Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Washing Away All African Blood.

A Personal Study of Historic and Contemporary Institutional Racism As Revealed in Some of Liverpool’s Buildings and Spaces.



“I have not come here to be insulted by a set of wretches, every brick in whose infernal town is cemented with an African’s blood.”

So George F. Cooke, 18th Century actor, is supposed to have responded to an audience admonishing him for being obviously drunk at Liverpool’s Theatre Royal, Williamson Square sometime in the early 1770s. 
Theatre Royal, Williamson Square.
Source: The Internet  Archive and University of Toronto. 














Though the building no longer exists, the story lingers to remind us of the truth of Liverpool’s unquestioned central role in one of the major forces that shaped the world as we know it today. 

The Shakespeare Theatre.
Source: liverpoolpicturebook.com
Over a century later, in another theatre- The Shakespeare - a stone’s throw away, a young Black American actor was appearing in a play in which his character was required to whistle. He was totally incapable of doing this, so he was asked to sing instead. Somewhere on Fraser Street, Liverpool, where there is now only a car park, was heard on the professional stage for the first time, the glorious voice of Paul Robeson.



Charles Wotten plaque
Image: Dan Lewis
One wonders how welcome Robeson felt on that his first visit to the city, for only three years earlier - June 5, 1919, the city had witnessed a race riot in which a young Black man was chased by a mob into the river at Queen’s Dock, pelted with rocks, and drowned. His name was Charles Wotten, and he has been memorialized on a plaque on a three-foot-high stone dock bollard since early 2017. Some may consider it unsatisfactory that Liverpool’s first race riot of the 20th century - and its only victim - should be marked in so remote and seemingly so insignificant a spot, but that was not always the case. In 1974, with support from Liverpool City Council and in recognition of the fact that there was poor representation of Black people in higher education, the Charles Wootton [sic] College for Further Education was set up, and it catered primarily to Black people from the Liverpool 8 area, and the city. “The Charlie,” as locals called it, was housed in a converted Georgian building at 248 Upper Parliament Street and became something of a landmark in the city: one that not only kept the young man’s name alive, but also became a symbol for Black self-help and advancement in a city that has always struggled with its slave-trading history. Sadly, the Charlie closed its doors in 1994, for reasons too numerous and complex to address here, seemingly reflecting a halt in the progress that it represented. The building is now an anonymous block of flats, with no indication that it was ever a significant part of Liverpool’s Black History.
 
Stanley House Youth
Source: Liverpool 8 and Liverpool 1
Old Photos Group (facebook) 
A few blocks away, one comes to a much more modern building, Gladstone Court - another block of flats. It occupies the site of what was once Stanley House, a community centre opened in 1946 for the local Black community, with funding from the Colonial Office.

At its height, it provided activities and facilities for all ages, literally from cradle to grave. In its basement, a Black vocal group called The Chants was formed in the early 1960s.

They so impressed two white musicians that they persuaded the singers to let their group of four white boys be their opening act in one of their gigs some weeks later.

The Derelict Stanley House
replaced by Gladstone Court
Source: Philip Mayer, flickr

















John Lennon and Paul McCartney, like countless other white musicians, had also been regular attendees at many of the dozens of clubs on and around Upper Parliament Street – like the Gladray, The Pink Flamingo, The Beacon, The Somali, Rachael’s, The Nigerian, where Black musicians from Liverpool and beyond, played all kinds of music from the US, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere - on their way to creating what would eventually become known as the Mersey Beat. It is likely however that most tourists travelling from the Cavern Club or the Beatles Museum to Penny Lane would drive along Upper Parliament Street or Princes Avenue without realizing how much modern Pop Music was spawned behind the facades and in the basements of the buildings they were driving past.

The father of the founder of the aforementioned group, The Chants, had first arrived in Liverpool from the Gold Coast (Ghana) around 1930, and soon became organist and choirmaster at a church called The African Churches Mission, started in 1931 by a Nigerian man called Pastor Daniels Ekarte. From the Mission, Pastor Daniels provided food and shelter to the poor of the Dingle area of Toxteth, to many Black immigrants who found themselves homeless or destitute, and to children abandoned by white mothers because they were the result of liaisons with Black men, some of them American GIs stationed nearby in WWII. For 35 years, he heroically continued with this work despite being repeatedly denied assistance from the City Council, and finally the Mission was demolished in 1964. In the early 2000s, a housing association built a block of flats on that site. It would have been nice if they had named it after Pastor Daniels, but they didn’t.

