(A review of Time Come by Linton Kwesi Johnson, first published by Jacobin)
“In the beginning,” recalls Linton Kwesi Johnson, “writing verse was for me a political act and poetry a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle.” Few contemporary authors have been so forthright, or so capable, in positioning literature within the living “struggle” of emancipation movements, whether proletarian or postcolonial – or, in Johnson’s case, some combination of the two. As a landmark collection of his essays, Time Come: Selected Prose, is published for the first time this year, and as Johnson himself once again enters the cultural spotlight with appearances at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and in conversation at London’s South Bank Centre, socialists can only gain from revisiting, and reclaiming, the vibrant legacy of this most radical of writers.
Nearly five decades since he first won renown as a dub poet and grassroots activist, Johnson’s verse retains its power as a vital record of the black British experience since the mid-1960s. It is an indictment of the manifold ways in which white supremacy has operated in British life over the same period: from police brutality to deportation, street-level violence, and verbal abuse.
To read Johnson’s work is to be immersed in the life and times of the people who resisted and fought back against this. As proactively class-conscious author and editor Kit de Waal recently noted, Johnson’s poetry documents “the reality that my generation kicked against in the 1970s and ’80s”: among much else, his words distill the lessons and struggles of black power and anti-fascist organizers in those years, preserving them for a new generation of activists.
A peerless literary talent, Johnson’s revolutionary disposition is grounded in the musical and anti-imperial traditions of London’s Caribbean communities. Born and raised in Jamaica, where his grandmother, though illiterate, could recite segments of the King James Bible by heart, at age eleven Johnson joined his mother in Brixton. In 1970, he joined the British Black Panther Party. His time spent among its anti-racist organizers, he later said, proved a formative educational period. Through communal libraries and political discussion groups he “discovered black literature. Discovering books written by black authors about black people was a revelation to me, because nothing in my schooling in the UK had given me the slightest hint that such a body of writing existed.”
For adolescents of Johnson’s generation, “coming of age in a racist society”, the Black Panther Party was both a campaigning organisation and a centre of intellectual activity, carving out a democratic space in a metropole often hostile to the diasporic communities who had migrated there, providing labour and assistance, as part of the sweeping reconstruction efforts that followed the second world war. For the young writer-to-be, W. E. B Du Bois’s revelatory The Souls of Black Folk seemed a kind of “prose-poetry”, while E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – supplemented by the works of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Marcus Garvey – helped to clarify and contextualise the politics of class and race as they existed on the streets of south London.
Drawn from such diverse sources, and composed in a rich Jamaican argot, Johnson’s poetry combines vernacular élan and political mettle, pulsing with proletarian rebellion and, in moments, a visionary fidelity to the people and milieux that formed him. With appealing swagger, “Wat About Di Workin’ Class?” scans a global panorama of economic desperation and worsening inequality, when “Crisis is di order of di day”, before restoring a sense of mass agency to the vista: “So wat about di workin claas, Comrade Chairman / Wat about di workin claas / They pay di cost / They carry di cross [...] Insurrection is di order of di day”. Johnson’s loyalty rests firmly and fiercely with working people, as his poem “Di Black Petty Booshwah” also conveys – launching a no-holds-barred critique of “Dem wi’ side wid oppressah / W’en di goin’ get ruff”. Collective solidarity, we sense, matters far more to this poetic insurrectionist than the upward mobility of a privileged few, or in his words, “Dem a seek position / Aaf di backs of blacks”.
Johnson’s sense of historical dynamism, his prophetic understanding of how the prolonged experience of exploitation and subjugation may fuel the slow flame of defiance, are also reminiscent of the liberatory writings of both Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, diagnosticians of white supremacy and harbingers of an epoch-defining resistance to its reign. “Slavery was the name and capital accumulation the game”, Johnson has said,
And although it is four hundred years hence, the violence of the people’s existence persists like a naked light in a house full of dynamite. And the blood has not ceased to gush, but continues to flow over. And the brutality is intensified under a different name…. So, for the oppressed Jamaican, history is not a fleeting memory of the distant past, but the unbearable weight of the present.
Even as his work seeks to examine and articulate that “unbearable weight”, however, Johnson brings a warmth and sympathy to his evocative visions. The wry baritone of his delivery, his thoughtfulness and soft humour, his incantatory borrowings from Rasta culture, his willingness to infuse his own critical and political perceptions with linguistic joyousness, all contribute to the force and attractiveness of his verse. As he once wrote of Bob Marley, his “lyrics cannot be read without being heard”, making any encounter with his poetry an immersive experience. “Loraine”, for instance, an irresistible love-poem, has all the intimacy of a private whisper. “Whenever it rains I think of you”, it begins, before flowing smoothly in its own music, clear as a dream.
