When I first started reading Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific last April, I was only a couple of pages in when I shot him the following email: “Sitting on a sunny terras [sic] by the waterfront in Antwerp and reading your book. It is not often that I feel deeply comforted, healing, cared for and utterly inspired reading an academic text… At some point I’ll hopefully have more eloquent ways to share my thoughts with you on your book, for now it’s just feelings…J”
Today, more than half a year later, the point of ‘more eloquence’ has supposedly arrived, but I doubt that I will ever truly reach it when it comes to this remarkable book.
In what follows I will share some preliminary thoughts on The Black Pacific, rather than venture into a full on book review. The book challenges our traditional (read: colonial) ways of doing research so convincingly and profoundly, that a conventional review would not do it justice. Too many of our research ways continue to be concerned with the generalizable and the linear. Divisive categorisations still play an important role and we end up with consumable knowledge at the service of the (oppressive) control of reality and peoples. Too often then, academic conversations, ideally conceived as open spaces for dialogue, exchange and creation, ossify into zones of judgementality, oxygenised by a misguided belief that there are indeed some absolute truths out there. The Black Pacific speaks a radically different language.
To me, it sang like Rebel Music at the heart of the (IR) academy and as such, it was a source of comforting discomfort. More on that later.
A first important thing Shilliam does from the onset of the book, is break with the myth of western knowledge production exceptionalism, in particular when it comes to self-reflexivity. The whole book testifies to the fact that other knowledge systems have it too. Even more importantly: he reconnects the value of reflexivity to the need to cultivate – rather than produce – knowledge that allows for real change and deep relations, i.c. righting colonial wrongs, bridging its past and ongoing breaches.
Shilliam cautions thus for the self-centred nature of what he coins (the figure of) the Homeric Hermes self-reflexivity (Hermes as rendered by Homer – devoid of his magic and reflexive deep relation skills, presenting him as a mere messenger, i.e. a vehicle of colonial science), one that also postcolonial approaches have not been able to avoid.
With Shilliam’s cautionary tales on self-reflexivity in mind, I will nevertheless weave my thoughts around my Legba/Homeric-Hermes positionality, i.e. a diaspora African in and of the western IR academy. As it is the stories, the spiritual and manifest sense-making that Shilliam – and his fellow story-tellers with and through him – generously share with us that have above all inspired me to reflect on ways to go beyond the narcissistic when we seek to genuinely contribute to decoloniality. The four aims of the book will therefore constitute the other building blocks of my unfinished thoughts in this space.
My thoughts here are preliminary, as they are merely a collection of personal reflections after a first (and a half) reading of a book that definitely deserves to be read more than once. Its stories, languages, narrators and characters, as well as the spaces between its lines, their meanings and importance, exude both a timeless stillness – Shilliam’s non-chronological storytelling messing up our linear conception of time might have something to do with it – and erratic variations, depending on when, where, why and against the background of which glocal horror of the day, one is flicking through its pages.
A first element of my positionality is that I share Shilliam’s desire to decolonise our study and understanding of what international relations are/could be.
From where I stand, The Black Pacific is a quintessential decolonial IR text. So far I have tended to summarise decoloniality in research as three imperatives that can be thought of separately for analytical purposes, but that are in fact rather constitutive of one another: the need to (1) ontologically demythologise, (2) epistemologically desilence and (3) normatively engage with knowledge to (im)materially decolonise. The Black Pacific does this and so much more. For one, it explicitly engages with decoloniality, and does so by doing more than simply deconstructing the discipline’s coloniality – the point where most of us pour the bulk of our energies into and often leave it at that.
The text is first and foremost a reconstruction, a concrete and creative contribution to a discipline that takes decoloniality seriously. In terms of topic and content The Black Pacific opens with a scene where the Black theatre group Keskidee and Rastafarian band Ras Messengers from the UK meet with Māori and Pasifika communities in Aotearoa/New Zeeland in 1979. The question he raises is what projects of self-determination accompany this meeting. One way to understand it, is as a deep, global infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity, rather than a random encounter. Shilliam hopes that his book contributes to ‘cultivate the ethical, spiritual, political and intellectual sensibilities needed to critically support, extend and renew this infrastructure.’
The book also reflects on the more meta/methodological level on what a decolonial science and being in the world could look like.
