From rethinking the ‘colonial’ in Colonial America to decolonising human rights, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Jessica Choppin Roney
This fall, I am throwing out my existing Colonial America syllabus and trying something completely new. My new course is organized around a central question: What is (was?) “colonial” about colonial America? Or, to formulate the question slightly differently than Michael Warner did eighteen years ago, how might I productively reframe the chronology of a class named “Colonial America”?
I’ve been teaching for ten years now, and “Colonial America” is a regular in my line-up. I’ve taught it in various iterations adopting at different times each of the two fairly standard approaches: One is Atlantic history and the other Colonial British America. In each approach I am deeply influenced by the paradigm of Atlantic history and disrupting students’ assumptions about the geography of the early modern world. For all the legitimate problems many have identified with the paradigm of Atlantic history, I value it for how it de-centers an older narrative of the Thirteen Colonies (somehow they’re always capitalized), and makes them not the center but instead a part of a much larger, messier, and ultimately more compelling story of exchange, interpenetration, and entanglement. However, after a stimulating decade of turning the map upside down and sideways, I’ve come to conclude that the questions I have in my own scholarship right now are not only about de-centering the geography of colonial America but its chronology. [continue reading]
James M. Robertson
On a humid night in June, 1968, in a northern Belgrade suburb, a brawl at a concert hall quickly escalated into a violent confrontation between college students and city police. By noon the next day, students throughout the city had occupied their campuses and dorms, demanding the sacking of the chief of police and calling for a radical democratization of socialist Yugoslavia’s political structures.
Despite efforts by the ruling League of Communists to contain the unrest to the capital city, within days the protests had spread throughout the campuses of Yugoslavia. Across the six republics of the federation, students, organizing outside of the official student unions and party organizations, condemned what they termed the “red bourgeoisie” and declared their solidarity with the working class. In Belgrade the occupied Faculty of Philosophy was renamed the Red University of Karl Marx, red flags and portraits of Marx, Lenin, Tito, and Che Guevara were hung from its walls and sympathetic faculty organized lectures and study groups on Marxist philosophy. [continue reading]
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Paris beckoned African-American intellectuals hoping to escape the racism and conformity of American life. Chief among them: Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of Native Son and Black Boy, who arrived in 1947. He was soon joined by Chester Himes, an ex-convict who mastered hard-boiled detective fiction; James Baldwin, the precocious essayist; and Richard Gibson, an editor at the Agence France-Presse.
These men became friends, colleagues and, soon, bitter rivals. Their relationship appeared to unravel over France’s war to keep its colony in Algeria. Gibson pressured Wright to publicly criticize the French government, angering the acclaimed author. Wright dramatized their falling-out in a roman à clef he called Island of Hallucination, which was never published, even after his death in 1960. In 2005, Gibson published a memoir in a scholarly journal recounting the political machinations his former friend had dramatized, telling The Guardian he had obtained a copy of the manuscript and had no objections to its publication. “I turn up as Bill Hart, the ‘superspy,’” Gibson said of the story. [continue reading]
Madeleine Davis and Ross Speer
The enduring image of New Left activism, both in Britain and elsewhere, remains that of 1968. Britain’s 1968, however, really began the year before. Publication of the May Day Manifesto gave voice to disenchantment with the first Wilson government and sketched out an alternative socialist programme. Produced by a group that included Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams, Mike Rustin and Stuart Hall, the Manifesto revived and radicalised an earlier New Leftism, but was quickly overtaken by a more avowedly revolutionary left culture.
The Dialectics of Liberation conference brought to London Marxist intellectuals like Paul Sweezy and Herbert Marcuse alongside the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, radical psychiatrist R.D Laing and poet Allen Ginsberg. A nine-day occupation of the LSE signalled the arrival of students as a distinct agent of the left. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) was launched, carrying placards calling for ‘Victory to the NLF!’. It was in this atmosphere that The Black Dwarf, now digitised and made available in full for the first time via the Amiel-Melburn Trust archive, was formed. [continue reading]
This is a big year for human rights. In December, we will mark 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. That was a landmark moment in human history, and the anniversary this year should be something to celebrate. Of course, there have been huge gains during those seven decades, too many to list. If I had been alive at that moment on the eve of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, shaken by the horrors and inhumanity of the Second World War, and I had been able to see ahead by seven decades, I may be pleasantly surprised to see an elaborate international normative system that includes protection of refugees; respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples; protection of the rights of people with disabilities; fighting the scourge of torture; and fulfilment of such rights to dignity as the human right to water and sanitation.
With the controversial precedent of the Nuremburg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals then, who among us in 1948 would have taken it for granted that the next 70 years would see the forces for justice of an International Criminal Court that seeks accountability for atrocities, the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and of the range of hybrid courts from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, through the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor, to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia? [continue reading]