Storm over CLR James set to rage through Black History Month

Video story from We News, Gayelle TV, Trinidad

As Hackney Council prepares for Black History Month, local residents  find themselves fighting to keep the name of CLR James Library in Dalston – so labelled to commemorate a celebrated black writer and social activist.

Cyril Lionel Robert James, an Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist and social theorist, spent his life campaigning against colonialism and increasing awareness of black struggles all over the world through lectures, essays and works of fiction.

An important figure, then, in a London borough containing more than 20% black inhabitants and known nationally for its ethnically diverse population – which is probably why the council named a library in Dalston after him back in 1985, in what his widow, Selma James, has called “a leap to the future”.

Indeed, in the words of Cllr Jonathan McShane, cabinet member for community services, the council is “proud of the achievements of Black African and Caribbean communities in Hackney,” which is why it chooses to “celebrate throughout the year.”

And, in a leaflet showing off a photo of Bob Marley taken by the Jamaican-born Hackney photographer Daniel Morris, the council invites us to a programme of events for Black History Month 2010. These have the purpose of “celebrating achievements by black African and Caribbean communities” and “showcasing some of the community’s modern day talents, as well as taking a look at contributions made in the past.”

However, when the CLR James Library is replaced by a shiny and new £4.4 million facility in Dalston Square next spring, the new building will come sans credit to the world-famous and important black figure – instead adopting the new title of Dalston Library and Archives.

A council spokesman has said that since the brand new facility is on a different site – it is not a refurb or rebuild of the current library – and that because the new library will also include the borough’s archive and local history service, the new name is justified.

But the move has sparked outrage among Hackney residents, including Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, who has urged the council to reconsider, calling the removing of CLR James’ name “an insult to his memory”.

Also shocked at the news is CLR James’ widow, herself a socialist and feminist, who only found out her late husband’s name would no longer be used for the library when she was contacted by the national press.

“Keeping that name off the front of the new building is a retrograde step at best,” said Mrs James, who says people have written to her from a number of countries saying they are deeply upset and angry. “At worst it is an insult to those who are trying to build a better, an anti-racist world.”

“The library was named after CLR James to commemorate the contribution of one man, but also the contribution of labour, thought, education, sport, music, community, of Caribbean people generally, and in fact of all anti-racists – like CLR himself. Has this changed? If it has not, then the name should stay. If it has changed, we must know what has changed, and why.”

She said the current name commended CLR James’ values and actions to all who use and know about the library. “This is particularly true of the young who, as is well known, see few prominent people they feel they can respect and aim to emulate,” she added. Mrs James feels the council has been too hasty, and that they need to think again – especially in light of Black History Month in October – of how they want Hackney to be seen and what it should be known for. “I would like to know if, as has been suggested by a number of Hackney residents, this has to do with the gentrification of Dalston, and disconnecting this more upmarket area from a grassroots hero, and from the Caribbean,” she said.

“The people of Hackney, in particular people of colour from the Caribbean, want the library to keep its name,” she said. “Why is it so problematic to respect their view?”

Indeed, an online petition is gathering dozens of ‘signatures’ each day, and now contains over 2,200 (04/10/10) electronic protests in an attempt to sway the council to rethink. Some petition-signers fear that replacing the name will undo the heritage work achieved in the borough over the years, and many talk of the personal significance CLR James has for them.

“This man greatly inspired my love of reading and my political outlook,” wrote one Hackney resident, Andrea Enisuoh. “I have always been proud that my borough honoured such a great man in such an apt way as naming a library after him.”

“The name is very fitting because it reflects local and global history,” wrote another petition-signer, Ursula Troche. “If you remove his name from the library then the population will be deprived of an inspiring learning experience.”

A council spokesman said it was keen to ensure that the heritage of the old CLR James library was preserved, which was why it was proposed that a room in the new building will be named after Mr James. A permanent exhibition in the building will apparently document the life and work of CLR James, and an annual event will be held celebrate his achievements.

“We feel that this will do far more to commemorate his life and to educate future generations than what is at the current site,” said a spokesman. The council also apologised personally to Selma James for failing to consult her on the proposals, adding: “We hope to work with her to ensure CLR James continues to be remembered and honoured.”

The petition to preserve the name of CLR James Library can be found here.



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