From the lost promise of Pan-Africanism to Brexit lessons from Jamaica, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Had Peter Abrahams, the South African–born novelist, journalist, and Pan-Africanist, not been killed tragically in his Jamaican home in January 2017, he would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. Born in 1919 on the outskirts of Johannesburg to an Ethiopian father and a “colored” (in the parlance of apartheid) mother, Abrahams lived his life along the winding paths of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century. In the same year that Abrahams was born, W.E.B. Du Bois helped organize the First Pan-African Congress to lay out a vision of what the end of the “war to end all wars” might mean for the colonized and Jim Crowed, who had long been subjugated by empire and white supremacy.
When the end of another world war spurred the creation of the United Nations in 1945, Abrahams was old enough to join in the Pan-Africanists’ Fifth Congress, serving as its secretary of publicity. By that time, he had escaped South Africa after being accused of treason for criticizing his country’s inequalities and had established himself as a writer with the publication of the short story collection Dark Testament and the novel Song of the City. At the Fifth Congress, he was joined by a cohort of black intellectuals—Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore—who would soon define the coming postcolonial era. “The struggle for political power by Colonial and subject peoples,” the congress declared, “is the first step towards, and the necessary prerequisite to, complete social, economic and political emancipation.” [continue reading]
When Katrin Klinger moved from communist East Germany to the west in the late 1980s, two things immediately struck her: “The lack of self-assurance, despite all the material advantages, and the lack of solidarity among women.” As she and her family grappled with settling in to a new life in Frankfurt, she was taken aback by the bitchiness and competitiveness she met at the school gates and, more generally, the relative lack of emancipation among West German women compared with her experience growing up and working in the east. Having escaped political oppression and shortages, she was looking forward to a world of freedom and material conveniences that would make her life easier, only to encounter petty rivalries and senseless competition about who had the better domestic appliances.
We were talking over coffee recently in London ahead of the looming 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. We first met back then, as colleagues at a magazine company. She had written an essay — East Woman/ West Woman — that she asked me to translate into English. Three decades on, amid widespread musings and analysis in the German media about the outcomes of November 1989, I was keen to catch up and reflect on what a number of observers see as one of the unexpected outcomes of German unification: the triumph of women from the east. [continue reading]
London Review of Books
The Sahara is one of the few places on earth no one has been foolish enough to try to conquer. There have, however, been attempts, over the centuries, to govern it. In Ghat, one of the last Libyan towns in the Fezzan before the desert takes over, there are vestiges of efforts to bring the land to order: Bedouin trails that date from the Middle Ages; a rough-hewn fortress, started by the Ottomans and finished by Italian Fascists, that overlooks the hollowed-out ruins of a medina below. The traders, militiamen, shop owners and tour operators here have a range of views about Europe’s rekindled interest in their region.
For some, it is the promise of a better livelihood: to get their share of the vast amount of money the EU is now pouring into North Africa, or at least to recoup the losses that followed Nato’s destruction of Gaddafi’s distribution networks. (When Gaddafi’s son was released from prison two years ago, the citizens of Ghat celebrated in the streets with gunfire.) For others, new electronic fences, biometric scanning stations, military outposts and an increasing number of European soldiers are signs that delicate circuits of kinship and commerce are being disrupted. At a makeshift café in a petrol station on the outskirts of Ghat I met a Tuareg man associated with a local militia. ‘They get tired, they want to leave,’ he said of the European forces, as if their arrival was a nuisance rather than a paradigm shift. [continue reading]
“Yamazaki, Shoot Emperor Hirohito!” Okuzaki Kenzo’s Legal Action to Abolish Chapter One (The Emperor) of Japan’s Constitution
At the New Year’s public opening of the Imperial Palace on January 2 1969, a Japanese war veteran by the name of Okuzaki Kenzō (1920–2005) fired three pachinko pinballs from a slingshot aimed at Emperor Hirohito who was standing 26.5 meters away on the veranda greeting about 15,000 visitors. All three hit the bottom of the veranda, missing Hirohito. Not many people seemed to notice that it was Okuzaki who fired them. Okuzaki then shot off one more, calling to the ghost of his war comrade, shouting, “Yamazaki, Shoot the Emperor (Hirohito) with a pistol!” Again he missed. Policemen on guard duty searched frantically for the perpetrator but could not identify him in the crowd. It was not certain whether Hirohito himself noticed the pinballs hitting the bottom of the veranda. Together with Hirohito, his wife Empress Ryōko, his two sons – Princes Akihito and Masahito – as well as their respective wives were also standing on the veranda, but it remains unclear whether any of them were aware of this incident.
Okuzaki approached one of the policemen frantically moving around the crowd and grabbed his arm, telling him, “It is me who shot the pinballs. Let’s go to the police station.” Obviously he did this intentionally, hoping to be arrested on the spot. Later he confessed that yelling “Yamazaki, Shoot the Emperor with a pistol!” was his tactic to attract police attention. He expected that the word “pistol” would immediately alert the police to the possibility of danger and that he would be arrested forthwith. Yet, disappointingly, this did not happen and therefore he had to ask a policeman to arrest him. [continue reading]
Steven LB Jensen
While the Brexit debates have been busy with historical references, there is arguably no historical event which comes closer in resemblance to Brexit than the 1961 Jamaican referendum on membership of the West Indies Federation. On 12 May 1962, (the then recently deposed) Jamaican Prime Minister Norman Manley wrote in his diary the following: “Why[…] did I decide on the referendum? Why did I so totally commit myself and the Party to its result? Why did I leave out the smallest loophole for escape back to the old road if the Referendum failed?”
While the Brexit debates have been busy with historical references, there is arguably no historical event which comes closer in resemblance to Brexit than the 1961 Jamaican referendum on membership of the West Indies Federation. This event – unknown to most – carries echoes to the present and provides a certain diagnosis of the current political situation in the United Kingdom. [continue reading]