John Archer Hall
Source: geograph.org.uk
One building nearby actually bears the name of probably Liverpool’s most illustrious Black son. Born near the Brownlow Hill Workplace in 1863 to a Barbadian father and Irish mother, John Archer became Britain’s first (or second, if recent research is correct) Black mayor, in the Battersea borough of London, fifty years later. A fine portrait of him, painted about fifteen years ago by a Liverpool-born Black artist hangs proudly in Liverpool’s Town Hall, and at the junction between Upper Hill Street and Windsor Street in Toxteth, John Archer Hall is a well-used building, among whose uses are as an arts venue, offices for some Third Sector companies, and a community garden. Mr. Archer would be proud that his name is associated with such worthy causes so long after his death, but it would ironically also support the argument that as a Liverpool-born Black person, you often have to leave Liverpool to succeed professionally.

Many immigrants do thrive though - right there on Upper Parliament Street itself, one will find several African doctors working in the Women’s Hospital. In my own case, having completed my training at the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1992, I fared pretty well as a self-employed architect in the years leading up to, and following the millennium, with buildings here and around the North West. When I decided in the mid-2000s to become a developer however, things began to unravel, to such an extent that in 2009 I was forced to liquidate my architectural and property development companies. I did keep a community-interest company dormant, with the aim of resurrecting it at some future date, in case any of my “dreams deferred” looked like they might one day come to fruition.

52-56 Upper Parliament St.
Sales Brochure (2008)
The site remains undeveloped



Prior to that, shattered dreams included a showcase green block of flats which needed financial support from Liverpool City Council to fill a funding shortfall due to the expense of green technologies. After about two years of asking, the Council finally said they would consider providing some funding the following year, but this came too late to prevent the site being repossessed by the lending institution. Elsewhere, I was gazumped by a Housing Association on another site owned by Sefton Council, without correct due diligence procedures having been followed. I tried to stand my ground, and eventually an investigation was commissioned by the Housing Corporation (now Homes England). The association’s own auditors were engaged, and they never asked me a single question. Their report, obtained only after an intervention by my MP, confirmed lack of due process but still cleared the organisation on a technicality. A few years later, Cosmopolitan Housing Association went bust, and the ratings agency Moody’s downgraded the credit rating of the entire Social Housing sector, citing poor regulation as a major factor in their decision. After about five years out of the game (I have been touring nationally and internationally as a theatrical performer since 2008), another idea emerged – for a multi-generational housing community on a site owned by Liverpool City Council in East Liverpool, for which I negotiated a three-year Option to secure planning approval, partnership and finance. I revived my community-interest company (CIC) and very, very slowly (almost three years) got to a position where I accepted a lucrative partnership offer from a private-sector developer, although they weren’t interested in the initial idea, and even less so in the CIC. I requested more time from the council, and permission to change the CIC to a Limited Company. They took four months to grant a three-month extension and to inform me, without explanation, that I couldn’t change the company status. That developer walked away, and I was left with a few months to find alternatives. I was making progress with that, but the Council wouldn’t give any more time and withdrew the Option in February, reclaiming the site with the benefit of the planning permission I had obtained and paid for, with the loss of five years’ work and thousands of pounds to me personally.


62 Rodney Street
Source: ipernity.com
Someone suggested that if I had drugs money to launder, it would have been a different story. I won't comment other than to say that even here, one can find historical precedent. One particular house on Rodney Street (named after the Admiral that saved Jamaica for the Crown against France), No. 62 was built by one John Gladstone, owner of slave plantations in Jamaica and Demerera. When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, Gladstone received the largest compensation on record - £83 million in today's money. His son William would become British Prime Minister four times.

Had my dreams come to fruition, I wouldn’t have been the first Black developer, or entrepreneur, in the city. Most of the clubs mentioned earlier were Black owned, though they no longer exist. It would be difficult to list the number of Black-owned lodging houses (where else would Black people find accommodation up to the middle of the last century?) that were compulsorily acquired in a so-called slum clearance, and made way for the expansion of the University in the 1960s. Much more recently, another Nigerian made national headlines when his company succeeded in developing many homes for some housing associations in the city in the mid 2000s. His company sadly no longer exists, and his recounting of the difficulties he had along the way may suggest one of the reasons. Sneaking a peak at his file during a meeting with a bank manager once, he told the Observer, he saw a card on which was written, 'Black, Nigerian, Liverpool, Living in Toxteth, High Risk.'

