Race and the Undeserving Poor

I’ve just published a book with Agenda, called Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit.

There’s a debate on the book at DisorderofThings, including an intro and a response by me. They are really excellent critical engagements with the book. The forum was organized by Lisa Tilley.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

More on the Abyssinian general from Guyana

In a previous blog I looked at the impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war on the African peoples of Guyana.  I related an incident, in October 1935 – the month that Italy invaded Ethiopia – that was reported in 1936 during a hearing of those labour disputes that had rocked the colony. In Demerara, an oversee reported that he had discovered twenty strikers blocking a bridge to the fields. “One fellow laid down and said he was an Abyssinian General. He defied anybody to cross and said he meant to chop anyone who tried to do so.”

I think I’ve found more information on this general.

The Daily Chronicle (Guyana) reports on October 29th 1935 of a court case currently underway, where a group of labourers have been charged with disturbing the peace. They have organized over wage conditions at Pln. Farm, East Bank, Demerara. The charges against 28 labourers are of having entered the farm unlawfully on Oct 15, 1935 and having hindered farmers from exercising their lawful occupation, as well as two days later obstructing District Inspector Billyeald, a peace officer, and openly carried sticks with intent to cause alarm to the public.

The Inspector testifies that on the morning of the 17th, he met a 2-300 strong group of people about 2 miles from the public road, carrying sticks and crying phrases such as “beat all men’s who work today”. He came across perhaps the same crowd later in the morning, carrying sticks as well as two flags – a red and a black one – suspended at the end of bamboo poles. The crowd then settled under some sandbox trees for about 3 hours, with the Inspector and other police watching them.

One of the defendants, E. Barlow, the Inspector recognises as having previously been a policeman around 1923/24, but at this point was a labourer on the Pln.Farm estate. The Inspector reports that Barlow rose and shouted “leh ahwe mek talk”; the group then moved to some buildings across the road to converse in secret. Barlow subsequently reappeared and told the group to reconvene the next day, shouting “Come all you, my men. Come all you, Ras Tafari men, leh ahwe go home.”

The Italy/Ethiopia war is on the minds of the newspaper as well as the “rioters”. The reporter then describes one defendant in the dock, Ferdinand Browne as possessing a “shaggy head and bearded face [which] gave him the appearance of an Abyssinian”.

The Abyssinian general in the plantations of Demerera, leading his Ras Tafari men against the white plantocracy..  Oct 1935…

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Black Deficit Entered the British Academy

I have written a draft of an article that seeks to address some of the criticisms of current projects to “decolonize” the British academy. I also hope the article will be a resource for those who are undertaking these projects. In Britain we suffer from a paucity of detailed investigation into our own academy; much of the literature is focused on the US academy. While issues of race, education and pedagogy resonate across national spaces, there are also distinctions to be made between academies that are set up within settler-colonies and those that emerge from the imperial centre.

In the article I show how the assumption of Black deficit has never been refuted in the British academy. Such an assumption entered through late 19th century white abolitionist thought, early 20th century social anthropologies of colonial development, and “race relations” scholarship in the immediate post-war period. Through all these inter-connected intellectual dispositions an assumption remained, despite various shifts in argumentation, that Black people enter the colonial urban/the socially modern/the nationally-English milieu with a dangerously destabilizing cultural deficiency and cognitive incompetency.

To the critics of current projects, I would want to say that you need to think again about your assumption that the academy has ever been a space of impartiality and democratic reasoning.

Here it is:

https://robbieshilliam.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/how-black-deficit-entered-the-british-academy.pdf

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Cape Coast Castle

All the stone on the castle is painted white in the Cape Coast sun. When you re-emerge from the dungeon, even after only 5 minutes down there, the world will blind you. The dungeon is composed of three or so chambers. The large one –around 7 by 15 metres – is meant to hold a hundred men, easily. There are two slits high in the wall where a tiny amount of light drips through. And if you stand still enough, you’ll feel the faintest of breeze.

When it rains outside, the water spraying through the slits washes the faeces, urine and vomit down two drains chiselled into the stone floor. Otherwise, the kidnapped sit and lie in and amongst their filth. The floor is black, not stone grey. The black has been chemically tested. We are standing on the centuries old sedimentation of excrement that has irrevocably stained the stone. The middle passage begins in the rock of the continent, not on the waves of the Atlantic.

