The Black Pacific

This year I published a book called The Black Pacific: Anti-colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections. You can buy it, or download it for free from the publishers:

Because so much of the book was based on community stories, I wanted to make sure that the conversation could and continue and that the end of the book was not the end of the story.

So I creaed a page on this blog-page – BlackPacific – you can see it in the options above. I encourage people who read the book and who are in various ways related to the material, and who want to contribute, context, extend the stories to post on this page.

I’m not sure how many people might do this in the future. But anyway, I just received my first response.

I was recently emailed by Jeannette Ehrmann, from Goethe University, who is currently researching her important PhD on the Haitian Revolution.

This is what she says:

(PS It was Lachlan Paterson who first told me about the Maori/Haiti relationship)

Dear Robbie,

I hope your are doing well.

I am right now sitting in a light-flooded library in the heart of Paris, reading Jean-Louis Janvier’s book “The Detractors of the Black Race and the Republic of Haiti”, published in 1882.

I just stumbled over a passage that I would like to share with you in case you haven’t come across Janvier yet. It opens up another relation between Haiti and the Black Pacific and a shared identification across the pacific.

Janvier speaks of Australia, where the indigenous population has been slaughtered; the Sandwich Islands where the population is dimished day by day; the Gambier Islands whose population has to suffer from a theocratic, catholic regime imposed upon them; Tahiti whose population has been diminished dramatically through colonial exploitation, tobacco, alcohol and opium. And New Zealand, where “the extermination of the Maori race has been executed systematically and coldbloodedly by the English. This was accomplished within 40 years.” (p. 54)

“Don’t we have the right to raise our shoulders when some very ignorant voyagers tell us foolishly that Haitians should open their land to a mass immigration by whites?” (p. 55)

Unfortunately, there seems to be no English translation except from a short extract (

The French original is available online:

I was so astonished when I read you chapter on the Maori/Haiti relation. Now, it’s great to see that this relation was not one-sided but grounded in a solidarity from Haiti’s part as well and that it could transcend the boundaries of colonial empires and languages.

With this new discovery (at least for me), I wish you a great day on the other side of the channel.

All the best,

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Black Academia 1.1 (update)

Last summer I uploaded a blog post called Black Academia, which outlined the state of staff and students of African heritage (which for the purposes of this blog I term as Black) in UK academia. This is what I concluded:

 Black students are over-represented in general, but especially – and perversely – in less prestigious institutions. They are significantly under-represented when it comes to high attainment and career progression.  Black academics are under-represented in general, and they are acutely under-represented at higher levels of management and leadership. … While academia has opened its doors, it has been unwilling or unable to dismantle the norms, networks, and practices that reproduce white, rich male privilege in the first place.

Just recently I looked at this year’s ECU Equality in higher education report (2014) with data from the 2012/13 academic year. For my previous post I used a lot of data from ECU’s 2013 report (from the 2011/12 academic year). I was curious as to what changes the statistics might reveal, over the course of a year. Obviously only so much can change within one year. But I was curious nonetheless. Here’s what I found.


Reparations conference, 2014, at Queen Mary University of London, organized by Rastafari Movement UK

There are now slightly more Black people working in UK academia; and this, combined with a shrinkage in the total number of staff, has raised the percentage of Black workers from 2.10% (in the last ECU report) to 2.24%. However, in terms of UK-national staff, the percentage is almost exactly the same as last time: 1.75%. Out of the total population of Black staff, both UK-national and non-national and including “mixed” people who identify as such, 41.1% have a “Caribbean” background, and 51.0% have an “African” background, with the remainder categorised as “other” Black. These figures are also almost exactly the same as last time. (As was the case in the last blog I am only including data on the Black category and not including “mixed” where it is not broken down into more specifics).

At 3.3% of the UK population, Black people remain, then, under-represented in staff positions across the university system. In fact, the percentage of white staff has grown. Last time, I calculated that white staff were 84.27% of the working population of academia compared to 86% of the UK population as a whole. Now white staff are 88.6% of the working population in academia. Last time, I calculated that if Black staff were to be represented on the same equitable basis as white staff (who had a differential of .97 between general population and academic work force), then Black staff would have to make up 3.2% of the working population of academia instead of their actual 2.10%. This time round, the differential for white staff is 1.03. Hence, the equitable percentage of Black staff would need to be 3.39% instead of the current 2.24%. 

