Jessica Huntley, 23 Feb 1927 – 13 Oct 2013
On Sunday 13 October one week ago, at 11 am we lost a powerhouse of Black British and Caribbean history when Jessica Huntley passed away in West London following a short illness.
Aunt Jessica was 86. Eric and Jessica Huntley started Bogle L’Ouverture, a radical Black publishing house in 1968 followed by the Walter Rodney Bookshop in West London. They published both of his seminal texts, The Groundings of My Brother and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, as well as publishing Lemn’s Sissay’s first collection, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s first collection Dread Beat and Blood.
Eric and Jessic were married for over 60 years and in his words ‘were like twins’. Two years ago Eric and Jessica lost their first son, Carl. Jessica is survived by Eric, their daughter Accabre, second son, Chauncey and their grandchildren.
I’ve been trying to write this piece on Aunt Jessica, on the way I remember her and the way she has influenced and supported me since that day, but no words seemed to be good enough or powerful enough to express what I wanted and the loss that I and so many of us feel.
I can’t even remember when I first met the Huntley’s; they seem to have always been part of my publishing life – no, way before that that – when I bought my first ‘black’ book, Dread Beat and Blood from the Third World and Radical Black Bookfair at the Camden Town Hall in, North London in the early 80’s. I hid the book from my parents, in case they thought I wanted to become a Rastafarian – it was so unlike the ‘classic’ texts they bought me and until I went there, I had no idea that such books existed – or that Black people lived in the UK who published them!
Whilst I was at Centerprise, in East Lodon, Jessica Huntly gave me permission to print an iconic and precious photo of Andrew Salkey and Sam Selvon, in Calabash the broadsheet for writers of African and Asian descent that I created for the Centerprise Black Literature Project.
Jessica and Eric Huntley helped me to set up and launch The Ananse Society in the late 90’s as part of my work there; then gave me the moral support as well as finding me legal advice soon afterwards through the stressful and anxious period that led to my having to leave that organisation, in a way that no-one else did.
I clearly remember it taking me months to convince her that she was worthy enough to be featured in SABLE – that people really did want to read about her and her contribution to publishing!
In 2004 in our first women’s issue, Jessica finally allowed me to interview her ‘A Life of Activism’– I asked for a few photos – she brought out boxes of years of old black and white prints.
They were so precious I was too scared to touch most of them and I suggested that they needed to be professionally seperated , treated and archived – I saw our history of the struggle of Black Britain, marches, campaigns, readings of local and international writers in the bookshop, many of them, giants in our literature, who stayed with them in their home in Ealing, in those boxes.
I just took a few of those that showed Jessica Huntley that many of us remember her in, standing strong and upright on the streets, campaigning, against one oppression or another. And others that were marked ‘Not to be published’ that showed mounted police with batons in the midst of a demonstration.
The following year their collected life had a home – deposited in the London Metropolitan Archives.
In 2007 Jessica came to the first SableLitfest in The Gambia (and my wedding!) (Did that all happen in the same year!)
Recently, she had been on my case – “Kadija – we haven’t seen SABLE in a while” – code for ‘where is it? What you mean you don’t have the money. You can’t stop publishing’. Do you think we had money when we started Bogle? We didn’t have funding, you know.
So even when I am away I think of them and make a mental and written note to call them on my return to see how they were and to have my answer ready when she asks me – ‘Where is SABLE’? At least, she was notlonger asking me – “and where is my Jollof Rice” I had fulfilled that promise (thanks to my Mum!) And then Uncle Eric told me this summer of future plans for the Huntley Archive conference, which in 2014, was to go abroad.
I saw them both on 30 September 2013 at the launch for Merle Collins book on Dame Hilda Bynoe of Grenada. I had no idea that she would be there and thankfully I followed my own advice and carried a copy of my new book with me which I signed an gave them. Thank you Mervyn (Weir) for making sure that we took a group photo before they left.
It was the last time that I saw Aunt Jessica in person; tiny in stature ; enormous and always a memorable presence. She will remain with us in our work and hearts like a tattoo.