Song for Jessica

Bust unveiled on her 70th birthday

Let us hail all those deserving of honour -
Jessica Huntley, an African woman born in Guyana, came to England and rocked (and that is what the children said) ok, the older ones simply say she always ‘represented’.

Jessica Huntley dark and proud lived through the sixties and testified:
Do remember to place her properly when you write the history
Of how our elders
When they were younger
Lived and dreamed of a new world in Arusha
Soweto and Birmingham Alabama
Sometimes with pain but all the time believing
Even as their voices cracked
And went off beat in the midst of singing
‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Nksoi Sikeleli Africa’;
O Lord, It is so hard to keep faith but we keep going...
And the road is long and ‘tuff’
But we must bear witness to this journey and of all our triumphs
And then out of the gloom
The invocation – ‘legba ouvrir pour moi’: Bogle L’ouverture!
(Dual incarnation of the word committed to paper- published)
Even if Toussaint’s Haiti
Symbol of Africa and all her involuntarily scattered children
On this unyielding earth
Still struggles and yearns for that difference

You too dear reader must hail Jessica Huntley African woman from Guyana growing dreadlocks at seventy years of age because she believed that evergreen/ever red is the colour of the heart: if you believe. You see black is beautiful means that you never give up because the spirit has wings and flies back to its source having retrieved every breath and every feather - Sankofa, claim tomorrow.

Jessica on her 80th birthday

Those who know her well, speak of Jessica’s unique ability of mixing discussions of weighty issues - poverty, equality and unity with every concern for the comfort of the visitor- “would you like another drink or perhaps some more yams, eat up man, wha’ wrong wid u?” In the book shop she founded with her husband Eric Huntley (an Africanman from Guyana- a true Solid/Dad of whom more, later) as an outlet for the books they published, as well as of those of other publishers, it is said they gave away as many or probably more than they sold. Feed the mind, free the mind.

Another example of this fusion of the political and the personal was seen in 2000 when the floods overwhelmed Mozambique. This coincided with the 50th anniversary of their wedding and Eric and Jessica raffled all the presents they received and presented the money to the Mozambique Embassy in London.

The meditative quality that emanates from the sculpted piece is, according to Fowokan, the result of an intention to depict the quality of strength and determination of the subject. The piece was finished and presented and unveiled at Jessica’s 70th birthday by which time an element of frailty was discernible. The essence of nobility of purpose that defines the subject and a lifelong crusade for the rights, education and empowerment of community are balanced in an inspiring way. This complements the message conveyed by a plinth/base that tapers to give the combined messages of strength/human vulnerability; nobility/everyday concerns for equality. Surely the accompanying picture to the sculpture taken on her 80th birthday speaks more volumes about this heroine of African peoples than words can describe.

Encore: So do say when you can that Jessica Huntley an African woman from Guyana is a Worthy Elder and a bearer of good tales.

Zagba Oyortey
August 2008

** A bronze replica of the bust can be seen in the Huntley Room at the London Metropolitan Museum **


A tribute by Dr. Margaret Andrews

Jessica Huntley is well known in the UK as a publisher of radical Black literature and for bringing to public attention Black authors from the US, Africa and the Caribbean. Within the Black community Jessica is valued (together with her husband Eric) for her commitment and support of Black parents and pupils experiencing discrimination in the British education and criminal justice system and for her activism. She did not simply join groups and talk about the wrongs of society, but took action at the local level to make a difference. Her interest and nurturing of young talent, particularly in arts and culture has not gone unnoticed.

Sadly, Jessica passed away at Ealing Hospital 13th October 2013. Born on 23rd February 1927, Jessica shares her birthday with the most famous uprising that took place in Guiana, the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion. She was born Jessica Elleisse Carroll on 23 February 1927 in Bagotstown, on the east bank of the Demerara River when Guyana was a British colony, ‘British Guiana’.