Following the Liverpool 8 uprising (the local description of the “Toxteth riots” of 1981), the Granby Triangle, the former centre of Liverpool’s Black population, is only now recovering from over thirty years of blight, as the vast majority of millions of pounds of regeneration money that flowed into the city as a result of the uprising seemed to bypass the area.

The 1989 Gifford Report on the uprising confirmed what the community had warned about in the years leading up to the riots: that such an explosion was inevitable because racial discrimination in the city was “uniquely horrific.” This would certainly have been at the back of the minds of the city’s leaders when in December 1999 they issued a formal letter of apology for the city’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It reads in part: “The City Council hereby commits itself to work closely with Liverpool communities and partners and with peoples of those countries which have carried the burden of the slave trade. The Council also commits itself to programmes of action with full participation of Liverpool's Black communities which will seek to combat all forms of racism and discrimination and will recognise and respond to the city's multiracial inheritance and celebrate the skills and talent of all its people."    

Twenty years on, I am sorry not to be able to offer myself as an example of this commitment having been met, nor does anybody else readily come to mind. I can however try to see what else is happening in the heart of Black Liverpool, in the world of property development. Let’s go back to Upper Parliament Street.

The Merseyside Caribbean Centre is a small building on a large piece of land owned by the City Council, leased to the Caribbean Community since the 1960s. In its heyday in the 1990s, the centre attracted visitors from all over the country to the annual carnival and to multiple year-round events, but it closed in 2013, the site now serving mostly as a car park for the Liverpool Women’s Hospital
opposite.

A community-interest Company called the African Caribbean Heritage Centre recently took up responsibility for its residual affairs, which now include dealing with a private developer (introduced to them by the council) who has drawn up a scheme for over 400 residential units, on the understanding that a new Caribbean Community Centre will be included somewhere in the development, although affordability of the flats to the local community didn’t appear to be uppermost in the developers’ or Council’s minds.
Source: Save the l8 Caribbean Centre (facebook)/
Barbara Ainsworth
One tragic story associated with the Caribbean Centre concerns the son of one of the Jamaican men who was a regular there in the 1980s. In 2005, Anthony Walker was brutally murdered by a pair of racists, in a case that gripped the nation as much as Stephen Lawrence’s murder in London had, just over a decade earlier. In addition to charitable educational foundations, these two young men are memorialized in buildings: Walker in a large room – the Anthony Walker Education Centre in the International Slavery Museum at Albert Dock, and Lawrence in a building at Greenwich University. In Liverpool, it seems that as a murder victim, you have to have been world famous and foreign to be accorded such an honour: the International Slavery Museum renamed one of their buildings after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2013, and there is a Steve Biko Court in Liverpool 8.

MLK Jr. Building
International Slavery Museum
Source: The Guide, Liverpool 
Dr. King famously spoke of his dreams of racial equality, peace and justice. Stephen Lawrence dreamed of being an architect, Anthony Walker a lawyer. One can only speculate what Charles Wotten’s dreams were before the salt water of the Mersey filled his lungs in June 1919, but they would certainly have been similar to most people’s: to be healthy, happy and well fed, and to do good for oneself, one’s family and for society in general.

I am grateful that my own dreams of developing property for social and environmental good have cost me only money, time and faith in the city I call home, and not my life. I have seen my local MP about the series of resistances I have experienced, and she has taken it up with the new Chief Executive of the Council. While one cannot expect a finding similar to that which followed the enquiry into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder (in which the Met was described as “institutionally racist”), I can’t help feeling justified in describing my treatment by Liverpool as “institutional cruelty” at the very least.

Nonetheless, I have one new dream to share. I have a dream that in a few years, the site of the former Caribbean Centre will be developed into social housing primarily for people of African descent, regardless of financial means. I have a dream that the development will be led by a community-owned company, using Black developers, architects, builders and the like. I have a dream that it will be self-sustaining, spawning several thriving community-interest companies. I have a dream that little Black boys and little Black girls will live and play there together, with their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, all caring for one another and enjoying together beautiful music, art, stories and good, clean air. I have a dream to share. I have a dream that Liverpool City Council, with several Black men and women in its leadership, will be a national and international example of excellence in promoting community cohesion and prioritizing people over profit. I have a dream that all the contributions that Black people have made to Liverpool, and to the world from Liverpool, will be properly recognised in the naming of streets and buildings, and that people will come from far and wide to celebrate and marvel at their achievements. I have a dream to share.

