My Journey In Our Struggle
Nathaniel Adam Tobias
It began, for me, in an inpatient psychiatric unit. I had been sectioned.
Why do I begin narrating my journey at this milestone?
• I survived. Not all of us do. I live and work “In The Wake,” to borrow an idea from Professor Christina Sharpe, of those persons racialised as black, so often mentally ill, who come into contact or into the custody of the state and die.
• I had nothing to lose. I no longer feared, nor even gave a fuck, as throughout my life till that point I had, about wealthy white men’s expectations of me. Compared with depths of despair I had seen, they paled into insignificance.
• We need to destigmatise disablement—by acknowledging it in our society and by acknowledging the factors that determine it. We speak about the social determinants of good health, but not the colonial determinants of ill health. So, in one way, this is a story about how my participation in the decolonial social movement brought me back to health. In another way, it is a story about how my participation made my health much worse. There are decolonial determinants of ill health. A lesson I want you to take from my testimony is that our social movements, if they are to be decolonial, need to be the sort of spaces that we don’t have to take a break from, because they make us ill and, indeed oppress us, but rather the sort of spaces in which we dwell and grow. I’m calling, as Patrisse Cullors Khan has, recently, not for each of us to take on the unilateral burden of self-care, but rather for us all, in our shared struggle, to share the responsibility of collective care.
After a period of time, I was permitted to leave the unit, only on the condition that I went straight back to Britain. The instructions of the consultants struck me like the words of the Go To Jail card in the board game Monopoly: “Go directly to Jail. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.”
Why did my release from detention and my return to Britain feel like I was going to jail? When, back in 2007, I left Britain, for what I thought was for good, I knew then that I didn’t or, better yet, could never comfortably, belong in Britain. I knew then I had involuntarily to make my life in another country. How, then, do you then rebuild a life where you’ve been continually told you don’t belong?
Well, I did this through my participation in our struggle. Allow me, therefore, to mention three moments in my participation in the student-led social movements of the second decade of the twenty-first century. I’ll give each moment a name:
1 Getting Inside
2 Dismantling His House
3 Bringing It Home
I’d like to mention how and why I got into each and some successes and some roadblocks that each has presented.
1 Getting Inside: Building an Ebony Tower in Britain & Why Isn’t my Professor Black?
Born, as I was, in the summer uprisings of 1981, seemingly nothing had changed, when I turned thirty, during the summer uprisings of 2011. I came of age, while witnessing my country repeating its racialised history. Witnessing this, of course, from afar, from America, from the Academy. What frustrated me was that the most public and repeated explanation of this repetition, coming from British academia, was that, supposedly, “The whites have become black.” I wanted more and I wanted better from the British academy, and I supposed that this would be got if we built the sort of cadre of Black public intellectuals who had been my mentors and sponsors in the USA.
To this end, I convened Building an Ebony Tower in Britain, one hundred academics in online conversation and a meeting of 30 Black academics, in July 2012, in Birmingham. This was the background to our campaign, two years later, in March 2014, asking “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”—A question framed by capitalising upon the neoliberal distortion of public education that makes the consumer king, and turning that on its head. Six academics: three persons racialised and gendered as black women, Professor Shirley Tate, Dr. Lisa Palmer, and Dr. Deborah Gabriel, and three persons racialised and gendered as black men, Dr. William Ackah, Nathan Edward Richards and myself, spoke in a sold-out, live-streamed, virally shared panel encouraging, exhorting, and empowering our students to pose this question to the people in power and equipping our students with critical explanations to answer it.
It was phenomenally successful, but, in retrospect, it was a false friend. The reasons to avoid constructing our campaign in terms of the #blackprofessor are threefold and this challenge had a direct implication for how we decided to revise our approach.
• first, persons racialised as neither black nor white (for example persons racialised as Chinese) tended not to buy into it. In this way, #blackprofessor consisted in survivors of euro-imperialism dividing themselves, on white hegemony’s behalf, so that, thereafter, white hegemony might more easily rule over them all. We should, instead, be seeking a solidarity of the Global Majority.
• second, black inadequacy has long been under the white academic microscope and the discourse of #blackprofessor did not adequately free itself from, or depart from, that. On the contrary, it elicited and encouraged explanations that placed the emphasis on black lack of required desire, black lack of required cultural capital, and black lack of required intellectual capital. “Lack of black” was explained as “black lack.”
• third, the colonial white power structure, as Kwame Turé/Stokley Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton argued, on the one hand, tends to welcome individualising analyses of racism, whilst, on the other, tends to shut down analyses that are institutional. Individual is to Professor as Institutional is to Curriculum.
