Saturday, 20 October 2018
This post is my personal reflections about the Huntley Blue Plaque Unveiling as one of the event’s organisers. I’ve pinched part of the title from Makeda Coaston, whose congratulations mirrored many we received but this extra bit stuck in my head. She expressed that as well as a being ‘commemorative celebration,’ the event was also a ‘community healing experience.’ I wondered why she would see it that way? I’ll ruminate on this notion in this post and hope by the beautiful images, most of them taken by Eddie Osei (one of the organisers and grandson-in-law of Eric and Jessica Huntley) but other captures are included, maybe you too might feel the vibrations of this very special day.
Deciding the day
And the day mattered very much. It was the first thing agreed upon between the organisers and the Nubian Jak Foundation in our meetings with Jak Beula. 13th October landed perfectly on a Saturday, and marked five years since the passing of Jessica Huntley, a loss still deeply felt by many present at the ceremony; especially those who knew her intimately. Naming only a few I saw the sadness in the eyes (or did I just ‘feel’ it) of Makeda Coaston, Dr Margaret Andrews, Maureen Roberts, Dr Margaret Busby, Anne Johnson, notwithstanding members of her family, including her beloved Eric who must have missed her so much on this day.
The organisers were Accabre Huntley, Makeda Wall, Senzeni Lawla-Huntley, Eddie Osei, Ateinda Ausarntu (Way Wive Wordz), Juanita Cox-Westmaas, Rod Westmaas (Guyana Speaks) and myself, Michelle Asantewa. We debated having a street party, which Eric Huntley was in favour for – actually in his charismatically insistent way he was pushing it! I trusted the weather despite it being October – I thought I had good reason for that. My birthday is a few days away and I’ve noticed that the past few years it has been mild, surprisingly sunny even. In truth, I figured that we’d implore the ancestors and deities to commune with the elements to hold back the rain so we could enjoy the day without everyone feeling cold and miserable. Naturally, Jessica Huntley is one among many of said ancestors whose magnetic influence was powerful enough to hear our prayers. That mystic trust however didn’t prevail for the street party so we found a nearby Church Hall for the reception. I paid no attention to the weather forecasts because if it was my faith alone (my utmost trust in the elements) that would remove the possibility of rain so that we’d be free to celebrate with majestic sunshine I needed absolute focus.
The pictures should speak of that Divine blessing of beautiful sunshine. Yet some of the blessings also came with pretty passing sprinkles I knew were elemental and ancestral. This ‘healing’ then for me began at the level of spirit. Over the months in preparation I would commune with Jessica Huntley – knowing she’d be in the midst and mix of everything, ensuring the energies were all right – bringing things together as they should be. For this reason, and I’m sure others would agree, organising this event was not fraught with any real difficulties but was a wonderful collective effort. That is because spirit was in control, wielding and working to synchronise the experience. It was also about love – this feeling that the two people being honoured gave to their communities some of that powerful love everyone could see they had for each other. For a community to feel this healing we needed to be reminded of that spirit of love, of giving and never giving up, that spirit of endurance that has lasted long enough to continue educating and inspiring generations.
After a delicate opening with drums, lead by Chauncey Huntley, Ras Prince, Sister Khalilah and Keithe Waithe (on flute), in keeping with our African ancestral tradition we poured libation. I heard someone remark: “that was the best libation I’ve ever seen.” For me this voices a growing recognition of how integral aspects of African spirituality must continue to inform our gatherings as community. By this I mean the practice must be delivered in a way that would be understood, respectfully without ‘mystery’ but clarity so everyone grows in awareness. For this acknowledgement was from a young person, in whose hands ultimately lay the future of building our communities. The ‘healing’ therefore also came in the form of the powerful white rum libation delivered by Professor Gus John. He expressed that it didn’t matter what religious persuasion those gathered were, it was enough to ‘be with us in the moment’ being ‘reverential’ and ‘respectful’ of this element of African tradition. The libation was poured for Jessica Huntley – who though no longer ‘with us in flesh and has returned to mother earth, the womb from which she came, continues to be with us in spirit, enlightening, inspiring, guiding, warning, blessing’ as Professor Gus John reminded us. He also asked us to remember those ancestors who inspired Jessica and Eric Huntley and those they too inspired (recall that Jessica Huntley shares a birthday with the Berbice Uprising of 1763 which began on 23rd February and was lead by Cuffy and others). So contextualising libation with the activism of the Huntleys is a healing synthesis of politics and spirituality that need to be more and more recognised as inseparable.
