Darcus Howe: Life and legacy of the ‘Devil’s Advocate’

A tribute to a civil rights champion

By Vistra Greenaway-Harvey - 20th April 2017


A good measure of a man’s life is his obituary – the one article that seeks to define his character by summarising the events of his life. Darcus Howe’s many obituaries offer polarising views on his character. Some celebrate his accomplishments as a combative campaigner for civil rights in Britain (The Times, 2017); others are far less congratulatory. In the less than glowing reviews, Howe’s temperament is confrontational; his politics so skewed and marred by conspiracy theories or his obsession with racism (The Telegraph, 2017) that the conceptualisations of ‘Howe the hero’ and ‘Howe the bruiser’ focus so heavily on the man that the broader context in which he operated is overlooked (Andrews, 2017).

Born in Moruga, Trinidad on February 26, 1943, Rhett Radford Leighton ‘Darcus’ Howe came from uncontroversial beginnings. He received a colonial education, first at an Anglican school where his father was both headmaster and deacon, then in the prestigious Queen’s Royal College Port of Spain. As Howe became versed in Latin, cricket and other fine trimmings of British culture, independence movements were reverberating around the globe. A growing nationalist movement in Trinidad modelling itself on Kwame Nkrumah’s independence struggle began to oppose popular ‘Trini’ rhetoric that Africans were “backward people” (Howe, 2013). Incarnations of African pride in the 1959 Trinidad Carnival also struck Howe. It was from then that his willingness to study and adapt to these movements signify an important lesson for future Pan-Africanists. Unlike modern activists, Howe was taught nothing of Africa, yet he realised his fate and Africa’s were tied (Howe, 2013) and sought to learn all he could about liberation.

In 1962, when Howe came to England to train as a lawyer, he arrived already feeling that he was part of changes taking place in Africa and around the globe. A meeting with Malcolm X in 65 and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) two years later made him cognisant of the international struggle for black empowerment. As Howe’s biographers put it, “he came to England on a civilising mission”. To teach Britons to live in a harmonious and diverse society” (Bunce & Field, 2017); even if by all accounts it appears he was unaware just how uncivil 1960s Britain was. A wave of mass immigration during the 1940s and 50s had brought racism to the fore. Whites remained reluctant to share land and resources with “darkies”, and racial tensions soon erupted in violence. Then by the 60s, when downtrodden migrants and new entrants were less willing to accept discrimination, anti-colonialist sentiment turned to revolt and uprising. Britain’s migrants began to protest, demand legislative reform and universal mobilisation, all of which Howe outlined in the Black Dimension magazine he edited for the Black Eagles – a contemporary Black Power movement.

A continuing and defining feature of Howe’s legacy was how his journalism demonstrated the power of non-violent activism. Through his pen Howe gave a voice to socialist movements all around the globe, from Bengali workers to the IRA. Developing the work of his uncle CLR James, Howe restated the importance of supporting as well as leading social movements (Howe, 2013). As he continued to illuminate key issues such as apartheid in the journal Race Today, Howe solidified his position as a community leader. His ability to help us understand the direct link between the struggles of black communities in the UK to those in Africa in collaboration with African writers and commrades was crucial.

Howe’s fight for racial justice in Britain become more personalised when he and 8 others infamously named ‘The Mangrove 9’ were arrested in 1970 for protesting against continuous police raids on the ‘Mangrove’ restaurant (a hub of black culture) in Notting Hill (Tingle, 2017). Boldly standing against the establishment, confident in their quest for justice, The Mangrove 9 represented themselves in a 55 day trial against “the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office and Special Branch” (BBC, 2017). Howe’s determination to highlight partiality and injustice resulted in a landmark victory in which judges found the police guilty of racial hatred for the first time.

Howe continued his activism through the 1980s, mobilising mass support for instances of other racial injustice. In 1981 when 13 black youths lost their lives in the still unresolved New Cross Fire, Howe unified 20,000 people in peaceful protest for ‘The Black People’s Day of Action’. He demonstrated that black protests did not have to be synonymous with violence, even in the face of retaliatory stop and search practices by the police. The indiscriminate stop and search policies eventually culminated in the Brixton riots. However it was Howe’s call for justice that was answered in the Scarman Report, and became a pre cursor that “laid the foundation for the McPherson report in 1999” – the first inquest report to acknowledge institutional racism (Andrews, 2017).

Howe’s pre-eminence gradually increased through the 1980s via numerous television shows. Starting with the Badung Files in 1985. Attempting to secure progressive solutions for his community, his show “brought intelligent discussions about race to primetime’. In addition, never one to shy away from introspection, Howe boldly challenged the black activists he felt were “retreating into false solutions” (Heartfield, 2017). In his role as ‘Devil’s advocate’, Howe reduced one woman to tears and bitterly quarrelled on air with comedienne Joan Rivers, furthering perceptions of him as a bully (Vallely, 2005).

For all Howe’s political triumph he was not without fallibility. In the documentary Son of Mine about his trouble relationship with his son, his role as an absentee father took centre-stage, as did the apparent contradiction about his lifelong commitment to black liberation and his son’s criminality. More generally, his failure to raise the seven children he fathered with four women and his interracial relationship led some to question Howe’s commitment to black women (The Times, 2017). His explanation of “I am a West Indian, that means I make children all the time” blemished his public perception and “demonstrated a general unwillingness to accept responsibility for his actions” (Vallely, 2005). Howe was said to praise his “reckless life as a self-proclaimed Icarus flying close to the sun” (Bunce & Field, 2017). He would blame slavery on his “plantation behaviour” to exonerate himself. So much so that Dr Raj Chandran of the Commission for Racial Equality once claimed he believed that he beleived the “white man owed him a living”. An belief that in Dr Chandran’s view undermined Howe’s respect and co-operation across communities.

However whether or not one accepts Chandran’s conclusion or Howe’s on-screen portrayals, there is an important lesson in his hubris. No revolutionary is without frailty or shortcomings, and in the determination for liberation negative aspects of oneself are often recognised but never resolved. Indeed these ill-advised actions may have stemmed from his desire to heal the community, or belief that the cost of reputation was fair price to pay for the truth unshackling others.

So if a great measure of man’s life is his obituary, let me leave a brief one of our own:

Darcus Howe, the ferocious champion of black civil rights – so determined to illuminate and end black struggles that he revealed his own.

Rest in Power Mr Howe.

Vistra Greenaway-Harvey

Vistra Greenaway-Harvey is an academic copywriter and legal researcher. As well as African commentary, she drafts consultations and legal submissions for local councils and Fortune 500 companies.

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