Gus

Listen to Gus' story as part of The Making of Black Britain oral history project

By The Making of Black Britain

A portrait of Gus (2021)The Making of Black Britain

Prof. Gus John is of African Caribbean heritage.
Gus was born in Grenada.
He came to Britain in 1964 to become a priest.
Today he is a well respected human rights campaigner.

Gus was interviewed for The Making of Black Britain on 6th August, 2021.

Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus talks about Britishness
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Because to be born in Britain, is not enough.

It is not just the fact that you were born in a maternity hospital in Manchester or Hammersmith or Huddersfield or whatever, that makes you British. It's everything that the place is, that it represents, is the extent to which it validates you and you as a person. It validates your sense of your history, your connectedness with the past. We don't begin life, just by being born in a particular place, we have we have we have histories.

Gus' parents, 1964, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus discusses family structures
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We don't have this narrow concept of individualism.

Because we didn't have this concept of a nuclear family in the way that we do in this country. We never imagined that your child is your child and your husband's child. And all my cousins I grew up with as my brothers and sisters. And we still have that relationship, now. I mean, some of them are as miserable as sin. But that's another story.

Gus tells a story about a mango tree
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Next thing I know, I fall out of the tree and break my arm.

You can buy the straight tobacco leaves or you can buy the cured tobacco, now what does cured mean? It meant that my father used to put the tobacco leaves in a vat with white rum. Now, when you smoke that over proof white rum, it blew your head off, okay. Those elders used to come and they was smoke that thing and they would talk for England, and America and Grenada.

Gus and fiancé Jill, 1968, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus and Jill playing guitar, 1968, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus talks about his heritage
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I didn't hear at all, in that village... any African names.

I knew that they were from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, because that is what was told down the line in our family. And in the village, even as I grew up as a young boy, we had a religious practices, which were of the Yoruba people. So although the Roman Catholic Church was literally, about 50 yards or whatever it is from our front door. On the other side of our house, across a ravine, across a gully was a Shango tent.

Gus in the garden, 1974, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus and his Ford Capri, 1977, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus recalls a hurricane
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This hurricane came in overnight, wiped the whole lot out.

September, there was the most horrendous hurricane in the island. Hurricane Janet, 22nd of September 1955. I remember as if it was yesterday, I was 10 and a half years old. And it was utterly amazing.

Gus talks about his name and arriving in Britain
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I thought it was the ugliest architecture in the whole world

And I couldn't understand why those houses were so close to one another. I said, “why do people want to live jammed up against one another like this?” So it took me a long time to understand how people's lives were structured in the country. I thought the place was ugly. Even in August, I thought it was cold.

Gus and Jill, 1973, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus talks about his neighbours
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I'm surrounded by white people, quite a lot of them elderly.

You can't come out of an Imperial past like Britain, like Britain had, or has, and not use education and schooling as an instrument, a vehicle, for dealing with racism, dealing with issues of social justice and of human rights and, and what have you. But in my experience as an educationalist, all that there has been is people tinkering and throwing crumbs to black people

Gus discusses the impact of the British Empire
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We had a life experience with Britain, in the Caribbean.

What fascinates me if not angers me about Britain and all that stuff. Few white people in Britain ever stop to think what it must be like to have your whole identity reshaped, by being taken out of your natural situation and your roots, plunked somewhere else. Have a different culture imposed upon you, a different religion imposed upon you, different ways of doing everything imposed upon you.

Gus talks about his father
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He was clearly a very able, very bright person.

I remember all kinds of people beating a path to our door for medicines of one sort or another, because he could, he seemed to be able to heal everything from abdominal problems, women who couldn't have children, fractures, all sorts of things. I mean, he was the most incredible man and so in our house there were always rows of shelves, with jars on each of them where he kept barks and roots and leaves.

Gus discusses oppression
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Oppression is not the preserve of white people.

So, we have to understand issues to do with class, and how those operate independently of issues to do with race. But how toxic it becomes when race and class get combined, to impact upon people's lives. That’s the fundamental issue.

Gus, 1983, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus talks about Empire and Brexit
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The British nation is in the death throes of Empire.

When you consider that something like 51%, no more than 51, 57% of all Caribbean males have got white partners. Something like 39-40% of Caribbean females have got white partners. There's a growing group of mixed heritage people...

Gus at his niece's wedding, 2020, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus at his niece's wedding, 2020, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Gus, London (2021) by Vanely BurkeThe Making of Black Britain

Gus talks about education in Nigeria
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Why’s it getting worse?

How we make sure that the gift the universe has given to us can be used for the benefit of all? So that you have a concern about rights, you have a concern about entitlements, especially educational entitlements. You have a concern about the distribution of wealth.

Gus talks about the future
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...Necessary to confront the legacy of Empire.

What its consequences were for those who were colonised and annihilated and what have you, and how that helped to shape British culture, cultural expectations, beliefs about other peoples around the world. And how it helped to order economic relations within Britain itself.

Gus with The Making of Black Britain team, Diane, Jessie and Kem (2021)The Making of Black Britain

Gus with The Making of Black Britain team: Diane, Jessie and Kem

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