In 1948 the HMT Empire Windrush dropped anchor in Tilbury Docks, Essex, marking one of the most significant events in the socio-political landscape of post-war Britain.
On-board were hundreds of West Indian migrants eager at the prospect of Britain providing new opportunities and a chance at a better future for themselves and their children. The longevity of this optimism would prove short-lived however, as coming of age amidst heightened racial tension and social inequality, 2nd generation Black Britons grew discontented with the ‘better life’ supposedly afforded to them.
Continuing sentiments of fellow Caribbean writers like Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s oeuvre acts as social reportage of Britain’s turbulent race relations throughout the latter half of the 20th century, capturing a melange of the experiences of black communities, working-class strife and defiance against the racism imbued in Britain’s police, politics and culture.
Born in Chapleton, Jamaica in 1952, Johnson moved to Brixton in 1963 where he has resided ever since. He studied at Goldsmith’s University in New Cross where he gained a degree in Sociology in 1973. It was through his association with the British sect of the Black Panthers that a young Linton Kwesi Johnson would begin to cultivate his political identity through immersing himself in a wide array of Black literature & culture. Johnson was a founding member of the magazine ‘Race Today’ alongside Darcus Howe. The two transformed the magazine into a vehicle for spreading their political message.
The first of Johnson’s works published in Race Today was 'Forces of Victri', a poem documenting the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976. Despite its status today as one of the most affluent and sought-after areas in London, Notting Hill was a slum in the early half of the 20th Century. Poorer living conditions and cheaper rents resulted in Notting Hill becoming one of the main areas the Windrush generation were housed. Many white residents were less than welcoming to the influx of these new foreign neighbours which meant landlords would often outright refuse any black people tenancy, or instead would charge double the rent white tenants were paying. The disparities between white and black living conditions were a factor in causing the riots in 1958. Following these early riots, the now world-famous Notting Hill Carnival was conceived in an effort to combat the problematic race relations that had ravaged the area for decades. Beginning in 1966, the Carnival would go on to play a defining role in Britain’s black community, allowing a way for identity to be realised and celebrated within the diaspora. Acting as a microcosm of the countries the Windrush generation had arrived from, for 2nd generation Black Britons, the Notting Hill Carnival provided a way through which they could form a connection to their origins.
In contrast to the light police presence of the late noughties, 1976’s Carnival saw 1400 police officers deployed onto West London’s streets in an effort to control the 2-day event. This considerably stricter policing quickly led to clashes between carnival revellers and police officers. The rioting was said to have begun when carnival-goers came to the defence of a man arrested for pickpocketing, which they believed was a police set-up. For those involved, the riots were a cathartic release. People could finally push back against the years of police oppression they had been subjected to. In 'Forces of Victri', LKJ assumes the collective voice of the rioters and represents them as a powerful army, ready to face up to and actively engage with the tyrannical police forces.
As observed in a great deal of LKJ’s poetic oeuvre, 'Forces of Victri' uses simplistic language delivered in short bursts as though already constructed to be chanted at protests. The ardent protestation against injustice in the writing of poets like LKJ found a kindred spirit with the Punk movement which arrived in England around 1977. The previous years Notting Hill Riots were also handled by The Clash in their 1977 release, White Riot. The song exhibits a fervent empathy with the struggles faced by black youths in Britain. Lead singer Joe Strummer cries out in his signature gravely vocals for ‘a riot of my own’, that is, for Britain’s white working class to recognise their own oppression and emulate the revolt witnessed by Britain’s black community at the carnival.
Though the war between Britain’s black communities and the state would be far from over following these riots, LKJ bellicosely exclaims ‘wi fite an wi fite an wi defeat di state’, displaying pride in the fact that, even if this is only a brief victory in an ongoing struggle, some incremental progression was managed on those days.
The cultural identities brought along by Windrush migrants were, at that time, incredibly alien to most Britons. The perceived contestation these new communities would pose towards traditional British values led to a resurgence of nationalism across many areas of Britain. As Conservative leader in 1978, Margaret Thatcher gave a now infamous interview on ITV’s World in Motion in which she relayed her perspective on immigration in Great Britain. Thatcher claimed, ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’. Her apparent apathy towards and reluctance to condemn the rapidly growing far-right groups in Britain such as the neofascist organisation the National Front, coupled with the dehumanising rhetoric associated with the word ‘swamp’, led to widespread outrage from Britain’s left. Parallels would be drawn between this interview and Enoch Powell’s staunchly xenophobic ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech regarding mass immigration in 1968, that Powell vocalised during a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham. Thatcher’s appointment to Prime minister in 1979 would subsequently further exhibit the extent to which rhetoric of this nature was still widely supported in the British Isles.