A subterranean passage leads from the dungeon to emerge just before the door-of-no-return. Thereafter that kidnapped will be deposited on the surf, by the waiting boats. After 1833 the dungeon entrance to the passage is bricked-up on orders of the governor. The passage behind remains. Abolition as a plastering over of horror; self-congratulations for good souls. A thin veil.

20170325_123353

Immediately above the dungeon entrance stands the chapel. The floor of the chapel is the roof of the dungeon. Christians above chant praises to the white god as the captives below are condemned to his hell. When the congregation mumble their prayers, when they listen to the pastor, when they sing their psalms, do they discern the moans, cries, discussion, argument, chants, songs under their heels? Or does it all merge into the sound of breaking waves, a natural scape?

It can’t be so easy.

To the European sensibility nothing of much note can differentiate the captives from the peoples who surround the castle. Who trade food and provisions. Whose authorities meet with those of the castle. Who are servants in the castle. Who fish besides the castle. Who load the stumbling, blinded enslaved into small boats by the rocks. Those in the dungeon are not minority. Nor uncanny, nor phantasmagorical. They are quotidian – the majority.

What is the level of self-deception that is required to render a human being into a dumb animal? What is the psychic investment that you must make to hate those things who should not be talking like humans? You must deny to yourself even the most basic instinctive empathy, despite the evidence in front of your eyes. You must damn them to non-human hell. You must build a chapel on top of their heads to seal the investment. The beast is never buried. Theirs is a living sickness, an acquired taste that you must learn to enjoy.

20170325_122323 xxThe governor’s spacious living quarters are positioned above the chapel. Catching the best of the breeze, a panorama of blue, ending with the lookout hill. Can he smell the dung? Is incense lit regularly? What can he hear? Is it high enough?

Opposite the dungeon in a corner lies a door that leads immediately to another door that leads immediately to another door beyond which is a medium sized cell. There is no window, not even a slat. With just one door shut, the space is already sweltering. When all three doors lock, the tomb becomes a vacuum. The most rebellious of the enslaved are deposited here. The three doors shut and are not opened until two days later to release the corpse.

As you stand in the cell, attention is directed to the patterns on the floor. They are carved by the condemned. I see circles. Almost perfect circles. They must be carved with the iron of the shackles. The more I look, the more there are. I am standing on them. I don’t want to stand on them.  I feel the intimacy of the prison as an antechamber. Are they portals to the ancestors?  Or are they the Adinkrahene, the symbol of chieftancy and leadership? There is a commonly accepted story that only the strongest – the most rebellious – survived the Atlantic passage. I wonder if this is actually the case.

There is another chamber, quite far away from the chapel, at the end of the castle, just by the door of no return. It is where the women captives are stacked. When you condemn an animal to hell there must be some fleeting  recognition of its humanity. Is it better to not be recognized at all? Not even hell blesses the women. Albeit a special, cramped cell for those who refuse to be raped by the governor. There are no drainage channels cut into the stone floor of the women’s hold. Unlike the men, their faeces, urine and vomit mixes on the floor… and mixes… with menses too. No respite come the rain. Slavery was never supposed to reproduce the enslaved.

20170325_120629

Just five metres away, and we are outside. The verso to the door of no return has been renamed the door of return. Looking back we are looking forward. The erasure of one word can reveal a whole cosmos. The enslaved are never dehumanised. Individuals, families, groups,  suffer the worst of dehumanisation. But the practice of humanity is woven into every community of fate. Neither is this purely a new world fabric. Africa bears witness from the beginning. Every retrieval is a creation.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Liberalism and Fascism, Nov 2016

Should we defend liberal modes of governance from far-right fascist takeover?

Yes. Avowedly. Even as we would be supporting colonial difference in the same defense.

I am addressing this contradictory answer to an imagined company of liberals, leftists and alt-lefters living in European, North American and predominantly-white commonwealth countries.

 

Liberal governance, at least in its western forms, has always reproduced colonial difference.

What I mean by colonial difference is a multi-faceted and (only) partially mutable racialized division of humanity into the humans who deserve empathy, dignity, rights protections and the satiation of needs – and those who are not deserving of the same.

It’s true that liberal governance has and can make these divisions legally, both globally and domestically, especially in settler colonies.  Nonetheless, in the post-slavery and post-colonial era liberal governance also upholds a public sphere defined by equality – especially in terms of treatment and, possibly, opportunity.

Again, legal censures have and do sometimes guard who can partake in the public sphere. But just as importantly – and this is the point I want to emphasize – even the act of partaking in this liberal sphere is mediated by colonial difference.

