undivided subjects

Can the subaltern speak? : Postkolonialität und subalterne ArtikulationCan the subaltern speak? : Postkolonialität und subalterne Artikulation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here is a summary of the highlights of what I understood from the title essay, the only one I have read (taking 6 days). I have written this for aide memoire purposes and because I think through writing. In sharing it, obviously, I mean to entice you to read the essay, not to offer my inept interpretations as a substitute for it, but I have tried to make my ‘review’ as accessible as possible.

Spivak examines a conversation between Foucault and Deleuze (MF&GD), in which she says they ‘ignore the international division of labour, render ‘Asia’ transparent and reestablish the legal subject of socialised capital’ and treat ‘the workers struggle’ as a monolithic subject, linked to desire (to destroy power or which destroys power). They fail to explain relations between desire, power and subjectivity, and they are totally down on ideological critique, so they cannot articulate a theory of interests (as in holding a stake).

Spivak quotes Althusser on the ideological reproduction of social relations (submission to the ruling class, and the ability to manipulate ruling ideology are made for/in each generation) and notes that while Foucault had a go at shaking this up, he didn’t admit that a theory of ideology admits its own institutional production (as postcolonial academics, for example, do). In MF & GD’s talk desire, which always follows from interest, is opposed to ideology (seen as ‘being deceived’ or ‘false consciousness’) and desire implies an undivided subject, which becomes… Europe!

Intellectuals’ valorizations of oppressed subjects and their location of them ‘reality is what actually happens in a factory, in a school, in barracks, in a prison, in a police station’ serves to reinforce rather than undermine their own epistermic authority: they judge and mark ‘reality’ and the people who can reveal it. Spivak notes that ‘positivist empiricism [is the] foundation of capitalistic neocolonialism and so this use by the intellectual of ‘concrete experience’ can help to consolidate the international division of labour (the current mess). Intellectuals give us lists of subalterns who can speak, making themselves, representing those folks, transparent.

Spivak highlights the two distinct meanings of the word represent, working through a passage of Marx on class interest, to show that keeping them separate undermines the idea of an undivided subject, whether individual or collective, for whom interest and desire are one as Deleuze suggested. For Marx, class agency is not natural, not rooted in desire (its source is not the erotic in Audre Lorde’s sense), because the conditions it responds to (the economic conditions that form a class) are artificial (though they reflect interests – of the ruling class/ideology).

Here is an observation that I really like

‘the relationship between global capitalism (economic exploitation) and nation-state alliances (geopolitical domination) is so macrological that it cannot account for the micrological texture of power’

To do that, we need theories that examine the subjects micrologically working the interests that work the macrologic relation (reveal the details of how people/groups on the level of daily interactions structure the global situation). Such theories grasp both kinds of representation: they note how the world is staged in representation to make ‘heroes, paternal proxies, agents of power’ appear necessary

So, rather than do as Foucalt and Deleuze here and ‘reintroduce the individual subject through totalising concepts of power and desire’ by loudly refusing to speak for the subaltern, the intellectual should show that the subject can’t be undivided, and that their refusal to occupy the subject position is disingenuous because impossible (representation and re-presentation are not the same). Intellectuals should formulate theories of ideology that make their role in ideological reproduction visible. Spivak adds the irresponsible sleight of hand that reinstates the subject to Edward Said’s critique of Foucault – by mystifying power Foucault can ignore class, economics, the role of rebellion (just like (neo)colonial ideology). Said and Spivak emphasise the intellectual’s accountability.

Spivak reminds us that Foucault described the redefinition of sanity at the end of the European C18th and marked it as epistemic violence (Madness and Civilization right?) but she suggests that this is part of the same history of Europe that includes the epistemic violence in contructing the colonial subject as Other, noting the British codification of Hindu law and colonial education in India.

So, from the ‘First World’ and ‘under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital’ (the academy/institutionality/’Western’ intellectual status I think), Foucault and Deleuze declare that the oppressed, the illiterate peasant, tribal etc etc, given the chance (issues of representation & re-presentation) and on the way to solidarity, can know and speak their conditions. Spivak replies, on the other side of the international division of labour from the European intellectual (socialised capital) and from ‘inside and outside of the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?

This is a question that a particular group of intellectuals – the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group, who acknowledge Foucault’s influence – must ask. Spivak looks at Ranajit Guha, attempting to rewrite the history of the development of Indian national consciousness (because it had previously been written under (or by?) the colonised episteme, and is all about the leadership and importance and heroism of British elites and neocolonial all-India elites (I paraphrase flamboyantly)) and what looks like his strategic essentialism on behalf of ‘the people’ (subaltern) to locate them and their consciousness, and compares this to Marx (she finds ‘moments of productive bafflement’ in Marx about subjectivity and consciousness). At least the struggle to make the impossible possible remains in sight and the subject remains divided and heterogenous? I am at sea for a bit…

Woah then she says that the international division of labour depends on the urban proletariat of the comprador countries (Third World ruled by members of the international elite who have no responsibility to the population) not being trained in the ideology of consumerism, because that ideology leads to… political resistance. People who work in Third World sweatshops must not be able to buy the goods they make, or they would form coalitions and demand their rights.

