Long live diversity

May 28, 2004

Trevor Phillips proclaimed the end of multiculturalism. He couldn't be more wrong, says Darcus Howe.

Every year, the staff of Aylesbury College of Education celebrate the life of Jacob Briskman with a public lecture. He was a former teacher and community activist in Aylesbury.

This year, they added a "Diversity Fair". Irish dancing and belly dancing set in motion nimble feet and rolling stomachs. Africans and Caribbeans drummed in beat and counter beat. An array of stalls offered African jewellery, henna body designs, multiethnic cuisine: in all, a restrained and pleasant afternoon.

I was invited to give the lecture, on Friday evening, May 22. I also opened the fair on Saturday.

Briskman was born an East Ender, ten years into the 20th century, the son of Russian Jewish parents. His father taught Hebrew to local Jewish children. Jacob fell from the comfort of his mother's womb into a community that was in a sense under siege. The working classes of the East End defined themselves, excluding all others, as having been born within the sound of Bow Bells.

This exclusive community was anti-Jewish, united, disciplined and organised around work on the docks and in the small factories that refined sugar imported from the colonial Caribbean.

Jacob was a bright boy, and won a scholarship to grammar school. He went on to King's College London.

Briskman cut his political teeth fighting Mosleyites in pursuit of the community relations to which the Labour Party, or perhaps the left of it, subscribed. This young intellectual placed his natural and acquired gifts at the service of the masses. He got his hands dirty in the heat of local activism without a thought for personal advancement.

He taught abroad and transcended national and ethnic divisions almost a century before today's activists found themselves stumbling in similar conditions.

He returned to England and finally settled in Aylesbury, teaching at the further education college and pioneering activities in community relations.

This year, the local Race Equality Council joined the college in celebrating his life.

I warmed to the invitation to give the fifth annual lecture. I felt as though I had known Jacob personally. I am no stranger to further education.

I taught general studies at the South London college where I was brought in to calm the troubled black youth who had threatened to disrupt the smooth running of the college.

My life in the community and then national and international activism had shaped me for the task at hand, or so I thought.

Aylesbury College houses under a sprawling roof every single ethnic group imaginable.

Postwar migration brought to this backwater European migrants disturbed by Hitler's campaign of Aryan superiority. Add to this the Caribbean migration of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Asians who came later and then those who came in dribs and drabs before the recent mass influx from every corner of the globe. Briskman, who formed and shaped this troubled East End, was at his best in the fever of pursuing the slogan "Every creed and race find an equal place".

I plunged into the fray. The waters had only recently been troubled by the diktat issued from the safe seat of the chairmanship of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Trevor Phillips insisted that multiculturalism was at an end, and ethnic groups had to be dragged, hot-house fashion, into Britishness.

Satyajit Ray had to be dumped for Shakespeare. Derek Walcott and V. S.

Naipaul stood in the way of the influences of Tennyson, Wordsworth and Joyce because Ray, Walcott and Naipaul promote separatism as opposed to St George's Day inclusiveness.

I tore into Phillips' confused diktat with all the intellectual energy I could muster. The UK, particularly England, was multicultural long before postwar migration. It is a country built on a loose alliance between ethnicities. The Geordies, Scousers, Cornish and the rest constitute the nation. To this heady mix add the complexities of class and religion. To Roman Catholic, Protestant and Methodist join Islam, Hindu and various African rituals.

We migrants, old and new, are kept outside this alliance, and the benefits derived therefrom, only because of the colour of our skins. The defeat of racism is a precondition to our entry into the alliance, on the basis of absolute equality with whites. This is the task of our time.

"Multiculturalism for ever" is my slogan.

Darcus Howe is a writer, broadcaster and political activist.

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