I’m sure many Liverpudlians – Black, White, Brown, Yellow, whatever - would share this dream.

And the council? Well, if the extent of their creativity is to use a community-interest company’s legal status to thwart a great idea, I fear that they might be institutionally incapable of sharing this dream.

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Dedicated to the memory of three men whose funerals I attended in the space of a single week at the end of June 2019:

Alhaji Captain Miftah Osi-Efa, one of the founder-members of the Al Rahma Mosque, Liverpool.
Paul Agoro, one of the founders of the Granby Residents Association, who successfully resisted plans for the wholesale demolition of the Granby Triangle.
Bala Lloyd-Evans, whose first business idea was in employment for ex offenders, but was knifed to death in an unprovoked attack. His funeral reception was held at the Caribbean Centre.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Blackface in Wales? Bryn Terfel Sings Paul Robeson


My eyebrow rose involuntarily the other day when I read that a show about Paul Robeson with Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel in the lead role had sold out months ahead of its premiere next weekend as part of the National  Eistedffodd in Cardiff. A mistake, surely? Reading the blurb, it turns out that the production has the blessing of the Robeson family and that it received generous corporate sponsorship. One other tiny detail was that Sir Bryn plays Mr. Jones, Robeson’s “greatest fan.”  (Sigh of relief).

As someone who has been performing my own Robeson play for over ten years, and putting aside the slight envy of such a large audience, corporate sponsorship and all, I am pleased that he is receiving this renewed attention, over forty years after his death.

Paul Robeson’s story not only deserves to be told, its retelling is, to my mind, desperately urgent in today’s divided world. However, there will be those who question the legitimacy of a white man being the teller of this important tale. I happen not to be one of those, for if Robeson taught me anything, it is that the human condition demands that all people struggle together for justice and for peace, that this involves sharing each other’s stories, and that those stories are often most effectively sung.

Miss Littlewood, RSC
Many British theatregoers will be familiar with the power of this combination of words and song in the work of Joan Littlewood, that famous revolutionary of the theatre, whose life story has been told in a musical Miss Littlewood at the RSC recently. Seven singer-actors share the title role. Three of those actors happened to be Black, and interestingly, the reviews I have seen don’t mention that fact.

A recent theatrical production I had the pleasure to attend also illustrates the power, not just of song as a weapon of struggle, but of people of different races and nationalities getting together to tell historical stories which have a powerful resonance today. Bread and Roses at the Oldham Coliseum told the story of the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts where an almost entirely immigrant population of workers who had long suffered extreme exploitation at the hands of the town’s mill owners were supported by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World – the “Wobblies”) who used song as one of the weapons that eventually contributed to their victory.  

In Bread and Roses, the multiracial cast included a Black woman taking the part of the white Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The back story for the Black Flynn differed from that of the real woman, but added another dimension to the tale – the existence of a Black middle class, and solidarity and empathy across the race and class divide. That the strike was led and won by women and that it united people of disparate origins (strike meetings were reportedly held in twenty-five languages) are historical facts that can provide inspiration and instruction to us today, as our leaders continue to try to divide us and scare us with the threat of unbridled immigration.

Bread and Roses’s  run in Oldham was short, and it would be a travesty not to revive it for a national tour and a long run in London (Miss Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East would be a fitting home). Over a century after the story it brilliantly told unfolded, all the issues are with us today, thanks to the divisive economics and politics of the ensuing decades. For those lamenting the ongoing decline of Trade Unionism here and internationally, the show will be nothing short of inspiring, and can even be used as a recruiting tool with which to revive the movement, as the stories of numerous brave individuals, told beautifully through song, will certainly touch the hearts of all but the emotionally dead.

Trade Unions and song are central to the bonds that link Paul Robeson to Wales, for it was the singing of members of their miners union who had marched to London to highlight their plight that drew Robeson’s attention, and won them his unrelenting support subsequently. It is
therefore absolutely fitting for a Welshman to tell his story today.

In the film that Robeson made with the miners telling the story about that strike – Proud Valleywhen in response to one miner objecting to a Black man being given a job down the mine, one leader retorted, “We’re all black down ‘ere, aren't we?”


So sing on, Sir Bryn, and pob lwc.