To recap – one one side of the international division of labour is the intellectual, and then Guha’s buffer zone, the indigenous bourgeoisie and/or other dominant social groups (who may believe in coalition, who may be consumers, who may speak?) and on the other ‘those most separated from any possibility of an alliance among “women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients and homosexuals” [this is Foucault's list]… the females of the urban subproletariat’ who ‘cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation even if the absurdity of the nonrepresenting intellectual making space for her to speak is achieved’. Spivak then points out that there are people on or beyond the margins of the international division of labour (eg subsistence farmers) who are part of the ‘heterogenous Other’ that, in confronting, we would have to learn to see ourselves…

Foucault then, ignores the production of the West by the imperialist project. He reinstated the unacknowledged Subject of the West, presiding by disavowal, by pretending to vanish, and his admirers are fooled by the trick. It is absurd, and dangerous, for the First World intellectual to ‘masquerad[e] as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves’.

In contrast to everyone thinking good old Foucault is so politically right on, everyone hates Derrida, but, have a look at this bit of writing by Derrida on grammatology, which actually helps ‘the task of the First World subject of knowledge in our historical moment to resist and critique the ‘recognition’ of the Third World through ‘assimilation’, by marking and critiquing European ethnocentrism in the constitution of the Other (Spivak says this isn’t an apology for Derrida, helpfully, as I am always tempted to see lit crit as a horse race). Keep doing this: mark the positionality of the investigating subject

A little further on *glosses over more stuff I don’t really understand* Spivak mentions widow sacrifice in India:

The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’. White women – from the nineteenth British Missionary Registers to Mary Daly – have not produced an alternative understanding. Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: ‘The woman actually wanted to die.’ The two sentences go a long way to legitimise each other. One never encounters the women’s voice-consciousness. Such a testimony would not be ideology-transcendent or ‘fully’ subjective of course, but it would have constituted the ingredients for producing a countersentence

Imperialism paints itself as establishing a good society, and this picture includes woman as the object of protection from her own kind.

Spivak asks if, allowing that the abolition of sati is ‘a good thing’, an intervention in the poisonous dialectic of white saviours and nativist nostalgia both speaking for the subaltern woman is possible. There follows a look at Hindu scripture (Spivak marks her positionality as postcolonial woman, non-expert etc etc) and what can be salvaged of the history (overwritten by colonial episteme) of sati. She finds that ‘what the British see as poor victimised women going to the slaughter is in fact an ideological battleground’ (I think of Said here: Orientalist thought erases ideology) since its prevalance in Bengal (it was generally unusual, following the scriptural investigation Spivaks calls it an ‘exceptional signifier of her own desire) is linked to the fact that widows could inherit property (ie pressure from family members) to population control, to communal misogyny. Moreover, while some praise the courage and devotion of the self-immolating window, two incompatible ‘diagnoses’ of female free will are made.

The British had homogenized Hindu law under the imperialist episteme, and using this construct they consulted with learned Brahmans on the legality of suttee (as the British called it), often appearing to condone the practice, but when the law was written this history of collaboration was erased and the writing gives an impression of the noble Hindu triumphing over the bad Hindu and sati, which might be better read as a form of martyrdom, was positioned along with murder, infanticide, the lethal exposure of the very old, erasing ‘the dubious place of the free will of the sexed subject as female’, so, I conclude, we can no longer see and critique the agenda that paints self-immolation as free will, and as the path to release from the misfortune of having a female body in the cycle of rebirth, or the interests (patriarchy!) that lie behind such an agenda. We are left with (Said’s) ritual-obsessed, transfixed, unchangable, homogenous Orientals and White saviours.

This loss of the subaltern subject also happens even more forcefully in the case of widow celibacy (the word used for this is the word for the pre-sexual stage of life, so the implication is that the widow regresses to a pre-sexual state – there is another word for the virtuous post-sexual elective celibacy accessible to men), because it was ignored while sati was energetically debated.

In fact (I love this point), the word sati means good wife, and the word for widow immolation is ‘the burning of the sati‘ so the British made a grammatical error in their naming (like Columbus, she notes, with ‘American Indian’). And this error identifies self-immolation with good-wifeness, narrowing the ideological space to emphasise the heroism of the White man. Spivak looks at Edward Thompson’s list of literally translated names of burned widows – pure Orientalism. She then notes that Sati is a popular given name among Hindus, after the goddess Sati, the wifely manifestation of Durga, whose story is one of sacrifice for her husband. Between the two sentences ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’ and ‘The women really wanted to die’ then, there is no space from which the sexed subaltern can speak.

