Black Academia in Britain

The last few years have witnessed a growing concern with the challenges that peoples of African heritage – who I will define in this blog as Black peoples – face working and studying in the UK higher education system. Issues of the relative absence of Black people in influential positions have taken centre stage, alongside the direct and indirect discrimination that both black students and staff might confront. These are long standing issues. Indeed, for a number of years now, some British Black academics have made careers in North America more easily than in their domicile country. 

These challenges have been met by various recent initiatives, for example, a concerted effort to formally institute a British Black Studies, and the creation of a network of Black British Academics. To repeat, concerns as to the presence and experience of Black people in British academia are by no means new. But these concerns have been re-engaged with in a new context marked by austerity, the growing internationalisation of universities, and the radical changes to the public university system in Britain implemented by the coalition government who  are turning “multiversities” into “monoversities” organized singularly along the lines of commercial logic and interest.

Having been involved in a small way in recent re-engagements with the place and standing of Black academics and staff in UK academia I thought I would take stock and look at a few recent statistical and qualitative studies that appraise the state of Black academia in Britain, from both an academic and student standpoint.

Before I start, though, I want to say a few words about the internal composition of Black peoples in the UK. According to the 2011 Census, Black people now compose 3.3% of the population. However, the pronounced immigration over the last twenty or so years of peoples from the African continent has significantly shifted the demographics and dynamics of the Black population itself. Whereas, in the 1950s to 80s, Black Britain referred primarily to the “historical” African Diaspora – mainly those from an African-Caribbean background – it now predominantly refers to a new Diaspora with a continental background.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Activism, Academia and Black Community Struggles

A little while ago Adam Elliot Cooper from Ceasefire Magazine interviewed Stafford Scott, along with myself, on Black community struggles, activism and academia in Britain. Stafford Scott was a co-founder of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985, and is now a consultant on racial equality and community engagement as well as co-ordinator of Tottenham Rights. The interview revolved around a one day workshop run by Dr Joy de Gruy in Tottenham last October, funded by Tottenham Rights and the Centre for Public Engagement, Queen Mary University of London.


Adam: Black community struggle has been an integral part of the way in which we understand the politics of race, class and empire in Britain today. Black communities and activists have led this struggle. But academics have played a role too. Stafford, in October 2013 you brought Dr Joy de Gruy over from the US to Tottenham to run a one day workshop on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Why Dr Joy, and why Tottenham?

ScreenHunter_18 Apr. 17 19.50Stafford: It’s relatively simple to be quite honest. Why Tottenham? Because in 2011 parts of Tottenham burned as a result of the shooting of a young black male called Mark Duggan. It hit the headlines. As a result of some of us going to the police station rioting broke out and then spread across the country. We saw the media and the government’s reactions to those riots and it really was to dismiss the youths as feral criminals looking to make money out of someone’s death. It was dismissed as an opportunity for people’s materialistic natures to come out. What I wanted to do was put a total different perspective to it – a historical perspective. So I wanted to look at why rioting broke out. I was there, and I don’t believe that it was simply about Mark Duggan’s killing and the way in which his family was treated. I believe that there was a history – a context – to it, that some people chose not to examine. Duggan’s killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We had different events in 2013. One was about the uprising that took place on Broadwater Farm and the killing of Cynthia Jarrett, the killing of Joy GardnerRoger Sylvester and Mark Duggan – four people who died in Tottenham, with involvement of the police. So this was to help the community come to terms with recent traumatic events. We brought Dr Joy over to look at historic events that have caused us great trauma.

ScreenHunter_17 Apr. 17 19.50Adam: Dr Joy, a professor of social work, is famous for developing an analytical framework called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and for developing practical programmes that address the challenges of Black communities in the United States. So Dr Joy’s work is not only based on scholarship in the traditional sense but also research that has come out of participating in the struggles that Black communities face in the United States. Robbie, do you see similar work happening in Britain?

Robbie: I think historically there certainly was, you could see that kind of thing happening. Today I think it’s far less the case and that’s to do with a number of significant transformations in British society and in academia. Continue reading

Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

comte

The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 

19_malinowski

Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

Continue reading

Pacific Redemption Songs

Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

Keskidee 13

Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.

Continue reading

UNESCO and Research Agendas Concerning Race

Antigua was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty – a European disease … Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master … you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

Jamaica Kincaid suggests that abolition and emancipation are bitter-sweet affairs. For the enslaved, freedom furnishes them with a human being that nevertheless awaits a meaningful personhood. Out of slavery the master fares better, redeeming his human being from being human rubbish. Kincaid’s suggestion is insightful. After all, abolition had a vibrant nineteenth century afterlife. White abolitionists enthusiastically allowed their humanitarianism to colonize Africa so that God’s chosen could sanctify themselves through the act of saving the natives from their selves. Meanwhile, William Wilberforce et al, convinced that slaves were human biologically yet lacked the social and cultural competencies of humanity, looked on fascinated at the experiment of self-government in Haiti. From this point onwards all future failings would be attributed to the epidermis, not the colonial relation. Presently, argues Kincaid, the landscapes of the old Caribbean plantations have been consumed by a white tourist gaze that has once again disavowed the living legacies of enslavement and colonization and denied meaningful personhood to its peoples. What remains of these places and peoples is only an “unreal”, picture-book beauty.