A first way Shilliam goes about this, is by tearing down the walls between ethics, philosophy and application, between the manifest and the spiritual as legitimate sources of scholarly reflection, and between intellectuals within and outside the academy.
Shilliam, secondly makes a crucial and critical contribution to postcolonial scholarship on the subaltern. He calls to go ‘beyond an understanding of the subjugated self in mute relation to the imperial centre.’ To his mind, the category of the subaltern is part of its own erasure, stemming from the assumption that the ‘indigenous’ cannot withstand its contact with western civilisation and gets fundamentally altered or erased (i.e. fatal impact thesis).
As a methodological antidote, Shilliam firstly opts for cultivating sideway knowledges, by zooming in on the anti-colonial encounters outside the gaze of Britannica. Secondly by reiterating that one cannot ‘speak of a decolonial research project in the abstract but always through lived experiences, living knowledge traditions.’
So The Black Pacific takes us on a journey with the manifest and spiritual characters (through the figures of Tāne/Māui) and communities (amongst others Pasifika Black Panthers,…) in Aotearoa and connects them sideways with Black Power in the US, Rastafarianism in the Caribbean and Ethiopia, West-African Fon cosmologies (through the figure of Legba), and the pre-Homeric Hermes, key figure in the European knowledge systems, to ‘redeem the possibilities of anti-colonial solidarity between the colonized and (post)colonized peoples on terms others than those laid out by colonial science.’
Shilliam identifies the cultivation of deep relations as the necessary way to go about this and ties the fourth aim of his book to this: ‘building political commitment among intellectuals to (…) ‘deep relations’, a commitment to leave behind current academic endorsements of privileged narcissism.’
With this normative imperative in mind, he methodologically ventures off the beaten secularised philosophical paths and existing scholarly canons on the manifest world into poetry, prophecies and spiritual hinterlands.
Shilliam further develops the normativity of his project by casting the cultivation of knowledge at the service of restitutive justice. Decolonial science is then about binding back together. Peoples and lands, but also the spiritual and the manifest. The need for the latter is linked to the fact that in the manifest domains, the colonial is inescapable. In the spiritual ones, there still might be an intrusion of the colonial logic, but it does not constitute its foundation. He therefore coins them as hinterlands, and sees them as a compass and energy store for anti-colonial struggle and self-determination.
Shilliam contends that the binding back of the spiritual and the manifest might turn out to be the most challenging one. Our academy, but also the conception of our ‘modern’ everyday, has indeed privileged the secular, self-identified with, glorified and dedicated itself to a very narrow understanding of rationality and reason. In that sense, meaningfully inscribing the spiritual might indeed turn out to be one of the bigger challenges of decolonising knowledge production (into cultivation).
So far, most of our accounts manage to at best take the spiritual seriously as a topic of research, a realm that surely impacts our manifest worlds and therefore deserves our undivided attention. Yet, as a constitutive feature of how we devise our research questions, develop our thinking and methods, the spiritual is clamorously absent, if not profoundly taboo.
In this sense I read The Black Pacific as an invitation to continue the conversation on the importance of venturing into the spiritual hinterlands if we truly want to engage in decolonial science. At the same time, it raises questions such as: is an inclusion/examination of the spiritual hinterlands a necessary condition in decolonial science or does it depend on the topics we decide to investigate? Secondly, given that the academy continues to be marred by, – apart from coloniality –, fanatically professed, embodied or embraced secularism and western-centrism, are we überhaupt equipped, qualified to conduct such research? What additional skills does one need to cultivate – as a researcher -, or pass on, – as educators -, that would allow us to do this truthfully? Or – linking it back to a question of positionality – is the inclusion and study of the hinterlands a prerogative of the minimally spiritual researcher? Or, are these essentially colonial questions, as they speak to categorisation and exclusions?
After reading The Black Pacific, I catch myself to have been doing exactly that. As a scholar of international (development) studies I have been playing with the idea that we need to find ways to seriously consider ethical retreat as a form of decolonial solidarity and desilencing. This concerns ceding spaces that we, scholars in/of the West, have disproportionally occupied – apart from materially, very much so epistemologically – by considering areas of study and places we are not the best positioned to focus on.
