England is not kind to its Black population, particularly its Black activists and scholars. Universities still do not hire with the relish they do in the U.S., the thinkers in their midst nor do they provide the means for their work to continue. The closing of the African History project of Hakim Adi’s History unit at the University of Chichester is telling. Here a scholar widely recognized for his work on Pan-African history [See African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (2022) among his many works] is one of the latest examples of this callous disregard at the institutional level.
People forget that the British were the leading progenitors of colonialism and in their home context controlled the knowledge of the world for their own benefit. Think of the intent and meaning of naming English departments globally as a way of furthering British colonial intellectual dominance. In the Caribbean they would give one island scholarship to the student with the highest promise the larger intent to create a colonial elite. The actual politics of how British colonialism and imperialism intervened in the world, putting in place separations and smugly observing the ensuing conflict as in the current Israeli/Palestinian debacle is but one example. But this happened all over the world with Africa and India being prime examples.
Ricky Cambridge, Alrick Xavier Cambridge, was the consummate intellectual-activist, who lived a life or service to scholarly and public communities. Affable with a love of life, of fine things, his attitude was always that we deserve the best and should acquire it whenever it is available or possible. Dominant cultures deny black joy, but we should assume it and experience that joy whenever possible.
I have written in Left of Karl Marx (2008) about meeting Ricky Cambridge years ago, in the late 1990’s, when I was engaged in the London aspects of my research on Claudia Jones. One day, at Len Folkes Sabbokai Gallery with some friends, one of them pointed to a tall, elegant man who sat in a corner and said, that’s Ricky Cambridge, one of the London black activists. A conversation with him followed and when I indicated what I was working on and he happily offered, “I was her last assistant.” He served in that capacity for eighteen months before she died. (See photo above of a young Ricky Cambridge marching with Claudia Jones). An arranged meeting to interview him on Claudia in his then residence in Oxford revealed even more – a meticulous house filled with intellectual work, books, manuscripts he was working on then before the subsequent interest in C.L.R. James and above all more direct information on Claudia Jones. Above all, he was delighted someone with my experience was pursuing work on Claudia and consistently pointed out the similarities he saw between us. It was with Ricky one night that I went to the home of Diane Langford in Hampstead to encounter the Claudia Jones material that is now the source of research for subsequent scholar s.
I think the sadness of how Ricky’s archives and he himself were treated by the state remained as a deep pain for Ricky. There was no real pathway for scholars of his generation, including Stuart Hall, to receive even minor consideration from the major universities with or without struggle on the one hand or deference on the other.
His intellectual work remains still the most enduring legacy. Yet, he was often more self-critical of his own work than he should have been, in his search for the excellence of the perfect expression of his intellectual positions. His major published work included co-founding and editing The Black Liberator Magazine: A Theoretical Discussion for Black Liberation, throughout the 1970’s. Other published work included Antiracist Strategies (1990), Where You Belong: Government and Black Culture (1992) and essays on James: “C.L.R. James: Freedom Through History and Dialectics (1992) and “C.L.R. James’ Socialist Future and Human Happiness,” presented in the African New World Studies Conference and published in Decolonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (2003). I always wanted him to finish his book on James but sadly the structures to ensuring its completion did not work either in the U.K. or U.S. where he served as the Claudia Jones Visiting Professor at Florida International University (1998-1999), University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea (2000) and at Northwestern University (2001) much of this with my assistance.
Still, an essay, “Choosing Our Family Forms in Order to Survive,” remains for me one of the most enduring which I often include in undergraduate teaching. Here he offered a refusal to accept the pathologizing of blackness that is often assumed even by us ourselves. I am happy I persisted until he wrote the afterword to Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment. Titled: “When Socialist Values Harmonize with Human Desire for Liberation: Assessing Claudia Jones Politics” which he categorized as including: “The Political Force of Internationalism,” and above all “The Role of Black Workers as Autonomous Catalysts in the Labour Movement”
Ricky was a lover with nine children as evidence. He was a dear friend and companion at an important period in my life. Somehow, I thought Ricky would always be around somewhere, in Jamaica, in London but sadly or happily he left us physically as quickly as he would have wanted, without extended suffering and pain. I will miss that laugh, that happy encounter on each occasion and particularly from one who loved who I was and taught me many valuable life lessons along the way. What a life, Ricky!
Carole Boyce Davies