What are our narratives of race and racism? Whom do we follow in order to tell the tale: the masters or the enslaved – the humanitarians or the “sufferers”? Which tale confesses the episteme –the scientifically valid study – of race?

The 1950-51 UNESCO “statements on race” answered such questions in favour of the master’s narrative. Announcing a new era in human understanding after the terrors of war and irrationalities of genocide, the main purpose of the statements was to separate the “biological fact” of race from its “social myth”. The biological fact in and of itself was rendered harmless, pertaining only to “physical and physiological” classifications. Thus genetic inheritance, it was affirmed, could have no bearing on mental or cultural competencies and capabilities. Conversely, the social myth of race was considered extremely dangerous in that it rendered cultural difference as biological thus sundering the “unity of mankind”. This myth had to be dispensed with; hence ethnicity – as a social/cultural classifier – was proposed as a preferable classificatory regime to that of race. Ethnicity, after all, had not been tainted with supremacist hierarchy and could signify instead non-hierarchical diversity.

Although the scientists who collectively produced the statements on race were by no means all white, the majority hailed from Western academies. And the particular kind of anti-racism evident in UNESCO’s statements had already been formulated by famous Western anthropologists such as Franz Boas. They had sought to undermine scientific racism on its own grounds, i.e. by proving the un-scientific nature of the social myth of race. And this endeavour required debunking racialized identity – that which confessed their legal and natural inequality – as myth not fact. However, as part of this manoeuvre these identities had to be subsumed under a harmless social science of ethnic categorization. While this move redeemed white identities, it de-politicized the meanings of the sufferers’ cultural complexes and complexions, extricated them from inherited hierarchies of power, and thus segregated them from the inherited and living struggles against (post-/neo-)masters. In short, as Alana Lentin puts it, the effect of the statements was to separate race from politics.

Continue reading

A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

Continue reading

The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

Recent commentary on the Eurozone crisis has started to pick up the grammar of colonial rule. The centre for Research on Finance and Money at SOAS, for example, has published an influential report wherein northern Europe (Germany especially) is framed as the core and southern Europe (especially Greece) as the periphery. Meanwhile, Ulrich Beck, European cosmopolitan par excellence, wonders whether the European Union will become “a European Empire with a German stamp”. Beck notes that Merkel’s sense of power “conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries.” At stake, agree many prominent European intellectuals in the pages of The Guardian, Eurozine and Der Spiegel, is no less than the promise of freedom and democracy immanent to the European project itself. All variously agree that, against the imperial sclerosis spread by capitalist and bureaucratic functionaries at the highest levels of governance, what is needed is a rejuvenation of meaningful democracy at a grass-roots level.

Faced with a dismantling of democracy Jürgen Habermas mounts a plea to save the old “biotope of Europe”. The constitutive components of this threatened ecosystem are freedom and democratisation, and its genesis lies in the Second World War and the fight against fascism and “internal” barbarism. The president of the European Central Bank has himself proclaimed that Europe now faces its “most difficult situation since the Second World War”. Alternatively, for many social democratic and leftist commentators, the danger of the situation lies in the loss of the “internal” struggle of labour and capital that defined the Cold War landscape. In the new context of EU institutional “empire” and its neoliberal tentacles, the defeat of labour quickens the erosion of social democracy, thus deciding the fate of the European project.

Europe, then, is perceived to be “colonizing” itself and in the process destroying freedoms and democratic structures that had been hard fought for by the general populace against political oppression and economic exploitation. But this angst-ridden imaginary of European crisis has very little to say about the substantive historical and global dimensions of European colonialism. Does cosmopolitan and social democratic angst cover these legacies and contemporary effects? In fact, in most recent treatises on the crisis the struggle for decolonization is given no integral status, even though these particular struggles were inseparable to and spanned the formative time period of the European project – the Second World War (and the Cold War). Some do mention current issues of migration and xenophobia. Nevertheless the implication, in general, is that colonial legacies are derivative of, or additional to, the core struggle for democracy and freedom in Europe. Fascism, Cold War, class struggle: yes; colonization, imperialism, decolonization and liberation struggle: not really.

Not all intellectuals suffer from this colonial amnesia. A number of scholars including Robert Young, Pal Ahluwalia, Paige Arthur and Alina Sajed have argued that in some key strands of post-War French thought, the issue of colonialism and decolonization was integral to discussions of European re-democratization and humanist concerns. This engagement reached a peak in the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s before falling into abeyance. And this was precisely the same time, we should note, as the Treaty of Rome, which bound European countries together in a tighter economic union simultaneoulsy sought to re-bind (post-)colonial African polities, peoples and resources into this union.

More generally, there has accumulated a significant amount of scholarship that reveals the colonial influences that shaped and were woven into quintessentially “European” intellectual/political movements such as Enlightenment and modernity. Continue reading