Towards a black librarianship

Talk to African-Caribbean Library Association July 1987

My librarianship is a little bit rusty. Or rather it is the craft of my trade that has got rusty. I am no longer familiar with Theodore Besterman, the bibliographer of bibliographers. I am even less familiar with the Glaggats and Gillicks of data processing and information retrieval. But in a sense, that may stand me in good stead if I have to stand you in good stead this afternoon, because having embroiled myself in the politics of librarianship, in the politics of black people in this country, and having missed out in terms of librarianship as a profession, the view I begin to have of the profession itself is that in its anxiety, in the last seventy years, to prove itself a legitimate profession in the eyes of the world outside, librarians have lost out on the philosophy, on the morality, on the set of values that informed its inception, its beginnings in the Workers’ Educational Association and the philosophy that guided those early founders.

If you look at those early librarians like Savage and McColvin, Bliss and Ranganathan, they had the philosophy of life which informed librarianship, and librarianship in turn became a philosophy in its own right. If you look at the people who laid out the classification schemes, they had a world view of knowledge, and in devising the classification schemes to disperse and to ordain that knowledge, they also set up in the process a morality of librarianship. The Library of Congress classification scheme, on the other hand, is precise because it is enumeratory, because it has no philosophy that informs it, no morality, and is totally racist. (An American called Sanford Burnham wrote a book on the Library of Congress classification scheme, which you will find at the Institute of Race Relations.)

It is therefore to a discovery – a rediscovery – of that philosophy that I want to apply myself today. Of course, it has to be a philosophy, or at least a value system, which has got to be carved out afresh, hewn out anew from the circumstances of the world as it is today. And in the last 30, 40, 50 years there have been massive changes in all areas of life – a whole sea change in western societies and therefore in the implications for Third World societies. A massive sea change which affects every aspect of our life and percolates into every area of our living. But two most important revolutions of our time, in my view, are first, the liberation struggles of black and Third World peoples against centuries of slavery and colonialism, and ensuing from that, the struggles against racism and for black power, and secondly, the technological revolution, which in a sense is even more fundamental because it predicates the new colonialism and shapes the new racism. That technological revolution is also the birth of the information society – predicates the birth of the information society, where information is king.

And information is to be understood in two discrete ways. Firstly, as the data that is fed into computers, and robots and the like, in order to assemble your motor car or to programme your washing machine. Secondly, as the data that is fed into people’s minds through the mass media in order to programme them for obedience and consensus. And the black librarian is heir to both of these revolutions – the liberation struggles of Third World people, the political revolution, and the dissemination, the creation, the manufacture, the propagation of information, of data – the technological revolution. The black librarian is heir to both these revolutions, and he or she cannot take that burden lightly; every gift is a burden. So if that is the gift of history, then we must carry our responsibilities accordingly.

There is a double task. There is a symbiosis, though, in these tasks. There is a connection, a relationship, a synthesis. Black librarianship is not a black who is a librarian, but black librarianship. The black librarian has to be, in the first and last instance, an activist. Just being a black librarian inside a library is no good. If you are black, you’ve got to be part of the community. You’ve got to put your services, your knowledge, your education at the behest of the community. You have no right elsewhere.

Now, if the black librarian is heir to both these revolutions, what does it mean in immediate terms? It means in the first instance, I believe, that the way we impart, disseminate, propagate, create, manipulate, whatever, information – data – must centrally be applied to the fight against racism and to the liberation of Third World peoples. That is the symbiosis. You cannot see this in separation. Now, the fight against racism is itself, in the first instance, a fight against injustice, against inequality, against freedom for some and unfreedom for others. And in the final analysis the fight against racism is also a fight against exploitation – the oppression and exploitation of Third World peoples, not necessarily in the metropolis alone but in the Third World countries by the investiture of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes by America and its satellites, throwing up political refugees all over our countries now, and not just immigrant labour. That dimension has got to be taken into account in any understanding of the fight against racism being a fight for justice and equality. So it’s both national and international.

