To most people, Charles Roach was a lawyer and civil rights activist who did not hesitate to organize marches and demonstrations for equal opportunity.
There was another side of the late Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) co-founder that few knew.
Roach, who succumbed to a malignant brain tumour last October 2, was an artist, poet and musician. Some of his poems and paintings are captured in a new book – Rhapso Prosodies – that was officially launched last Friday night.
“His poetry was infused with his music and prosides means the lyrics and the sound of poetry,” said his daughter, Dawn Roach-Bowen. “Many of these poems are musical in form and we hope people will enjoy them and the paintings.”
In the book’s prologue, University of Toronto professor emeritus Dr. Keith Ellis said Roach developed his considerable multi-faced talent into intelligent and courageous ways to be humane.
“If his multiple generous activities spring from his core insistence that law and justice should be inextricably bound together, one of the vehicles he employed to condemn the violations of justice was poetry,” said Ellis who taught Latin American Literature & Culture at U of T for 37 years and is one of the few scholars to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Havana. “Well known in the community for being one of the chief architects of the renaissance of its artistic endeavours and of its poetry in particular, his own poetry is perhaps not as well-known as it eminently deserves to be. The volume of 38 poems is a powerful summation and testament to the integrity with which Charlie carried out the mission of his life.
“Ever the true artist, he recognizes the fact that his poems should not merely instruct, but that they should instruct pleasurably. Thus we find in them the attractive rhythm that attests to his Trinidadian roots, the sharp wit that brightens them, rhyme that in its richness makes them sparkle and the sense of satisfaction they evoke because they derive from a community of superior values.
“In their fluidity, these poems entice the reader into being a part of the frequent refrains. This book immortalizes Charlie’s discerning vision and his penetrating voice that summons us to continue his useful and virtuous poetic practice which bears the mark of such predecessors as Jose Marti, Pablo Neruda and Nicolas Guillen.”
Miguel San Vicente and his wife Itah Sadu, the co-owners of A Different Booklist, published the book under their label, A Different Publisher.
“We felt it would be good to have some of Charlie’s work documented in book form,” said Sadu. “He had put together at some point this collection of poems for his family and they were well received. In his twilight years, he yearned for them to be published and Miguel made a commitment to him before he died that it would be done. Charlie was involved with this book every step of the way and the decision was made to use his paintings as a backdrop. These poems could be used in a political context and they are really songs. His many lives converge in this publication.”
Roach’s daughters, Dawn, Kike and Sunset, read one of the poems – Free the land from Bigotry – at the launch.
A Toronto District School Board educator, Sunset said the family is still grieving the loss of Roach who was also a bandleader in the city in the 1950s and early 60s.
“It seems like only yesterday he was around,” she said. “With all the things that are happening in the world, I want to talk to him and hear some of his views.
“Just recently, I heard on the radio that the government has said it’s a limitation of one’s liberties to swear allegiance to the Queen, but it’s a sacrifice that people coming here by choice have to make. I think he would not be happy to hear that and I am not happy with it. He was a man ahead of his time and we were just fortunate to have him as our father.”
A Canadian resident for 57 years, Roach died without becoming a Canadian citizen because of his refusal to pledge allegiance to the Queen which is a requirement for all citizenship candidates over the age of 14.
Just hours before last Friday’s book launch, an Ontario Court ruled that the oath of citizenship that new Canadians must swear to the Queen does not violate anyone’s rights to free expression. Three permanent residents, including a Jamaican Rastafarian, challenged the oath of loyalty as an affront to their beliefs.
In his ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan said the oath of citizenship is a form of compelled speech.
Part of the proceeds from the book’s first printing will be donated to BADC.
The book, which costs $15, is available at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst Street.