Tayo Aluko is the writer and performer of Call Mr. Robeson and Just An Ordinary Lawyer

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Fictions, The Truths, The Songs of Empire

"My client, a petty criminal, was accused of involvement in a jewellers’ robbery. For once, he had a cast-iron alibi, but presenting the truth in court would jeopardise British national security. You see, on the night in question, he was in Nairobi, not London. He had gone on His Majesty’s service, with a sack full British Pounds. His mission was to recruit willing Kenyans to testify against one Jomo Kenyatta, implicating him in being a leader in the Mau Mau."

This scenario is described by Tunji Sowande, a Nigerian barrister in London, referring to his most memorable case, from 1954.

Actually, it’s fiction. Most - well, some of it. The fictional parts are the character of the petty criminal, the robbery and the impending court case. The first of the two “truths” is that the British Government of the day indeed manufactured evidence against the man who eventually became the first President of independent Kenya. They bribed Kenyans to present this “purchased evidence” in court, and Kenyatta was thrown in jail for seven years. The seeds had been sewn in the British psyche that the Mau Mau (or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army to use the name they gave themselves) – the movement resisting the occupation of their land by White settlers were not freedom fighters but terrorists wantonly massacring innocent people who had the misfortune of belonging to a race that went to spread civilisation, Christianity and farming knowledge to this part of “the Dark Continent.” The fact that the climate was particularly favourable, and the land extremely fertile and rich in precious minerals was “purely coincidental, your Honour.”

Evidence that Kenyatta and his “co-conspirators” presented in their defence probably included that of a man who claimed to have had his nails and buttocks pierced with a sharp pin, been suspended upside down with his hands and legs tied together, and had his testicles crushed with parallel metallic rods - by White British officers. The circumstances were extraordinary of course, because as we all know, the British are otherwise kind, decent chaps.  The victim, on the other hand, has a lot to answer for: had he not evaded capture for so long, a Trump Presidency would be the product of an overly-fertile imagination.

Let me explain: castration was a weapon by Whites against Blacks (and others) – in Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and elsewhere. If that victim had been successfully castrated, say just ten years earlier, he wouldn’t have fathered the boy who would eventually travel to America and impregnate the White woman who would then give birth to one Barack Hussein Obama. I rest my case...

The second “truth” is the fact that Tunji Sowande really did exist. Born in colonial Nigeria in 1912, he chose a different path to Kenyatta, studying law in London and staying. Overcoming the predictable racism of the time, he became a barrister, later Britain’s first Black Head of Chambers and eventually first Black judge.  He also loved cricket, and in 1978 became a full member of a club you practically have to be born into – the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), whose ground is Lord’s, and whose committee used to select England Test sides.

How more “Establishment” could a Nigerian become in England? Once “in” however, Sowande revealed his revolutionary side, and opened doors for others. Long before the word became part of liberal parlance, his chambers was the epitome of diversity – by race, gender and even sexuality. This according to one of his protégés - a woman who before meeting him had struggled for long to get a tenancy because her father was Sri Lankan. Kim Hollis, Britain’s first ever minority female QC is now Director of Public Prosecutions in the British Virgin Islands.
Outside of law and cricket, Sowande travelled Europe and the UK as a musician, equally at home in jazz clubs as a drummer and saxophonist as he was singing in nursing homes or the Temple Church in London’s Inns of Court.

Never seen in public without a fine jacket and bow tie, this dapper, quiet, unassuming man was apparently not a political animal. However, one assumes that he observed the events of the day – the jailing of that well-known terrorist, Nelson Mandela; the Vietnam war; King’s assassination; anti-colonial struggles and civil wars in Africa – with considerable interest, even if not with as much passion as cricket.

One can only speculate what he would make of today’s world, but I humbly submit that beyond reasonable doubt, even the most strident of “little-Englanders” would accept and welcome Tunji Sowande as “a good immigrant.”

Just An Ordinary Lawyer. A play, with songs, written and performed by Tayo Aluko is at Theatro Technis, 38 Crowndale Road, London NW1 1TT between 11 and 28 January, at Theatre Royal, Bath on 16 January 2017, and touring.    

Friday, 22 January 2016

Paul Robeson: 40 Years Dead



“'Kill the N****r Commie.' One of the placards said that. There were dozens of them, but that’s the only one I recall (I was only seven). And they were all screaming and shouting, those white men and women. Then he started to sing, with this impressive, commanding, deep voice. By the time the second song started, the placards had all come down, and they were all listening.  I thought then that if music can do this, I want to play music.”