That’s in terms of fighting the racism. In terms of information – I am separating them to make it intelligible, to myself if not to you – what we do now is that today is a technological era. It is not so much industrial production or the manufacturing process that has become important – at least the struggles are fought not on the shop floor but at the ideological level, on the level of information and data. That ideological level is determined more and more by a mass media – by television and a gutter press and the paparazzi – which informs, indoctrinates, educates and converts public opinion, basically, in racist, sexist and anti-working-class ways, on the basis of which popular opinions the governments then claim to pass laws, to enact administrative instructions and so on. Therefore what I am trying to say here is that if, on the one hand, the fight against racism is a fight for equality, for a greater society, for a really participatory democracy, for a socialist democracy if you like, the use of information by the media has so perverted, so indoctrinated the minds of people, and because ideology itself has become the most important area in which the struggles of the state are fought out with or against certain sections of the people, the media, information, data themselves become a site of struggle, a battlefield of struggle. And it is a battlefield that we must occupy.

How do we do it? The answers to that question must eventuate – there are no massive, blanket, monolithic answers, that is the mistake of the old-fashioned Marxist – must eventuate in the particular places of work, the particular areas of living, the particular communities, in the process of fighting the disinformation of the media and creating the proper information for the people. So there are two tasks for the black librarian. One is that the black librarian should be aware of how the media, the literature and the television, all these things promote a popular culture of racism, sexism and anti-working classism, so to speak, and therefore we must move against that disinformation. ‘Baa baa black sheep’; the stuff they’ve written about the Institute of Race Relations  – all the lies; all the stuff they have been parading, you know, you live in the boroughs where the attacks are going on.

Not only have we got to attack that disinformation, but we have also got to create our own information, if you like, which makes for a positive way of fighting our battles. It is in that area that I think you are going to quarrel with me, or at least I may be a little controversial. Take multiculturalism for instance. Of course, multiculturalism has its place – it is important for children, for growing people, for adults to learn about the cultures of other people. But as we pointed out to the Rampton Committee when we gave evidence, learning about other people’s culture is not to learn about the racism of your own, of white people.

The core of my objection to multiculturalism is not to it per se but to the importance given to it. Let me tell you a story. At the Institute, in the old building, we used to have a basement in which we gave talks for headteachers and big people in the educational field. This was in the heyday of multiculturalism, it was getting into the fifth gear, of ethnicism, with the GLC backing it. And during one of these talks, I began to talk about racism and so on, and one headteacher who had been in India, in Africa and the Caribbean, for donkeys years, he came up and began talking to me in Hindustani. And I don’t understand the bloody language. I don’t come from India. I would love to learn to speak it. He began talking to me in Hindi. Now he was telling me how multicultural we must be. In other words, he had begun to take over our cultures, and this, multiculturalism, was the new imperialism. It’s not simply that white people have to be taught our cultures, they were now teaching us about the cultures we had lost because of the occupation of our countries. What I am against is that bias in multiculturalism, that refuses to look at racism, which is the problem.

And therefore I want to shift the centre of gravity from you learning my culture to your looking retrospectively at the racism of your own. I’m not interested in your personal racism, it doesn’t bother me one bit, as long as you don’t act it out. I don’t need you to love me, but I need that you don’t act out those attitudes in socially discriminatory acts. When those acts are then institutionalised by the apparatuses of the state, in immigration law, through deportations or the activities of the police, or immigration officers who examine my sister for her virginity – then those attitudes become institutionalised in the state apparatus and legitimised in the administration of the state. And that is what I oppose.

So, to learn about my culture is not to learn about the racism of your own. To learn about the racism of your own culture, however, is to be able to come to my culture in a much more objective fashion. Disabuse your minds first of your racism, and then look at our cultures. But don’t expect me to enter into the exercise of disabusing your minds – no Racism Awareness Training from us.

Now, 20 or 30 years on from the early struggles that we fought in this country, we must begin to provide the literature, the histories of what black people have done, in science, and so on. But also, if we want white people to know about the racism of their own cultures, then we must help them by producing the literature that gives them the eyes to see this. Let us teach them, let us show them how to look at their own societies, their own cultures, their own civilisations from the vantage point of the black experience. The duty to research and to publish material that will begin to look at racism, to provide alternative textbooks, if you like, and to give people new eyes to see, because they are blinded by the old, cultural imperialist history. We must open it up, that black experience. Just to have black studies and black cultural stuff is not enough. For instance, after giving evidence to the Rampton Committee the IRR published four books explaining what was this anti-racism that we were taking about, what was this racism that we wanted white people to look at.

