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In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!
Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.
Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.
Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.
Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.
Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.
Mary Jane – about 11.
Martha – about 10.
Louisa – about 7.
Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.
His wife Judy, the same sort of character.
Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.
One of the humans being trafficked recounted:
“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.
The ebb and flow of freedom.
Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?
One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?
Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.
As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.
With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?
In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.
They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.
“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.
I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.
Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.
Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.
“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)
In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence. It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!
There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.
What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.
So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.
Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them.
I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy.
The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our mental health a priority has become the most important thing.
Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway.
The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here.
Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial.
Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman. At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’. One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress.
I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have.
I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself.
Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.
“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi
This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery
it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …
yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.
In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).
If we could empathize with all life, we…
… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.
… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.
…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.
…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.
…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.
…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.
…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.
…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.
…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.
… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.
…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.
… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.
Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.
If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.
If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.
Fill in the blank.
Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.
The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.
Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”
Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).
Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.
In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.
We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!
Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.
Mills, C (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Abingdon: Routledge.
Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.
Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]
White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].