Think about legal “personality” – that which allows an entity to claim and exercise legal capacity.

There is the individual personality of liberal lore that affirms entry to the public sphere (i.e. nowadays citizenship, maturity, sanity etc). However, this individual personality exists alongside and is complicated by racialized differences. These differences manifest in collective personalities that are placed in a hierarchy of competency fading through ill-competency to un-competency and implicating gender, sex, class, religion etc.  These de-facto – not necessarily de jure – collective personalities nonetheless impinge upon the universal reach and equitable character of the de-jure individual personality.

For example, in liberal global governance all (or the vast majority of) polities might enjoy a de jure personality that expresses sovereign equality: the individual state sits next to other individual states.

And yet the “international community” constitutes itself as a historically racialized collective personality that deems itself more competent to defend the law of sovereign equality than the rogues or failed personalities of statehood.

(It is telling, by the way, that the key principle in the evolution of European international law was not so much sovereignty for all but more so non-intervention for some – Europeans vis-à-vis other Europeans).

Such racialized divisions of collective personality are also de facto implicated in domestic liberal governance alongside and despite de jure individual personality.

Laws require political will to put into action and to monitor. And that requires empathy for those who are considered deserving. Yet the reach of this empathy is practically segregated through colonial difference. In other words, even within liberal governance, some collective personalities are felt/assumed to be more deserving of the law, of protection and of their needs to be satiated than others.

Remember that the era of neoliberal governance, at least in the UK, was the era of statutory anti-discrimination acts. Yet these acts in no way stopped the counter-terrorist Prevent agenda that de facto targets Muslim citizens from nursery school onwards. “British values” is consonant with the “international community”: both enunciate a competent collective personality in distinction to ill-competent and un-competent personalities (secular-Christian vs Muslims, gay and women defenders vs harbingers of Sharia etc) despite of and in the presence of the proclaimed legal equality of liberal governance.

Neither have the UK anti-discrimination acts arrested a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in UK prisons than in the United States.

Indeed, some worry that the incompetent nature of collective Black personality to be properly “civil” could even be infecting the competent nature of white personality through the reach of “urban” culture. So believes David Starkey when, in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in urban England, he claims that the whites (involved in rioting) are becoming the new “blacks”.

And we could go on.

But where is the outcry?

Tell me, seriously, where is the PUBLIC OUTRAGE over these affronts to liberal principles of governance? I will tell you. The economy of outrage is differentiated along racialized lines and made common-sense through collective personalities. (There is always outrage enough, however, for the “men in Brussels” and spurious stories of straight bananas).

True, the one thing liberal governance offers for all is “recourse” to the law. Yet that is costly and procedurally obscure. And, once more, the political will to uphold the “spirit” of the law is quite simply lacking in the first place. Worse, it seems to be a non-issue.

Yes there are legal victories sometimes, even for the “dubious” personalities. Inquiries too over institutional racism, for example.

Are these important?

Of course.

Must we pursue them?

Every time.

Could we even argue that liberal governance, as we know it now, is a space of formal equality at least partially molded from the struggle against colonial difference?

Yes.

Is liberal governance the solution to colonial difference?

Absolutely not.

 

Fascism comes from colonial difference. Examine the history of the first fascist state, Italy, if you are unsure.

What does fascism do? It institutionalizes colonial difference as the fundament of governance by removing liberal instruments that guarantee a formal space of equality – especially the individual personality of civil society.

Fascism generalizes in extremis the difference that liberal governance keeps as its “underbelly”.

That is to say, if contemporary liberal governance by and large manages to effect a de facto difference in collective legal personalities via memories of precedent, tacit knowledge and cultural assumptions, then fascism grasps this difference formally – legislatively and executively.

With the fascist personality supreme, there is ONLY the deserving compliant indigens versus the alien races and race traitors (like the UK judges who dared to return the decision to implement Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to Parliament.)

With fascism, the public space of liberal governance is shut down. Colonial difference is everything.  In that situation, even white people suffer from race. Of course, black and brown people suffer more, even if some of those who already suffer the most might not quite see a difference day-to-day… I don’t know.

I teach a module on Race and World Politics. In parts, I wish to provoke my students to think on the complicity of liberalism in race and racism.

But I shiver at the prospect of not being able to appeal, in the first instance, to the liberal sensibilities of my students, especially my white students who, like all my students, undertake the module in good faith.

