By Peter Fraser
Peter Fraser, currently at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University,
previously taught at the University West Indies,
St. Augustine and Goldsmiths’ College,
Jessica Huntley was a remarkable person, intelligent, caring, determined and influential in many spheres, politics and publishing being the most obvious. What follows is an appreciation sketching out the major public areas of her life; it is not an obituary.
It is now more than four decades since I first met her and her husband Eric. We were not close friends but we met first at the Bogle-L’Ouverture Bookshop, later the Walter Rodney Bookshop, in West Ealing, London. Once years later I laid a sleeping child in a corner and looked at books and chatted to Jessica—it was that sort of bookshop, except at night when it was constantly attacked, as was the other great Caribbean bookshop, New Beacon Books (also of course publishers). Various book launches and other events followed the first meeting. We met at public events elsewhere but over the last few years especially at the Ealing Jazz Festival on the night that Guyanese flautist Keith Waithe and his group The Macusi Players performed. Then there were two grand occasions, one at Ealing Town Hall where the contribution that she and Eric had made to the borough was honoured; the other, much better, was the celebration of her 80th birthday where among all the tributes we teased Jessica and Eric, privately (even Guyanese have a sense of decorum), about Eric being her toy boy. Sadly two years ago one meeting was at the funeral of their son Carl, a friend of my son.
Tributes have already appeared from Margaret Busby, herself a pioneering Black publisher, Kadija George of a younger generation but carrying on cultural and political work in the Jessica mould, Lemm Sissay, the poet, and Gus John, the educationalist. All testify to her kindness and her contribution. So what did that contribution consist of?
It was in three main areas. The politics of Guyana is the first, the life of West Indians, their children and grandchildren in Britain is the second and the third is the recognition that those of us from the Third World could not afford to let the “narcissism of small differences”, or even the reality of great differences, keep us disunited in fighting for equality in Britain, in our countries of origin and in the world. If at times Eric appears to provide the examples it is not because I think they were not two individuals but because whatever their differences they worked together. They were married for over six decades and Eric described them as “like twins”. Whether Jessica would have agreed I do not know. She probably would have smiled one of her enigmatic smiles.
In colonial Guyana, Jessica was, in 1946, one of the founder members of the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation together with Janet Jagan, Winifred Gaskin, Frances Stafford and Jane Phillips-Gay. In 1953 its successor, the Women’s Progressive Organisation, the women’s branch of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), was founded. By then Eric had been introduced to and joined the PPP. In June 1953 the PPP won the election easily and was just as easily tossed out of power by the British Government and the constitution suspended in October 1953. The PPP was the only properly organised political party in the election: the other parties were coalitions of notables with support in particular areas. It also had a fairly radical, for the Guyana of the 1950s, programme to address the major problems of the country. One of the signs that a country should not have an empire is when its elite begins to live in a fantasy world—the fantasy being that the PPP was about to impose a Communist dictatorship in British Guiana. In 1954 Eric was imprisoned for breaking a residency law that followed the suspension of the constitution in October 1953. In 1955 the PPP split into two factions; Jessica and Eric stayed with the PPP (Jagan) rather than joining the PPP (Burnham). Eric left for England in 1956 while Jessica stayed on and had the thankless task of opposing W.O.R. Kendall in his New Amsterdam fiefdom while having a PPP (Burnham) candidate against her too. Jessica left for England in 1958. What they both stood for was their socialist ideals and a refusal to slide into the racialised politics of Guyana. When the Working People’s Alliance was formed two decades later they became members, recognising in it the ideals and principles that they had first seen in the original PPP.
The contribution of Jessica and Eric to the life of West Indians and their descendants in Britain was immense. We shall leave aside the many political battles they waged (against the poor excuse for education offered the children and the activities of the police who seemed to delight in not protecting and serving) and deal here with publishing and the bookshop. These had been established with support from the late John La Rose and Sarah White of New Beacon Books.
The first publication of Bogle-L’Ouverture Press was Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with my Brothers in 1969. This consists of the talks that had had him barred from re-entry to Jamaica and his teaching post at the University of the West Indies. Forced to leave and to take up a post in Africa, Rodney wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa which appeared in 1972, jointly published with the Tanzania Publishing House. These remain perhaps the best known publications of the Press. The scope of publications, however, went far beyond Walter Rodney’s writings. The Huntleys published work by Andrew Salkey, Valerie Bloom, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lemm Sissay, Lucinda Roy and the Malaysian poet and radical lawyer Cecil Rajendra. The Press also reprinted two significant works by West Indians about life in Britain: Donald Hinds’ Journey to an Illusion originally published in 1961 and Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher (originally 1976). Joyce Trotman’s The Proverbs of Guyana Explained of 2006, though ostensibly a reprint of James Speirs’ The Proverbs of British Guiana, is really a revised second edition. It is a distinguished record for a small and very very independent publisher.
The bookshop served the valuable function of stocking books about the Caribbean, Africa and the Third World, especially from publishers in the Caribbean. If one couldn’t find it there New Beacon Books was the other possibility—no other existed. At conferences and cultural events Jessica and Eric could be found selling books. In 1982 with New Beacon Books and others they launched the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. These lasted until 1995 and were a delight (and a financial danger) to all those who loved books and could find their particular interests satisfied at the book fairs. The cultural events that took place around the book fair were wonderful. Writers at different stages of their careers were introduced to the public. In 1993 Jessica was one of those behind the Caribbean Writers’ Conference, part of the Commonwealth Institute’s 100th anniversary celebration, which provided the last chance in Britain to see some of the 1950s and 1960s generation of Caribbean writers who had left Britain mainly for North America.
Radical, Third World and International describe the last contribution. Jessica, as Eric and numerous other West Indians are, was a patriot intensely committed to her country, interested in Africa and African culture (for others of course there were different ancestral cultures), but committed beyond those allegiances to a radical understanding of and alliances with the countries of the Third World and even beyond that to alliances with anyone anywhere equally committed to the pursuit of justice, equality and peace. If this had its roots for her in the anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism of her youth, it survived the formal death of empires and colonies. She, like the others, knew there remained much to be done and worked to make a better world. While missing her presence her example remains. So now summoning up “remembrance of things past” of a precious friend now “hid in death’s dateless night”
“ But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.”