At first during our planning sessions we decided on a modest number of potential speakers. Jak Beula encouraged us to extend the numbers, since, as he rightly reasoned there would be very many people who’d have something to share about their experiences of the Huntleys. The contributors, though many more could have been added to this list were: Dr Margaret Andrews, who wrote the Huntley’s biography, Doing Nothing is Not an Option (2014); Harry Goulbourne, who initiated the archival deposits the Huntleys made to the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) sent his tribute which was read by Marika, one of the Huntley’s granddaughters; Anne Johnson – a teacher and long standing friend of the Huntleys, Dr Margaret Busby, whose publishing company Allison and Busby was among the first African owned publishers in the UK (along with New Beacon and of course Bogle L’Ouverture Publications (BLP), Dr Rupa Huq (MP) spoke about the Windrush scandal, which continues whilst we were here gathered to mark the contributions by two later arrivants to the UK following that earlier movement. Indeed, the Huntleys were recently honoured by the Guyana High Commission with an award for their contributions as part of that Windrush migrant experience.
Aubrey Bryan provided a steel pan interlude featuring a Billie Holliday song. Maureen Roberts, who played a central role in their deposit to the LMA spoke about this invaluable contribution by the Huntleys – which are used for the annual conference held there for the past 10 years. Neighbours Vivien Boyes and John Halsey spoke of the Huntleys integral part of Coldershaw Road, where the plaque was unveiled, recalling Eric’s subtle but definite ways of ensuring things got done and his far reaching influence which was not lauded by him but always humbling. Sculptor George (Fowokan) Kelly, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Symeon Brown (of Channel 4 News) and poet John Agard also gave inspiring tributes. Ealing Mayor, Councillor Tejinder Dhami, Baroness Valerie Amos and Dr Altheia Jones-Lecointe (a former UK black panther and one of the Mangrove 9) were also in attendance. The honour of unveiling the curtain was given to Rudolf Walker. Eric Huntley gave the closing address; he expressed the importance of keeping his feet firmly on the ground despite the installation of the Blue plaque now being placed above his head in recognition of over 50 years of community activism in the UK. He said that he would rely on his neighbours to keep him grounded.
It was a stroll a few minutes away at St Thomas the Apostle Church. Guests breezily enjoyed the walk in the sunshine, all hearts warmed by the recent tributes at the ceremony. In welcoming the community attending the reception, Accabre Huntley recited her memories of the many meetings she attended as a young girl as her parents organised. The Blue plaque Unveiling, another meeting (calling the community to gather) she acknowledged is a culmination of those meetings. She thanked all the supporters of the Crowdfunder campaign, without which the Blue Plaque would never have happened. Contributions to the campaign was made by organisations such as The Coldershaw Residents’ Association, Black History Walks, Guyana (UK) Sports and Development Association, Guyana Speaks, National Association of Black Supplementary Schools, the Nubian Jak Trust, the Pan-African Society Community Forum and Way Wive Wordz.
The Harrow Community Choir, despite the unforeseen lack of a PA system and mic (it didn’t get back on time from the site of the unveiling, as planned!) performed three wonderful songs, including a Massai Chant and Bob Marley’s ‘One Love.’ The spirit of resistance was subtly rendered by a young singer called ‘Jai’ who sang ‘Redemption Song’ in dreamy tones that seemed to feed the souls of all gathered. Her vocals were complemented later by an equally dreamy and healing acapella by ‘Duchess’ that once more soothed spirits and hearts. The musical performances also included the duo of Keith Waithe (flautist) and Aubrey Bryan (Panist) giving their take of a favoured and popular Guyanese folk song – ‘Sitira gal.’
The reception was co-hosted by Juanita Westmaas and myself - initially somehow doing a balancing act of gaining the audience attention without the needed mic. But the guests were in high spirits thanks to the sumptuous finger foods that included the usual pastry suspects from Guyana: pholourie, cheese rolls, cheese straws, fish balls, patties and more (some of these were prepared by Pepys). These treats were washed down with rum punch, sorrel and ginger beer. The community willingness to be hands in and hands on – especially from Coldershaw Road neighbours meant that there were enough refreshments to share and some to spare. Makeda Coaston recited a poem celebrating the formidable beauty and spirit of Jessica Huntley, whilst Mervyn Weir of Krik Krak also gave a heartfelt passionate tribute to the Huntleys.