Most of all, I think the problem with the framing of these two social movements is that their demand could be satisfied merely by getting (some or more of) us inside The Master’s House. Our ultimate goal should not be to get inside The Master’s House—still less should our ultimate goal be to occupy a turret of that house, to lock ourselves aloft and aloof from our communities of origin, like some Black Rapunzel. Our goal should be to Dismantle it.
2 Dismantling His House: Why Is My Curriculum White? & Rhodes Must Fall (in Oxford)
This was a shift from faces to voices.
From demanding Black faces in high places, to exhuming voices from hidden histories.
We had exposed the who of the Curriculum: who, in it, produces and teaches knowledge. This is not just the professors, but the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme—all of whom are predominantly
• Enabled by society
• Gender-conforming men
• Racialised as white.
But that’s just one aspect of the curriculum.
At UCL, we further exposed the what and the how of the curriculum: what gets to be produced and taught as knowledge and how that teaching and learning is conducted and assessed. This is both the choice of topics, resources, examples, or case studies, and the teaching methods and learning activities.
At Oxford, we took this to another level by exposing the where of the curriculum: the campus environment in which this activity of producing, teaching, and learning knowledge is expected to take place. This is the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially.
At each institution, I harnessed the fact that I was employed by the institution and had somewhat more access to institutional resources to make these resources available to activists among the students and in our communities.
I conceived the question “Why Is My Curriculum White?” in summer 2014 as a correlative, as a corrective, as an antidote, to the question I thought such a false friend, yet keeping the twist on the idea that the consumer is king. With cash from UCL, I tasked a group of student activists, who had emerged during the previous campaign, with designing a video to explain and answer this new question.
That video went viral.
However, whereas the video was deeply decolonial, many of the responses to it have not been! The new question has been approached as if the answer were not obvious. Your curriculum is white because it is the product of colonialism. Yet we still see efforts to “diversify” the curriculum and plug a Black gap in attainment. We need, as Kavita Bhanot has argued, in “Media Diversified,” to “Decolonise, Not Diversify.” And this gap is not a gap in attainment, but a gap in belonging—who gets to belong in colonial space.
I drew upon the lessons I had been learning, outside and alongside the university, in co-productive conversations in communities of practice in Brixton and in Tottenham, and I convened a meeting of student activists in Oxford, in May 2015, where I argued that, given our location, we have a special responsibility for stoking from the metropolitan centre the flames of revolution at the colonial periphery.
The statue of Cecil Rhodes had just fallen, or rather, been dismantled, at the University of Cape Town. This had inaugurated a wider conversation about the who, the what, the how, and the where of the colonial curriculum. There was a statue of Rhodes in Oxford. Yet, there was no wider conversation about the colonial curriculum. We had an opportunity to amplify the voices of our siblings in South Africa by bringing their struggle—our struggle—into the belly of the beast.
During that academic year, I navigated several opportunistic infections, some of which required surgeries. In 2016, having survived four, month-long pneumonias, I was diagnosed with AIDS. My time since has primarily been spent convalescing from illness and adapting to disablement, which I was required to do, by, yet again, returning home. Why did Birmingham, a place, a shit-hole, the arse-end of nowhere, from which I had run all my life, keep pulling me back home?
3 Bringing It Home: Black Studies & Where I Am From
Far from being educated in Black Studies, I was schooled in White Studies. For that is, quintessentially, what Classics is. And Classics is what both Enoch and I studied, first, at King Edward’s School (opposite Birmingham University) and, later, at Oxbridge.
Classics is a constructed discipline. Constructed to serve the needs of a whitewashing fantasy (about “Western Civilisation,” its “origin,” and the “unbroken tradition,” thanks to which we inherit it). Yet, if knowledge is not found, but rather constructed, Black Studies is a constructed discipline, too. We are free, therefore, to reimagine what curriculum we want for our Black Studies. This decolonial house we are building has no walls, just doors.
However, two experiences—one from UCL, another from Oxford—sketch a suggestion of how far I think our imagination has yet to go. One UCL video that did not go viral (because it didn’t even get to see the light of day) was the film in which we grounded current campaigns, against the white curriculum of higher education, in the Black Supplementary School movement, of primary and secondary education. That film was scrapped, because some Black parents said they didn’t want photographs of their children in the hands of someone like me. To my mind, the most important lessons to come out of #RhodesMustFall in Oxford were the collated texts of a collective of Black Women painfully and painstakingly detailing the movement’s own misogynoir. A pernicious Black cis-hetero-patriarchy predominates, in mainstream understandings of what Black Studies is—or could possibly, if we audaciously reimagine it, be. That too must be dismantled. When I dream of Black Studies, I dream of Travis Alabanza and Melz Owusu.
