Black History Month: Four treasures from Senate House Library’s collections

In this blog we highlight four items, chosen for Senate House Library’s 150th anniversary exhibition, with connections to Black British History.

Black History Month: Four treasures from Senate House Library’s collections

In this blog we highlight four items, chosen for Senate House Library’s 150th anniversary exhibition, with connections to Black British History.

Libraries and archives are filled with presences and absences, which reflect the histories of cultural and collecting practices and biases. The items chosen are only small fragments in a wide, expansive history, addressing aspects of the personal lives of their creators situated within their historical communities.

The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Arican: written by himself (1789)

Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa (c. 1745–1797), was one of the most prominent and bestselling Black British authors of his century. Before permanently settling in London in 1777, he spent his life at the heart of the triangular trade between Africa, North America, and Europe, first as an enslaved person, then as a free man from 1766 onwards. During the 1780s, Equiano established himself as a leading Black and abolitionist intellectual, culminating in the publication of his biography The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African in London in 1789.

Senate House Library holds two 1789 copies of the Interesting Narrative, one in the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature and one in the library of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, 1787-1809, and abolitionist campaigner. Its presence in both collections speaks to the importance of the work in the economic and moral debates surrounding the abolition of the slave trade. The text equally speaks to the increased presence of Black communities in Britain, especially from the 1780s onwards. Equiano’s book was one in a series of works published by Afro-British authors during the 18th century. For many of those who were also abolitionist authors, success rested on the claim to authority through an African birth. In his text, Equiano lays claim to both an African and British identity. He became an authoritative abolitionist voice resting on his African identity, and affirmed that he had adopted the cultural, political, religious and social values that enabled him to identify as English. 

This is featured in the Rare & Special Collections pre-1871 section of the SHL150 online gallery.

he Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African: written by himself, 1789

In the castle of my skin by George Lamming (1953) and ‘Letter from George Lamming’ to C.L.R. James (1957)

In 1953, Barbadian author George Lamming’s semi-autobiographical, anti-colonial debut novel In the Castle of My Skin was published in London, where he had been living for three years. In the same year, Trinidadian writer and activist, C. L. R. James, was expelled from the USA for his links to Trotskyist politics and also travelled to London. The stage was set for the two writers to meet, which they did, by chance, in the Charing Cross Road (see p.184 of West Indian Intellectuals in Britain by Bill Schwarz) [PDF]. Following this encounter on the streets of WC2, Lamming attended what he called “a seminar thing […] concerned with transforming the Caribbean society” (see p.28 of C.L.R. James's Caribbean, edited by Paget Henry and Paul Buhle) which James convened in his London home. In this manner, a long-term intellectual understanding between the two writers was established.  

By the end of the 1950s, Lamming and James had both left London, but their friendship continued. This is reflected in a 1957 letter, held at Senate House Library, which Lamming wrote to James, engaging his opinion and input concerning matters relating to Caribbean society and culture. In just over two pages of typed text, Lamming outlines a series of articles he is commissioning for the Trinidadian People’s National Movement, and requests James’s contribution on the topic of history, and suggests a list of Caribbean authors for a proposed writers’ conference. The names Lamming selects for the conference now read as an overview of key figures in Anglophone Caribbean literature and politics, including George Padmore, Stuart Hall, Frank Collymore and Derek Walcott (Lamming highlights the problematic absence of women on his list as an area James might be able to assist with).

This is featured in the Post-War Progress section of the SHL150 online gallery.

First edition of In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming, 1953 & Letter from George Lamming to CLR James, 1957
In the castle of my skin by George Lamming (1953) and ‘Letter from George Lamming’ to C.L.R. James (1957)

The West Indian Digest, Vol. 2, No. 5, October 1972 with letter inserted addressed to Billy Strachan from Arif Ali

William ‘Billy’ Arthur Watkin Strachan was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1921, and moved to Britain in 1947 after a career in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Throughout his life in England, he was a dedicated trade unionist, communist and anti-colonial campaigner. He focused his political activity on supporting the Caribbean community in their home countries and in the diaspora by fighting for the independence of the West Indies from the British Empire. Besides the archive containing Billy Strachan’s papers, Senate House Library holds his collection of almost 200 pamphlets, that document his interest in worldwide communist and British imperial affairs.  

One of these pamphlets is the October 1972 issue of the West Indian Digest, sent to Strachan with a letter by Guyana-born Arif Ali. Ali founded the publishing house Hansib in 1970. The monthly West Indian Digest was the young publisher’s first title before expanding to other newspapers, magazines and periodicals aimed at Britain’s Caribbean, Asian and African communities. The letter mentions the possibility of “compiling a Who’s Who of West Indians in G[rea]t Britain”, in which Ali wished to feature an entry on Strachan. In the issue accompanying the letter the sharpening immigration controls introduced by the 1971 Immigration Act are discussed. Ali’s letter to Strachan signifies the continued struggles of Black British citizens to carve out and assert their rights to their place in British society. 

This is featured in the Modern Radicals section of the SHL150 online gallery.

The West Indian Digest, Vol. 2, No. 5, October 1972 with a letter inserted addressed to Billy Strachan from Arif Ali
The West Indian Digest, Vol. 2, No. 5, October 1972 with letter inserted addressed to Billy Strachan from Arif Ali

Black Ink Collective Black eye perceptions (1980) 

“Dedicated to the unpublished writer”. These are the words which greet the reader of Black Eye Perceptions, a poetry pamphlet published in 1980 by the Brixton-based Black Ink Collective. These five words powerfully state the aims and intentions of the Black Ink Collective which was founded in 1978 to provide a publishing outlet and later also a writing workshop for young Black writers. Black Ink provided a crucial space particularly as, in the words of writer John Agard in his introduction to the 5th Black Ink publication Livingroom, Black writers were ignored by “straight established publishing houses”. Playwright, artist and academic Michael McMillan was one of the young attendees at the writing workshops and his play The School Leaver (the 2nd Black Ink publication) was performed at the Royal Court Theatre. The workshop was also supported by an elder generation of writers, including C.L.R. James. 

Black Ink Publications numbers 1 to 5 are held in the library, with number 4, Black Eye Perceptions, highlighted in our current exhibition. This pamphlet was published in 1980 and contains poems by seven young Black writers, four of whom were members of the writers’ workshop, accompanied by author portraits drawn by Black Ink co-founder Desrie Thomson-George. As Damx’s introduction notes (p.9):

The poets speak to us directly through a medium which does not falsify the experiences which have meaning for every black person in the British society

This is featured in the New Worlds & Technology section of the SHL150 online gallery.

Black Eye Perceptions, published by Black Ink Collective in Brixton
Black Ink Collective Black eye perceptions (London: Black Ink, 1980)

Authors and further reading

Argula Rublack - Modern Collections: History, US History

Leila Kassir, Librarian - Modern Collections: British, US, Commonwealth, Latin American and Caribbean Literature

Further reading

If you’re interested in finding out more, here are some suggestions for further reading and research:

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