If those sensibilities were no longer present, then I guess I would hope that many of my students’ religious sensibilities might still be appealed to. Of course, most of those sensibilities are historically implicated in colonial difference, but then again so is liberalism.

In any case, I would not even be able to offer the module under fascism. Or, someone else would be teaching it some other way.

 

So now, do I think liberalism is as bad as fascism?

No.

There is NOT an equivalence.

And I don’t believe that the FAILURE of liberal governance is the incubator of fascism.

That’s far, far too comforting.

Liberalism is the governance structure that holds what is called fascism, in abeyance – for some.

Liberalism is not fascism. But it is not the absence of fascism.

Liberal governance HOLDS fascism – in abeyance, as colonial difference.

To hold fascism is NOT a failure of liberal governance, rather, it is liberalism’s post-colonial STEADY-STATE (and post-nothing in settler colonies).

But knowing this, I would still defend existing liberal governance structures against fascism.

And every time I know that we would be left with the problem of colonial difference along racialized lines.

 

Am I living in bad faith with liberalism? I would prefer that than to live in good faith with fascism.

Or, perhaps, to put it another way:

Before, during, and after liberal governance there are the projects of living other-wise to colonial difference, other-wise to the unjust racialized division of humanity into collectively competent, ill-competent and un-competent personalities (legal and otherwise). These other-wise projects, as un-perfect as they always are, have nonetheless always been the wellspring of resistance to fascism – NOT liberalism.

In the current Trexit moment, AS WE CARRY THROUGH WITH THOSE PROJECTS, we need to defend liberal governance from fascist takeover. Not for liberalism’s own sake. Nor to partake in a comforting fantasy that we are working the dialectic through liberalism in order to get to socialism. But solely for being against fascism.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The many meanings of Haile Selassie I

In my last blog I bemoaned the return of the theatre adaptation of  Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor.

I criticized the portrait of Haile Selassie I in the book and the play, a portrait of a feudal gothic overlord that even Kapuściński later refuted.

I worried about the consistent artistic reduction of all things African to pathology.

I suggested that “perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.”

Here, below, are some of the meanings of Haile Selassie I that I know of, from various sources – living, theological, intellectual, political, archival – and many others..

20160910_144514

Jah

Almighty I

I and I God and King

Black Redeemer

Black Messiah

Christ returned

Christ in his kingly character

Melchesidek

Tafari Makonnen

Ras Tafari

Haile Selassie I

Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Or, “the Lion of Judah has Prevailed”)

King of Kings

Elect of God

Emperor of Ethiopia

Ababa Janhoy (father majesty)

His Imperial Majesty

H.I.M. (called by both members of the Rastafari faith and British diplomats)

Prince of Peace

Prester John

The “Catholic” (called by some in the Orthodox Church during his early reign to signify a dangerous harbinger of foreign influence)

God-fearing member of Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

Defender of the Faith (officially titled by the Eastern Orthodox churches)

The diminutive but charismatic Emperor

First ruling resister of fascist aggression

Despot

Autocrat

Amhara overlord

From the minor Southern line of Shoa nobility

Inscrutable Amhara

Suspiciously Oromo by bloodlines and birthplace (Ejersa Goro)

Governor of the multi-faith Eastern city of Harar

Semite

225th descendent of King David

The African Frederick the Great

The African Machiaveli

Usurper of Menelik II’s lineage (Lij Iyasu)

Of the English Public Schoolboy disposition

First Emperor to insist on crowning of Empress on the same day

The modernizer

Great reformer

The Traditionalist

Educationalist

Capitalist

Feudal lord

Best dressed figure of the 20th century

American stooge

Neutralist

The Elder World Statesman

Father of Africa, first Chair of the OAU

Accomplished diplomat

Wise Counsellor, with the “wisdom of Solomon”

Father

Son

Husband

Cousin

Grandfather

Great-Uncle

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

There is more to Ethiopia and Africa than Dog Piss

I write this blog as a response to the new production of a play  due to run at the Young Vic, London, based on Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor, about the final days of the reign of Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia.