Black people now constitute 1.2% of UK-national academic professionals: that’s a rise from last time of 0.1%. Which I guess is better than a fall of 0.1%. This is still, though, the smallest percentage of academics out of the working population of any ethnic group including white, although not far off the Chinese figure of 1.3%. Black people constitute 1.61% of both UK-national and non-national academics. This is an increase of .07% from the last report. But to put this increase in perspective: at this rate it would take 24 years for Black academics to become proportionally representative – i.e. to reach 3.3% of the academic population so as to match the percentage of Black people resident in the UK.  Yet this exercise does not take into account the growth rate of the Black population of the UK. So I wonder if, at this small rate, we would ever reach parity, at least in my lifetime. Alternatively, white people constitute 87.23% of academic professionals and remain overrepresented at 86% of the UK population.

In this latest report the ECU has changed its categorisation of academics workers and “cleaners, catering assistants, security officers, porters and maintenance workers” seems to have been replaced with “elementary occupations”. Hence direct comparisons are not really possible. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the last report, 6.91% of white workers in academia were “cleaners, catering assistants etc.” in contrast to 19.27% of Black workers. While in this report, 6.2% of white workers are employed in “elementary occupations” in contrast to 17.8% of Black workers.

So the upshot is that: Black people remain significantly under-represented in academic roles and significantly over-represented in manual jobs.

The lastest ECU report no longer breaks down the different types of academic job contracts beyond the BME category. In other words, the report no longer investigates job types by reference to Black, Asian, Chinese etc. Hence it is no longer possible to assess the change in percentages of Black academics in full time, part time, research or teaching only contracts. This is a great shame. And I am dissapointed with the ECU. Surely they most know that the BME category conceals more than it illuminates?

It might be interesting at this point to add an observation that I did not make last time. As a lecturer in International Politics I am especially interested in non-SET subjects (i.e. the social sciences, humanities and arts, as opposed to Science, Engineering and Technology). Incidently, Black students are the only ethnic minority group who are represented in non-SET subjects more than in SET ones. Within non-SET disciplines, anthropology, area studies and the classics have the least amount of UK-national Black academics – hardly any. Following them are theology, philosophy, politics and international studies, history and continuing education. For non-national Black academics, classics is the worst, then politics and international studies, continuing education and music/dance/drama/performance.

The now infamous statistic of 85 Black professors in UK academia – yes just 85 –  that’s right, 85 – remains exactly the same in the new ECU report! These professors are spread equally across SET and non-SET subjects. Black academics still have by far the smallest percentage of professors amongst any ethnic group. But the picture has got even worse when it comes to academics occupying senior management roles. Last time round, there were just 15 Black academics in senior management roles. Now there are reported only 5.

– You read it correctly, it’s not a typo.

— Just 5 Black academics in senior management roles across the whole of UK academia.  Seriously.

How about the filthy lucre? Across UK-national and non UK national staff, 29.2% of white academics make over 50,000GBP, roughly the same as last time. But the number of Black staff earning above 50K is down from 17.7% to 14.2%. The median salary for UK-national Black academics is 40,834GBP, while white academics pull 44,607GBP.  Black academics remain behind all other ethnic groups, except for “mixed”, in terms of their wages. Finally, UK-national Black academics have the largest gender differential amongst all ethnicities including white: 60.6% are women; I wonder if this is at least something to do with these earning differentials.

Overall, then, when it comes to staff, the new ECU report suggests that over a year Black academics have enjoyed an extremely modest – but positive – increase in presence, but quite possibly have suffered a decrease in position and power. This is why Black academics – and UK academia in general – need now, more than ever, initiatives like the Black Studies AssociationBlack British AcademicsBlack Doctoral Network (UK) and other institutional-building initiatives.

Ok, let’s now look at the situation with students.