77-year-old retired drummer and plumber Roger Blank related this story last Sunday, after a Martin Luther King Day musical celebration at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn which included excerpts from a play about Paul Robeson. That encounter of his with Robeson had taken place in New Rochelle in 1946, at a rally in support of Henry Wallace’s unsuccessful campaign for President under the Progressive Party ticket.

Three years later however, another mob was less susceptible to Robeson’s artistry, and the outdoor concert resulted in what would become the infamous Peeksill riots - arguably one of the lowest points in modern American history, and an episode that lurks too dangerously in the subconscious, given its contemporary resonances.

Robeson, apart from being probably the most famous American artist in the 1930s as a singer of hundreds of songs and spirituals (Ol’ Man River being his most famous), and as a stage and screen actor, was also a forerunner of the civil rights movement. He was referred to as “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Blacks at the height of his fame. It seems something of an injustice that he remains largely hidden from public consciousness when compared to Dr. King, or even Malcolm X, who was himself assassinated days before a scheduled meeting with Robeson – requested by the young minister in recognition of the older man’s pioneering activism and personal sacrifice.

Today, most young activists (and even many middle-aged ones) of any complexion would struggle to recognize Robeson’s name, despite the fact that many of his sayings in the first half of the twentieth century can be applied to today’s national and international situation. Which supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement would argue with such dramatic action as leading a delegation to the United Nations in 1951 to lay a charge of genocide against Black people by their own country – not just through police and civilian brutality and violence, but through wide economic and health disadvantage? And for those who stress that ALL lives matter, he wrote of his personal “belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, [which] has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race ... There is truly a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.” And peace campaigners today would surely agree with his 1946 speech in which he declared that The absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.”

The sudden and dramatic slide in his popularity began in April 1949 when he made a speech at the World Peace Congress in Paris suggesting that African Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union because they remained second-class citizens in their own country. Such a stance continues to land people in trouble decades later (most notably Muhammed Ali), illustrating how far ahead of his time he was. His mass appeal as an entertainer, when combined with his love for the Soviet Union, his socialism and internationalism, transformed him into one of the most dangerous people in the country in the establishment’s eyes, and the campaign to discredit and denounce him went into full gear immediately after that Paris speech. Those efforts to suppress his story have been largely successful, and in fact, it can be said that his character, career and reputation were assassinated and buried years before he actually died forty years ago - on January 23, 1976.

Despite whichever of his views can be considered to have been mistaken (particularly his unrelenting support for Stalin, some argue), or the phenomenon of Barack Obama, the fact that Robeson’s words ring so true today suggest that he needs to at least be part of the national conversation. He embodied the truth that through art, people’s hearts, minds and souls could be transformed. The 7-year-old Roger Blank would grow up to tour the country and the world with great artists like Sun Ra, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins, not to make money, he says, but to “spread peace and be part of changing the rhythm of people’s lives, their spirit.”

Mr. Blank would agree with the beautiful words of the playwright Marc Connelly, who wrote this in tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday: “I suppose by that dreary instrument, the calendar, it can be contended that you are the contemporary of your friends. But by more important standards of time measurement, you really represent a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.” 
He would also agree that even though it would be pure fantasy hope for a day for Robeson in the national calendar, the fortieth anniversary of his death should not go unmarked today.

Tayo Aluko is the British-Nigerian writer and performer of the award-winning play Call Mr. Robeson. 

Some 40th anniversary events: 



Sunday, 20 April 2014

EXCULSIVE: The World's Most Famous Political Prisoner Isn't Dead After All.

He was convicted of terrorism and treason. According to the trial judge, the death sentence was an option, but in what some probably regarded as the greatest error of judgement in modern legal and political history, he passed a life sentence instead, probably calculating that the accused would be forgotten in time as he languished in jail for the remainder of his days. Nelson Mandela eventually became the most famous political prisoner in the world., and the South African government came to realise the extent of his appeal when a 70th birthday tribute to him at Wembley Stadium in June 1988 reached a global audience of hundreds of millions, and hastened his release.

