Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye review – bringing Black gay history to life

<span>Footballer Justin Fashanu in 1981.</span><span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Footballer Justin Fashanu in 1981.Photograph: Getty Images

For much of the 1980s and 90s, every corner of Brixton seemed to be a visible site of resistance and radicalism – from the disturbances of April 1981 to the emergence of the Voice newspaper, the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Race Today collective. At the same time, though, the south London neighbourhood was home to another mostly hidden struggle for recognition, fought by the first generation of out Black gay men.

Jason Okundaye’s groundbreaking debut focuses on those pioneers, using six mini-biographies to craft a lucid account of a story that’s long been obscured. The first section introduces us to the activists: Ted Brown, Dirg Aaab-Richards and Alex Owolade; while the second takes us inside the world of the so-called Brixton Whores: Calvin “Biggy” Dawkins, Dennis Carney, Ajamu X and Marc Thompson (whose own podcast We Were Always Here has done much to bring Black British gay history to the fore).

At its best, Okundaye’s research and interviews completely recast key moments in Black British history. For example, there’s the case of Justin Fashanu – the country’s first ever Black million-pound footballer, whose coming out was met with a backlash. Instead of being primarily a story about rejection – first by his own family and then by wider Black society – we are shown the outpouring of support he received from Ted Brown and Dirg Aaab-Richards. After a column by Tony Sewell in the Voice, calling Fashanu’s coming out “an affront to the Black community”, Brown fought a campaign that targeted the newspaper’s advertisers, ultimately forcing it to change its coverage and make space for Black gay voices.

Revolutionary Acts offers beautiful rendered storytelling that never veers into sentimentality

Revolutionary Acts recalls other oral histories that have unearthed unexpected insights – such as Mark Baker’s book about the Vietnam war, Nam”, or Tony Parker’s account of the miners’ strike, Red Hill. While Baker and Parker let the Vietnam vets and the miners tell their own stories, threading together their narratives until a fuller picture took shape, Okundaye opts to be the link himself – the younger gay Black man acting as an honest broker in a world of love, hate and gossip.

The book can become too intricate at times: details that would have worked as footnotes flood certain sections, dulling the sharpness of the accounts. Acronyms crowd the page as Okundaye dives into rows between different groups, which often tell us little beyond the fact that people had ideological and personal differences. But when the stories are given room to breathe it’s as though a new layer of Black history is being revealed. Some of the men, such as Alex Owolade – a relentless, divisive Trotskyite activist – feel familiar. Others, such as Ajamu X – the artist and host of fetish parties from Huddersfield – represent a complete departure from stereotypes of Black Britishness.

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 heartbreaking and tender parts of the book are those that recall the HIV epidemic: lovers’ lives beginning to take shape, abruptly cut short. Thompson (who is HIV positive) talks of betrayal at the hands of his peers, some of whom weaponised his illness against him. It is visceral and raw, revealing the social and psychological impact of the epidemic in a community that was essentially a village where rumours spread like wildfire.

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.

• Revolutionary Acts: Love & Brotherhood in Black Gay Britain by Jason Okundaye is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.