 NUS Black Students Conference 2015 (NUS use the term Black in an expansive way to enable an intersectional constituency)

Starting with undergraduates, Black students now make up 6.3% of the UK-national student population in Britain, up from 6.0% in the last report. In England, Black students make up 7.2% (up from 6.9%) and amongst first year students 6.7% are Black.  So the more-than-a-decade long increase in Black students continues as does the significant overrepresentation relative to the broader Black population of the UK (3.3%). 4.4% of Black students have an African continental heritage, 1.3% a Caribbean heritage, and 0.3% an “other” Black heritage. This would suggest, when looking at the last report, that the increase in Black students is primarily coming from those with a Continental heritage, which also reflects the broader changing composition of the UK Black population.

Incidently, within non-SET subjects, history, philosophy, combined studies and languages attract the least amount of Black undergraduate students, although we would have to break down the ECU category of “social studies” to get a proper picture.

Happily, the number of Black masters students also continue to be overrepresented visavis the Black population of the UK. And Black research students have slightly grown to now provide an exact parity with the broader Black population of the UK at 3.3%. However, the percentage of Black research students enrolled in part-time study has increased from 46.2% to 47.8% (still by far the largest percentage of part-time research students amongst any ethnic group). This suggests that as the Black research student constituency grows, it does so primarily via part-time study. In the last blog I detailed why this is an important observation: part-time research students find it hard to build networks and translate their PhDs into full time research-positions.

What happens to UK-national undergraduates at the end of an academic year? In the new ECU report, 92.2% of white students continue to the next year, 1.5% transfer institutions and 6.4% leave higher education. In comparison, 86.4% of Black students continue, 4% transfer and 9.6% leave. By contrast to the last ECU report: very slightly more Black students are now continuing (good news); slightly more Black students are transferring (suggesting, I would say, little change in attitudes to diversifying institutional culture); and less Black students leave (great news). With regards to this last statistic it might be interesting to note that less Black students with Caribbean heritage leave compared to last year’s report; alternatively, more Black students with Continental heritage leave compared to the last report. Nevertheless, it remains the case that more Black students transfer than any other ethnic group except for Bangladeshi, and the percentage of Black students leaving higher education remains significantly higher than any other ethnic group.  

Here are the latest comparisons for end of degree attainments for UK-national undergraduates, focusing on white and Black students:

Class                      Group               % of group attaining award

1st class:                white women          20.3

1st class                 black women          7.4

1st class                 white men               20.6

1st class                 black men               7.7

2:1 class                white women          54.5

2:1 class                black women         41.3

2:1 class                white men              50.6

2:1 class                black men              36.4

Compared to last year’s report, the percentage of women and men achieving first class honours (1st) has risen for both white and Black students. However, Black women have increased their achievement of upper second class honours (2:1) by 3% from last year and Black men by 1%, while the percentage of white women and men attaining 2:1s is effectively the same as last year. This is a bit of good news in so far as it means that the significnat differential of attainment between white and Black students has decreased by a small amount. 

Yet the overall difference remains stark: 74.7% of white female students achieve either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 44.1% of Black female students; 71.2% of white male students achieve either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 44.1% of Black male students. This statistic is crucial because key graduate employers will only look at students with these achievements, not those who fall below – i.e. 2:2s and 3rds. If everything remains as it is, if white students do not increase their percentage of 1sts/2:1s and Black students continue to increase theirs at the current rate of 3.6% a year, then it will still take roughly eight years for Black students to obtain parity. That’s eight generations of finalists going out onto the job market with an attainment record, like it or not, differentiated across race lines. And of course, it is by no means the case that this increase will continue on its own accord at a rate that has only been sustained for 3 years so far. This is especially so if the race equality agenda continues to be dismissed, nay ridiculed, by the current Conservative administration which is otherwise obsessed with austerity.

Two final observations on attainment. 

Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about the closing of the attainment gap at school and significant improvement in Black student achievement. The achievements of children from a Continental African heritage are especially remarked upon.  It could be, perhaps, that African Continental parents have relatively more capital (social, economic etc) to invest in their students’ education as recent arrivants than their African Caribbean counterparts. (Although the latter fought exactly the same battles with similar social capital forty odd years ago). Yet, regardless, the undergraduate attainment rates of Caribbean and Continental heritage students are almost the same. In fact, in last year’s report, Continental students outperformed Caribbean students in attaining 1sts, but in this year’s report these attainments are on a par (both groups are within 0.1% of each other). And this year Caribbean students attain 2.5% more 2:1s than their continental counterparts, 1% less 2:2s and 1.4% less thirds. In short, Black students of Caribbean heritage are, relatively speaking, doing as well if not better than Black students of Continental heritage. We know that education is one of the key facilitators of social mobility in the UK.  So could it be that university is a key site wherein the social advantages of continental African children are being neutralised or reversed? Institutional racism is, after all, the great equaliser: Black is black is black. Perhaps we can see this struggle between migrant parents’ social capital and the insertion of their children into structures of racial inequality in the following statistic: upon leaving university more students of continental African heritage than those of African Caribbean heritage enter into full time postgraduate study; however, more students of continental African heritage enter unemployment than their African Caribbean counterparts.

The second observation is this. Amongst ethnic minority groups, Black students still exhibit the lowest attainments. Even if there has been an increase by Black students, it has been matched by, for example, increases in Asian student attainment (which is the second lowest to Black students). I am of course happy that Asian students are increasing their attainment, as I would be for any individual student. Nevertheless, I want to point out, as uncomfortable as it is, that those insipid intra-minority hierarchies seem to be at least partly remaining, even if small improvements are generally occurring.

Attainment issues also speak to the distribution of students amongst the uneven landscape of higher education institutions. I want to say, straight away, and reflecting on the comments of Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ think tank, that I do not personally believe that you will necessarily get a better education at a Russell Group university – recognised by government and industry as the most prestigious group of academic institutions in the UK-  than at, say, a Million+ university – one of the least prestigious recognised groups. This economy of prestige directly relates to career prospects and, to my mind, is really all about the reproduction and transference of inherited privilege rather than acting as the mark of an excellent education. But for this very reason it is important to look at the distribution of students across these groups of institutions.

Black students remain at the same percentage of the whole student population in Russell Group universities: 2.7% in last year’s and this year’s report. Whilst this figure might not seem a million miles away from the 3.3% of Black people in the UK population, we need to remember the overrepresentation of Black students in the academy, especially at undergraduate level (6.3% of the whole). Once this overrepresentation is remembered, the Russell Group figure is by no means as positive as it appears to be. Moreover Black students have increased their presence in all university groups except the most prestigious Russell Group. And the least “prestigious” Million+ group have the highest percentage of Black students at 11.9% of the population (the highest percentage of all ethnic minorities in this group). Overall the Russell Group – the most prestigious – remains the whitest (at 82.8% of the student population), and the Million+ – the least “prestigious” – remains the least whitest (73.6%).   This all suggests that the increase in Black student numbers is being served by the least “prestigious” universities. This would then qualify the success on attainments being made by Black students if they are proportionally more likely to obtain a 1st from a Million+ university than from a Russell group university. And again, I am not talking about the actual substance of the education but the economy of privilige it is embedded within.

One more thing to add to this mix. Black students have the highest amount of mature students than any other ethnic group including white, and significantly so. And again, Black students have the highest percentage of women.  So here, age, gender, race, institution and socio-economic privilege intersect.

How do all these intersections play out in terms of life immediately after university? 59.1% of white students find full employment after graduating compared to 49.5% of Black students. Both percentages have increased since last year’s report, but by pretty much the same amount, although there is a slight narrowing of the differential. More worringly, 5.2% of white students enter unemployment compared to 12.1% of Black students. Again, both these percentages have decreased since last year’s report, and again, there is a slight narrowing of the differential. A bit of positive news. Yet the difference still remains stark, and is consonant with wider disparities concerning minority youth employment.

So for Black students the gap has narrowed very slightly, but student outcomes and experience remain solidly and starkly differentiated along race lines that reproduce existing privileges. 