Now that Madiba has joined the ancestors, it is interesting to consider who has inherited that dubious title of the world’s most famous political prisoner. A number of people come readily to mind: Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, who is currently serving a 37-year sentence in a US military jail for leaking thousands of highly embarrassing US documents, for one. Many believe he too was lucky to escape the death sentence. The same sentence has also been demanded by many American patriots for Julian Assange, head of WilkiLeaks, now sheltering under the protection of the Ecaudorian Embassy in London, for publishing those documents. These two individuals are, as many have secretly hoped, only rarely in the news these days. Not quite so with Edward Snowden, who would also face the death sentence were he to return to the US, as many pundits have also declared him guilty of high treason for leaking information on US mass surveillance on its own citizens and on millions of people around the world. He isn’t in jail either, but continues to cause damaging embarrassment to his country from his exile in that enemy state, Russia.

For me, there is no question that the most famous of all contemporary political prisoners is a man who is entering his sixty-first year in the State Correctional Institution in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania. It would be a pleasant surprise if the forthcoming sixtieth birthday of Mumia Abu Jamal makes it onto mainstream media the way Mandela’s did, for Abu Jamal’s supporters are convinced that the media are complicit in consigning  this remarkable activist to the dark, shadowy margins of world consciousness.

Who is Mumia? Instead of the “terrorist” label that was placed on Mandela’s head, Mumia is known as a “cop killer”, period. According to his supporters, he was framed for the murder of a policeman and sentenced to death, way back in 1982. His real crime? Speaking truth to power, first as a member of the Black Panther Party and later as a radio journalist who bravely used his popular broadcasts to highlight police brutality against Blacks in Philadelphia and around the USA. It is not at all surprising that 32 whole years after his imprisonment, the Fraternal Order of Police are at the forefront of moves to keep him demonised in the American psyche. When in 2012 the NAACP Legal Defence Fund finally won a decades-long battle to have Mumia taken off death row (where he had spent thirty years) and his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, the FOP must have been very displeased. It seems they got their revenge when a few months ago, they led a successful campaign for the Senate to reject President Obama’s nomination for Chief of the US Justice Department’s  Civil Rights Division, as Debo Adegbile had for a time been acting head of the LDF as Mumia’s appeal was being prepared.  Some would say that Adegbile’s nomination was a presidential error of judgement too. The coverage of this episode in Democracy Now! is quite instructive, as that show’s guests touch on the history of Mumia’s case as well as the implications of the nominee’s rejection on the practice of civil rights law in the USA.

A cursory listen to any of Mumia’s broadcasts from prison will reveal why he is so reviled by many influential entities in the United States. In his quest to speak truth to power, few of the world’s most powerful individuals and interest groups have escaped his incredibly wise and incisive analysis and criticism. Few would have heard his radio commentary last December, tilled “Mandela Sanitised”, where he paid his own tribute to the great man, but reminded the world that South African independence ... opened the door to elective office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands. Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs”. If Mandela’s worshipers couldn’t be spared this “inconvenient truth” about their hero, and if Abu Jamal is brave enough to buck the lionising trend in such a public way (as with for example his recent commentary on the current crisis in Ukraine), it is little wonder that the powers-that-be in the US want him confined to the obscurity of prison for the remainder of his days.

There will be no Wembley-style celebration of Mumia’s birthday in the UK. There will be some celebrations in the US. Certainly, Mr. Obama is unlikely to even mention Mumia’s name – that would be an error of judgement too far. However, as Obama so happily accepted his role as star turn at the global media circus that was Mr. Mandela’s memorial service, one cannot help but be struck by the appropriateness of the words that he so eloquently used at Madiba’s send-off if they were to be applied to a Mumia tribute on his birthday:

“... He accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.”

“He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet.”

“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love. That is happening today.”

“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [his] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

The last person to speak at Mandela’s funeral ceremony (Obama and thousands had left the stadium by then) was the venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His contribution to the event is nowhere near as memorable as Mr. Obama’s but what does exist elsewhere (on the freemumia.com website in fact) is a video which some might consider to be a most venerable, most reverend error of judgement: a demand for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal.

If it's good enough for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it's good enough for me.

Sixtieth Birthday Greetings to Mumia Abu Jamal for April 24, 2014.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Let's Criminalise The Gays

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article which was published (though edited somewhat unfavourably) in a Nigerian newspaper, and I was subjected to much online abuse as a result. I was also told by people close to me that it was very ill-advised. One friend even said that it was good that I was leaving home at the end of a holiday from the UK the day it was published!

The recent decision of the Nigerian president to sign an anti-gay bill into law, and the myriad wicked comments one reads in condemnation of gays and those who dare to support them makes me want to share the article afresh. 

People keep saying we deserve better leadership. I wonder if they're right after all?