The strength of The Black Pacific is that it offers a much more inclusive light on this issue. Shilliam folds first and foremost the non-academics into the family of legitimate knowledge cultivators. To him, there is only a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference between the interpreters, one that is linked to the power to disseminate. At the same time, one also gains insights in how we as ‘outsiders’ can respectfully and meaningfully engage with knowledge systems that might not be our own at first. Shilliam takes his cue from the Maori approaches to this when he contends that the question of “who the appropriate guardians [of knowledge are], precedes the social science imperatives of how to extract knowledge.” Knowledge is then open to cultivation by all, including the non-Māori, “who feel compelled to claim investment in it”.
Thinking about privileged positionality is not translated into a list of things we cannot do anymore, or a neatly packaged (not)-to-do list when embarking on writing about people and times far away. Rather, Shilliam jumps in, straight away without too much meta-narrative on the opportunities and challenges of his own research trajectory. He provides the minimum information about himself, and in that he mostly focuses on the anti-colonial binding back ethos that drives his project inside the western academy: “I remind myself that entering academia is not a fatal impact, a transmogrification of my being into a modern reflexive self, but rather, a problematic mapping of the legacies of collective struggles and their living knowledge traditions onto an institution of privilege”, he writes.
The early career researcher in me, (but surely also stemming from my colonial science concerns with replicability), would have benefitted from a more extensive and explicit lingering on the research practicalities. How important was knowing the (Maori) language for instance in his project of deep relation? How and what internalised colonial tendencies (if any) did he conquer to end up with such a radically different piece of work in IR? What are the origins of his investment and how does he manage to safeguard and cultivate it? Are these qualities that one can/should pass on in the western classroom and academy? Are we to consider such question as yet another concern with referring back to the colonial centre or can it also be thought of as a binding back with the Pākehā (i.e. (settler) European or “a type of person who…when it rains, will rush for shelter themselves and not care of others getting wet”, according to Reitu Harris from the Māori Black Power gang)? Or can we only conceive of this in the spiritual hinterlands, by casting them as the children of the Arcadian Hermes?
Even while raising these questions here, I am very aware of the value in, and importance of the fact that these practical side stories were kept to a relative minimum. For one, it shows how he is consistent in applying his own warnings on narcissism in self-reflexivity, and how this quite literally leaves most of the space for his sideway stories to take the centre stage. As they should.
Secondly, it is an inspirational affirmation and embodiment of the legitimacy of alternative approaches and minorities voices in the grand family of (scholarly) knowledge producers/cultivators, as conventionally, we would not expect the more ‘traditional’ other greats to detail their methodologies in their monographs. In this way, Shilliam speaks to Freedom (in) Writing, a writing oneself away from the colonial gaze.
As a second aim of his book, Shilliam puts forward that he wants to “strengthen peoples’ of African heritage confidence in the global (‘and never marginal’) importance of anti-colonial struggles and ongoing decolonial projects.” This is my third and last positionality reflection to The Black Pacific. Shilliam’s move of binding back people of African heritage to the centre of history and knowledge cultivation is one that has brought me both profound comfort – when I wasn´t necessarily aware to need some – as well as a subtle sense of sadness at the rediscovery of one’s own alienation. Comforting discomfort.
Like Shilliam, I also sport a diaspora Legba body/soul (as well as a deep love for reggae music), i.c. being discernibly a daughter of the African continent, yet physically separated from it from before birth. Consequentially, my cognitive, intellectual and academic thinking has been predominantly formatted by the Homeric Hermes.
At the same time though, the everyday experiences of my and others’ Legba body on the one hand, and our learned thinking about e.g. ‘our norms and values’ in IR on the other, constitute a constant violent contradiction. The acquired methods and methodologies that produce the seemingly unfalsifiable myths and lies about the international and the sustained silencing of the majority of the world’s population, are passed on as the necessary expertise to have the right to speak.
I am one of those that took over a decade to finish a doctorate. Apart from an abysmal lack of discipline on my part, looking back on it today, I can see how I was drowning in a science that so fundamentally did not speak to my experiences of the world, a scholarship in which I nevertheless wanted to intervene and be part of. Rather than feeling entitled to contribute towards a discipline that would accommodate others like me, I internalised the idea that it came down to a mere lack on my part to acquire the skills to get it, and get it right.
