Guest Column

Return of the bad old days

Return of the bad old days
  • PublishedJune 21, 2019

Last month, Western Allies celebrated the 75the anniversary of the defeat of the racist ideology of Nazism. The promise was that of a brave new world without prejudice. But today, the ugly face of racism is on the rise in Europe. By Clayton Goodwin.

The 75th anniversary of D-Day,  was celebrated on on 6th June. On this day, Western Allies landed on the continent to liberate Europe and hammer a nail into the coffin of Nazism. It was a decisive moment in history.

Rudolph Dunbar was among those who landed on the beaches of Normandy, and he made a practice of creating history. Rudolph was born in 1907 in Guyana (then the colony of British Guiana). After studying music in New York, where he was part of the legendary Harlem ‘scene’, Dunbar moved to Europe in 1925. There he featured prominently in both classical music and jazz in London and Paris, and at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 became the first Black man to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

By then the Second World War had broken out. Dunbar was already an experienced journalist through his writing on music and as London correspondent of the Associated Negro Press news service. As a war-reporter he accompanied the American 8th Army in the D-Day invasion and afterwards all the way to Berlin.

When the racist Nazi regime was toppled Rudolph Dunbar – a Black man – conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, considered until then to be a Nazi cultural icon, in September 1945 in one of the first concerts in the newly liberated city. They performed Afro-American Symphony by the African American composer William Grant Still. Later Dunbar became the first Black conductor of concerts in Poland and Russia.

It may have been 75 years ago – but Rudolph’s story is relevant to the problems facing the world, and particularly Europe, today. Here was a Black man excelling at his craft in circumstances that were almost impossibly adverse. In fact, he excelled at two professions – that of musician (clarinet-instrumentalist and conductor) and as a journalist. He was also a cultured, artistic man who braved the harshness of warfare.

Dunbar was aware of the significance of what he had done, saying “the success I have achieved through sacrifice and struggle is not for myself, but for all the Coloured people”.

It is a beautiful dream. Racism had been broken, the ‘good guy’ had come out on top, the battle had been won … and we should be living now in the best possible world with the evil era put behind us.

Then I woke up.

Echo of Nazi past

I did so to the current news of violence, intolerance, and the rise of political movements containing more than a mere echo of the Nazi past. The Americans, with whom Rudolph Dunbar came ashore in that campaign of liberation, will be represented at the 75th anniversary celebrations by President Trump, who is not known exactly as an apostle of tolerance, harmony and culture.

A whisper of the unmentionable can be heard, too, in the allegations of anti-semitism levelled at the Labour Party, which, matched with the islamophobia attributed to the Conservatives, harks back to the pitching of Jew/Muslim prejudices into the London mayoral election three years ago – in which Sadiq Khan defeated Zac Goldsmith. This toxic mix has been inflamed by the passions of Brexit.

Whereas Ukraine has elected a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, as its next President, the United Kingdom appears to have committed its future to a whole circus of clowns. Meanwhile the (EU) Remainers and liberals of the newly-formed Change UK, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats seem to vie for casting in a remake of the 1965 film Ship of Fools.

They refused to unite for the projected elections to the European Parliament in the face of the most serious threat to democracy since that which Rudolph Dunbar helped to put down (though, in fairness, it should be said that the LibDems did make an unaccepted, offer of a joint approach).

The disrespect for order and decency goes right to the top of the political system. Julian Smith, Conservative chief whip, commented “discipline is not as good as it should be” and observed that Brexit had generated “the worse example of ill-discipline in Cabinet in British political history”.

The enhanced tension is also blatant in the return of racist chanting – and more – at football matches. The game is reverting to the ‘bad old days’ of three or four decades ago when throwing bananas at Black players, monkey-noises and downright hostility was common-place.

Since then so much progress has been made that football is regarded generally as being ‘the Black man’s sport’. Not long ago I met even a Jamaican fan of Millwall, a south-east London team with an unsavoury reputation in this respect.

Their supporters’ traditional chant “no one likes us, we don’t care” sums up an attitude. Subsequently Millwall has improved to the extent the club could claim “we have pride – not prejudice” (a pun on the classical novel Pride and Prejudice), to which, in the present less tolerant atmosphere, some people add “we have pride in our prejudice”.

Danny Rose, 28 year-old England left-back with Tottenham Hotspur, has complained that because of the racism he is looking forward to the time he leaves the game.

And the abuse isn’t limited to the onlookers. Jamaica-born Raheem Sterling, 24 years-old, of Manchester City, probably the best-known England-qualified player in the country, has called for the administrators to act now to stop players from being abused by spectators, both personally and on-line, and by other footballers. He has highlighted also the difference in treatment Which white and Black players sometimes receive from the media. 

Invective is rife

In the deteriorating situation there have been calls for a boycott of the social media and for those clubs where invective is rife to be penalised either by fines, by deduction of points, or, in extreme cases, by having their grounds closed. Alas, knowing the mentality of some English fans, I fear that the latter approach will not work. Hooligans will go to the grounds of their rivals shouting even more vociferously so that it is the other team that is penalised.

The solution lies with the country and community, not within football alone. C.L.R. James, the celebrated Trinidadian writer on cricket and politics, asked: “what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” Sport cannot be considered in isolation from its social/political context.

In the mid-1960s I was privileged to work with Aubrey Baynes, the ‘father’ of the UK West Indian press. He ran a happy office with much bonhomie, and perhaps too much conversation instead of nose-to-the-desk writing.

Occasionally one man in late middle-age stood soberly at the back saying little. He spoke when others spoke to him but did not press his opinion. His presence hardly registered on my mind – until a visitor said: “That is Rudolph Dunbar. Do you know who he is? No? Then perhaps you and your colleagues should look it up in the library”. I did as he asked and was ashamed that in our ignorance we had not given the gentleman the reverence he was due.

I determined to speak with Dunbar the next time we met. Alas, that was not to be. The publication closed beneath its financial/economic burden shortly afterwards. It was four years later before Aubrey realised his ambition by bring out West Indian World, the country’s first regular Black newspaper. By then Rudolph had disappeared back into the community, comparative obscurity, and before long into history – where he has remained.

His memory should not be left there. The ideals for which Rudolph Dunbar fought and achieved, however briefly, have to be defended continually with the same courage with which he campaigned.  NA



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New African

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