From Fanon’s fugitive archive to Gandhi for the post-truth age, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Christopher J. Lee
Africa is a Country
Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He died from cancer in 1961 at the age of 36 in a hospital outside of Washington, DC. In between, he lived in France, where he received a medical degree from the University of Lyon; in Algeria, where he worked at a psychiatric hospital in Blida, near Algiers; and Tunisia, where he continued his clinical research and wrote for Algeria’s anti-colonial Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), a cause he joined while in Blida. He spent shorter periods of time in Accra, Bamako, Conakry, Moscow, Paris and Rome. All told, from a biographical standpoint, Fanon’s frequent movements remain a source of fascination. From a research standpoint, however, these movements are something of a disaster.
Alienation and Freedom, a new collection of Fanon’s writings edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young and translated by Steven Corcoran, is an attempt to alleviate this problem of documentation—in essence, to create a posthumous archive of his work which thus far has been scattered across the aforementioned places in state repositories, medical libraries, university collections and private hands. This book is therefore indisputably a gift, a cause for celebration. First published in French by La Découverte in 2015, Alienation and Freedom is the first major collection of new writing by Fanon to be published in more than 50 years, since the 1964 release of Pour la révolution africaine (Toward the African Revolution), translated into English in 1967. [continue reading]
When George W Bush declared that America “has never been an empire,” he elided a half century of colonial rule over its overseas dependencies. But American expansionism has manifested in other forms too, says A G Hopkins, imperial historian and author of a panoramic new work of American history.
When we talk about the American ‘empire,’ what are we talking about? Is this westward expansion across the continent, the amassing of overseas dependencies or something else entirely?
Let’s start with the word ‘expansion.’ We have the mainland colonies, and the process of western and southern settlement through the 19th century, and indeed continuing in different circumstances today. We also have the creation of a formal empire—that is, the islands in the Caribbean and Pacific that were formally placed under US jurisdiction in 1898. On top of that, you can argue for the presence of what is called an ‘informal’ empire, where US influence has been so pervasive—whether in Japan, Korea, or Latin America—as to constitute the equivalent of a formal empire. [continue reading]
World War I was a transformative moment in African-American history. What began as a seemingly distant European conflict soon became an event with revolutionary implications for the social, economic, and political future of black people. The war directly impacted all African Americans, male and female, northerner and southerner, soldier and civilian. Migration, military service, racial violence, and political protest combined to make the war years one of the most dynamic periods of the African-American experience. Black people contested the boundaries of American democracy, demanded their rights as American citizens, and asserted their very humanity in ways both subtle and dramatic. Recognizing the significance of World War I is essential to developing a full understanding of modern African-American history and the struggle for black freedom.
When war erupted in Europe in August 1914, most Americans, African Americans included, saw no reason for the United States to become involved. This sentiment strengthened as war between the German-led Central Powers and the Allied nations of France, Great Britain, and Russia ground to a stalemate and the death toll increased dramatically. The black press sided with France, because of its purported commitment to racial equality, and chronicled the exploits of colonial African soldiers serving in the French army. Nevertheless, African Americans viewed the bloodshed and destruction occurring overseas as far removed from the immediacies of their everyday lives. [continue reading]
Numbers came easily to Angeline Nanni. As a girl of 12 in rural Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, she kept the books in her father’s grocery store. In high school, she took all the accounting classes on offer. Enrolled in beauty school after graduation—cosmetology being one of the few fields open to women in the 1940s—Angie focused on the business side while her sisters, Mimi and Virginia, learned to style hair. Before the war, the three Nanni sisters had opened a beauty parlor in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, and Angie ran it. So yes, numbers were her calling.
But the numbers on this test were like nothing she had ever seen. Angie—intent, graceful, unflappable—was seated in a small classroom in a large, ill-built temporary structure. The year was 1945, and World War II was over. The Nanni sisters had moved to Washington, D.C. to take jobs in the war effort, but now the beauty shop in Blairsville beckoned. Angie, though, wanted to stay. This test would determine whether she could. [continue reading]
In 2015, in South Africa, where Mohandas Gandhi lived from 1893 to 1914, a statue of him was defaced by protesters. The following year, the University of Ghana agreed to remove Gandhi’s statue from its campus, after an online campaign with the (misspelled) hashtag #Ghandimustfall charged the Indian leader with racism against black Africans. Compared with other recent targets of political iconoclasts—stalwarts of the Confederacy and Cecil Rhodes—Gandhi seems an unlikely symbol of racial arrogance. Nelson Mandela claimed that Gandhi’s tactics offered “the best hope for future race relations”; Martin Luther King, Jr., held Gandhi up as a model; decades before that, black activists such as Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Benjamin Mays were enthralled by the phenomenon of an Indian leading people of color in the campaign against British colonialism in India. Yet Gandhi’s legacy is no longer secure even in his own country. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, cites V. D. Savarkar, a far-right Hindu supremacist who was accused of involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, in 1948, as his ideological mentor. A portrait of Savarkar, who loathed Gandhi for being too soft on minorities, hangs in the Indian Parliament building.
Even some left-leaning writers have recently argued that Gandhi must fall. In “The South African Gandhi” (2015), Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed depict him as a pro-British lawyer, who worked within the country’s white-supremacist politics to promote his Indian compatriots at the expense of black South Africans. In “The Doctor and the Saint,” Arundhati Roy indicts Gandhi for his failure to unequivocally condemn the Hindu caste system, calling him a “Saint of the Status-Quo.” The Marxist critic Perry Anderson, in his scathing account of Indian nationalism, “The Indian Ideology” (2012), charges that Gandhi’s “intellectual development” was “arrested by intense religious belief.” [continue reading]