When memory dies, a people die

In his 1997 novel on Sri Lanka, When Memory Dies, Sivanandan shows the importance of community-based and national memory and the way false memories can distort a people’s history, a country and a liberation movement. But in all his non-fiction work on Sri Lanka and the UK, from the 1960s onwards, he was at pains to show the importance of reclaiming and passing on the unwritten and sometimes suppressed black history and, in particular, fights waged by previous generations for justice. Without a knowledge of history to inform the present, he argued, there could be no vision for the future.  In many of his speeches and writings on black struggle he reminded audiences of the struggles waged in communities and on the shop floor by black people from the 1950s onwards ‘as a community and as a class’ – most of which had been written out of British history, even out of working-class history. For he urged people to realise that the few black people who ‘got places’ especially following the uprisings of 1981, were effectively standing on the shoulders of their forebears who had had to struggle against everyday racism and hardship.