In her first term as Prime minister Thatcher instigated the notorious ‘Operation Swamp 81’. The operation saw a reinstating of the Suspected Person laws, colloquially dubbed ‘sus laws’, under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824. These draconian laws were essentially initiated as a way of targeting young black men for excessive routine stop and searches. In direct response to the perceived injustice of the way these laws were enacted, LKJ penned the poem 'Sonny’s Lettah' in 1979. 'Sonny’s Lettah' reads as a proverbial tale that was relatable for many young black men in Britain at that time. The poem is presented as a letter written from the perspective of its speaker, Sonny, a young black man writing to inform his mother of the arrest of his younger brother and himself. We learn of the horrific details that led up to their arrest as Sonny tells of a violent struggle that ensues between the two brothers and a group of police officers. The police officers jump out of a police van to arrest Jim without reason and Sonny’s arrest is due to his interjection in the fracas in a vain effort to protect his younger brother from the beating he receives. During the altercation, Sonny accidentally kills one of the officers and is put into the back of the police van.
Britain’s black youth found themselves at the nucleus of a moral panic during this epoch and 'Sonny’s Lettah' aims to diminish this labelling by humanising the poem’s central characters and affording them a voice. Political and media depictions of these men as menacing agitators to Britain’s societal status quo are challenged through presenting the poem as a letter addressed to the protagonists’ mother. A great sense of both defiance and futility is illustrated by LKJ as he paints Sonny as a courageously resilient character, though he knows his actions will result in his arrest, refusing to stand idly by in the face of injustice. Eventually, through activism across black communities in Britain including the ‘Scrap Sus Campaign’, a grassroots movement led by Mavis Best and Paul Boateng. The sus laws would be repealed on 27th August 1981, only after some of the most violent riots in British History.
The boiling indignation towards the sus laws at the end of the 1970’s coupled with the New Cross House Fire in January 1981, that many believed to be a targeted racist attack on a group of black youths, meant racial tensions in Britain’s black communities reached an apex of escalation by the Spring of 1981. LKJ’s own Brixton saw 2 nights of rioting that caused an estimated £7.5 million worth of damage. The storm of hostility that gathered towards police in the Lambeth borough galvanised, in part, from the overly zealous instigation of Operation Swamp 81. It was reported that police officers in Brixton stopped and searched over 1,000 people in a period of only six days.
LKJ directs focus towards the Brixton Riots in the poem, 'Di Great Insohreckshan'. As we observed in 'Forces of Victri', LKJ interprets the riots as an act of revolution, seeking again to subvert media and governmental portrayals of the rioters through recasting the thuggish image afforded to them. Instead, Johnson reveres the rioters as rebellious warriors, finally in a position where they can manifest the repressed resentment that has built towards their subjugators. Prior to the writing of 'Di Great Insohreckshan' the sense of these acts being an impassioned rebellion from Brixton’s black community most famously appeared in another musical incarnation, Eddy Grant’s 1982 release, Electric Avenue. Named after Brixton’s busiest market street, the song’s upbeat rhythm and catchy chorus, mean that many today may even be left unaware of Electric Avenue’s contextual basis.
LKJ details how this rioting ‘spread all ovah di naeshan’ alluding to the fact that just months after the events in Brixton, race riots ensued in Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds, Manchester’s Moss Side and Toxteth, Liverpool. The inquiry into the reasons behind these riots known as the ‘Scarman Report’ named these ‘copycat riots’. Of these riots the ones beginning in Toxteth in July 1981 also received a great deal of media coverage. Toxteth’s riots transpired after the arrest of Leroy Cooper who put his own experiences into poetry documenting the riots in a similar style to LKJ. In essence, the series of riots that rocked Britain in 1981 were a call for any of those on the periphery of the nation’s black communities to acknowledge the ignorance many had previously held in believing that black people had been integrated successfully into British Society.
Engaging the reader into contemplating the struggles of the oppressed, as well as potentially galvanising those reading into taking a stand against the perpetuation of this oppression, has always been one of Johnson’s primary aims. During the particularly polarising times faced by Britain toward the end of the 20th century, rebellious poetry of writers like LKJ alongside recalcitrant activists and punk pioneers succoured the public consciousness of Britain into considering sides of life that escaped accurate representation in the media. Injustices towards immigrant communities, racial tensions and racial profiling at the hands of the police are still issues deeply embedded in British Society. Events like the Windrush scandal of 2017 and the recent Black Lives Matter protests show us that the issues tackled in Johnson’s poetry are still incredibly relevant and must be stood up to and fought wherever and whenever they arise.