Levi Tafari: From Great War to Race Riots

Writing On The Wall
Toxteth Library
Thursday 22nd May, 2014

Reviewed by John Owen

A small and cozy venue, befitting for some up close and personal observations on the tragic events following the First World War and its impact on Liverpool in the form of pogroms and race riots. The time was fraught as people sought out and found victims and scapegoats for their economic woes.

A land fit for heroes didn’t see fit to treat all those who answered the call to fight, instead they offered only the hand of repatriation as employers whipped up racial tension and mobs of thousands stormed the streets.

Offsetting this, the introduction by host Madeline, chair for the event, consisted of delicate but strong, powerful yet illuminating verses. The light touch that is Levi added some finer observations – in poetic form – on the letters and documents on display, archives of the period. Explaining his Rasta roots and religion in response to the recollection that the places and people under attack were generically labelled Ethiopian. These were usually seamen or sailors’ rest homes, a collective term in the press for all African seamen currently landlocked on Merseyside.

Repatriation was mooted to Nova Scotia. Well thought out plans! But really just an attempt to get rid of people. However, people here loved and lived together, got married and raised families, they had staying power and resisted the pressure from all around.

The poems were honouring and paying tribute to those who fought the war and then fought to stay and defend their right to a home here. Against the Lord Mayor’s suggestions of repatriation, to get rid of the surplus population, through transportation to the colonies – notably Australia – making the solution expedient for the bosses and conveniently fighting each other for the breadcrumbs on offer for the rich. Touching handwritten statements versus typed official documents; cold and clinical bureaucratic messages talking in terms of problems not people.

A letter from Liverpool dated 13th May 1919 outlined all-white cities, with repatriation plus a fiver for all on offer. It told of the degrading impact of mixing races and effects on white women intermarrying, people’s attitudes and morale being lowered and outright opposition to integration. All their fears and prejudices were written large and projected onto the few who were comrade in arms, fighting for freedom.

A George Garrett letter and handwritten speech from a CID informer read out from an archive now on display in central library, contrasted with the chauvinism of the patriots denouncing the small minded parochialism of both official labour and trade union attitudes and calling for support to the so-called “aliens”. Fellow workers and soldiers who responded to the call of the mother country.

A good piece of history was brought to life despite the tragedy inherent, the defiance and honesty is appealing now almost a century later as people noted Farage’s UKIP candidates saying the same old crap in the local and euro elections as their manifesto ‘Blame it on someone else’.

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