I post the original article (published accurately on a Ghanaian website) after this new poem. 


Let's Criminalise the Gays

Mr. Mandela made us proud again
Made us walk straight and tall
Look good in the whole world’s eyes
Now let’s criminalise the gays

He and others went before
Fought so we could be free
Accepted hardship, prison, even death
But let’s criminalise the gays

They have passed us the baton
It slips from our oily hands
We lose it in polluted waters
Still, we’ll criminalise the gays

Our leaders are raping our nations
Selling our bodies and our wealth
Stealing our children’s future
Heck - let’s criminalise the gays

We who are holier than they
Have nothing to declare or hide
We’re not major or minor sinners
If we criminalise the gays

Our God is a merciful God
He said "Blessed are the meek"
He will be the one to judge
But we’ll criminalise the gays

When we criminalise the gays
Then look in the mirror and smile
Truth stares back unacknowledged:
We are UGLIER than the gays

Wouldn’t it be funny
If when we meet our maker
He sends us “the wrong way”
'Cos we criminalised the gays?


©Tayo Aluko, January 2014


Modern Ghana, December 27, 2013

Monday, 31 December 2012

Chickens Coming Home to Roost Over Cosmopolitan Housing?


I understand that Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Housing Group have “experienced significant challenges” recently, so much so that they may only be rescued by a takeover by Riverside - another Registered Social Landlord (RSL), though this takeover is in itself now doubtful (see Inside Housing 7 December, 2012) . 

I believe that a certain Bill Snell recently resigned as Chair “for personal reasons”. I happen to have a letter from him which included a threat of legal action if I didn’t desist from making “spurious and false” allegations about impropriety in Cosmo, and suggesting that their board were less than perfect in their duty of scrutinising the staff’s activities. I had written to Mr. Snell in the hope that he as a new broom would sweep cleaner than his predecessors who had refused to deal with a complaint I had brought to them several years earlier. Their imperviousness had caused me to write a blog in frustration in 2009, one line of which now seems prescient: “...With scrutiny of this level of intensity, would it be unreasonable to fear that if one searches behind Marybone House's clean facades, one might find festering there much more malignant malpractice?“ I had written to every member of the board individually, suggesting that “...you and your Board colleagues may want to satisfy yourselves that CHA’s “normal procedure” does not consist of intentionally sabotaging - without justification - the innocent and best intentioned efforts of ordinary professionals to provide decent affordable housing to the people of Sefton, while earning a decent return in the process.” I know the board never discussed the matter, and I never once received a response, until Mr. Snell’s dismissive letter, several years later.

An HCA official is quoted as suggesting that poor governance may have a part to play in Cosmo’s current troubles. I felt a long-overdue vindication for my lonely campaign when I read that, because it had long been clear to me that governance appeared to be a problem within the organisation. It is however also troubling to see how far this appears to extend beyond Cosmo into the regulatory sector. Having had no satisfaction from Cosmopolitan’s board, I appealed to the Housing Corporation and found them wanting. They were replaced by the Tenant Services Authority who were no more helpful. I am doubtful about at least certain sections and/or individuals within the current regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency, because as recently as this August, despite the proverbial brown matter hitting the fan at Cosmopolitan, someone from their regulatory department could write to me stating with apparent confidence that “... there was no evidence of a breach of regulatory standards in relation to the matters raised...”

This suggests that today, all these years later, there are several individuals and organisations who may have serious questions to answer about how effectively they have been regulating Cosmopolitan, and probably other RSLs. We have enough recent examples of victims of crime and malpractice being ignored by those whose duty is to protect the public and ensure justice for the maligned, oppressed and abused – the Hillsborough Disaster and Jimmy Savile Scandal revelations are just two. My own cries for help fell on deaf ears, and I now feel that I was a potential proverbial canary in the coal mine that was ignored right from the start. 


Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and sing a different song, but I still consider it a shame that we are now watching the chickens coming home to roost for Cosmopolitan, when good governance within the group and in the regulatory system could have prevented this. I also read somewhere the HCA’s director of regulation is quoted as referring to Cosmpolitan’s troubles as a “one-off”. Let’s hope, for the sake of the social housing sector and their tenants in Merseyside and elsewhere, that he is right. 

Update: Podcast of BBC Radio 4 Programme, File on 4, "What Price Social Housing?" Broadcast 27 October. Puts Cosmopolitan's demise in a very worrying, larger context.