Absence/presence of Durham’s black history: Exploration of institutions, archives, students and pedagogies
Peter Blackman – ‘out of ordinary words you make beauty’
Sol Gamsu and Liam Liburd remember the life and work of activist, writer and thinker Peter Blackman who gained a degree from Durham University. This is an abridged version of the talk given for Durham Book Festival in October 2022 which you can watch here.
Peter Blackman was a political activist, writer and poet who died in 1993 aged 84. He was born in Barbados and moved to England in 1936 to study for a Theology degree. Several sources refer to him studying at Durham University but he actually studied at St Augustine’s Theological College in Canterbury, a theological seminary with degrees accredited by Durham University. After his studies, he was sent to the Gambia as a missionary, where he realised that white and black priests were being paid unequally. He challenged this racism unsuccessfully and resigned the priesthood returning briefly to Barbados before moving back to London in 1937. There he became politically active in the West Indian political movement in exile. He held editorial positions on several important journals including The Negro Worker (Adi, 2006) and The Keys,(Adi, 2018), the Colonial Information Bulletin (Searle, 2013). He also joined and was active in the League of Coloured Peoples (which published The Keys), serving on its executive and helped establish the Committee for West Indian Affairs, becoming its secretary he was also active in the League Against Imperialism. Throughout this period he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, then the only political party advocating for independence for Caribbean countries and other nations under colonial occupation.
Throughout the second world war Blackman made various appearances on BBC radio but in the post-war period racism and the atmosphere of the Cold War meant he struggled to get work published (Blackman, 1957) or aired on BBC radio. Racism combined with suspicions about his political beliefs resulted in him being blacklisted and placed under MI5 surveillance. He became an engineer on the London railways and was an activist within the National Union of Railwayman where:
‘he prided himself on being the only mechanic who knew both Latin and Greek, and he was strongly respected as a workmate who would help his companions with writing and literacy problems, frequently acting as a voluntary scribe and letter-writer’ (Searle, 2013).
He wrote for Le Monde and Présence Africaine travelling between London and Paris during this period. He was an internationalist with networks crossing the Atlantic as well as Europe (Sherwood, 1994). Blackman was a friend of Paul Robeson and organised Robeson’s 1949 tour of Britain (Creighton, 2007: 136), earlier in 1938 Robeson sang at a Youth Rally of the League of Coloured Peoples. Blackman spoke at the rally and “appealed for unity with the colonial people” (Ibid). His subsequent life and work has frequently been overlooked but in 2013 his poetry and writing was published in a short anthology Footprints by the local Teesside poetry publisher, Smokestack books.
In an essay entitled ‘Art against Racism and Fascism’ from a speech he made at an anti-racist event in 1980, Blackman wrote about the value of the ordinary in culture and politics. Poetry, to Blackman can be written by looking for and finding ‘beauty in the ordinary’. He goes on to talk about how the left, which takes as its cause the ‘ordinary’, the everyday lives and causes of working-class and oppressed people, is too often interested in ‘posturing, becoming “names” and important people, eminences.’
What Blackman ascribes to the left could equally, and perhaps with even greater frequency and consistency, be applied to the work of academics. Becoming ‘names’ is central to what universities seek to encourage academics to do and be. And yet what matters, what really matters, is the ordinary:
‘What we must try and do is get at the ordinary, and so work that without any suspicion of deterioration we see in the ordinary and out of the ordinary that we bring excellence, without elitism. That is what we want – in the ordinary is the excellent. The ordinary people, the ordinary, the men and women who go to work every day. It doesn’t matter what they do, out of them comes excellence – not can come but comes excellence. But as soon as we begin to introduce elitism we destroy not only excellence, we destroy the ordinary out of which comes excellence.’
Blackman’s words give us thought on poetry, on Black experience in and of Britain, of colonialism, racism, fascism and of humanity, the intersection of theology, literature and left-wing thought, of what it means to be active politically, to think and act differently in the cause of deeper struggle.
His work highlights the links between Durham University and Black thinkers, intellectuals and activists whose presence is absent from the contemporary memory of what Durham is as a university – this memory and historical knowledge has until relatively recently been overwhelmingly white. The racism Peter Blackman faced in England from the late 1930s onwards has changed, but it is still preserved within universities and in need of challenge.
What other Black students or alumni studied in Durham or were associated with the university through accredited degrees or affiliated colleges? What was their experience of their university studies? What is their legacy and how should we build on it? What other forgotten ordinary words of beauty, power and meaning remain to be rediscovered and learned from? These are questions we will seek to answer through our IAS project, Absence/presence of Durham’s black history: Exploration of institutions, archives, students and pedagogies with further events planned for this coming term. The events build on discussions on decolonisation in Anthropology, History and Sociology and will allow us to rethink institutions, concepts, methods across disciplines and beyond academia enabling us to question our known disciplinary parameters. The meetings will be interchangeably chaired and moderated by Liam Liburd (History), Nayanika Mookherjee (Anthropology) and Sol Gamsu (Sociology).
Professor Mookherjee has explored some of the themes relating to Durham’s Black History in her article: Mookherjee, N. (2022), Irreconcilable times. JRAI, 28, S1: 153-178.
Professor Nayanika Mookherjee (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Liam Liburd (email@example.com)
Dr Sol Gamsu (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Adi H (2006) Forgotten Comrade? Desmond Buckle: An African Communist in Britain. Science & Society 70(1): 22-45.
Adi H (2018) Caribbean anti-colonial activists in Britain before World War Two. In: British Library Windrush Stories. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/caribbean-anti-colonial-activists-in-britain-before-world-war-two (accessed 2022).
Blackman P (1957) Some thoughts on West Indian writing. Présence africaine 14: 298.
Blackman P (2013) Footprints. Ripon: Smokestack Books.
Creighton S (2007) Paul Robeson’s British Journey. Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe. 125-144.
Blackman, P. (1952) My song is for all men. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Reilly D (2013) Restoring Peter Blackman – Institute of Race Relations (irr.org.uk), London: IRR.
Searle C (2013) Excellence in the ordinary: the poetry of Peter Blackman. Race & Class 55(1): 46-59.
Sherwood M (1994) March. Peter Blackman, 1909–1993. In History Workshop Journal (Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 266-267). Oxford University Press.
Sherwood, M., 2014. Blackman, Peter McFarren (1909–1993), political activist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2022, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-101295.