Secondly, the question of censorship. We hope that the black struggles in this country have been able to raise the threshold of people’s understanding about the questions of racism, imperialism and so on. And therefore to say that books like Little Black Sambo and so on should be taken out of libraries is common sense. We don’t need to discuss it at that level. But then, how far should censorship go? Some evangelic black missionaries in libraries I’ve been to would have denuded them of every single book in the place, including Othello. Othello, Blake, they are all racist – of course! Othello is the greatest Uncle Tom of them all; there is a whole culture of racism. How do you think a potty little country like Britain could have held something like two-thirds of the world enthralled for 300 years except by making the subject peoples of India, Africa, the Caribbean and south-east Asia party to their own subjugation, through culture, through imperialism. So censoring material left, right and centre like that is something we should not enter into. Why?

First of all, if ever there is a censorship that is agreed to by the government, local authorities or whatever, you can be absolutely certain that censorship against racist stuff is first applied against Left or anti-racist stuff. Our books will not get in – in fact a black race relations officer in a big conurbation in this country two months ago went to the education department and asked for our books to be banned because they were racist and not nice to white people. Luckily there was a black organisation in the city which took up arms and managed to win the battle. So it’s absolutely important to understand that if we ask to ban racist books in toto without analysing them, then it’s going to apply against us first.

But secondly, and more importantly, the reason I’m against that type of censorship is because we are substituting someone else’s authority for our own. Why do we want someone else to ban Kipling, when we should take the long way round and sit down and talk to children, to people, discuss the Kipling and say what’s wrong with it and what’s right with it. There is no short cut. And we are living in an information, a closed society. Our business as blacks who have suffered from that closed society is to open it up.

In order to risk that open society, we must be able to fight, to campaign, to organise, to mobilise – and that makes us activists once more. It’s only those librarians who don’t want to be activists in the community who want censorship – as a short cut, as an alibi.

Thirdly, the question of history black scientists, black inventors and so on. Here again, our struggles have put these people somewhat on the map; there’s a lot of work to be done and I’m sure you’re doing it. The important thing is not merely to celebrate our past but to create our present – we need to know where we have come from in order to know where we are at, and where we are going. History is a continuum. That reminds me of a Pakistani worker in Woolfs in Southall in 1961, in one of the first strikes, when Afro-Caribbeans and Asians organised together. A sociologist from America was making a study of why immigrants came to Britain. This Pakistani worker who could hardly speak any English put it in a nutshell. He was asked ‘Why are you here, why did you come here’, and he said ‘Sir, I don’t know, but I think I am here because you were there.’ History is a continuum. It is important that we look at history in those terms.

If we do, we must look at the lacunae, the empty spaces in the history of white people, the history of Britain, in terms of the understanding of white people in the post-war years in this country. What is the working class that has made history since 1948 except the black working class? All the struggles of the white working class have been economistic. The only political struggles of the working class in this country have been the struggles of the black working class, although there are only two million in all. We have made history in this country. That is what we have tried to show in our exhibition, in this book and in an article of mine called ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’. It is not enough to look at our past. We need to look at the contribution we have made to black working class history in this country. Why black working class? Because 80 percent of the people who came after the war – from the Caribbean, from Asia, from Africa – were working class. If they were not working class, they were made working class. I was a bank manager back home in Sri Lanka – I started here as a tea boy in a library.

Looking at history is also looking at the contribution we have made. Even the so-called riots, uprising, rebellions of ’81 and ’85; look back a hundred years in your own history and you will find that it is the white working class that was rebelling, in Dalston, almost in the same places. Now, it is the black working class that has taken on the mantle of revolution, not the economistic struggles for a higher wage and standard of living, but for the quality of life. Precisely by virtue of the fact that we were oppressed in our colour and exploited in our class, our struggles were not for a standard of living alone but for a quality of life that would improve the quality for everybody else.

Finally, what it is to be a black librarian is also to understand that the struggles of black people in the metropolitan situation is inevitably and inexorably intertwined with the struggles of Third World peoples for their freedoms. The fight against racism is also the fight against imperialism. In the final analysis, what black librarianship means is a librarianship of liberation.