An archive of black radical British history is explored against the backdrop of the Grenfell and Windrush scandals
For those readers of Jay Bernard’s debut Surge who are not familiar with the historical event to which it responds, there is a carefully detailed author’s foreword. On 18 January 1981, 13 black teenagers were killed in a house fire that engulfed a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road in south-east London. A subsequent apparent suicide, driven by grief, would bring the final death toll to 14. The cause of the New Cross Fire – it may have been a hate crime – has never been determined and the governmental silence that followed (prompting the refrain at the time “13 dead, nothing said”), in addition to hostile, haphazard official investigations, speaks to a long history of racism in Britain. Later that year, uprisings against police discrimination in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere would lead to a new era in black British history and identity.
Although the fire, the subsequent protests and the founding of the Black People’s Day of Action were documented by poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah among others, Bernard’s work uniquely addresses a new generation encountering this past almost afresh, as it is echoed painfully in the present. A key element of the project is Bernard’s exploration of black radical British history in the George Padmore Institute’s archives, against the backdrop of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the xenophobia of the Windrush scandal and Brexit. This interrogation of the tensions between “public narration and private truths” is found throughout Surge. Bernard, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”, reminds us that the self is an overlaying of multiple identities, comprised not just of what is remembered and forgotten, but of how one is located in the wider questions of belonging, memory and solidarity.
These works give ignored and sometimes maligned voices back the integrity they deserveContinue reading...