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The review titled "Revolutionary Acts" by Jason Okundaye explores the portrayal of Black gay history in literature.

The review titled “Revolutionary Acts” by Jason Okundaye explores the portrayal of Black gay history in literature.


During the 1980s and 90s, Brixton was a hub of resistance and radical thought, with events like the April 1981 disturbances and the establishment of organizations like the Voice newspaper, Brixton Black Women’s Group, and the Race Today collective. However, alongside this visible fight, there was also a quieter battle for acknowledgment being waged by the first generation of openly gay Black men living in the south London community.

Jason Okundaye’s debut is a breakthrough as it sheds light on the untold stories of those who paved the way for the LGBTQ+ community. Using mini-biographies, Okundaye brings to life six individuals who have played a significant role in this movement. The first part introduces us to activists Ted Brown, Dirg Aaab-Richards, and Alex Owolade, while the second part delves into the world of the “Brixton Whores,” including Calvin “Biggy” Dawkins, Dennis Carney, Ajamu X, and Marc Thompson. Thompson’s podcast, We Were Always Here, has also been instrumental in highlighting the history of Black British LGBTQ+ individuals.

Okundaye’s research and interviews have the power to change our understanding of significant events in Black British history. For instance, the story of Justin Fashanu, the first Black footballer in the country to earn a million pounds, is usually seen as a tale of rejection – first from his own family and then from the Black community. However, Okundaye’s work reveals the support Fashanu received from individuals like Ted Brown and Dirg Aaab-Richards. When Tony Sewell of the Voice wrote a column criticizing Fashanu’s decision to come out, Brown initiated a campaign that targeted the newspaper’s advertisers and ultimately led to a change in their coverage, making space for Black gay voices.

The book Revolutionary Acts follows in the footsteps of other spoken histories that have revealed unforeseen revelations, such as Mark Baker’s “Nam” about the Vietnam war, and Tony Parker’s retelling of the miners’ strike in “Red Hill”. While Baker and Parker allowed the Vietnam war veterans and miners to share their own experiences, connecting their stories to create a more complete view, Okundaye chooses to be the guide himself – a young, gay Black man serving as an unbiased intermediary in a world of emotions, conflict, and rumors.

At certain points, the book can become overly complex. For example, details that could have been included as footnotes are instead included in the main text, causing certain sections to lose their sharpness. The frequent use of acronyms also contributes to this issue, as it can be difficult to keep track of the different groups and their conflicts. However, when given space to unfold, the stories become a fascinating window into Black history. Some of the men, like Alex Owolade, are familiar as relentless and divisive activists. Others, like Ajamu X, challenge stereotypes of Black British individuals as an artist and host of fetish parties.

As you might expect from a community that existed largely on the margins, life could be difficult and dangerous. Police raids at cruising spots regularly punctuate the stories, but so do the fabulous parties and, indeed, petty squabbles that rage for decades. It’s a messy world, where destitution never feels far away, but success – financial, romantic, professional – is also within reach.

The most emotional and gentle sections of the novel are the ones that recount the HIV outbreak: the lives of partners starting to come together, only to be abruptly ended. Thompson (a person living with HIV) speaks of feeling betrayed by his friends, who used his illness against him. This part is intense and unfiltered, exposing the societal and psychological consequences of the epidemic in a community that functioned like a small town where gossip circulated quickly.

Revolutionary Acts offers beautiful rendered storytelling that never veers into sentimentality. At the beginning of the book, Okundaye tells us that recording Black British history can often feel like “a rescue effort, a race against time” as subjects die, taking with them their stories and insights into under-researched episodes. We should be grateful that he has managed to capture a vital moment that – at so many points – could have been lost for ever.

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Source: theguardian.com