Jessica, along with her husband Eric and a group of friends including Andrew Salkey, Richard Small, Ewart Thomas and several others, founded one of the UK’s first Black publishing houses in 1968, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications (BLP) after their friend Walter Rodney was banned from re-entering Jamaica where he lived and worked at the time at the University of the West Indies. Following the successful publication of Walter Rodney’s Groundings With My Brothers, BLP went on to publish other titles which have since become classics such as Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat and Blood.

Both Jessica and Eric were politically active in their native Guiana (‘Guyana’ after independence) where they were members of the left wing, People’s Progressive Party, the first party in the colony to appeal to the masses. Jessica came to the UK in April 1958 to join her husband who arrived a year earlier with the intention of studying. Before long Jessica became involved in politics in the UK, within a month of her arrival she took part in a demonstration outside the houses of parliament. Observing the discriminatory conditions under which Black people lived and worked, she joined and founded groups to challenge them.

From the base of the Huntley’s Bookshop, set up first at their home, then later in 1974 at 5a Chignell Place, Ealing, Jessica worked to promote Black cultural expression by developing a programme of events with writers, poets, musicians, teachers and fine artists. The Bookshop was a place where many young Black people developed their awareness and consciousness as Africans. Teachers, both Black and White learned about curriculum innovation and parents and young people came for advice. Many campaigns were started at the Bookshop, such as the Campaign against oppression in Guyana, Book Shop Joint Action, against racist and fascist attacks on book shops selling radical books. Others included supporting the Miners Strike in the 1980s and the campaign for a thorough investigation into the New Cross fire in which 13 young Black people lost their lives. Jessica was instrumental in the development of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books and she was co-director with John La Rose for the first two Book Fairs.

The Bookshop would later take the name, Walter Rodney Bookshop after his assassination by the Guyanese government in 1980. During the period the Bookshop was in business it became a centre of Black culture and intellectual thought where books were regularly launched, radical books, posters and greeting cards from a Black perspective were sold. Locally produced and imported African and Caribbean arts and crafts were also sold. Black writers and thinkers visiting the UK often stopped by the Bookshop to give talks or read from their books. But Jessica was particularly proud that the Bookshop welcomed all members of the Black community, it became a drop-in centre where people, mainly parents and young people came for advice about problems they experienced in school or with the criminal justice system. Jessica would accompany parents to schools to meet with teachers and head teachers. She also used her contacts among her friends who were lawyers, to represent young people and their families in court, she regularly attended court to support those who came seeking advice.

Jessica drew people to her, she was beautiful, charismatic, made friends easily, she was generous and modest. In her concern for others and in her fight against injustice, she called upon her friends with influence to utilse their expertise and/ connections in support of others. This she did throughout her life. In the week of her death, she was making enquiries to help a friend with health problems. 

Jessica’s life story is told in a joint biography with Eric, the publication is due out in early 2014 by Krik Krak publications. Her legacy lives on through her husband and their children. Jessica and Eric deposited their archives at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) in 2005 which contains their business records, manuscripts, documents, personal papers, visual and audio materials. They founded a charity, Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA (FHALMA) which promotes the archives. This includes the Annual Huntley Conference that brings to life this amazing collection which not only traces the life of Jessica and Eric but tells the story of over 60 years of Black life from pre-independent Africa and the Caribbean to the present. Jessica has been influential in FHALMA’s development, contributing many innovative ideas to its programmes.

Jessica lived a long and full life, she worked hard in the service of others. She was married to Eric for over 60 year, together they raised a family of three children, Karl (deceased), Chauncey and Accabre. She developed close relationships with all her grandchildren and great grandchildren, she involved her family in her community work and activism and they all contributed to the family business. She also cultivated a large number of friends to whom she was very loyal. I found Jessica to have a great sense of humour, she always found something to laugh about and told lots of jokes but she a very serious person.

This ordinary African woman led an extraordinary life; she was influential in giving confidence to the Black community and changed the perception of Black people in the UK. Jessica’s legacy will never fade


Dr Margaret Andrews

Dec 2013.

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