Spivak gives (with lots of cautions obviously) as example of the possibility of interventionist practice the case of a young woman, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, who killed herself (in 1926) because she had been entrusted with a task of political assassionation that she could not face, but waited until she was menstruating so that it would be clear that it was not a case of illicit pregnancy. Spivak’s reading makes this a subaltern re-writing of sati because Bhuvaneswari inscribes in her body its non-imprisonment within legitimate passion by a single male. Menstruating widows had to wait for the 4th day ritual cleansing before self-immolation. This unread text recovered by Spivak parallels the nativist rewriting of the social text of sati with the hegemonic Durga story that is ‘well documented and popularly remembered through the discourse of the male leaders of the independence movement [and thus, I venture, speak in the place of Foucault & Deleuze's 'people', the 'worker's struggle']. The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read’

And given that the subaltern cannot speak, ‘the female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish’

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rogue state

War Against The Panthers: A Study Of Repression In AmericaWar Against The Panthers: A Study Of Repression In America by Huey P. Newton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 stars for importance

In his introduction, Huey P Newton reminds us that the USA is founded on grand ideals of democracy which cannot be realised while ‘clevages’ of race and class structure society and the ruling class fears genuinely democratic institutions. The Founding Fathers’ idealism excluded African Americans, Native Americas and women, but the ideal of democracy is infectious, and struggle for inclusion inevitable. The order has been vigorously maintained through many means, more subtle after industrialisation & urbanisation, but always by the ultimate threat of violence. In the 60s, social control employed infiltration, misinformation and harassment, as detailed in this study. Newton asserts that such repression of certain groups restricts the freedoms of the entire society.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was singled out among many dissident groups for destruction by the state. US Attorney General John Mitchell stated that the Justice Department would “wipe out the Black Panther Party by the end of 1969 [that year]“. (They were referred to as a ‘Black extremist group’, which, considering their actual activities and ideas, suggests that valuing Black life is extremism.)

Newton provides some context:

Early C20th. In 1908, the Bureau of Investigation was created. Social control over dissidence was ruthlessly maintained, with police killing protesters, rounding up socialists and anarchists, bribing witnesses. Newton notes the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, apparently for being anarchists. There were deportations of radicals, raids, arrest of union organizers and activists. After the Palmer raids in 1919 every major city police department set up an Intelligence division. In 1936 the bureau became the FBI.

In 1938 Congress set up a Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda and in 1941 the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) made it a crime to teach the ‘duty, desirability or propriety’ of overthrowing the government by violence. Registration of radicals and the use of wire tapping (listening to phone calls) and mail covering (reading and copying people’s letters) became widespread. After WWII, the deportation of radicals and ‘undesirable’ ‘aliens’ increased. Communist Party leaders were convicted under the Smith Act. This was the era of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

The repression of Black USians protesting and organising for rights followed similar, often more violent lines to that of white American/European communists. Newton begins his recap of this by reminding us that

African slaves were first brought to America in 1616. These slaves and their descendants fiercely resisted their oppression, and for this resistance they have suffered beatings, torture, castration, lynching, and other forms of violence

Newton thus grounds Black resistance and US state suppression in an extensive, unbroken history starting from slavery.

The BPP was formed in 1966, originally with Black nationalist aims. Newton names their socialist ideology revolutionary intercommunalism, meant to be flexible and dynamic, and used as a pragmatic interpretive framework. The Party’s ideas changed over time. Its central strategy was building ‘survival’ community service programs, intended to directly assist and foster solidarity among the Black community. They urged self-defense against poor medical care, unemployment, slum housing, under-representation in politics and other oppressions, and they set up and organised decentralised co-operative local infrastructure to do this.

Another tactic was ‘police patrols’ – members listened in to police radio comms and rushed to the scene of arrests, book of law in hand, to inform citizens of their constitutional rights, carrying weapons as was their right under law. This ‘turned the imagery of the police against them’, exposing police lawlessness. The response was a bill to repeal the law that allowed citizens to carry and display weapons, which was passed, but a BPP protest delegation of armed black men created a striking image, photographs of which increased BPP popularity among young Black people as well as government hostility and White fear.

During WWII “[state] vigilance and caution grew into xenophobia and distrust of anyone who veered noticeably from the political mainstream” and this continued through the Cold War period. In 1968 the BPP was put on Nixon’s ‘White House Enemies List’

The FBI was… aware of and disturbed by the Panthers’ efforts to build community institutions. The one survival program that seemed most laudatory – providing free breakfasts to children – was pinpointed by J. Edgar Hoover as the ‘real long range threat to American society’

The bureau decided to use the cover of a crusade against criminals and terrorists for secret police operations to destroy political resistance; they would fight ‘crime’ instead of ideology. They searched for evidence that businesses contributing to the BPP in the bay area were being extorted, to no avail. They then tried to use narcotics law. In 1973 a well-funded and resourced Drug Enforcement Agency was created with the authority to request wire taps and no-knock warrants. Its former CIA staff were expert at planting phoney evidence and distributing misinformation.