To finish, though, I want to point to one more invisible outcome for Black – and I would say many ethnic minority – students. A university education is supposed to be an experience and not just an “outcome”, that is, a process of critical reflection and clarification of one’s self and one’s place in the world at large. How many of our Black students find their years at university delivering them the absolute opposite? How many find a world painted white, a world that they are therefore effectively barred from investing in by the institutionally racist cultures of university? How many leave with a distaste and distrust of institutions that are supposed to enable and cultivate a civic life for all? How many of our academic colleagues even imagine that this might be taking place under their very noses?

 Afewerk Tekle’s 1967 “”African Heritage”


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More notes for discerning travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog):

Feb 25

@X @RobbieShilliam The intellectual’s version of Boko Haram.

Ok, that just made me giggle. Must have seen my dreadlocks. I was tempted to add that response to my Travel Notes. It almost carried on writing itself.

And then this response:

  1. X    Feb 28

@RobbieShilliam Would it be any different if someone wrote on Asia and Asians (or Africa and Africans) for European discerning travellers?:)

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏   Mar 1

@X yes it would. This is specifically about Europe and it’s colonial pathologies, one of which is avoidance of its pathologies!

  1. X Mar 1

@RobbieShilliam But it sounds as if European were intrinsically greedy and evil, and the rest were noble human beings dedicated to goodness

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  Mar 1

@X I didn’t say anything about the rest. Your projection. All the statements have truth behind them.

All quiet on the Northern front.

Until just now (same tweeter):

  1. 2h2 hours ago (19th April)

BBC News – South Africa anti-immigrant violence: Hundreds held … Who is to blame on this, @RobbieShilliam? 😉

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  2h2 hours ago

@X why ask me? I am not a south Africa expert.

  1. X 1h1 hour ago

@RobbieShilliam Sadly, racism and xenophobia are not exclusive of white people: they are a human (and ape) disease. No need to be an expert!

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  57m57 minutes ago

@X that’s your obsession X not mine. I never said those were exclusive to white peep. Ask yourself why u are defensive. 

Over the last eight years, one experience I have constantly had, mostly in the academic world it has to be said, is people from a very strong “modernity” (read, partially, “European”) perspective (variously articulated) consistently interpreting my work as “essentialist”, “nativist”, “racialist”.

All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?

I have to ask myself: why can’t these people see my relationality? It’s not a matter of me writing badly. I own up to when I do that. But this is on a different level. It’s a wilful un-reading.

Case in point: I finish a paper which is engaging with but sympathetically criticising the Communist Manifesto on the grounds of its use of the slave analogy but at the same time consigning real-living enslaved Africans to the distant past of political economy. I finish by saying (pithily, I admit), “Forward, then, to a Manifesto coloured human”.

Respondent: Is worried about my engagement with Marcus Garvey in the paper. What do I want to replace the Manifesto with? (Computer code: do you want to replace class with race, Marx with Garvey?) My last sentence!!! LAST sentence!!! THE LAST SENTENCE!!! I don’t want to replace it at all. I want to reckon with it fully. Is that unclear? Did I say, “forward only to Marcus Garvey?” Or, “Forward to a new manifesto written by blacks only for blacks… in black ink, on black paper”?

Neither is it about people agreeing with me. There are plenty of grounds of disagreements and I really don’t mind them – I usually love them and learn from them. But it’s beyond disagreement through a dialogue. There was no dialogue!

As Gurminder Bhambra puts it in this blog, I have engaged with the Hegels, Kants, etc, the intellectual folk of the “European” culture. But their avatars never engage with my folk. They have an epistemological stereotype in their head – Fanon will tell you where they got it from – and then they respond to a stereotype.

Who is accountable? Who is self-reflexive? Who is seeking to cultivate relations? If I decide that I don’t want to waste any more energies on a conversation with a wall, then I guess it will be my “essentialism” that will have been the cause of my retreat.

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Four quick paradoxes of the welfare state for Black communities

1) The welfare state was supposed to provide universal provision but was never extend to British subjects outside of the UK. However, British subjects in colonial territories were just as much subjects to the crown as those resident in the UK.

