Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”

The Black Studies Association conference – “Blackness in Britain 2015: ‘The Black Special Relationship'” (held at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015) – explored the nature of black activism within and beyond the UK higher education sector, with a particular focus on the historical and contemporary impacts of  African-American scholarship on black intellectual life in Britain.

Established and early career researchers from a range of institutions within the Euro-American academy joined educationalists and grassroots activists from the wider public sphere to present panels on themes that included: Race Politics in Urban Settings; Black Feminist Resistance, African-centered Thought and Healing; Representation and Communication; Educational Experiences; Pedagogy, Curriculum and Theory; Black Political Activism; Literature, Film and Art History; and Blackness in Europe.

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Conference convenor Dr Kehinde Andrews welcomes delegates to the event and introduces Professor Gus John (seated right) as the opening keynote speaker at Birmingham City University, 30 October 2015.

It was fitting that the opening keynote address was given by Professor Gus John, who succinctly historicised the way activist-scholars drawn from the global African diaspora(s) have joined forces at pivotal moments -– such as the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900, and the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 – to align localised anti-colonial struggles against oppression and successfully instigate world-wide movements of resistance. His talk also emphasised the need to be vigilant and proactive in our campaigns to revise, progress and expand Black Studies curricula across the educational phases – especially as this was seen as key to challenging the ongoing omissions, erasures and marginalisation of Africa-related achievements within established canons of knowledge. Continue reading Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”

Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

Earlier in September I was pleased to present a conference paper at AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Münster, 16-19 September 2015) – the fifth biennial network event exploring socio-political issues and spatialities relating to histories of migration, diaspora formation, economic interdependencies and cultural links between Africa and Europe.

My contribution formed part of a diverse programme of speeches, panel presentations, structured debates and artistic performances that enabled participants to engage in wide-ranging, interdisciplinary dialogues about past and present-day life experiences of Africans and Diasporans in Europe, with a particular focus on the role of activism within academia.

Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.
Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.

The opening keynote address by political scientist Jamie Schearer (a founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD)) set an optimistic tone for the conference by outlining the many positive and tangible ways ENPAD was initiating effective advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, publishing educational resources and providing safe spaces for discussing the many complex and challenging issues of race and racism(s) faced by Africans in Europe. Some of the most successful projects recently undertaken in Amsterdam, London, Warsaw and Berlin were foregrounded – including the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, the “# Ferguson is Everywhere” campaign, and wider political lobbying related to issues of police violence, racial profiling, and inequalities within systems of justice. Fittingly, we were reminded of key figures in German history and political activism who have made significant contributions to discourses on challenging  racism, xenophobia, stereotyping, anti-blackness, sexism and homophobia – not least the Afro-German poet and educationalist May Ayim (1960-1996), and the African-American writer and rights activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992). Continue reading Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

Guardian Live Debate: Diversity in the Arts – 15 April 2015

On Wednesday 15th April I attended a panel discussion at Kings Place in central London about ‘Diversity in the Arts’, organised as part of the Guardian Live series of debates. The event was chaired by Guardian journalist Mark Lawson and featured contributions from five invited panellists: Chris Bryant (Labour Party spokesperson for culture, media and the arts),  David Lan (artistic director of the Young Vic) writer Dreda Say Mitchell (a trustee of the National Youth Arts Trust), Femi Oguns MBE (founder and CEO of Identity Drama School), and Ben Stephenson (controller of BBC Drama).

Contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.
Panel contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.

Key questions tabled for discussion considered the extent of diversity in the UK’s arts sector, as well as throughout the creative industries more broadly – across all artistic forms and genres, and at every level of responsibility and visibility (from front-of-house, audience-facing contributions, and back-office technical support, through to board-level and directorial decision-making, etc.). Central to the debate was the question of whether talent was able to shine through irrespective of factors such as skin colour, gender, sexuality, social class, and/or disability, and also whether successful entry routes and progression in different areas of the arts were still heavily dependent on coming from the ‘right background’, the level of financial support available, mobility within elite networks, and other socio-economic exclusions.

There was general consensus among all the panellists that the UK culture sector lacked diversity across the breadth of its different artistic genres and areas of employment. What differed were their views on the extent of the problem, what needed to be done to disrupt the status quo, the level of urgency influencing the need for change, and the speed at which tangible improvements could be achieved.

Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The opening statement by Femi Oguns focused on the current state of arts education, highlighting major concerns about under-representation of black and minoritized creative practitioners in the UK’s film, TV and theatre workforce – citing statistics from the British Film Institute that revealed less than 5% BME representation in the UK film industry when Britons of African, Asian and Caribbean descent (including visible minorities with dual/multiple heritage) comprise c. 14% of the population in England and Wales.*

Dreda Say Mitchell suggested that the wrong questions were being posed, and encouraged a refocused debate to make it more about issues of access and genuinely valuing people as equals. She was rightly critical of mainstream institutions such as the BBC for their lack of ambition in implementing “revolutionary reforms” and relying too heavily on arbitrary box-checking activities that compartmentalized individuals as diversity “types” – on which “project status” could be conferred, and small pots of “diversity funding” could be temporarily allocated – rather than valuing diversity as a means of achieving greater excellence as well as equality.

Continue reading Guardian Live Debate: Diversity in the Arts – 15 April 2015

A review of the Tate Britain symposium, “The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern”

A photograph of the sculpture 'Midonz' (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody
A photograph of the sculpture ‘Midonz’ (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody

On 20th and 21st February 2015 Tate Britain hosted a two-day event to explore a number of themes about representations of African and Asian people and their diasporic descendents within European art history. The symposium was scheduled to complement the display ‘Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39’  – co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain (The Equiano Centre, University College London), and currently on view at Tate Britain until October 2015.

Through a carefully assembled programme of talks, film screenings and audio-visual provocations the title ‘The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern’ was brought to life by  a diverse group of scholars from the fields of visual arts, curating, art history and the social sciences –  with each participant offering unique insights into changing representations of the black image within artworks from the Tate’s British art collection, other UK art institutions, and European museums and galleries more broadly.

A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist  and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Friday’s session featured a screening of Borderline (1930) – an avant-garde silent movie  created by British film director Kenneth Macpherson, starring African-American actors Paul Robeson and Eslanda (‘Essie’) Robeson. The resulting Q&A critiqued the complexities of the featured relationships that addressed inter-sected issues about ‘inter-racial’ intimacy, gender identities, notions of belonging and sexuality ‘across the colour line’.

A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).
A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).

Saturday’s symposium was arranged into four chronological and thematic sessions, considering: (1) the ongoing tensions that can arise during the process of documenting the longevity of the black presence whilst simultaneously noting the continuous absences, erasures and distortions of African, Asian and diasporic contributions within British art history; (2) photographic images and illustrations of black Victorians sourced from a range of public and private archives; (3) two case studies about artists’ models from early 20th century and inter-war colonial periods – specifically the life of the Jamaican artistic model Patrick Nelson (1916-1963), presented in Gemma Romain’s paper “Patrick Nelson: Identity, queerness and love in the life of a black artists’ model in interwar Britain”; and the lives of Dr Roshan McClenahan’s famous Indian aunts ‘Sunita and Anita’ who both modelled for artist Sir Jacob Epstein; (4) re-imagining and pluralising the modernist canon as global, hybrid and ‘multi-polar’, envisioned via scholarship about the life and work of the Indian modernist Jamini Roy, presented by Professor Partha Mitter.

Continue reading A review of the Tate Britain symposium, “The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern”

“American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York

American Policing: Lessons on Resistance’ is the title of a panel discussion that took place at the Schomburg in New York on 18th February 2015 as a follow-up conversation to their recent town-hall-style debate on ‘American Policing: The War on Black Bodies’. The session featured wide-ranging commentary on issues related to police brutality, racial discrimination, ‘stop and frisk’/’stop and search’ policies, and community-led responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and others in recent news.

Contributing speakers (from left to right): Mychal Denzel Smith; Cherrell Brown; Philip Agnew; Dante Barry; and Ashley Yates. Source: Schomburg Center, New York.

The panel discussion was moderated by writer Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), with contributions from the following four political activists and social commentators: Ashley Yates (poet and co-creator of Millennial Activists United), Dante Barry (Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice), Philip Agnew (Co-founder of Dream Defenders) and Cherrell Brown (National Organizer with Equal Justice USA). Closing comments were also provided by Dr Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Central to the debate were questions about what justice might look like if black lives actually mattered in the USA; strategies for restructuring, de-militarizing and dismantling policing systems so that their historical origins in the States as organisations founded on the surveillance and restriction of the lives, mobilities and freedoms of black and brown people did not continue to perpetuate racialized discrimination; critiquing the complexities of campaigning against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the increasing monetization of incarcerated black bodies; envisioning safe communities; aligning anti-racist  political activism with wider education and culture agendas – including activism via the arts; routes into community-based activism and leadership for young people; self-esteem/’self-love’/self-care and spirituality issues within movements for social change; and effective ways to disseminate counter-narratives to help challenge the normalisation of privileged white citizenship to the detriment of others’ lived realities.

Continue reading “American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York