In 1967 the FBI created COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program to ‘expose, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise the activities of the black nationalists’. 79% of COINTELPRO’s documented actions targetted the BPP; the program cost $100 million to US taxpayers. In 1976, for example, it allocated over $7 million to pay off informants and provocateurs. Many of its actions were intended to cause the death of BPP members, loss of membership and community support, draining of revenues and discrediting of Party programs and leaders.

Attempts to discredit (and confuse) Newton are documented: they are utterly insidious. Fake letters to individuals and newspapers accuse him of betrayal, while the FBI was of course able to pull strings to make such reports appear plausible. Newton was subjected to illegal telephone and microphone surveillance at his flat after his release from prison (when his conviction for manslaughter was overturned) on Hoover’s orders. The bureau then concocted and distributed a report that Newton was living in a plush penthouse and misusing Party funds – they even created a fake bank account in his name. Extensive harassment took place at his home.

Illinois BPP leader Fred Hampton whose chapter was highly active in delivering community health and welfare programs and pressuring negligent landlords to repair heating systems, and who was an energetic organiser fired with optimism and commitment, was targeted with the use of an informer and agent provocateur William O’Neal, who enabled Hampton’s bloody assassination by armed police.

A split between Eldridge Cleaver and Newton was engineered through misinformation. The bureau also sent misinformation to other Black activist groups, aiming to promote violence and conflict between them and the BPP, with mixed results.

The programs providing free hot breakfasts to children all over the USA was undermined by the FBI, who created a fake comic supposedly distributed at the breakfasts, showing police caricatured as pigs, with violent messages, and circulated it in the media and to businesses who were supporting the breakfast programs. The also plotted to halt distribution of the Party’s paper, which had a large circulation. They planned to use tax law, inducing tax authorities planned discriminatory activities based on political orientation of institutions. Newton’s private and the Party’s financial affairs were gone over meticulously, but the expensive investigation found no evidence for criminal charges

The FBI justified its actions, predictably, saying that it was protecting the American people. (Who is the American people? Do American children need to be protected from free breakfasts?) The tax authority was slightly more apologetic. The CIA, which had engaged in similar activities to the FBI, responded to revelations about its unlawful activities by destroying records and pressing for a charter to legitimize such activities in future.

The controls and apparatus necessary for the restriction of associational expression – investigations, files, informers, constant surveillance – are incompatible with a free society. [Such] [r]estriction is likely to become, in practice, an effort to suppress a whole social and political movement. History and experience warn us that such attempts are usually futile and merely tend to obscure the real grievances which society must, if it is to survive, face squarely and solve. – Thomas I Emerson

The Senate Select Committee which investigated to COINTELPRO scandal insisted on legal controls ‘to ensure that domestic intelligence activity does not itself undermine the democratic systems it is intended to protect’ but the subsequent long-running wrangles over intelligence reform produced bills that actually authorized COINTELPRO techniques and made no provision for citizens seeking redress.

I’m only too aware that my summary of the book reflects my own interests and limited understanding. I urgently recommend reading the study itself.

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playing in the twists of history

Oranges Are Not the Only FruitOranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve heard that her more recent take on the same material Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is even better. If that’s true, I’m in for a truly superlative treat, because I loved this book to the bones. I want to read it again and again to savour its sweet delights.

Maybe Laura Doan’s essay ‘Sexing the Postmodern’, about Winterson’s work and theme development over this and two subsequent novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry gave me a hunger to read this that made it taste so good (‘hunger is the best sauce’). Maybe I felt along with Jeanette so keenly because working-class northern-ness and being in trouble for being queer and weird are familiar territory. Maybe because I grew up around Christianity from a position of looking on in mixed horror, contempt, admiration and amusement I was primed to laugh at all the jokes.

Being working class, living in scarcity, means sharing space, often uncomfortably. Jeanette and her father go outside to the bathroom for respite. The Sally Army banish Jeanette’s inept tambourinists from their shared concert. Death meets ice cream. Poison meets progress. Unnatural passions.

There is a combination of elastic lightness and looseness of expression that makes for tiggerish bounding jollity, a feast of poetic allusions to lesbian love, and archly spoken cycles through remade mythology and fairytale. I don’t feel this as bildungsroman; Jeanette travels around in her life as in a tableau vivant rather than being changed by or absorbing the world. Revelatory moments and drastic, transformative events seem carved in niches. Jeanette passes them, points them out, sails on.

Without this distancing and the comic tone to leaven, it would probably be an unbearable story. As straight memoir I don’t think I could read it, but of course it’s not straight in any sense, it’s subjectively and structurally queer. It evades the snares of a heterosexist culture and its language by turning them aside: ‘to the pure all things are pure’ cries Jeanette of her love for Melanie, convinced it must, as all good things, be holy.