“My resolve”, Johnson has written, was “to create verse for the eye and the ear, grounded in a Caribbean tradition of orality”.When interviewed on the BBC’s popular Desert Island Discs programme, likewise, he commented that one of his aims, when setting out as a poet, was “to subvert the English language” – a quality that raised the hackles of a literary establishment pathologically inhospitable to the vitalities and precisions of such a politically engaged patois. Frequently, such antagonism has had a sharp racial tinge. A particularly egregious 1982 profile in The Spectator suggested that Johnson occupied the position of a “fantasy figure” in the literary scene, comparable to the persona of the “stock negro, part underworld drug peddler, part noble fighter against Police oppression”, before noting that he was, in fact, “a mild-mannered, likeable person, every inch the Treasury clerk… he spoke in an agreeable educated accent, quite unlike his poetic personality.”
The snide condescension and breezy prejudice of such remarks were arguably indicative of the tenor of the times, under Margaret Thatcher’s first ministry. It’s telling, indeed, that they came just over a year after Johnson, alongside fellow activist and publisher John La Rose, had helped to establish the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, in protest against the white supremacist arson attack in New Cross that left thirteen young black people dead (and many others injured) in January 1981. As Johnson has said, “the response of the police” to the massacre, “aided and abetted by sections of the media, with the implicit approval of the government, was to use their power to deny justice to the survivors of the fire, the bereaved and the dead.” And so, in an unprecedented, community-led effort, the grassroots-based Committee mobilised 20,000 marchers for the Black People’s Day of Action six weeks after the atrocity, highlighting the cover-up by media and police authorities, and presenting a powerful riposte to the white supremacy endemic in British society.
Johnson also honoured the victims of the attack in his work. Visceral and haunting, his poem, “New Crass Massahkah”, pivots between the house-party itself and the aftermath of the crime, swaying amid “Di movin / An a groovin / An dancin’ to di disco” before halting abruptly, as the horrific fact and meaning of the crime alters the scene: “But stap / Yu noh remembah / Ow di whole a black Britn did rack wid rage / Ow di whole a black Britn tun a fiery red”.
With its atmosphere of sustained grief and simmering denunciation, its unflinching recognition of institutional callousness and systemic malaise, the poem anticipates “Ghosts of Grenfell” by the rapper Lowkey, dedicated to the dozens of people killed and scarred in the 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze. As Johnson has pointed out, however, the pain of the New Cross Massacre related not only to the fact that young black people had been the targets of such appalling violence, but that there had been “no outpouring of compassion” in its wake: no “sympathy” in the public arena, “never any messages of condolences from the Queen or prime minister”. The hatred that black youth endured at the hands of both fascists and police – also dramatised in his famous poem, “Sonny’s Lettah” – was symptomatic of a generalised disdain and antipathy towards black life. “There was not an institution of the state not riddled with racial prejudice,” Johnson has recalled, “The colour bar was alive and well.”
As above, one of Johnson’s singular strengths as a poet is his capacity to combine an analytical view of society as a whole with the nearness and authenticity of felt experience. His work, as he once remarked of Jamaican reggae music, is filled with “a lyricism which laments the human suffering, the terrible torments, the toil” of modern history, “a lyricism whose imagery is that of blood and fire”. To encounter “New Crass Massahkah” is to feel the terrible grief of the New Cross mourners, but also to see, with new clarity, the structural causes of the injustices they sought to redress.
Today, as socialists and anti-racists attempt to counteract not only the noxious resurgence of the political right, but the malignancy of liberal equivocation (on issues of war, austerity, the climate crisis, the rights of refugees), Johnson’s persistent radicalism shines like a beacon. His retrospective view of Margaret Thatcher – memorialised by certain Labour politicians as a “towering figure”, whose policies ensured that “British industry became more competitive” while “putting trade unions within a proper legal framework” – is refreshingly resolute, and incisive:
To my mind, Thatcher was a ruthless class warrior for the ruling class…. [She] will be remembered by many black people of my generation as a bigot and a xenophobe who fanned the flames of racial hatred, giving succour to fascists who were emboldened to carry out terrorist attacks against black and Asian people. When she ranted on about Britain being swamped by alien cultures, it was sweet music to the ears of the National Front/British National Party brigade.
As such remarks suggest, Johnson’s politics remain grounded in the streets where they were first tested. “Fascist an di attack / Noh baddah worry ‘bout dat”, he chants in “Fite Dem Back”, an anti-fascist rallying-cry that combines easy wit with militant intent: “We gonna smash their brains in / Cause they ain’t got nofink in ‘em.”
In our contemporary political landscape, increasingly characterised by reactionary onslaught and progressive retreat, Johnson stands out as that rarest of figures: a people’s poet and radical of radicals, keeping alive – in his work and in his person – the many currents of struggle and resistance, suffering and solidarity, history and music, that made the emancipation movements of the global black proletariat as transformative as they have been in the decades since the mid-century wave of decolonial and anti-segregationist campaigns. By his raised voice and lucid words, his unflagging contempt for fascist aggression, his unflinching accusations of institutional connivance and elite mis-rule, his deep internationalist consciousness, his passion and wit, his graceful, humane verses, he emerges from the fray an essential literary figure: one of the mighty writers of our time.