If I had to choose or recall a high point at the reception – it was the end performance when fourth generation Huntleys, Tafari and Zachary, performed a poem called ‘Doing Nothing is Not an Option’ after the biography of the same name about their great grandparents. They were backed by drummers who, as Ateinda Ausarntu remarked were like ‘elders’ encouraging, guarding, guiding them, not least because one of those was their grandfather Chauncey Huntley, who composed the poem. I particularly loved the gentle support the older of the two – Tafari gave to his younger brother when some words from the poems wouldn’t come and when his mic didn’t sound. The audience clapped and encouraged him too. This for me was a powerful signature of the love underscoring the occasion. Love and the understanding that working together to build and transform communities remain the guiding principle behind the activism that lead to this achievement. The words of the poem proudly reflected the activism of their great grandparents and the acts of resistance they were committed to better the lives of ordinary people:
"Doing Nothing Is not an Option
It doesn't really matter
let it cause an eruption!
Expose the liars, thieves and their corruption
‘Cause doing nothing,, is not an option
Remember Berbice 1763, When Cuffy had to do something.
Haiti 1791, When Toussant brought Massa tumbling.
Remember all those ancestors I did not mention.
For them, doing nothing was not an option
So as Garvey entreated, let's mobilise our minds
Or from history, we will be deleted
Injustices must be corrected.
But it won't be by those we elected.
So let’s build a better world for all our children
Save the Earth for the future generation.
Let us turn this dream into reality
But remember destruction is Babylon's specialty
Doing nothing is not an option
It doesn't matter if it cause an eruption
Expose the liars, thieves and their corruption
‘Cause doing nothing, is not an option"
And then – the drummers had their full score – their outro rhythms enlivened our hearts as we departed having experienced the joy these pictures so beautifully depict of a very special Saturday afternoon in October 2018. When the velvet blue curtain opened against bright red bricks at 141 Coldershaw Road we were inspired by these words:
“Home of Eric Huntley and Jessica Huntley, Community Activists and Educators who founded Pioneering Company Bogle L’Ouverture Publications in 1968.” Have you ever considered how the wording on memorial sites and blue plaques get decided? In this case it was a collective effort in our partnership with the Nubian Jak Foundation. Note, for example, that it had to be Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley – ensuring their individuality is recognised. Also it had to be ‘home of’ and not ‘who lived’ since only one of the recipients is deceased. In the ‘home of’ expression Jessica Huntley’s spirit remains and will no doubt be of immeasurable comfort to her partner, political, marital and of course spiritual in life. Their contributions now permanently marked in this way, as one of many others.
In those last meetings we had with Jessica Huntley before she passed, she insisted we remembered that Bogle L’Ouverture Publication (earlier it was ‘Press’) was co-founded – though not reflected in the plaque wording for minor reasons - as a consequence of the Jamaican government’s decision to ban their friend and compatriot Dr Walter Rodney from re-entering Jamaica. The date 15th October of this historic event closely coincided with the date we planned to do the unveiling. Riots raged in Jamaica and across the world, including the UK in 1968 as the Huntleys and other friends of Rodney’s protested outside the Jamaica high commission to get the ban lifted. This was the moment Bogle L’Ouverture Publication was born. Rodney provided the Huntleys with the lectures he was giving to the ordinary people of Jamaica, especially Rastafarians; the lectures were published as The Groundings with my Brothers (1969). 2019 would thus mark 50 years since its publication. Eric Huntley continues to write and publish and as part of the fundraising campaign a commemorative publication about Walter Rodney's "groundings" and banning will be published soon. Meantime read here my tribute of the banning.
Community healing begins with recognising and respecting one another and the part each play in the whole – however small or grand. When we set aside minor differences and find ways to come together, celebrate, exchange words of encouragement, appreciation and when we simply express the joy of being in the midst of history being made before our eyes – we inevitably heal. That I believe is what Makeda meant. For she, like all of us felt the presence of Jessica Huntley in the glorious sunshine and those many exchanged smiles and greetings and even the tender raindrops on our approach to Coldershaw Road. This community healing we will remember as our collective and ever memorable redemption song.