Perhaps the event has an unassailable truth. God saw it. God knows. But I am not God. And so when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way, and I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own

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vanishing paths

Palestinian WalksPalestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land.They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.

-Crocodile Dundee

I see this as a book about land and the felt relationship to land. Raja Shehadeh spent much of his professional life fighting legal battles for Palestinian landowners, strongly motivated by patriotism. But the folks on the other side, Israeli settlers, not only have the legal upper hand, but the same passionate motivation: deep belief in their entitlement to the land. Shehadeh is reminded again and again, by everything: the attitudes of settlers he encounters, the orientation of settlements, the walls built to segregate them from neighbouring Palestinian villages, that the project of settling the occupied west bank is ideologically invested in erasing the Palestinians and their history.

Shehadeh feels the same way. He would love to forget the occupation and just enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the hills. But over the 39 years this book spans, his ideal of sarha, which means most precisely walkabout, wandering without constraint, becomes ever more distant around Ramallah as the landscapes of lush spring-watered valleys, arid hilltops ‘embraced’ by villages is fragmented by big, busy roads that cut through the landscape to make journeys as swift and convenient as possible for settlers, as areas of open and supposedly public land become illegal for Palestinians to enter, and as the fear of being arrested or shot increasingly haunt the walker’s mind.

Much of his purpose in writing, I feel, is to counter the Israeli narrative that Palestine was ugly, neglected and unappreciated by its inhabitants before they took possession of it and began to develop it. He quotes the orientalist writings of famous western visitors and contrasts their dismal assessments of the landscape with his own loving impressions. He repeats that he was at first happy when Israel designated areas of the Palestinian territories as nature reserves, only to be dismayed to see them being built on and Palestinians legally shut out. He turns a popular mantra cynically on its head; the settlement project makes ‘the desert bloom with neon signs and concrete’.

Israeli architects Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman perceptively uncover ‘a cruel paradox': ‘the very thing that renders the landscape “biblical”, its traditional inhabitation and cultivation in terraces, olive orchards, stone building and the presence of livestock, is produced by the Palestinians, whom the Jewish settlers came to replace. And yet the very people who cultivate the ‘green olive orchards’ and render the landscape biblical are themselves excluded from the panorama. The Palestinians are there to produce the scenery and then disappear’

This is a book of love, anger and despair. It is an ode shading into a requiem. Both Israeli settlers who can shoot Palestinians with impugnity and Palestinian militias and bullies threaten and thwart Shehadeh and his walking companions at different times. This memoir elucidated to me more clearly than anything I have ever read the psychological toll taken by living under occupation. Shehadeh, a relatively privileged middle class man records the loss of something he senses, as I sense, is a human right. As a lover of walks myself and an itchy-footed introvert, the fantasy and reality of sarha sustains me; great swathes of the country I live in are open, public and free to wander; I walk in them fearlessly carrying no documents to validate my right to do so. But this privilege is raced; the document I carry is the whiteness of my skin. The logic and violence of settler colonialism is at work all over the world, only in the occupied territories of the West Bank it proceeds with especially murderous urgency.

When Mick Dundee says ‘the Aborigines don’t own the land, they belong to it’ I see this as an invitation to rethink the relationship to land outside of the logic of colonial capitalism. If ‘the Aborigines do not own the land’, settler logic allows it to be claimed by them. If indigenous people are to remain free to use and live on the land where they are, they are forced to accept the colonial position that land can be owned, and take ownership of it. To me, the colonial view is a kind of madness. Shehadeh began to write to restore his sanity after being crushed by despair, rage and defeat. Though the settlers see the world through lies, he recognises and relates to their love for the land. The challenge his words shape for Israelis is to enact this love while rejecting the colonial logic of the genocide of the natives. He writes calmly, honestly, critically, towards sanity and towards peace.

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in the shade

Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African DiasporaLayers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora by Deborah Gabriel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To trace the history of anti-blackness, Gabriel looks at some Biblical roots, the so-called curse of Ham. Chattel slavery in Africa predated the arrival of Europeans, with Arabs keeping African slaves (meanwhile Europeans such as the Greeks had long had their own slaves, but that is not in the scope of this book!). Mixing across Africa and Asia resulted in a spectrum of colour in Africa and the lighter skinned formed an elite slave-trading class. Maps show that Europeans saw ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa distinct from ‘Arabised’ North. Gabriel sees skin tone hierarchies developing around slave-trading at this time as a key root of colourism.

Slave owner William Lynch apparently proposed colourism as a deliberate divide and rule strategy to control slaves in the USA in 1712, soon after the 1705 ruling of the Virginia General Assembly that slaves were chattel under the law, and the ‘one drop rule’ declaring any person with a trace of African ancestry to be black, but white parents of mixed-race children often conferred advantages on them such as education and emancipation, so the ‘mulattos’ formed something of an intermediate class. After the US Civil War institutions excluded students on the basis of skin tone or hair texture, for example using the ‘paper bag test’ or ‘comb test’. Gabriel has many examples of exclusionary policy and many more of practice. US employment & income statistics continue to reflect colourism.

Gabriel also discusses the devastating effects of parental colourism, and psychological studies on the associations of dark skin in the USA, perpetuated through the media and capitalism: ‘sexism and racism work together to transform beauty into a form of social capital.’ which darker skinned women lack because beauty is constructed as white. Gabriel points out, importantly, that white beauty is not judged in isolation but in opposition to blackness, and is therefore based on the racist assumption of black ugliness. She notes that black magazines have generally been no less unhelpful than the mainstream media in choosing light-skinned black models.

White beauty is big business… Globalisation, multinational media organisations and the new world economy help to maintain US imperialism by exporting images of white beauty, white affluence and white success whilst at the same time exporting negative images of black people

Christian missionaries to Africa, including Black Americans, have perpetuated the idea of African culture as backward, becoming agents of imperialism.

Gabriel uses the example of Jamaica to describe a parallel to US colourism in the British Caribbean. White skin brought huge privileges on the island, and darker-skinned people were given the hardest work, and some privileges for ‘mulattos’ were written into the colonial charters. Markus Garvey lamented in the 1916 that lighter-skinned people who idealised British culture were still running Jamaica in a neo-colonial fashion and studies in the 1950s showed that the most affluent and professional class was still light-skinned. The recognition of AAORS (acquired anti-own race syndrome) helps to name the problem and understand skin bleaching and colourist social practices.

Gabriel traces colourism in the UK to the scientific racism of Carl Linnaeus. David Hume and Immanuel Kant are a couple of prominent exampled of philosophers who equated whiteness and intellectual ability, following the ideas of Linnaeus. Hegel went further, describing Africans as sub-human. Victorian attitudes were thoroughly racist as reflected at every level of culture from the period – Gabriel has all the receipts here. Interestingly, there was a shift from black-as-evil to black-as-comical as American popular culture drifted into British consciousness. Gabriel indicts Uncle Tom as explicitly colourist.

Gabriel compares educational outcomes of ‘black’ and ‘mixed black/white’ pupils in the absence of skin tone information – mixed race children do slightly better, but there is a much larger gap between them and white counterparts. Reports from Liverpool suggest that all black people suffer the same degree of racism. Examining employment data too, Gabriel concludes that those with lighter skin do not form an ‘elite class’ among UK black people because of the different history of slavery in Europe, where whites did not deliberately foster colourism as a divisive strategy in order to control large populations. Rather, it was only when large numbers of black people emigrated from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth areas in the 1950s to work in the UK that black people became a ‘problem’ here, and all non-whites were treated as a homogeneous group. This is also reflected in the association of racism with antipathy to immigration here.

‘Pigmentocracy’ in Latin America is also scrutinised. Some of the statistics Gabriel has gathered are really shocking: she reports in Columbia 98% of black people lack access to basic public utilities, compared to 6% of whites. A recent article on Media Diversified highlighted the near-disappearance of afro-Argentinians – a consequence of deliberate efforts to whiten the population. While there is no specific data, colour classifications are evident in language, and many people with African heritage have historically denied it to gain legal rights, avoid racist violence and so on. Gabriel notes that miscegenation is encouraged in certain configurations as a method of whitening the population over time. The one drop rule, she notes has tended to work in reverse in Latin America.

Latin American governments realised that conferring white privilege among acceptably light-skinned members of society would imbue them with undivided loyalty to white values and ideals and removed the threat of resistance and challege to the system of white supremacy. Their strategy has succeeded.

In the US mixed race black people such as W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglas were highly active in anti-slavery and Civil Rights work. In Latin America, where they would have access to certain privileges, and where black people were oppressed more subtly than by statute such as the Jim Crow laws, ‘mulattos’ have not historically stood in such solidarity. Gabriel cites a theorist, Bonilla-Silva, who believes the USA is now becoming more like Latin America in this respect.

A chapter on the black origin of the human species and biological reasons for the change to lighter skin tones as humans moved to less sunny latitude is included. I read an article based on the same research in New Scientist magazine long ago. Darker skin provides protection from UV damage and protects folic acid, while lighter skin allows more UV absorption so you can still get just about enough vitamin D even if you live in, for example, England. Gabriel also points out here that race is not a thing in any biological or sociological sense. Racism has defined and continues to define ‘race’.

The discussion of whiteness and white supremacy is brilliantly lucid. The work of making whiteness visible to white people is surely exhausting for non-white people, to whom it is as obvious as a wall in front of them (and often it works that way): white people must help by doing this work of learning and teaching other whites to see whiteness, and working to divest from white supremacy. Gabriel highlights the work of black feminists/womanists in articulating the operation of whiteness to exclude them by presenting white experiences as universal: most white feminists have failed to hear them.