The explicit inclusive scholarly move that Shilliam makes in his book is one I haven’t encountered in IR to date and its deeply comforting qualities cannot be overstated. The comforting bit is a rare moment of warmth in academia where one realises to be for once not only naturally included, but also put right at the centre of the conversation. My counter-narcissistic contribution from this experience is that I cannot wait to share The Black Pacific with all the students and (future) researchers and activists that will cross my path, for this exact reason.
The Black Pacific does, more importantly, more than just comforting the children of Legba in the west. Shilliam manages to not make this move in essentialist ethnocentric isolation. His rehabilitation of the Legba people occurs precisely through connectivity, in this case with the Māori people, literally on the other side of the planet, but also with their Pākehā allies. As such The Black Pacific, passes on Maori insights on relationality and the possibility of self-sense and -determination that avoids essentialism.
This means that virtually anyone can be included in this binding back together, which in part answers some of the questions I raised here before, but leaves open a large space for reflection on how to navigate these possibilities in the deeply colonial everyday and academy.
The Black Pacific’s rich, detailed and poetic evocations trough profuse use of original language words of Legba/Māori/Rastafarian knowledges, reads on the hand like a beautiful invitation into unknown territories. At the same time, it hit as a painful reminder of the effects of the colonial breaches. It is the moment when, as a child of Legba, you realise that the colonial (science) – the fractures, violence and exclusions that come with it – feels much more familiar to you than the radically different approaches and knowledges that would fit your appearance and origins much better.
It reminded me of the many times fellow Rwandans ask me who I am, and I realise I am supposed to engage in whakakapa, a sort of genealogy of my ancestors, using their nicknames and location of lands, and I don’t get further than my grandfather, or my father’s official last name. It is like the times I am in the country, being spontaneously addressed in Kinyarwanda, and feeling a mild shame not to be able to respond in kind (or understand even), all the while basking in the warmth of being naturally included on the basis of how I look (in stark contrast with experiences back ‘home’- in Europe.)
Reading The Black Pacific had at times the same effect on me. I caught myself missing a time line to reorder or better follow the non-chronologically presented stories and events. I could also have done with a lexicon to easily retrieve the (single) meaning of the Māori words, names and figures.
Again, in hindsight, I am happy that it wasn’t provided. Strangely enough, the sense of distance and unfamiliarity that Shilliam evokes in his particular rendering – often through the use of original language words – of the anti-colonial struggles in the manifest and spiritual worlds of his choice, familiarise us with the fact that truly decolonising our knowledge systems, can never be a whimsical, easily digestible, superficial undertaking. It requires a radical openness to decentring, unlearning, and relearning of the world beyond the hegemonic known (i.c. the English language and the manifest).
In contrast to the violence of the colonial (science) where it is a knife cutting into peoples’ and communities’ lands, flesh, minds and souls, the discomfort in Shilliam’s decolonial tour de force in The Black Pacific is at most the dull pain you feel from being stitched up back together – one that is by definition numbed by the prospect of being whole again.
In the end, maybe Shilliam’s The Black Pacific most important contribution to me – apart from the rich new empirical insights it injects in the discipline of international relations – is that it shows a way to embrace creativity and the endless avenues of the possible in a critical space that too often seems to be centred around all those things we are not supposed to say or do anymore. Even more than basking in the warmth of the comfort from the restored anticolonial self-love fully embraced in this work, it is the sense of discomfort that should be welcomed, as we can only hope that it is the indicator that we are moving towards something radically different, a break with the ties of colonial sciences – the ones we have been/are intimately familiar with. A third aim Shilliam wanted to accomplish with his book is “underlining that European colonisation was: super exploitation of labour and dispossession of land along racial lines. The connection between these lines needs to be retrieved, re-stitched.” For its poetic originality, bold ventures into radically different modes of knowledge cultivation, unearthing silenced histories and peoples and connected dis/comforting inclusiveness, guided by a profound ethos of decoloniality, to me The Black Pacific will forever be an important compass on such journey of connectivity.
If at this preliminary point, I take away a concrete call for action from The Black Pacific, it is this one: We keep writing. Write against the colonial. Write ourselves unapologetically into science, history and the present. Write others in, through and with us. We write for we and them to become us, I and I, tātou tātou.