill and could not get a bed at the hospital because none was available. He mumbled something and I warned him not to talk to me at the back of his teeth. “Speak up and say what you have to say,” I said to him. I give as much as I get. They were forced to compromise and 14 NHS beds were kept on.14

Moreover, women at Race Today were part of global discussions around Black feminism and were influenced by Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, whose writing appears in the pages of Here to Stay, Here to Fight. Years before Kimberlé Crenshaw’s landmark coinage of “intersectionality,” Race Today’s Barbara Beese and Mala Sen had already articulated their positionality vis-à-vis Black Power and the women’s movement. In an introduction to Selma James’s 1975 manifesto Sex, Race, and Class, Beese and Sen wrote: “As black women in our collective we have no choice to make between the two movements—we are products of both and not in opposition to either. Our existence poses no division in the class. It poses instead the potential for linkage of its power.”15 While shunning mainstream politics, the publication nonetheless claimed to be “an important vehicle” for Britain’s first Black woman MP, Dianne Abbott, elected in 1987.16

C. L. R. James’s death in 1989 and Darcus Howe’s conviction that the magazine had “exhausted the moment” is said to have spelt the end for the publication.17 But what did Howe mean by this? The final issue was published in 1988, a year before James’s death at eighty-eight, meaning it must have already been in terminal decline. It is telling that the anthology ends with essays on the assassination of Walter Rodney and about the Grenadian Revolution. Rodney’s death and the Grenada Revolution’s unraveling followed by the US invasion represent twin body blows that, along with the collapse of the Manley administration in Jamaica, David Scott writes, “seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the Caribbean left as a revolutionary project.”18 These events were acutely felt in Britain too, where a bullish Thatcherism had forced the Left into a retreat, just as the Soviet Union limped inexorably toward its demise. But what did Race Today, with its ear so close to the ground, have to say about the powerful shifts taking place in Britain and beyond? In 1985, there was some complaint that the political energies of the Black community were being directed toward electoral politics: “The revolutionary spirit is alive and well . . . while the revolutionary political movement flounders.” A return to the “organisational flair” of the 1960s was proposed.19 But this seems an insufficient analysis of a political decline whose implications we still wrestle with today. Was Race Today blindsided by the resurgent imperialism and marauding neoliberalism of the 1980s? Or were the relevant issues just not included in the anthology? Knowing is all the more urgent, given the proximity of Race Today’s era to our own.

Consensus in Britain around political Blackness also crumbled about this time. Urban rebellions in predominantly Black neighborhoods across the country in the 1980s were followed by an intensified state multiculturalism. Ambalavener Sivanandan argues that money channeled by local authorities to ethnic and religious organizations served to “deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalry,” undermining racial unity.20 Yet, outdated as it may seem now and imperfect as it was then, the purposeful direction political Blackness provided has yet to be replicated in Britain. Antiracism as the struggle to create a new society has been largely replaced by what Paul Gilroy has called “McKinsey multiculturalism,” in which Black and Brown faces are brought into company boardrooms and the political front benches, while structural inequalities are left intact.21 That one of the most ethnically diverse government cabinets in British history is currently engaged in a “war on woke” signals the limits of the politics of racial representation absent class analysis. Moreover, ethnic or racial nationalism alone as the basis for societal transformation seems unrealistic in Britain, a country where ethnic minorities total around the same proportion of the population as one group—African Americans—does in the United States. Still, the multicultural Black Lives Matter crowd tossing Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol Harbor or the spontaneous group stepping in for the hollowed-out state in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire tragedy shows antiracism inflected by class analysis has deep roots in Britain, even if not explicitly termed “political Blackness.” Meanwhile, the United Families and Friends Campaign that seeks justice for victims of police violence offers a vision of solidarity that goes beyond people of color.22

Besides, Britain’s racial landscape has been decisively altered since Race Today’s heyday. The South Asian other has been increasingly folded into the terrifying figure of the Muslim.23 More recent arrivals from Somalia and elsewhere in Africa have added to the diversity of Black communities. That the anti–Eastern European xenophobia that had fueled Brexit has been tempered to allow Slavic Ukrainians fleeing war reminds us that racial categories are subject to change and are often contingent. It is not hard to imagine that a more cohesive antiracist movement would see many events as deeply imbricated assaults on citizenship: the “hostile environment” that led to dozens of members of the Windrush generation being wrongly deported to the Caribbean; the citizenship-stripping of scores of British Muslims as part of the so-called war on terror;24 and the current government’s callous project to send desperate migrants and refugees thousands of miles away to be processed in Rwanda. What might such a movement look like when viewed through the prism of race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality? Debates about political Blackness—its relevance and its composition—will most likely continue ad infinitum. But for Race Today, Blackness was always political.

Amandla Thomas-Johnson is a PhD student in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University, focusing on the literary activism and global solidarity that coalesced around the Grenadian revolution in the Caribbean. As a journalist he has reported from a dozen countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa, and is the author of Becoming Kwame Ture (Chimurenga, 2020), about Stokely Carmichael's time in Africa. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Aljazeera, and the Daily Telegraph, among others.

[1] C. L. R. James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing Reality (Chicago: Charles Kerr, 2006); quoted in Leila Hassan, Robin Bunce, and Paul Field, introduction to Paul Field, Robin Bunce, Leila Hassan, and Margaret Peacock, eds., Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A “Race Today” Anthology (London: Pluto, 2019), 3.

[2] Leila Hassan and Deirdre Osborne, “Complex Coalitions: Sex, Gender, Race, and Class,” in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 254.

[3] Darcus Howe, “Culture and Race Today” (January 1983), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 200.

[4] Imruh Bakari, “In Search of a Solid Foundation: Black Theatre in Britain in 1983” (January 1984), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 211.

[5] See Carole Boyce Davies. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[6] Howe, “Culture and Race Today,” 200.

[7] John La Rose, “We Did Not Come Alive in Britain” (March 1976), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 12.

[8] Katherine McKittrick, ed., Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 50.

[9] Farrukh Dhondy, introduction to part 4, “Asian Communities, Asian Workers, and Race Today,” in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 106.

[10] Race Today, “A Show of Strength” (June 1976), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 109.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Race Today, “Black Women and the Wage” (April 1975), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 90.

[13] Kennetta Hammond Perry, introduction to part 3, “Sex, Race, and Class,” in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 70.

[14] Race Today, “Caribbean Women and the Black Community” (April 1975), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 80.

[15] Barbara Beese and Mala [Sen] Dhondy, introduction to Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class (London: Falling Wall and Race Today, 1975); quoted in Hassan and Osborne, “Complex Coalitions,” 256.

[16] Hassan and Osborne, “Complex Coalitions,” 257.

[17] Hassan, Bunce, and Field, introduction, 6.

[18] David Scott, “Counting Women’s Caring Work: An Interview with Andaiye,” Small Axe, no. 15 (March 2004): 123–217.

[19] Race Today, “What We Lack” (December 1985), in Field et al., Here to Stay, Here to Fight, 69.

[20] Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Catching History on the Wing (London: Pluto, 2008), 144.

[21] See Yohann Koshy, “The Last Humanist: How Paul Gilroy Became the Most Vital Guide to Our Age of Crisis,” Guardian, 5 August 2021;

[22] Gargi Bhattacharyya et al., Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (London: Pluto, 2021), 198.

[23] See Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming (London: Verso, 2015), 24.

[24] Frances Webber, Citizenship: From Right to Privilege (London: Institute of Race Relations, 2022).