Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”

The Black Studies Association conference – “Blackness in Britain 2015: ‘The Black Special Relationship’” (held at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015) – explored the nature of black activism within and beyond the UK higher education sector, with a particular focus on the historical and contemporary impacts of  African-American scholarship on black intellectual life in Britain.

Established and early career researchers from a range of institutions within the Euro-American academy joined educationalists and grassroots activists from the wider public sphere to present panels on themes that included: Race Politics in Urban Settings; Black Feminist Resistance, African-centered Thought and Healing; Representation and Communication; Educational Experiences; Pedagogy, Curriculum and Theory; Black Political Activism; Literature, Film and Art History; and Blackness in Europe.

Conference convenor Dr Kehinde Andrews welcomes delegates to the event and introduces Professor Gus John (seated right) as the opening keynote speaker at Birmingham City University, 30 October 2015.

It was fitting that the opening keynote address was given by Professor Gus John, who succinctly historicised the way activist-scholars drawn from the global African diaspora(s) have joined forces at pivotal moments -– such as the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900, and the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 – to align localised anti-colonial struggles against oppression and successfully instigate world-wide movements of resistance. His talk also emphasised the need to be vigilant and proactive in our campaigns to revise, progress and expand Black Studies curricula across the educational phases – especially as this was seen as key to challenging the ongoing omissions, erasures and marginalisation of Africa-related achievements within established canons of knowledge.

Professor Patricia Hill Collins delivers the closing conference presentation, 31 October 2015.

The inclusion of keynotes from academics based in the USA – specifically, British scholar Barnor Hesse (Associate Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University) and feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins (Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland) – helped to transform national discussions about past and present-day anti-racist activism into broader, future-oriented dialogues on diagnosing and counteracting systemic racialised injustices, inequalities and anti-blackness within the “project” of the West more broadly.

“L’Occident n’est pas à l’Ouest, ce n’est pas un lieu, c’est un projet” [“The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place”]
– Edouard Glissant,
Le Discours Antillais (1981)

While it was (of course) wonderful to listen to lectures presented by internationally renowned luminaries, it was equally inspiring to see and hear a range of panel participants – many of them black women – sharing interesting and important research insights about African diaspora lived experiences in Europe. Three notable contributors, whose research resonated strongly with many of the ideas presented via Museum Geographies, were as follows:

Dr Olivette Otele (Bath Spa University) presented a paper titled “Should they stay, or should they go?” – which reflected on the nature of UK and French political rhetoric, as well as media debates about the plight of refugees and migrants based in the make-shift encampment at Calais dubbed “The Jungle.”  The pervasive characterisation of camp residents as the collective “uncivilised Other” was described as a tellingly problematic re-inscription of Conrad-esque “Heart of Darkness” semantics within current debates about citizenship, identity and belonging in Europe.

Dr Sarah Fila-Bakabadio (University of Cergy-Pontoise, France)  explored changing representations of the black body in French portraiture, advertising images and wider visual media in a paper titled, “The Black Body Sealed into Blackness”. With reference to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) , and thoughts on the impact of the “exogenous gaze,” the presentation included images of the famous 18th century virtuoso violinist and composer Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de SaintGeorges, as an example to show how paintings were transformed over time to lighten skin tone, alter facial features and straighten hair: thus gradually erasing any trace of African heritage in line with increasing status and popularity within French society and cultural memory. Contemporary intersected issues of gender, race and corporeality were also considered through visual analysis of photographic images in women’s lifestyle magazines.

A slide from Dr Lisa Palmer's presentation about Vanley Burke's photographic archive of Black British lived experiences in Birmingham, UK.
A slide from Dr Lisa Palmer’s presentation about Vanley Burke’s post-war photographic archive of Black British life in Birmingham, and beyond.

Dr Lisa Palmer (Birmingham City University) presented a paper about the archive of documentary photographer Vanley Burke, and discussed his life as an arts activist and archivist with reference to Walter Rodney’s political consciousness speeches and “groundings”  about the role of the “guerilla intellectual.” Vanley Burke’s photographic capture and archiving of black lived experiences in Birmingham, the UK, and beyond, was described as a form of “guerilla archiving” pursued out of a desire to achieve what Stuart Hall refers to as the “plenitude of Blackness.”

The BSA team are to be commended for organising such a stimulating conference programme, and I look forward to reading more from many of the contributing presenters when selected papers are published in the second book from the series on Blackness in Britain edited by Dr Kehinde Andrews.

Web links for further information:

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