2) The era where, in large part due to the welfare state and the ethos of public goods, social mobility was most pronounced in the UK (late 60s, early 70s) was also the era of the proliferation of violent and visceral racism and entrenched institutional racism in public and private institutions.

3) In the 80s, funding the ethos of public goods allowed for the development and expression of community initiatives, especially with the Black community through Ken Livingstone’s GLC. It was a golden era, in this respect, despite being a high point of the battle against the BNP and far right.

4) The end of the ethos of public good, and the massive diminishment of the welfare state has done nothing to dampen institutional racism, and now visceral racism is on the rise again.

Welfare and social mobility did not get rid of racism. Welfare provided for an opportunity to fund provisions to ammeliorate racism. The material basis for ammelioration has now diminished and is disappearing fast. But a return to an ethos of “public goods” will not in and of itself get rid of racialised inequalities and discriminations. No triumphal leftist narrative is possible for Black communities – nor was it ever – when it came to the welfare state. How can we re-make the relationship of public goods to racism for a better tomorrow?

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RasTafari and reparation time

I’ve just published a little piece about the August 1st reparation march through London on OpenDemocracy.

You can access it here:

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Exhibit B

Here’s my take on the Exhibit B furore that has been going on at the Barbican.

  • I recognise that art is the exemplary expression of the stunning multiplicity of human experience.
  • I recognise that slavery and colonialism is everyone’s history and that everyone should be ethically and politically invested in critically attending to its contemporary manifestations especially in terms of racism, visceral and structural.
  • I recognise that the issues implicated in Exhibit B are difficult and complicated, and that you could be black, critical, and still support the exhibit without being a sell-out to white supremacy.
  • I have also supported and celebrated what are on the face of it similar installments such as Teresa María Díaz Nerio’s Hommage à Sara Bartman which critically engages with one of the  “original” and most heinous “human zoos” of colonial rule.

So why do I firmly support in principle (if not in every point expressed) the opposition to Exhibit B articulated by Kehinde Andrews, Akala, Sarah Myers and others?

The core issue, for me, is about the structural power of representation, that is, who enjoys the institutional support through which they can, on the public stage, represent racial experiences, especially in terms of oppression and dehumanization.

In the UK this issue of representational power is especially crucial to grapple with because its art industry is not just hegemonically white in terms of ownership, directorship and funding but has got even more white in these regards over the last number of years, especially after efforts to create a self-directed Black arts world were largely defeated in the 1990s. Where, we might ask, is the vibrant Black arts world in a multicultural UK? I do not mean individual artists – there are many fine Black artists of all kinds. But I mean an arts world that is able to direct itself and can set its own agendas including its own disagreements?

It is a suprious argument to say that the personal background of the curator or director – i.e. his race, colour, gender, sexuality, nationality, class  and the combination of all these elements – is of no importance. After all, isn’t  the very purpose of Exhibit B to personalise the experience of the audience in order to sensitise them to issues of racism and colonialism? For that to work, it must mean that who you are and what lived experiences you bring are crucial ingredients to the succesful cultivation of this particular piece of art.

Two provocations are therefore forthcoming.

First, I support  Nerio’s Hommage and not  Bailey’s Exhibit because Nerio is a Black artist who is directing, setting the agenda and performing a critique of the racial gaze on African women. This is a different kind of power that is implicated in artistic critique to that exercised by Bailey, regardless of whether or not Bailey is sincere in his endeavours, which I take as for granted that he is. This is not to say, of course, that you couldn’t critique Nerio’s  Hommage; but the point is that you couldn’t critique it on the basis that it shared an equivalence with Bailey’s Exhibit: different executions of power are at play.