I’ve spent my time, back in Brum, taking Black Perspectives on Birmingham’s Memorials. Birmingham holds a very special place in our struggle. Birmingham built the British Empire. Birmingham is also where the Empire Struck Back. This is the work of democratising Rhodes Must Fall—beyond a conversation in the Ivory Tower. One of the upshots of this local democratisation is the unprecedented, temporary, decolonial exhibition, at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire. But, as one of that exhibition’s co-curators, Sumaya Kassim, argues, “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised,” so we need to take charge of the project of democratising Rhodes Must Fall, independently of those “well-intentioned” institutions that continue to prop him up.
Counter-culturally, today, just as it did in the early eighties, in Birmingham, the Empire is Striking Back. And as I reflect upon what I most draw, as my intellectual inheritance, from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, my mind turns less to the persons racialised and gendered as black men whom we are all wont to cite and quote, and more to the work of Professor Hazel Carby. Like Carby, in her forthcoming “Child of Empire,” I am embarked upon a deeply personal and self-reflective journey to reckon with the unique injustice of that question, what Afua Hirsch, in her ‘“British,” calls The Question, rarely asked of African Americans in Anglo-America, invariably asked of Black Britons in the United Kingdom, “Where are you from?”. Indeed, in eight years, I was never asked The Question in the USA; I have only ever been asked The Question here, at home.
My journey to answer The Question takes me now, apparently, and perhaps surprisingly, away from Birmingham. I have travelled the well-worn watery path, down the River Severn to the Bristol Channel. Given Bristol’s historic role as Birmingham’s port, given the large number of influential Brummies who have been Bristolian migrants, and given the fact that, in the final quarter of the 1700s, English Empire’s most exploitative episode, Bristol and Birmingham were England’s most populous cities after its capital, it would seem that I am not, in fact, moving that far from home. I’m exploring the white exploitative and Black revolutionary histories of Bristol and Birmingham—and I’m exploring this through the prism of Old Squares, New Stories, and Great Insurrections.
In 1713, not only did the Treaty of Utrecht put an end to the War of Spanish Succession, transferring from Spain to England the title of Empire upon which the sun never sets, but also John Pemberton married Hannah James. Pemberton, having made a fortune as a Birmingham ironmonger, and having already married into the ironmongering-later-banking family of the Lloyds, was, at this very time, putting the finishing touches to what Joseph Hill and Robert K. Dent describe as “the conversion of the best portion of the [ruined] Priory lands into a fine residential district by the formation of a square.” James was from Bristol—so too, I believe, was Pemberton’s project for a bourgeois residential square. “This handsome Square from heaps of Rubbish grew” exclaimed William Goldwin, master of Bristol Grammar School, in 1712, referring, of course, to what Andrew Kelly identifies as “the first residential square built outside London,” which, according to Madge Dresser, “grandly embodied the relationship between slavery, urban development and the rise of gentility.” I am, of course, referring to Bristol’s Queen Square. The “fat and ugly” monarch who, during the War of Spanish Succession, all but single-handedly invented the British Empire is erased in the very square that was named in her honour. It is a statue of William III that has pride of place in Queen (Anne’s) Square. It was under Anne that Britain was born, that Bristol was born, and that Birmingham was born, in the imperial role that made each “Great”—and these births, from a supposedly barren queen, who had 17 pregnancies, but not one adult child, are reflected materially in the middle-class squares of the two cities who jointly made her empire “Great.”
Allow me to focus on Birmingham. Two of Britain’s “big four banks” had their origins in “The Square”, as it was known, (Lloyds and HSBC)—not least thanks to a dowry from the family of a third (Barclays). I have spent the past few years consulting archives pertaining to the founding partner Sampson Lloyd, to one of Lloyd’s debtors Samuel Galton (whose own bank was absorbed by Midland Bank, now HSBC), and to Galton’s spouse Lucy Barclay (whose great-grandparent John Freame and whose half-pibling James Barclay were, respectively, a founding and a substitute partner of their own family-run bank). All three lived at No. 13 The Square—the Galton-Barclays from 1746 to 1748; the Lloyds from 1774 to 1800.
Given that Sampson Lloyd married Rachel Barnes when he was 34 and she was only 16 and given that they eventually had no fewer than 17 children, the couple needed the assistance of a governess. Jane “Jenny” Harry, a free, Jamaican-born person, whom we would racialise as mixed, played this role, between 1778 and 1782. So Harry got a gig as a governess. This was no babysitting role, but rather the role of a residential private tutor. The sort hired, as I once was, by millionaire families in Holland Park, to drill their naturally C-grade children, to ensure they get As, and to ensure our élite schools and universities continue to be populated by the same families as ever before.
Just as Jenny Harry wrote to her mother in Jamaica, instructing her to free the persons whom their family enslaved, Sampson Lloyd, too, collaborated with his half-siblings, Charles Lloyd (co-partner at the bank) and John Lloyd (importer of tobacco from Britain’s Thirteen Colonies) in transnational antislavery activism—whilst, at the same time, lending money to local manufacturers of products that sustained enslavement. Indeed, the money that they had, as bankers, available to lend had itself accrued to them, in part, thanks to their lucrative provision of iron to manufacturers of metal products that sustained enslavement.
