Published by Zed Books on November 15th 2018
Not so long ago, many talked complacently of a post-racial era, claiming that advances made by people of color showed that racial divisions were becoming a thing of the past. But the hollowness of such claims has been exposed by the rise of Trump and Brexit, both of which have revealed deep-seated white resentment and have been attended by a resurgence in hate crime and overt racial hatred on both sides of the Atlantic. At a time when progress toward equality is not only stalling, but being actively reversed, how should anti-racist scholars respond? This collection carries on James Baldwin’s legacy of bearing witness to racial violence in its many forms. Its authors address how we got to this particular moment, arguing that it can only be truly understood by placing it within the wider historical and structural contexts that normalize racism and white supremacy. Its chapters engage with a wide range of contemporary issues and debates, from the whiteness of the recent women’s marches, to anti-racist education, to the question of Black queer studies and queer intersectionality. Mapping out the problems we face, and the solutions we need, The Fire Now considers how anti-racist scholarship and activism can overcome the setbacks posed by the resurgence of white supremacism.
“We do not underestimate the enormity of such a task, but, motivated by love, we have no option but to struggle. We struggle for you, our loved ones. We struggle for a future we do not yet see, and for those we do not yet know. We struggle with urgency and purpose, knowing that, as Baldwin put it, ‘the impossible is the least that one can demand’” [p.262]
I wanted to begin this review of ‘The Fire Now’ with the above final words of the editors, Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge. Their words, at the completion of a collection of essays by scholar/activists of colour, summarise so poetically and forcefully, the need for action now. This action is not based on an academic understanding, but rather, as people of colour, of a necessity that is born from the violent times we live in. It makes their framing of these essays in the context of James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’ even more important – as the floods have passed – and now there are fires everywhere.
There are some key issues that raise their head throughout the essays. The contributors to this edited collection see 2016 as a year that brought to the fore a violence that has always existed, but perhaps now has clearly definable faces. Trump, Brexit, Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, the rise of the far-right and counter-terrorism policy, particularly the Prevent strategy, are all referenced as significant and constituent parts of the architecture of oppression. In the very first chapter, Azeezat Johnson describes the anxiety of 2016, and how it brought to the fore an immediacy to act:
“It was in this moment that I recall seeing myself and others deciding that we can no longer afford to privilege white innocence over the carnage white supremacy causes to racialised communities. In this moment, many of us decided that we must be frank about the functioning of white supremacy and its logics of ‘taking back our country’ that led people to vote in favour of a platform that privileged these blatantly racist terms.” [p.15]
What Johnson helps us to understand, is that scholars cannot remain comfortable in the spaces they are in. They are constantly being constructed by racism while they also try and challenge racism, which makes them witnesses both inside and outside. All of this means that Azeezat Johnson calls for ‘Azeezat 2.0’ – a scholar/activist who is far less willing to engage in politeness in the face of white supremacy [p.23]. This refusal to be polite becomes necessary, as Derrais Carter informs us that within academic writing, there is an impossibility of writing about blackness [p.38]. It is this questioning of the very environment of knowledge construction that makes the first section of the contributions so powerful. Remi Joseph-Salisbury finishes it by rightly suggesting that in confronting our duties as academics, we must decentre the university [p.51].
My own personal field has been the study of the War on Terror and its impacts on communities in both the way they are constructed by knowledge, and the way that this knowledge proceeds to carry out violence against those very communities. With that in mind, I was very pleased to see the inclusion of voices that were thinking about the links between racism and the War on Terror – drawing straight lines of continuity between the two. Amal Ali’s essay on the cases of the hijab/niqab/veil in the courts really hits this home – as it shows how Muslim women are constructed in different ways according to their race, religion and gender – they are always at the same time both victim and perpetrator. The deserve to be rescued and to be secured away from society. This constant duality in the way Muslim women are harmed by the courts and the prevailing political environment, necessitates that their agency is removed within the Human Rights framework [p.83].
Kehindre Andrews writes one of the chapters that perhaps is closest to many of my recent concerns – the role that is played by liberals in reinforcing the structural racism of the state. Using Malcolm X’s analogy of the Southern Fox and the Northern Wolf, he reminds us that Malcolm had peered into the heart of America, and seen the hypocrisy that sat at the centre of white liberal ‘activism’ [p.118]. From the US to the UK, Andrews seamlessly connects the liberal politics of the foxes in the form of Obama and Clinton to the foxes of ‘social cohesion’ promoting the Prevent agenda [pp.124-125]. He is able to see through the rhetoric and rather assess policies based on their affect, rather than just the sounds bites they are attached to. It is worth reproducing some of Andrews’ final words, for they have great significance as we continue to challenge policies that harm us:
“Theresa May has been part of a government that has pursued domestic and immigration policies that are just as racist as anything Trump has advanced. Yet, there are no protests or outcry about her racism because she has done it with the trickery of a Fox, rather than the fierceness of the Wolf. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Trump we should learn the lesson that the overt racism of the Wolf is not more dangerous than that of the Fox. That if we reduce the baring of teeth and the snarling of the Wolf we do nothing to curb the trickery of the Fox. Neither Britain nor the United States is any inch more racist than before the vote for Brexit and election of Trump. No matter if it is the Wolf or the Fox, we will continue to be attacked until we overturn the system of racial oppression.” [p.127]
What Kehindre Andrews says rings true…because…’This Ain’t Nothing New’, the title of the twelfth chapter by Layla Brown-Vincent. Nothing…literally nothing we see is new, and so to better understand where we are, we need to understand the past. We are provided details about the way in which the FBI classify individuals as ‘Black Identity Extremists’ a term that finds its roots in the McCarthyite House of Un-American Activities, and more specifically the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Programme [COINTELPRO], used against black activists during the era of civil rights campaigning. As nothing is new, it becomes every more crucial to learn these lessons, in order to even begin to attempt avoiding the pitfalls of the past.
Much of my work is working with trauma survivors, and Maryam Jameela’s chapter on ‘Movements through Trauma’ was a necessary reminder that actually, the trauma that accompanies structural racism, as it manifests itself across every single aspect of society, produces varying layers of trauma. Ones that intersect and layer on top of each other – as we witness harm to ourselves, and to those we love around us. Jameela doesn’t believe things will get better, but her call to herself to carry on in order to live, fight for herself and fight for others is a powerful one [p.207].
Finally, Sadia Habib’s essay on Fundamental British Values brings me back to the the different manifestations of structural violence, but ultimately, how those who have a duty to protect, can engage in the banality of evil (Ardent), by playing roles that they know are antithetical to their professions. The aim is not just that students lose their identity, but that they melt into a larger construct of whiteness that they will always simultaneously be barred from – the system is rigged. In order to become safe, you must lose yourself into the dominant value system, but by virtue of what made you different, you can never be truly accepted:
“The ‘message’ received here by ethnic minority students would be ‘forget the culture of your parents, discard any affiliation to your ethnic background and blend in’ (Troyna and Carrington, 2012: 2). Cultural assimilation is frequently promoted by educationalists who assume ‘a successful student of color is an assimilated student of color.” [p.213]
This collection is incredibly important, particularly for younger scholars on their journey into academia, and especially for those who see their role within the academe as being to effect change. At times it helps to life our understanding, at other times the contributions provide much needed advice and support, and at other times, the essays remind you that you are not alone in this fight against injustice and oppression. My sincere thanks to the editors and all the contributors, I left this book feeling hopeful and revived, and pray it will have the same impact for many others.2