From the pitfalls of symbolic decolonization to the private life of empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Mukoma wa Ngugi
Africa is a Country
In January of 2019, I traveled to Ghana to visit slave castles and forts for the book I am currently writing on the relationship between Africans and Black Americans, Somewhere between Black and African: A Biography of my Skin. I visited Keta, a coastal town that Maya Angelou in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes described as melancholic—you see this was once a village from where slaves were kidnapped.
There is a question we do not ask often enough—what happened to villages and towns in Africa after slave traders started disappearing their populations? The slaves had to come from somewhere—what happened to those communities that were raided for their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles? One of the answers is inherited psychological trauma and inherited poverty. Conversely, what happened to the towns and cities where the slaves were brought for trade and labor? Shortly after leaving Keta, I visited Bristol, England. Bristol rises from the ocean to hills that are more like ridges. The river front where the slave boats docked is now busy with commercial ships and tourist boats. Along the waterfront all kinds of bars and bohemian like restaurants proliferate. Keta is a town wrapped in a blanket of melancholia, while in Bristol its bohemian happy excess. [continue reading]
In India, despite the presence of peculiar social institutions like caste, the role of the newspapers in social reforms movement was not just limited to articulation of specific concerns of individual reformers. But they also laid the foundations of a mass churning that aspired for democratic values. On January 31, 1920, one hundred years ago, one such newspaper was founded by B.R. Ambedkar.
Mooknayak, literally translates to the leader of voiceless. Despite its short life, Mooknayak laid the foundations of an assertive and organised Dalit politics. It announced the arrival of a newer generation of anti-caste politics that broke the confines of region, language and political boundaries and coincided with the larger developments on the nationalist scene. [continue reading]
When the bell tolls at eleven o’clock tonight, ringing out Britain’s membership of the EU, an entire phase of British history will come to a close. For nearly half a century – from 1973 to 2020 – perhaps the single most important fact about British history was its membership of the European Union (or ‘Community’, until 1993). Membership touched almost every area of national life. It transformed how Britain was governed, who it traded with and who had the right to live and work here. It rewired Britain’s manufacturing base, rewrote its constitution and transformed its judicial system. Its effects have been felt across the spectrum of public policy, from gay rights and environmental protection to regional policy, agriculture and the peace process in Northern Ireland. This was ‘the Age of Britain in Europe’, and its passing marks an epoch in our modern history.
Membership provided an answer to three fundamental questions about Britain’s role in the world, which reached a crisis in the years after 1945. First, how could Britain maintain its prosperity, as a declining industrial power that had lost its colonial markets? Second, how could it project power in the world, once it had lost its empire and its global military reach? Third, how could Britain preserve its sovereignty, in an increasingly globalised world? Put differently, how could Britain ‘take back control’, at a time when it seemed to be leaking sovereignty to the currency markets, to the International Monetary Fund, and to big trading blocs that were setting the rules of world trade? [continue reading]
War on the Rocks
In June 1965, the French philosopher and political scientist, Raymond Aron, gathered an extraordinary group of thinkers, including Stanley Hoffmann, Lord Gladwyn Jebb, and Henry Kissinger, for a weeklong seminar in the beautiful Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy. This discussion centered upon the question of whether and how a stable world order could be achieved. Could different ideological systems co-exist in an often chaotic and uncertain world? Was the nation-state the most effective instrument of global governance? What effect would transformative technological change have on global politics? The core issue the esteemed group wrestled with was if it were “possible to organize so that there can be peaceful coexistence between societies which remain fundamentally different.”
Fifty-five years later, analysts are once again consumed with the current and future state of world order, which appears in crisis. Many have offered recommendations for what a future global order might look like and what should be done to build it. It is hard to imagine a more consequential question. [continue reading]
Selected for a solo in her ballet school’s first concert, the young Hazel Carby was elated. It was only years later that she realized that she had been cast as a “gypsy”—decked out in bangles, beads, ribbons, and a head wrap—so that her brown skin wouldn’t disturb the white homogeneity of the rest of the show. At school on the fringes of the South London suburban sprawl, the same question came over and over: “Where are you from?” The idea that the daughter of a Welsh mother and a Jamaican father—a patriot who served in the Second World War—could be British was met with disbelief.
She wasn’t being asked where she lived; she was being asked to provide a reason for her being. In Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, Carby’s new sociological memoir, she follows the buried roots of her family tree to uncover the story of the British Empire. Tracing threads back through the plantations of Jamaica, over the hills and into the tenements of England and Wales, Carby shows the private underbelly of a history Britain has repressed. [continue reading]