The book was turned into a play in the late 80s. Salman Rushdie personally recalled the reception of the play:

Some years later, a stage production of The Emperor, put on in London at the Royal Court Theatre (an English adaptation of one of those mentioned by Ren Weschler), led to one of the most surrealist political demonstrations I have ever seen. (And I say this as someone whose work has occasionally led to protest; I’m something of a connoisseur of the form.) Outside of the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, there was a protest that only Kapuscinski could have conjured up. Half of the demonstrators wore extremely expensive suits and carried rather well printed placards and were members of the old Ethiopian monarchist party, which objected to his portrayal of Haile Selassie, because, after all, he had been their emperor. The other half of the demonstration were people in knitted hats and dreadlocks who were Rastafarians and thought of Haile Selassie as God and objected to the blasphemy of Ryszard’s portrayal. So you had on the one hand ganja-smoking Rastas and on the other the cigar-smoking Ethiopians. And I thought, this book must be doing something right.

Good for Salman.

I wonder, though, what did he actually know of Haile Selassie I, or Ethiopia, or of Rastafari?

Or did that not matter?

Was the spectacle sufficient in that it was abstractly amusing for its gothic mix?

But knowledge of things African has never been needed to judge things African.

Kapuściński, the famous Polish war correspondent of the Cold War certainly had vast experience in and of the African continent. Yet his book on Haile Selassie I is largely a fiction. It is a work of art. And people treat it as an actual biography. Kapuściński was never entirely honest as to the nature and purpose of his book, although it is true that he wrote it more as a poem on courtiers than he did on the reign of the Emperor. Still, he never stopped the overwhelminging majority of readers from reading it as a factual biography of Haile Selassie I.  It must have surprised many readers to learn of his positive assessment of His Majesty in his later years.

That being said, take  the book’s infamous first “report” from an informant in the royal court: it is about the Emperor’s little dog, Lulu, who was allowed to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

The amount of times I have heard this story repeated as fact. It is FICTION.  The only truth in the story is the existence of a dog called Lulu. Any amateur reader of Ethiopian society and culture would know that this would NEVER have happened. Just as unlikely as Queen Elizabeth II allowing her corgis to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

Yet the complex, dynamic, and CENTRAL part that Haile Selassie I played in Ethiopian, African and World History in the 20th century is reduced in the popular mindset to dog piss.

Well, that can’t stand. I want to bring it back to basics. I’m not interested in hagiographies of His Majesty, nor in “converting” people to the Rastafari faith.

All  I want you to do is consider, for one moment, that investigating the life of a leader from 1916 (when Haile Selassie took on the title of Ras Tafari) to 1974 (his overthrow by the Derg) – almost 60 years of rule…

…the life of one who entered Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, who addressed both the League and The United Nations,  sought to abolish slavery AND PROVIDE MEANINGFUL REHABILITATION to the previously enslaved (unlike the European slaving powers), gave the African Diaspora supporters of Ethiopia a place of return to the continent, provided – on his own initiative – the first constitutions, a modern military, a general education system – for boys and girls, funded and built more mosques than any other Christian King I am aware of, launched legal battles against South Africa and more…

…one who also had to most definitely navigate with realpolitik the impossible waters of intra-Ethiopian political intrigues, intra-African imperial politics, inter-national imperial politics, cold war politics, inter-African postcolonial politics, the frictions and fractures of old and new political, tribal, religious and ethnic faultlines, etc etc…

…well, I want you just to consider that this life might be instructive of many of the things that make us human in every aspect, that’s all.

Perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.

Or is Haile Selassie I a pathological despot, Africa pathological despotism, the Third World a lost cause, humanity only for certain humans and not others?

One example of a different Ethiopia.

In 1943, 6000 Greek refugees, fleeing Nazism, crossed to Turkey and there, having made arrangements with the British government, were taken via the Sinai to Djibouti and also to Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. After the liberation of Greece, most returned home, but some remained.

Today, that crisis is reversed, and people, as we know, flee the other way, to an impoverished and crumbling Greece.

In 1943, Ethiopia had barely recovered from the appalling and savage occupation of fascist Italy. It remained in the war. Yet still, Ethiopia welcomed the Greeks.

20160831_17050520160831_170450

What of this smells of dog piss?

How many more stories of all types and interpretations litter 1916-1974?

I want to salute the late and great Ras Seymour McLean who tirelessly worked to present a different image of Ethiopia and Africans, one more befitting of equitable engagement. Here’s a dramatisation of his works; watch it in parallel to the BBC2 TV production of The Emperor.

I am aware of the present-day myriad struggles in Ethiopia. Still unfinished after all these years. I know it is extremely complex. I claim no expert knowledge, just an amateur’s commitment to understand better. I write this only for the humanity that Ethiopia has blessed the world with. That is our Rastafari tradition.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments