The Italy/Ethiopia Conflict and Anti-Colonial Anti-Fascism: In Lieu of a Book

Over the last seven years, I have published a number of pieces all of which draw out the historical and theoretical implications of the Italy/Ethiopia conflict (1935-41) and the anti-colonial anti-fascism that responded to it across the British Empire and beyond.

voe_origI was going to write a book out of it. But I don’t think I will now, because I’ve ended up publishing most of it as journal articles and book chapters. I have one more thing that I will write, but I will fold that into a new book on Rastafari Reason and Political Thought.

So anyway, here are the pieces. Consider them, together, a mini-kind of book lols!

Chapter 1:

Intervention and Colonial-Modernity: Decolonising the Italy/Ethiopia Conflict Through Psalms 68:31, Review of International Studies 39 (5), 2013 pp. 1131-1147

In this article I utilise the editors’ conceptual frame of sovereignty/intervention/transnational social forces to argue that the relationship that ensues between these phenomena has to be understood in colonial-modern – rather than modern – terms. I thereby argue that intervention is a distinctive technology of colonial-modern rule, specifically, one that erects and polices the difference between sovereign and quasi-sovereign entities via a standard of civilisation. Additionally, I argue that transnational social forces struggle – cognitively, socially, and politically – over the upholding or refuting of this standard; and in this struggle, some might even defend particular sovereign entities against colonial interventions. I demonstrate my argument by explicating the global colonial context of the Italy/Ethiopia conflict in 1935–6, the nadir of the interwar crisis. I ‘decolonise’ received interpretations of the conflict through the heuristic of two differing catechisms of Psalms 68:31 proffered at the time: one, invoking a civilising mission of Africans; the other, invoking a project of self-liberation by Africans.

Chapter 2:

Ethiopianism, Englishness, Britishness: Struggles over Imperial Belonging, Citizenship Studies 20 (2), 2016, pp. 243-259

In this article, I problematise a tendency to situate concerns for citizenship and belonging via what might be called ‘narratives of settlement’. In these narratives, the chronology of settlement begins with the visceral and institutional racism met by non-white immigrant peoples of the commonwealth post Second World War, and the tempo of settlement is marked by the problem of integrating into and within UK society. Such narratives occlude a broader and deeper contextualisation of struggles over citizenship within struggles over imperial belonging. To substantiate this critique, I examine various actors across the British empire who struggled over Englishness and Britishness – connected but discrete imperial cultures of belonging – during the Italy/Ethiopia war of 1935–1941. These actors variously problematised belonging to British empire via an ethical commitment to Ethiopia’s independence. Unlike narratives of settlement, the tempos and chronologies of these Ethiopianist narratives are fundamentally global-colonial in their framing of the problem of belonging in so far as their tempos are determined by the pursuit of African redemption and their chronologies are structured around the enslavement, colonisation and prospective liberation of African peoples. The benefit of undertaking an historical examination of the Italy/Ethiopia conflict is to bring into sharper relief struggles over imperial belonging wherein the moral and political compass of protagonists is oriented to resolutions that exceed an equitable national settlement.

Chapter 3:

‘Ah, We Have Not Forgotten Ethiopia’: Anti-Colonial Sentiments for Spain in a Fascist Era, in J. Narayan & G.K. Bhambra (eds.), European Cosmopolitanism: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Societies (London: Routledge, 2016) pp.31-46

In many ways, anti-fascist internationalism in the 1930s, exemplified for instance in the Spanish brigades, is considered to be the modern genesis of European cosmopolitanism as a workable political project. But instead of a political tradition of anti-fascist internationalism, largely sui generis to Europe, I want to retrieve the tradition of anti-colonial anti-fascism, in which “Europe” is posited as not just part of the problem but as unable to express or solve the problem of fascism sui generis without addressing its colonial project and the conjoined struggles that this problem and project give rise to.  For this purpose I excavate contemporaneous considerations of the relationship between the violent Italian colonization of Ethiopia and the violent civil war in Spain. I examine perhaps the most important anti-colonial anti-fascist archive of the time – Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News (NTEN). I firstly introduce the contours of NTEN and the ways in which it introduces the Spanish cause into a newspaper originally devoted to the Ethiopia cause. I then excavate an anti-colonial anti-fascist position from Pankhurst’s editorials between 1936-1939. Subsequently, I extract a broader living knowledge tradition of anti-colonial anti-fascism that is suggested by the various letters and extracts printed in the newspaper. I conclude by asking what lessons might this tradition impart for contemporary Europe, beset now, as it was in the 1930s, by austerity and racialized resentment?

Chapter 4:

In Recognition of the Abyssinian General, in P. Hayden & K. Schick (eds.), Recognition and the International (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2016) pp.121-137

The Abyssinian general is not recognised, nor is he mis-recognised. He is un-recognizable to massa. Recognition theory, predominantly ensconced in debates over the prospects and pathologies of the European modern self, stumbles when it comes to engaging with the radical un-recognition that is congenital to the reproduction of colonial difference and perhaps at its most extreme in the slave plantation archipelago of the Americas (and elsewhere too).   However, enslaved Africans and their descendents have struggled to maintain and cultivate practices of recognition that work autonomously to – if always in confrontation with – massa and his European episteme. In this chapter we will journey from colonial recognition towards a recognition of the Abyssinian general that is other-wise.

Chapter 5:

From Ethiopia to Bandung via Fanon, Bandung: Journal of the Global South 6 (2019), pp.1-28

In this article I attempt to reconcile one of the most influential diplomatic episodes of Third World liberation – Bandung – with one of the most influential thinkers of said liberation – Frantz Fanon. I argue that this reconciliation can be usefully achieved by bringing to the fore the impact of the Ethiopia/Italy conflict (1935–1941) on both Fanon’s thought and the political trajectories of various individuals and movements that ultimately met at Bandung. Specifically, I trace how anti-colonial anti-fascism, an intellectual-activist position which emerged in response to Mussolini’s fascist invasion of Ethiopia, prefigured and prepared the Bandung spirit not only in biographical terms but also in terms of casting an ethics of liberation on a global scale that interwove the fates of metropoles and colonies as well as diverse colonial subjects. I frame my investigation of these influences through Fanon’s concept of Black humanism and his diplomatic injunction on behalf of the wretched of the earth, both of which I also argue can be genealogically connected to anticolonial anti-fascism. I conclude by suggesting that the accretion of the ethics and practices encountered across these journeys from Ethiopia to Bandung via Fanon might aid in reviving an internationalist spirit for our own constrictive age.

Fanon: from Martinque to Algeria via Ethiopia


Paulette_NardalWe can start with one of Frantz Fanon’s fellow Martinicans: Paulette Nardal.  She’s largely responsible for forcing the issue of Black consciousness onto the Parisian community of Black intellectuals and artists in the 1920s and 30s.

Négritude is cultivated in her apartment on Sunday afternoons, where Black, white, Arab, Muslim and Christian perform art and discuss intellectual issues. Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire attend.   In May 1935, Nardal becomes activist. The occasion is fascist Italy’s aggression towards Africa’s last sovereign and non-colonized entity – Ethiopia. 

Nardal co-founds the Ethiopian Action Committee with French Sudanese activist Tiemoko Kouyaté.  By the summer, Nardal has become a key node in the trans-empire coordination of Black peoples opposed to the fascist invasion – including her more famous accomplises in London.

In October 1935, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Nardal publishes “Levée des races” in the Senegalese paper, Le Périscope africain. In political terms, the word levée connotes the raising of an army. Nardal made three points about this prospect:

  • Firstly, the Black defense of Ethiopia is not in the service of a race war but in support of the principles of democracy.
  • Secondly, nonetheless, the Italian invasion has produced a new “common soul” amongst Black peoples worldwide.
  • Thirdly, the response to the fascist invasion demonstrates for Nardal the existence, across races, of a desire for humanism to temper the violence of colonialism.

Nardal’s call to arms is therefore driven by a Black humanism, seeking to gather a diverse constituency of colonial subjects for the prospect of global democracy in opposition to fascist aggression.

Nardal and her colleague Kouyaté then pursue a diplomatic mission, strikingly resonant of Fanon’s later ambitions: their Ethiopian Action Committee works closely with North African Star, the Algerian nationalist organization founded by Messali Hadj and a forerunner – although ultimate competitor – to Fanon’s beloved FLN.

The first meeting of this  International Committee for the Defense of the Ethiopian People brings together 800 white, Black and North African participants. In the ensuing march, on August 21 1935, Mussolini is declared the “enemy of our race” – and, also, excessively, as the enemy of “the 66 million colonized people”.

Come January 1936, North and West Africans form a Coordinating Committee of the Blacks and Arabs of Paris. They publish their own journal. An International Conference of Arabs and Negroes is soon after convened in Paris. Attendees discuss the liberation of Ethiopia from fascist occupation and scope out the possibility of a permanent political organization of Black and Arab unity.

In April 1937, a number of organizations including the Association of Martinican Students, Kouyaté’s Union of Black Workers, and Hadj’s Nationalist Party of Algeria – they come together to form the Rassemblement Colonial. The Rassemblement brings together activists from North Africa, the Antilles, West Africa and French Indochina:  an anti-colonial anti-fascist popular front.

suzanneAimé’s wife, Suzanne Césaire: she must have grounded with Nardal during her Paris sojourn. Ethiopia would have been all around her and her husband. Consider this: whilst at the École Normale Supérieure, a fellow white student confers upon Aimé the Amharic military title, ras – a title since popularized by the Rastafari faith.

Anyway, back in Martinique, Suzanne theorises the black humanist response to fascistic anti-blackness.

Suzanne sees in the Antilles a fertile terrain that has the potential to gestate a new humanity by cultivating its African heritage.  Her poetics are indebted to the 19th century Haitian anthropologist, Anténor Firmin. His ripostes to Europe’s Manichean racism utilize the biblical figure of the Ethiopian as an exemplar of both the Black and the human.

Suzanne is also indebted to a contemporary of Firmin, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. Unlike Firmin’s biblical inspiration, Frobenius’s preference for the Ethiopian is, in good part, determined by his political commitment to enhance Germany’s African colonies and labor forces. He even undertakes a (failed) secret mission during World War One to reach Addis Ababa, where he hopes to convince Lij Iyassu – at that point designated but not crowned Emperor – to enter the war on Germany’s side. Anyway, from Leo she takes the idea that civilization is driven by a vital force comprised of bipolar energies: the Hamitic and the Ethiopian.

Suzanne draws upon biblical Firmin and imperial Frobenius to parody and undermine racist attributions of laziness and indolence to Black Antilleans. She argues that the Ethiopian is a vegetative energy – yet unlike the Hamitic, an energy that “lives and lets live”; in its obstinacy for surviving – even if trampled underfoot – the Ethiopian is a force for ”independence”.

There’s a class analysis here too: the Ethiopian energy of unresistable independence is unto poor Blacks, just as the Hamitic – and its fascistic urge for domination – is unto upper-class light skins.

The Martinican, claims Suzanne, is the same kind of “plant-human” as the Ethiopian; and Antillean self-determination can only be achieved by embracing the “Ethiopian desire for abandon” – the race-class inflected abandon of domination. Suzanne is adamant:  cultivating the Ethiopian in the Martinican exposes an “incredible store of varied energies until now locked up within us” and one that might bring “every living strength … together up on this earth where race is the result of the most unremitting intermixing”.

Suzanne writes these lines as Haile Selassie, British Commonwealth soldiers and Ethiopian guerillas finally drive out the fascists from Addis Ababa.

Did Fanon meet Suzanne, the wife of his teacher?

Did they speak of the black humanist struggle for Ethiopia?

Did Frantz catch wind of that legacy in France?

Did it blow him surreptitiously towards Algeria?


Extracted from: “From Ethiopia to Bandung via Fanon“, Bandung: Journal of Global Studies (forthcoming)

And especially indebted to:

  • Boittin, Jennifer Anne. 2010. Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Genova, James E. 2001. “The Empire Within: The Colonial Popular Front in France, 1934-1938.” Alternatives 26: 175–209.
  • Goebel, Michael. 2017. Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rabbitt, Kara. 2013. “In Search of the Missing Mother: Suzanne Césaire, Martiniquaise.” Research in African Literatures 44 (1): 36–54.
  • Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. 2002. Negritude Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Umoren, Imaobong Denis. 2018. Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles. Oakland: University of California Press.
  • Walker, Keith Louis. 2016. “Anténor Firmin, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire: In Search of Africa and Ourselves.” L’Esprit Créateur 56 (1): 129–44.

Sylvia Wynter – “A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?”

Below is a duplication of an article by Sylvia Wynter, which I found in the UK National Archives, entitled: A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?

I have tried to find this article reprinted elsewhere, but have failed. It was originally published in “Tropic”, October 1960, pp.50-51. So, just in case the article has not been reproduced elsewhere, I have typed it out below, as a resource for Wynter scholars.

Wynter wrote the article – presumably as a political commentary –  in the immediate aftermath of the Claudius Henry affair. During the final years of colonial rule in Jamaica, some members of the political elite began to worry that Cubans were manipulating Rastafari (which had effectively come down from the hills to increasingly taken prominence in Kingston) into a conduit for Communism. Claudius Henry, an outspoken repatriationist, had in fact written to the Cubans and was tried for treason. In 1960, Reynold Henry, Claudius’s son, took to the bush and killed some British soldiers. Reynold Henry was, along with his four accomplices, an ex-US marine.

In 1962, Wynter published the Hills of Hebron, which in her own words was probably written with Rastafari in the “back of my mind”. The themes introduced in the article reproduced below wonderfully demonstrate Wynter’s evolving critique of nationalism, race and class as well as her ethos of rehumanization. To my mind, this article is testament to the ways in which 20th century Caribbean scholarship of the highest caliber has so often been influenced by Rastafari in a subterranean or surface manner. Might there be a history of Caribbean thought that takes Rastafari seriously as the ground of critique?

In the article, Wynter obviously takes Rastafari seriously. This generosity, at the time, must have come at some cost to her reputation in Jamaican society. But her article also presents some problems in this regard – albeit problems I think that in good faith you would have to say were largely redressed in her intellectual evolution.

Wynter presents Rastafari as a “protest” religion. Such a description implies negativity, while Rastafari is principally a positivity. Rastafari is not even a ”counter-culture” as Dick Hebdige famously believed. If anything, Rastafari is a livity of justice, redemption and reconstruction –i.e. rehumanization. Wynter also describes the Rastafari ethics of repatriation as a “ridiculous hope”, and reduces the matter of reparation-as-repatriation to a technical consideration on migration policies. At the end of the article, Wynter also uses Rastafari as a rhetorical device by which to pitch political-economy concerns at the level of justice rather than of narrow interests. Yet in doing this, she reduces Rastafari culture, ethics and desires to blindness, confusion and inchoateness. In other words, Rastafari becomes a cypher for Wynter to talk about politics. There are no grounds for Rastafari politics, apparently.

One last factual point: Wynter claims that Claudius Henry is the recognized leader of Rastafari. This was not the case at the time nor since.


A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?

The Rasta Fari sect in Jamaica is one of dispossessed men buried under tinsel layers of progress in this island society. A complacent middle-class dismisses them as dirty, bearded, ganga-smoking, illiterates, as men apart locked away in the fastnesses of their own ignorance. But the condemned Rasta Fari dreaming their steadfast dream of a return to Africa will not be dismissed. Recently they erupted into headline news as conspirators plotting to kill Prime Minister Manley, as terrorists hunted down by the Police and British soldiers. In one engagement two British soldiers were killed. The official line is that this violence must be stamped out, that it was instigated by a small group of American Negroes, aliens. No mention was made of the fact that the “Americans” are of Jamaican extraction. One of the men charged with the shooting of the soldiers is the son of Claudius Henry, leader of the Rasta Fari now awaiting trial on a charge of treason.

Catherine the Great once said, “when the people revolt I look for the reason in their rulers”, and this pocket-sized rebellion in Jamaica deserves analysis in this light. The Voodoo Priest, the Prophet, the leader of a sect have always been the forerunners of rebellion and political change in Caribbean society. There were Makandal and Boukman in Haiti, Bedward in Jamaica, Jordan in British Guiana, these are all men who arose out of the same tensions and frustrations of unjust social systems. They spoke for the men apart, the disinherited. After them the political movements, the new leaders arose. But the situation in Jamaica today is different – the rulers are not white but black and brown men. The skin colour of the rulers has changed but the social system that bred prophets, agitators and those blinded by the anger of their discontent remains intact.

The Church in the West Indies, whatever it might have been immediately after emancipation, is no longer a temple for the shirtless ones, for the middle-class has taken it over. The Rasta Fari religion like many of the cults of the dispossessed Negro is based on the concepts of a black God and a black Christ, it is a religion of protest. Boukman’s incantation to his followers on the eve of the Haitian revolution echoes in the hearts of the bearded men, the “Brother Men” of Jamaica:

.. the god of the white man inspires him to crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works .Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of us all.

More specifically the Rasta Farites claim that Marcus Garvey was their most recent John the Baptist. According to a study done by the University College of the West Indies, the Rasta Farite movement began to take shape around 1930. It’s main centre is in Western Kingston, although since the survey was made the movement has spread to other areas of Jamaica. There are many groups, all with high sounding names: “The United Afro-West Indian Federation”; “The Ethiopian Coptic Faith”, ‘the African Cultural League”, etc. … The Different groups in principle recognize Claudius Henry, Repairer of the Breach, as their leader.

What are the Rasta Fari protesting against? The crypto-colonial regime in Jamaica? The miasma of borrowed beliefs by which the Jamaican middle-class lives? The half truths and the insensate follies of coloured men who have won the right to rule themselves but who have been conditioned to bow and scrape so long that they now do it unconsciously? All of these factors have a profound bearing on the Rasta Fari problem. While the government of Jamaica shuffles towards independence burdened by the appanage of colonial rule, the symbols of a recent past of servility and shame, will continue to fester in the hearts of the poor and the black.

In the “Agammenon” of Aeschylus it is written: “If the conquerors respect the Gods and Temples of the conquered they will be saved.” The Anglo-Saxons were not noted for their reverence for the gods and temples of the conquered; they desecrated and destroyed, and those who survived their depredations were fed on trans-Atlantic myths – the myths of white gods and white kings, of “all things white and beautiful”. But even the myths were exclusive, they were handed down to an elite, and in the West Indies, to a carbon-copy elite.

At the heart of the Rasta Fari discontent and violence is the need of a society in which the shirtless ones can see themselves winning the dignity they have never known in Jamaica. While the present rulers of Jamaica continue to plaster up sores without looking for the causes of the disease in the island’s bloodstream, the discontent will not only continue but will spread its infection.

It is rumoured that the Rastas turned against the Manley Government because they were encouraged to believe that if they helped, by votes and violence against the P.N.P.’s opponents, they would be assisted in their return to Africa. But certainly Mr Manley is far too astute a politician to have inspired such ridiculous hopes. A more constructive programme for a return to Africa would entail the establishment of technical training on a wide and comprehensive scale. One of Jamaica’s main exports are her citizens. The Government should have the integrity and foresight to ensure that its people emigrate to countries where they are wanted, that once they leave they should have skills which qualify them to contribute on the highest level to the well-being of their adopted country. The export of unskilled labour to countries white or black pays dividends only in frustration and bitterness in the long run.

The Rastas are inspired by dreams which are blind, inchoate, confused, but their dreams are big ones. It is well to remember that when Mr. Manley, in 1938 told a crowd of strikers that “half a loaf was better than none” the strikers shouted back, “We would rather die!”.

Behind the Rhodes Statue: Black Competency and the Imperial Academy

I’ve written a new article, which should hopefully come out in the History of Human Sciences next year. In the meantime, I’ve provided the introduction below, and you can read the full draft of it here.

Stuart Hall was a central figure in the formation of Britain’s “new left”, a founding force in the field of cultural studies, and a scholar who introduced thousands of mature and working students to the study of modernity via his Open University courses and text books (Warmington 2014, 92–94). Hall entered the British academy in 1951 as a Jamaican youth to read an undergraduate degree in English at Merton College, Oxford. Much later in his life, Hall  (2017, 169, 2010, 179) reflected that, in his days at Oxford, Black culture, colonial questions and Commonwealth politics “formed an indispensable, active seam” of his intellectual enquires. Hall’s recollections situate a community of Black and Commonwealth students within the heart of British academia discussing the fate of empire and the prospects of independence. That Black intellectualism was an uncomfortable intrusion into the academy is suggested by Hall’s (2017, 158) comments on the stretched politeness he experienced at Oxford: “I was conscious all the time that I was very, very different because of my race and color. And in the discourses of Englishness, race and color remained unspeakable silences.”

In this way, Britain’s most accomplished public intellectual of the 20th century started his academic career as a Rhodes Scholar. But Hall’s intellectual community of non-white Commonwealth citizens would have been met with considerable distaste by his benefactor. After all, Cecil Rhodes intended his scholarship fund to develop a cadre of leading colonists working across race and religion expressly for the “retention of the unity of the Empire” (Stead 1902, 23). In 2015, Rhodes’s legacy became entangled in inter-generational struggles over the structural legacies of Apartheid in South Africa, the failures of ANC rule, and continued institutional racism in the country’s sites of higher learning. By April, the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) student movement had succeeded in bringing down the mining magnate’s statue at the University of Cape Town. At this point in time, and approximately 60 years after Hall’s residency, students brought RMF to Oxford, agitating for the removal of Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College, his Alma Matter.

Academic critics were quick to attribute fault to the RMF Oxford campaign. For Will Hutton (2015), principal of Hertford College, University of Oxford, and former editor-in-chief of the Observer newspaper, Rhodes’s thoughts and actions needed to be placed in his historical context, and such an undertaking required “an open mind, freedom of debate and unobstructed access to facts: a trilogy which campaigners tend to neglect”. Anthony Lemon (2016), an esteemed geographer and South Africa specialist at Oxford, similarly criticized the tenor of RMF for its over-emotiveness, reminding activists that “a healthy culture does not cease to remember those with whom it has come to disagree”.  Mary Beard (2015), popular classicist at Cambridge, likewise argued that, rather than a “great statue cull”, the challenge was to “look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it”. Effectively, the critics claimed that RMF ran the risk of disavowing self-reflective and impartial inquiry, hallmarks of the academic ethos (see also Anthony 2016; D’Ancona 2016; Grove 2015).

But RMF Oxford did not only push for a statue’s removal. The campaign also insisted that “many people from marginalized groups … have made valuable intellectual contributions and we believe their exclusion reflects an on-going legacy of racist imperialism”. In this respect, statue removal segued into a broader student movement to “decolonize” the academy’s epistemological and phenomenological “whiteness” when it came to institutional practices, reading lists, and faculty (Chaudhuri 2016; see as examples Hussain 2015; Richards 2015). Henceforth, many critics of RMF’s activism equated “decolonizing” with vulgarizing and relativizing academic inquiry by making the criteria for knowledge inclusion that of racial identity rather than the intrinsic worth of ideas (Williams 2017). Even nuanced engagements with “decolonizing” advocates (for example Malik 2017) inevitably rang the same alarm: the narcissism of identity politics degraded intellectual inquiry to the extent that the academy might no longer be considered a place of “higher” learning.

RMF Oxford made one further demand: for better representation and welfare provision of Black and minority ethnic students (RMF Oxford 2015). It is important to note that debates over statues and decolonizing agendas have been intricately bound to policy-oriented conversations regarding the increased – but unevenly distributed – presence of Black and minority ethnic students in British higher education (for example, Alexander and Arday 2015; Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu 2018). In fact, the politicization of the Black presence in academia has increasingly functioned as a postcolonial bellwether for elite-manufactured concerns over the displacement of white Britons in their “own” country caused economically by globalisation, culturally by immigration, and politically by anti-discriminatory legislation (see Sveinsson 2009). In February 2016, four months before the EU referendum, Toby Young, a self-styled “progressive eugenicist”, took issue with Prime Minister David Cameron’s focus on the relative paucity of Black students in the country’s most prestigious universities. Writing in the Telegraph, Young claimed that “[Cameron] is wrong about the ethnicity of those students and wrong about where the problem lies. It’s working-class white boys who fare the worst, not black boys…” (Young 2016).

When appraising RMF Oxford across all these dimensions it becomes clear that the campaign has exacerbated a longstanding fear of the intellectual degeneration of higher education in service of politically instrumental goals (for example, in 1950s Britain see Oakeshott 2004; in 1990s USA see Searle 1993). This fear invokes a defense of the academic ethos – impartiality, curiosity and discernment – against a contaminating wave of identity-politics, narcissism and vulgarism. The academy, its defenders claim, is confronted by outside forces that would compromise and partialize the higher pursuit of knowledge:  that is, multicultural politics in the public sphere brings reactionary identity politics into the academic sphere. Crucially, this defensiveness associates degenerative political forces external to the academy with the intimate presence, inside, of “non-traditional” students – and increasingly those with correspondingly racialized – and gendered – bodies (see especially Nkopo, Madenga, and Chantiluke 2018). It is not that the critics of RMF have wished to remove these bodies from the academy. But the nature of their defense necessarily problematizes the presence of these bodies within the academy.

In this article, I aim to historically and intellectually contextualise the apprehension that an intimate Black presence destabilizes the ethos of higher education. Prompted by Hall’s recollections of 1950s Oxford, I seek to disturb the grounds upon which critics contrast RMF (and other decolonizing campaigns) against an ideal image of the impartial and discerning academy. I do not directly address the contemporary impact of racialized institutional habits on Black students, especially the assumption that the lower attainment of this cohort is somehow due to a cultural deficit (see Shilliam 2016a; and most recently, Royal Historical Society 2018). Rather I seek to contribute to a literature that reveals the complicity of the British academy in politics concerning the fate of imperial rule (for example Pietsch 2013; Steinmetz 2013; Bailkin 2012). Specifically, I excavate a genealogy of academic debates that sought to assess the effects of an increased proximity of Black presence to empire’s white spaces.

In what follows I move behind the battle over statues (see especially Rao 2017) to argue that historical debates over Black presence implicate the British academy in the Empire’s southern African interests. These debates were initiated by social anthropologists in the inter-war years primarily (albeit not solely) with regards to studies of southern Africa’s urbanizing spaces. Furthermore, I demonstrate how such debates were highly influential to the study of “race relations” in Britain’s post-war era of Commonwealth immigration. Critically, all these debates problematized the cognitive competency of African/Black peoples to inhabit white spaces in ways that were not destabilizing of imperial order. Current campus campaigns such as RMF should not be evaluated against an ideal image of the academy. Rather, they form part of a continued confrontation with the afterlives of academic dispositions that were implicated in the imperial project that Rhodes was integral to.

The etymology of “disposition” comprises a sense of arrangement as well as a sense of determination. By disposition, then, I mean the epistemological arrangement of heterogeneous elements that come together in a particular context, a coming together that is also an orientation towards particular commitments (see in general Bussolini 2010).  An intellectual disposition frames a set of elements into a coherent problem at the same time as this framing clarifies ethical commitments to the redressing of that problem. For the sake of conciseness, I explore these dispositions through the thought of key intellectuals primarily in the fields of social anthropology and sociology. And I tease out the ways in which the Southern African milieu influenced these dispositions by way of engaging variously with intellectual biographies, substantive inquiry, and analytical framings.

I first turn to “colonial development”, a disposition indebted to the humanitarianism of white abolitionism but which substantively inquired into the destabilizing effects of urbanization on African natives principally regarding Britain’s imperial interests in southern Africa. Secondly, I investigate how “race relations” dispositions emerged out of these substantive and analytical engagements amongst social anthropologists of South African provenance as well as those clustered around Edinburgh University. Thirdly, I demonstrate how the race relations disposition in Britain struggled to overcome the association of Black proximity with a cognitive incompetency that was destabilizing of empire, even at empire’s end. In this struggle, intellectual biographies and analytical framings variously continued to implicate the southern African imperial milieu.


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.

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…



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:

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.


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.


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.

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?


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?


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.