‘Whiteness is maintained through and produces violence'; Gabriel cites the extreme British colonial genocidal violence in Kenya, important to note. Of course, there is no need to go so far afield in time or place for plenty more examples. Gabriel really acutely describes how whiteness structures society to confer social, political, economic advantages on whites without anyone noticing, because it is completely normalised. Overt racism works like a decoy to distract from structural white supremacy.

There’s also bucketloads of data here on the kinds of disadvantages that arise from not being racialised as white. This book is a great resource thanks to extensive research. This material is presented with a critique of colour blindness and the myth of meritocracy.

I loved reading the chapter on blackness which is about African heritage and identity. I never thought of the (apparently non-hierarchical non-violent technologically highly advanced) Indus-Valley civilization as having an African origin, but it seems they did. Fortunately I have got Cheikh Anta Diop’s book on the subject already and will be reading it some time soon. Gabriel has really got me interested in this suppressed history. She also explains that blackness is political, spiritual and cultural, and claimed, often with difficulty, by mixed race people who may be read as white. Blackness is a level of consciousness that enables a person to see through whiteness and free themselves from the myth of white superiority. In her conclusion, Gabriel calls for black people to move away from individualism and draw on their collective, community-oriented cultural heritage to fight shared oppression. She reminds us: ‘The ancients knew that to be black is to be blessed’

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this is what I heard

The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Sea-Folk.The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Sea-Folk. by David Thomson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here is Seamus Heany’s introduction quoting Wordsworth’s definition of a poet to apply it to David Thomson

a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind

I may as well give up then! This made me laugh and feel extra grateful for Aubrey’s new group.

In addition to an off-putting introduction (that’s to say it put me off Wordsworth a lot, Heany a little, and this book not at all), there is also a pointless afterword explaining the truth-status of Thomson’s text, which is, as was obvious, unimportant. All this rationalising and gaudy (and sexist) wrapping paper only goes to emphasise the degraded status of oral history and the obstacles facing its *scription. If anyone is to be enticed into reading, this humble stuff must have the name of a great poet, it must be packaged with academic explanations and endorsements, and those creatures, women, who only care about plot and relateable characters, ought to be well warned off.

I am saying all this because the text itself leaves me near speechless. Like the tellers of tales who talk in these pages, I am minded to hold my tongue until I have something worthy to say at the fireside, where I feel I am still sitting, with the sea rolling in my heart and the mournful songs of the seals in my ears. When I finished this book, I dreamed vividly of my family in strange houses and strange landscapes and awoke feeling I had drunk some restorative potion.

When I first began the book I felt I was hearing a voice apart, an uncolonised voice, but that is a wildly idealistic misperception I suppose: Thomson’s voice might perhaps be called postcolonial (critically oriented to colonialism) seeking the uncolonised memory still speakable in lives actively and unevenly colonised. For instance, Christianity is entrenched, but its grim binary-bound worldview is strongly inflected by a world of fairy folk, speaking creatures, strange blessings. The coercive teaching of English is remembered with the shadow of resistence. These topics are prominent – I’m not imposing my preoccupation! – but come up incidentally; Thomson never adopts a studious voice, an outside voice. His telling has no edge; it is tales within tales, songs within shells within rockpools within memories within women that are all of them story. The submerged listener invites the reader in and under too. This is a Scots-Irish 1001 Nights of the seal. I will carry it on my chest.

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teaching us to swim

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of ColorThis Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe L. Moraga
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This anthology by radical, feminist and mostly lesbian Women of Colour has the aura of a revolutionary moment. I loved the range of styles, especially the wonderful poems and prose poems, and generally the directness that gave it the feeling of a drama, the feeling of being in a room with the contributors. Much of what is said, of course, is still being said now, and I am aware that white feminists have cherry picked and weaponised words from this collection against women of colour. Nonetheless, keeping the context and the drift of a challenge to we white feminists to shake off the cosy mantle of the oppressor, I will echo a few of the most thrilling lines from the performance.

“Without an emotional, heartfelt grappling with the source of our own oppression, without naming the enemy within and outside of us, no authentic, non-hierarchical connection among oppressed groups can take place” – Cherrie Moraga

Moraga notes that white women’s groups have not seemed to feel a lack when women of colour were absent, and thus have not made efforts to be inclusive. This is an indictment of how feminism has been understood by white women. Native writer Chrystos says “I no longer believe that feminism is a tool which can eliminate racism”

Mitsuye Yamada writes that especially for Asian women ‘passive resistance’ is not possible as such behaviour confirms stereotypes about Asian women. For this reason, their anger makes white women most angry. She shares that every time she speaks to white women groups it is as if women like her have never been heard before. She notes that women in her life agree on feminism as an ideal but are disappointed with women’s movement as is. She bears witness to some acts of racism, for example, when she campaigned for the Fair Housing Bill a church friend asked her ‘why are you doing this? haven’t we treated you well?’ revealing that even third of forth generation Asian Americans are expected to act as a guests in the US, just as women of colour are expected to act as guests in feminism.

Barbara Cameron is forthright on internalised racism, confessing her negative feelings about Black, Asian Chicano and other groups which have come ‘from TV & who knows where’ and also racism among Indians about ‘half-blood’ people for example. She gives a neat description of the weird way white people behave at parties, describing the books they have read about your culture and so on, while the ‘third world people’ and/or gay people in the room all affect ‘sophistication’ by ‘talking to white people’. Like many contributors, she laments the racism among white lesbian feminists and the burden placed on her and other Women of Colour to eliminate racism and to educate White women.

Gabriel Daniels writes about Anais Nin’s maid Millicent Fredericks who came from Antigua. Nin could not get past the idea of her as black, exotic (to be painted by ‘a Gauguin’), suffering, poor, but she was a teacher in her home country and her work enabled Nin’s, as Daniels’ poem beautifully and painfully highlights.

A point of particular present relevance is well put by doris davenport – ‘racism’ is like a slimy disease and when accused liberals pull out their creds to show they do not have it. Her theory is that white supremacy in white women arises from an inferiority complex caused by our own powerlessness under patriarchy.

Some of the writers, for example Cherrie Moraga herself, are able to ‘pass’ for white and can choose to identify as women of colour, a choice which Moraga is painfully aware others do not share, and which she identifies as a risk to those who have no choice. Mirtha Quintanales talk of the ‘perils of passing’ (as cultural/ethnic erasure – which she says should be easier for lesbians to understand) but this discourse can shade painfully into anti-blackness and the collapse of solidarity, as keeps on happening. (White feminists can all too easily fall into the trap of being anti-black when non-black-women-of-colour claim they are being victimised by black women, as it taps into our so easily provoked white-tears. White folks: anti-blackness can occur in all sorts of spaces. Stay accountable.)

I loved the interview with Barbara & Beverly Smith on Black feminism. They mention things like white women expressing pride at their decision not to finish school, while black women have no choice and must be twice as qualified to get half as far. They are amused by the ‘click’ white women mention when they realise they are oppressed as women. Black women are all too conscious from their earliest memories, they say. Also they bear witness to white lesbians accusing black lesbians of being ‘male-identified’ because they are concerned with issues of racism that affect men! Along with many of the contributors, they critique lesbian separatism (which must have been in vogue) as racist or at least problematic because it ignores structural inequalities other than (hetero)sexism and leaves out huge groups of oppressed people. And again, the choice is not often available to women of colour. Also, the need for collaboration: “Any kind of separatism is a dead end… forming principled coalitions around specific issues is very important.” However, as others point out, separatist groups have intermediate use as safe spaces…

Much of the work shares positive aspects of Black/Latin@/Native/Asian culture in contrast to homogenized white American materiality – bland, mass-produced and soulless, celebrating togetherness, music, dance, food and just affirming joy in connection of articulating shared oppression and spending time with people they relate to.

Merle Woo charts generational learning: although her mother does not support her activism especially against heterosexism, Woo says that she could not have got where she was without the example of her mother’s strength. She is proud to see her own 16 year old daughter ‘going for what she wants’. Familial solidarity gave her a sense of self against the racism she experienced, including as a writer, for example a white woman poet criticized her and mentioned ‘looking for universal themes’ as an argument against addressing race. Of course we know, universal = white.

Gloria Anzaldua and others point out that poverty means no time to write: “forget a room of one’s own, write in the kitchen”. Like Merle Woo, she worries about misrepresenting her mother as a villain when, like all people of colour, she was a victim of the white supremacy that distorted her treatment of her dark-skinned daughter. Anzaldua writes lovingly about writing as (strategic essentialism!) reclamation of subjectivity. As does Nellie Wong, talking to herself, encouraging herself, summing up the wave behind her, driving her to write.

The range of the material is huge. Angles I did not expect included Norma Alarcon on Malintzin and Latinas’ reactions to the male myth, and Anzaldua & Luisah Teish on spirituality & breaking out of the rationalist paradigm: “The biggest problem that we have had was believing somebody else’s story about us”

Andrea Canaan mentions that white women have been seen as enemies by black women due to internalised, race-inflected misogyny: ‘she seduces black men and cries rape’, obviously in order to call for a change of attitude. Another expression of the impulse to move-beyond-dividing-difference (which white feminists have sometimes used against Women of Colour)

Pat Parker sees the forces of imperialism “up against the wall” this in 1980. Rather than revolution, imperialism blazed forth with renewed force and refreshed narratives of security against terrorists. Parker reads for us the encouragement to enlist: ‘be a good American’ “The equation is being laid out in front of us. Good American = Support imperialism and war. To this I must declare – I am not a good American. I do not wish to have the world colonized, bombarded, and plundered in order to eat steak”

Chrystos closes the collection. Like the work of other Indian/Native contributors, her words express internal conflict, a morass of grief, pride, anger, the will to go on fighting, faith and hope and love in community. Well, the fight goes on…

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