Charles Roach, an exemplary drum major for justice

charlesroach

Written by the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity – October 10, 2012.

First published at http://pambazuka.org/en/category/obituary/84655

Charley betrayed the fate of his calling by rejecting blatant complicity with forces of oppression and placing his knowledge and skills at the disposal of Afrikans and suffering humanity.

‘…an authentic national middle class ought to consider as its bounden duty to betray the calling that fate has marked out for it, and to put itself to school with the people….’ [1]

The Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity (NPAS) offers its condolences to the immediate members of Brother Charles (Charley) Roach’s family as well as to his fictive kin in the Afrikan Canadian community and those in social movement organizations throughout Canada and elsewhere. Brother Roach passed away on October 2, 2012 from brain cancer at the age of 79. Brother Charley was a lawyer, organic intellectual, Pan-Afrikanist, artist, police accountability advocate, community-builder and anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist. He was based in Toronto, Canada.

Hopefully, news of the dear comrade’s death will be met less with profound sadness than with joy and appreciation for our having had the chance to share time and space with him. We ought to celebrate his life, which was well-lived, and committed to the pursuit of justice. We should recognize Charles’ record of service, which would have made Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral proud of this member of the intelligentsia who devoted his life to the emancipation of the oppressed.

We can assert without fear of contradiction that Brother Charley betrayed the calling that fate so often marks out for those who pursue the practice of law. Rejecting the paths that lead too many lawyers and other professionals toward blatant complicity with forces of oppression, Brother Charley placed his knowledge and skills at the disposal of Afrikans and other members of suffering humanity across the world. It would have been quite easy and is generally financially seductive for members of the Afrikan petit bourgeoisie or professional middle-class to sell their services to the highest bidder and become handmaidens for the systems of exploitation. Our dearly departed brother committed what the Guinea-Bissau revolutionary Amilcar Cabral termed ‘class suicide’ by rejecting his class identity and as such ‘completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which [he] belong[ed]’ [2]

It is the position of NPAS that Brother Charley exemplified the best of the Afrikan intelligentsia who embrace the radical tradition of the struggle for liberation. The presence of this man in the Afrikan community was made even more glaring and self-evident due to the relative absence of other members of his class from the work of militant and oppositional activism and grassroots organizational development. Among the ranks of the professional Afrikan middle-class and their counterparts in academia as professors and students, we often find a disdain for or estrangement from genuinely transgressive work and action for social emancipation and Afrikan liberation. It is apparent that many of the Afrikan middle-class fear endangering what Bishop Desmond Tutu calls the ‘crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself [their] master.’[3]

Brother Charley rejected opportunities to receive the perks and profits that are attendant with playing compliant to oppressive systems. Having worked for the City of Toronto as a lawyer he left to better serve the people as an independent legal advocate. Later in life he turned down the opportunity to work as a provincial judge. He would have had to make an oath of allegiance to the Queen of Britain and that would have compromised his anti-colonial and anti-white supremacist commitments. According to Peter Rosenthal of the law firm Roach, Schwartz & Associates, ‘One of his most persistent projects is the abolition of the oath of allegiance to the Queen as a condition of citizenship. The monarchy, he believes, is a symbol of colonialism, an insult to both his African and Irish roots, and contravenes his belief in equality [anti-racism]’. [4] Our dear brother who has gone to the realm of the ancestors walked the talk with strength of character and humility. He was a true role model, par excellence, for younger activists and organizers!

He is a positive example for the Afrikan-Canadian middle-class, especially those in academia who celebrate in words their love of the concept praxis [5], which goes beyond writing and publishing little-read papers that call for tearing down the walls of Babylon. Praxis comes with doing the work of liberation or being politically active. Brother Charley’s body of work includes challenging state violence inflicted by the police against Afrikan people. His role in the creation of the Black Action Defence Committee and the work that it did in limiting the number of Afrikan people killed at the hands of the armed wing of the state will remain a shining tribute to his legacy as an engaged organic intellectual.

Charles Roach was also a cultural worker and a supporter and practitioner of the cultural arts. Retired educator and comrade-in-arms Lennox Farrell shares with us the type of artist that Brother Charley was to our struggle:

‘An artist, Mark Twain like Charley, also believed that art is never politically inert; inane sometimes, but never inert. Art is active. Art is activating! In addition, art in its many manifestations is not only the fusing of form and function into beauty, it is also, in the jaws of injustice, that tongue speaking politics to power’. [6]

The culture of an oppressed people may be used as a weapon of struggle. According to Cabral in the text National Liberation and Culture:

‘The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of it. [7]

Brother Charley saw in the cultures of Afrikan people the force for resisting white supremacist erasure of self, identity and community and collaboration with colonialism. He was born in Trinidad where the people used carnival arts to assert their humanity and push back against the idea of the cultural inferiority of the Afrikan during the periods of enslavement and post-emancipation.

In 1967, during the centenary celebration of the settler-colonial state of Canada’s independence Brother Charley ‘was a leading player in the creation and development of Caribana, Toronto’s annual African-Canadian celebration’. [8] The 1960s in Canada witnessed an explosion in the population of Afrikans migrating from the Caribbean as a result of changes to the explicitly white supremacist immigration system and the dire need for workers. The latter situation was the outcome of White workers staying in Europe to participate in its post-World War II reconstruction. Afrikans in Toronto used their resistance culture of carnival to send a message that they were here to stay and would not be silenced by the twin forces of economic exploitation and racist domination. Caribana was thus created to affirm the cultural integrity of Afrikan-Caribbean people and their culture as well as beat back the advance of the corrosive imposition of psychological oppression.

Brother Charley and his comrades of the time were not only preoccupied with the artistic and psychological weaponry elements of culture. At Caribana’s inception, its founders envisioned the festival being used to finance the erection of a community centre [9]and community development programmes for the people. The members of the Afrikan working-class were struggling with their oppressive condition as racialized and gendered workers in the Canadian labour force. These pioneers, especially Brother Charley, saw no divide between meeting the material needs of the people and attending to the requirements of the psyche for affirmation and a healthy environment.

Using culture to educate, mobilize and organize the oppressed and their allies, our champion of a brother was an important contributor to the creation of the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance in Canada. His actions and thoughts in the area of culture boldly affirm Toni Cade Bambara’s exhortation that, ‘[t]he responsibility of an artist representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible.’ [10] Unlike the socially useless direction of mass culture and the frivolous nature of popular culture, the cultural work of our brother significantly contributed to maintaining a culture of resistance to imperialism, white supremacy, sexism, capitalism and other structures of exploitation. Along with our professionals, intellectuals, and academics, many of our poets, painters, and other cultural workers have much to learn from people like Brother Charley.

All in all, the Afrikan Canadian writer and law school graduate Anthony Morgan sums up the essence and contribution of the organic intellectual Brother Charles Roach as a humanist and fighter for social justice:

‘He demonstrated that true love of and respect for self and community meant not disregarding one’s connection to a people that suffers from disproportionately high and chronic rates of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, glorified thuggery, academic under achievement, police surveillance and brutality, and incarceration. To the contrary, Roach remained ever cognizant of and engaged by the words of the great Caribbean-American writer and activist, Audre Lorde, who once said, “Your silence will not protect you.’ [10]

END NOTES

[i] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 1963) 150.

[ii] Amilcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory”, Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966 http://goo.gl/tbj4I

[iii] The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, http://www.tutufoundation-usa.org/exhibitions.html

[iv] Peter Rosenthal and Vivian Pitchik, Charles Roach: Homage to a warrior, NOW, July 19-26, 2012, vol 31 no 47, http://goo.gl/9jH5B

[v] “Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realised. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas.” Retrieved from http://goo.gl/xmF3g

[vi] Lennox Farrell, “A tribute to ‘Canada’s first citizen’, Charley Roach,” Share, 3 Oct. 2012: http://goo.gl/bWZE5

[vii] Amilcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture,” Transition, 1974, 45: 13,http://goo.gl/KzSxP

[viii] Timothy Appleby, “Veteran civil rights lawyer dead at 79,” The Globe and Mail, 3 Oct. 2012: http://goo.gl/hfJ31

[ix] Peter Jackson, “The politics of the streets: A geography of Caribana,” Political Geography, March 1992, 11 (2): 133.

[x] Aisha Brown, “The king of pop’s progressive impact,” Examiner, 27, Jun. 2009:http://goo.gl/KseR0

[xi] Anthony Morgan, The Black Canadian activist who was never a citizen, The Huffington Post, 4, Oct. 2012: http://goo.gl/9n8ag

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