On The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books

New Beacon Books, (Kake: Flickr)

The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was first held in London, England in 1982, and Trinidadian historian and activist C.L.R. James kicked off the inaugural event. The book fair took place annually from 1982 to 1991 and then biannually from 1993 to 1995 in London as well as Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, and other cities. In total, there were twelve, and they all served as a “meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions.”1 Sponsored by New Beacon Books, Race Today Publications, and Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, which were local organizations in the Black British community, the book fair represented the interplay between culture and politics, afforded opportunities for diverse cultural expressions, and disseminated information about local and international issues.2 These annual events also brought together a variety of multicultural and multiracial people who exhibited and sold their books, engaged in critical intellectual exchange, and circulated different forms of knowledge through panel discussions, public readings, film screenings, musical or dance performances, and other artistic and cultural events.

Moreover, these annual events not only had a significant influence on participants from South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, but also on racialized communities in Europe such as Belgium, France, and Germany. In particular, Black German activist-intellectuals and African political refugees and artists living in Germany became involved with the book fairs. Black Germans’ involvement in these events demonstrated their ability to practice a Black internationalism that overlapped with and was informed by other internationalist figures and movements. They used their participation in the book fairs to gain more recognition for the Black German community, forge connections with others across the Black diaspora and people of color, and pursue politics that advanced equality and social justice. Black Germans’ continental activism relied on those networks to agitate for broader social and political change within and beyond the borders of Germany.

West Indians in Britain, especially individuals like Guyanese-born Jessica Huntley and Trinidadian-born John La Rose, spearheaded and organized the events; they were the co-directors. Huntley was a women’s rights and community activist and founded Bogle L’Ouverture Publications with her husband Eric Huntley in 1969; the press was named after two Caribbean resistance heroes Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Bogle. Interestingly, Bogle L’Ouverture published many of Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney’s works, including his landmark opus How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972. La Rose was a political activist, writer, and founder of New Beacon Books in 1966, which was the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop, and international book service. Later, he founded and became the chairman of the George Padmore Institute, a library and educational center, from 1991 until his death in 2006. Huntley and La Rose were active in multiple groups in Britain such as the Black Parents Movement and the New Cross Massacre Action Committee.3 After Huntley withdrew, La Rose served as the sole director of the book fair from 1984 onward and remained committed to political independence and social change in the Caribbean, Britain, and “The Third World” countries. The fair certainly represented a long example of La Rose’s radical activism in the Black British community and his ability to forge transnational connections with many people like Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay to Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The events also offered La Rose an opportunity to forge ties with Black Germans.

Connecting with many across the Black diaspora, Black Germans such as Nii and Oboama “Obi” Addy, John Amoateng (now Kantara), May Ayim, and others attended the book fairs. As a matter of fact, the Addy brothers, Amoateng, and Ayim were some of the co-founders of the Berlin chapter of the Initiative of Black Germans (Initiative Schwarze Deutsche, ISD) in 1986, which catalyzed the modern Black German movement. African immigrants in Germany like South African artist and writer Vusi Mchunu and Eritrean organizer and activist Yonas Endrais also attended. Both men participated in events in the Black German movement and organized their own events through their involvement with the African Writers Association and its journal AWA-FINNABA and the Immigrant Political Forum (Immigrantenpolitisches Forum, IPF).

Black Germans’ involvement with the international book fairs coincided with the resurgence of nationalism and racial violence in reunified Germany as well as similar dynamics across Europe, especially with efforts to formalize the European Union and create a “Fortress Europe.” “Fortress Europe” described how European countries controlled their borders, detained immigrants, and harbored negative and discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants. Given the racist climate in Germany, London provided a respite for Black Germans. Initially, Nii Addy learned about the fairs from African American scholar and activist Abdul Alkalimat, who was a visiting Professor of Black Studies at the Free University; Addy had been one of his students. Addy was the first Black German to attend the event in 1986. His brother attended the following year in 1987. The brothers fondly recalled the importance of these annual events in their racial consciousness, intellectual development, and musical growth.4

The book fair was one of the first international platforms available to Black Germans, where they could openly discuss the return of German ethno-nationalism as well as the racist policies, politics, and discourses entrenched in the nation. At the book fairs, Amoateng, Nii Addy, Ayim, and others presented on diverse panels. Ayim also gave poetry readings and connected with other Black diasporic writers, including Black British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grenadian poet Merle Collins, and African American poet Sonia Sanchez. During the Ninth International Book Fair in 1990, a forum, entitled “Racism, Nazism, Fascism, and Racial Attacks: The European Response,” featured Nii Addy, Modniss Abdallah (France), Udoka Ogbue (former East Germany), and Tarlochan Gata-Aura (Britain), in which they addressed the rise of racism and racial violence across the continent and the need to fight for equality for all. La Rose chaired and moderated the forum. Obi Addy and another Black German activist Shelia Mysorkar, who were present in the audience, offered additional context about the plight of Black and immigrant populations in Germany. The proceedings from this forum were eventually published in 1991. This 1990 forum also initiated the European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice (EARESJ), an organization that cultivated solidarity with other Europeans to combat all forms of racism, fascism, and discrimination across the continent. The Addy brothers and Ayim were founding members and remained active in the organization during the 1990s.

Ultimately, the book fairs served as a conduit for Black Germans’ transnational activism and informed their diasporic politics and activism in Germany. Linking up with La Rose, Gus John, and others represented their efforts to push for change with the rising tide of intolerance, racial hatred, and racial violence at home and aboard. These events also signaled how Black Europeans responded to and mobilized against right-wing populism of the 1980s and 1990s, representing parallels with today’s European climate.

  1. Sarah White, Roxy Harris, and Sharmilla Beezmohun, eds. A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books-Revisited: History, Memories, Organisation and Programmes 1982-1995 (London: New Beacon Books, 2005), vi.
  2. White, Harris, and Beezmohun, eds. A Meeting of the Continents, 1-2.
  3. Margaret Busby, “Huntley (née Carroll), Jessica Elleisse,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1 January 2017,https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-108028;jsessionid=DDD1A4CE2E865C8E38CA3DBF6D3829EF (Accessed May 24, 2019); Gus John, “La Rose, John Anthony,” 6 January 2011, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-97081?rskey=z9kO4U&result=2 (May 31, 2019).
  4.  White, Harris, and Beezmohun, “Memoirs,” 38-39.
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Tiffany Florvil

Tiffany Florvil is a historian of the modern and late modern period in Europe, especially social movements, gender and sexuality, emotions, and the African diaspora. She is currently revising her manuscript tentatively entitled, Making a Movement: A History of Black Germans, Gender, and Belonging. Follow her on Twitter @tnflorvil.