Internet scholar-activists fight 'Black mental slavery'

Thom Blair, Online Columnist

When I opened the 2007 annual report of the north London-based George Padmore Institute, my thoughts turned to Bob Marley's triumphant manifesto: "none but we can free up our mind".


In a year marked by political and media threats against race equality and equity, and when the ghost of racist British politician Enoch Powell prowled the streets, it is good to know there are still a few voices in support of Black and progressive politics.

Named after the hero of the Black Workers' Movement and Pan-African Socialism, the GPI educational research centre opened its portals in 1991 "to house materials relating to the Black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe". Team member Sarah White made a lasting impression as she stumped for her late partner, John La Rose, the poet, writer, editor of New Beacon Books, and GPI founding chair. Tribute events to John, called "the elder statesman of Britain's Black communities", were "a great way to start the year", writes his son Michael La Rose, who now leads the Institute.

Prominent scholars, activists and journalists played the archival theme to communities up and down the country. Sociologist Brian Alleyne and new media pioneer, Milverton Wallace, a former City University, London, lecturer, collected the papers of the famed International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-1995). Looking ahead, long-time colleagues Roxy Harris and Sarah White are planning the next volumes of Changing Britannia: Life Experience with Britain series in 2008.

Most striking though, the GPI is now one of the vanguard organisations and Black Public Intellectuals uploading Black experiences, issues and concerns to cyberspace. The best-known networking sites are "connectors" to local Black communities. With his radical rhetoric, Toyin Agbetu, heads Ligali, "the African British equality organisation" Notably, he demanded the Queen apologise for her ancestors' role in the nefarious slave trade when he bravely disrupted the service for the bicentenary abolition of slavery at Westminster Abbey, in the full glare of the international news media.

Colin Prescod, Arun Kundnani and Lord Herman Ouseley lead the Institute of Race Relations, an anti-racist think-tank. The IRR, was founded by A Sivanandan, a notable champion of democratic rights and civil liberties.

It is right that Black Public Intellectuals, who know the system well, should go online to support Black and progressive causes, say rights groups. They owe that much to the communities that nurtured them. Certainly, they should be marshalling instruments for consciousness-raising that blend passionate opinions and cool reasoning.

But as the Latinists say: caveat canem. The new cyber-activists can't shout too loud or too politically against the status quo for fear of the law and losing charitable status. "They're muzzled in a society determined to conceal, deny or play down issues of importance to Black people", says Anthony Thomas, outspoken leader of the Hip Hop Generation, a dedicated Black rights group.

Nevertheless, cyber-activists can mount an alternative, counter intelligence to state and press disinformation. And, more. They can help mobilise collective action among families, youth and elders to confront the isolation and alienation they face in oppressive housing estates and tenements. What's more, within their bounded capabilities, they can defend workers' rights in increasingly hostile labour markets and an exploitative global economy.

It may not be easy, but Black intellectuals and rights leaders will have to master the elementary principles of scholar-activism. They must not only raise problems; they must answer key questions and explain the causes, and propose solutions. Above all, they must span the gap between men and women, elders and youth, and encourage fresh faces and voices to chart economic and political models for a better future.

Bob Marley's rap was about breaking the chains of "mental slavery". Travelling on the World Wide Web, the 21st century's gateway to the information age, is a one crucial way of achieving this. Without doubt, George Padmore would approve, I'm sure.

* Thom Blair, is editor and publisher of the Chronicleworld news magazine on Changing Black Britain and Afro-Europe