So, second, let’s cut to the chase: Exhibit B is an instillation that is addressed to white people. It is trying to conscientize white people – as white people – to their (often unconscious) complicity in systems (often global) of segregation, oppression and dehumanization. Very much like 12 Years a Slave, it is designed to first and foremost edify white people as to the deep wounds of racism and colonialism. I seriously cannot see how either Exhibit B or 12 Years a Slave was designed to edify the majority of peoples of African heritage at an existential level – that is, in terms of providing a bodily shock that reveals complicity in the same violence that shocks you. You might say that on occassion Exhibit B could even shock Black people in this way. Ok, but then I would ask you, in all honestly, do you think that these pieces of art are designed to gain their aesthetic and moneterary value primarily by shocking black bodies – or white bodies? And let’s also remember, Exhibit B is not being exhibted at the Black Cultural Archives, for example, but at the Barbican – a heartland of the British arts establishment.

And this is precisely my main problem with the Exhibit: who pays the price for white people educating white people about racism?

Chinua Achebe made this point perfectly, some years ago, in an interview with Caryl Phillips about why the celebrated Nigerian writer thought that Joseph Conrad’s “postcolonial” masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, (the book that inspired in part the film Apocalypse Now), was a piece of racism.

Phillips could not understand why Achebe could not see that Conrad’s book was a critique of European colonialism rather than a support of it. Phillips protested to Achebe that Conrad did not paint the African continent as primordially dark; his point, precisely, was to show that Europeans brought that darkness with them.

But Achebe replies that this critique or expose misses the point: this is NOT where Conrad’s exercise of racial privilige lies. Rather, the fundamental point, says Achebe, is that:

 you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems.”

And that:

I expect a great artist, a man who has explored, a man who is interested in Africa, not to make life more difficult for us. Why do this? Why make our lives more difficult? In this sense Conrad is a disappointment.”

This is why I think that the opposition to Exhibit B is so important. It has raised the fundamental question: who is setting the agenda for whose healing at whose cost?

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Black Bartholomew Diaz and Colonial Pedagogy

Marcus Garvey famously proclaimed:

Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob let Him exist for the race that believes in the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the One God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.

This is not just a theological proclamation. It is also a pedagogical directive. A properly “liberal” education would recognize that humanity wears a plurality of spectacles. And there is nothing wrong with looking at the world  through the spectacles of Ethiopia.

On 19th December 1931, a British member of the London Missionary Society sends a report back home from Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). He details educational activities at Hope Fountain, the missionary school he works in. He singles out a piece of historical composition by one young Black-African student, which reads:

Bartholomew Diaz is the first black man who went to a new land. He started away by sailing on the sea in West Africa; he went for many days in the sea. His servants were afraid. They said to him let us go back. They were afraid because many days they never see land. Bartholomew Diaz said to them, will you be kind let us go for few days. When they still walking the storm came blow them back where they know not where they are. He began to sail in the West Africa until they see a green land and beautiful hills. He called this land Cape of Good Storm.

There is nothing wrong with this historical report. The student presumes that the first human to “discover” and sail round the southern tip of Africa was Black. And in all probability, wasn’t that the case?

In 1488 Bartholomew Diaz, the Portuguese explorer, is tasked to seek out the ancient Christian Ethiopian kingdom of Prester John. By 1931 it is not unusual at all to come across “Ethiopian” churches in Southern Africa, that is, churches that have decided to worship God through the spectacles of Ethiopia. One year prior to this report, on November 2nd 1930, Ras Tafari has been crowned in Ethiopia as Qedemawi Haile Selassie, King of King, Lords of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. And there is oral evidence to suggest that at the time some people in Southern Rhodesia have sighted up Selassie I as the Black redeemer featured in Revelations.

So why should this child not presume that Diaz is Black? And that Africans return to themselves? Is she not relating an African story, one that she is part of, one that she wants to make sense of for herself, one that is owned by more spectacles than white?

Everything that is wrong about colonial pedagogy – that selfish pedagogy that uses only one pair of spectacles, that pedagogy that still controls our schools and universities – is represented in the condescending comments of the missionary regarding this child’s historical comprehension:

Our old hero Bartholomew Diaz has figured in many compositions but never perhaps to greater effect than in the present one. That he should have unfortunately got mixed up with Columbus is to be regretted and we trust that the present composition will not create any bad feeling between these two great explorers in the land of shades.

Black history does not even deserve a comment.

But fear not. Those things that have been hidden from the “wise” and “prudent” have been revealed unto the babes.

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