Indeed, it would seem that Bristolian merchants became Brummie industrialists and, as successful manufacturing led to successful money-lending, Brummie bankers became Bristolian abolitionists. For, in 1702, Samuel Galton’s grandfather, Joseph Farmer, travelled up the Severn, to take advantage of the war, his success in Bristolian ironmongery, and Birmingham’s new official contracts for guns, to set up his new gun-making business in No. 12 The Square. In 1806, 1 century, or 3 generations, later, Mary-Anne Galton traveled back to Bristol, with a gun-making dowry, to marry Lambert Schimmelpenninck, and contribute not only to antislavery activism but also proto-eugenicist phrenology from her home in Berkeley Square.
This local history of global significance is hidden, thanks to the whitewashing erasure of The Square as part of imperialist urban renewal. In 1896, exactly 200 years after John Pemberton began building it in 1696, Joseph Chamberlain bulldozed The Square to make way for “a great street, as broad as a Parisian boulevard.” Moreover, unlike Queen Square, regenerated with Heritage Lottery Fund-ed investment, between 1999 and 2007, Old Square is now a scar on the city, less des res more down and out, adorned only, nowadays, with pigeon shit.
But what’s empowering, today, is that, about an Old Square, we can tell New Stories.
Reimagine Black Birmingham.
Reimagine “When Harry met Sally.”
Imagine a time and a place when Harry met Frank.
Imagine a story of love—not a story about sexual love, between persons racialised as white, in a café, faking orgasms in public. No. This is a story about philosophical love, amongst persons racialised as black, in a square, making arguments in private. The time, October 1781; the place, No. 11 The Square. We were here, before the Windrush. And we were not slaves. We were philosophers. Frank Barber was the ward, factotum, and heir of Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose childhood friend, Edmund Hector lived at No. 11, between 1747 and 1794. We have evidence that Johnson visited Hector on at least four occasions, almost always on the way from Lichfield to Oxford or Oxford to Lichfield. One of these dates, namely, October 1781, coincides with Jenny Harry’s term of employment. Let’s suppose they met. Significantly, their meeting occurs long before popular petitioning of Parliament in Britain, which began only in 1787.
As all Black philosophical minds should, Jenny and Frank disagreed on some points. Jenny’s obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine, no less, reported that “she formed a design of going to Jamaica, the residence of her mother, with a view to procure the freedom of her mother’s Negroes, and to instruct them in the principles of the Christian religion, for which instruction she was well qualified.” Thus, we may suppose Jenny, in her explanation of slavery’s wrongness, focused on slavery’s corrupting of character. By contrast. Frank, drawing upon conversations he had long had with Dr. Johnson, eventually persuading the doctor to argue, in 1777, in the matter of Knight v Wedderburn, that “No man is by nature the property of another,” focused on slavery’s violating his right to own himself. They disagreed and, indeed, Jenny even argued that “Women are greater Philosophers than Men.”
Yet, on one particular philosophical conclusion, Jenny and Frank agreed. This was a conclusion borne out not in their words, but in their deeds. In body and in mind, Frank and Jenny each concluded that The System was wrong because it was frustrating their flight. So they fled. In body and in mind. Frank escaped Dr. Johnson by absconding from his apprenticeship and joining the navy; Jenny incurred Dr. Johnson’s violent misogynoir by drawing upon her ethical training to renounce Anglicanism to join the Society of Friends. Listen to their coproduced teaching. Your first step towards your liberation is your acknowledging that you live in his House. In The Master’s House. Your second step is to Get Out.
Fast-forward two centuries from 1781 to 1981. This is, Linton Kwesi Johnson told us, last year, in Birmingham, the most important year in the history of our struggle in this country. That is because it is, in the title of Johnson’s poem, which focuses, London-centrically, on Brixton, 10-12 April 1981, the year of “Di Great Insohreckshan.” Our insurrection is our way of getting out. Although a view like Johnson’s, says Roger Ball, “ignore[s] violent disturbances…in the 1970s…, the wider perception was that the St. Paul’s disturbance was ‘something new’ to England.” Ball goes on to argue that “St. Paul’s sat at the centre of a web of radial and rhizomic social networks spreading across the city [I would add, across the country, and] during and after the St. Paul’s disorder of 2 April 1980 information radiated out through this web to outlying areas that were ‘ripe for riot’.” I’m thinking through the meaning of this “radiation” from a felt “ground zero” in St. Paul’s, understanding it as extending across the country and throughout the year of the Great Insurrections, inaugurated by the uprisings that began on 2 April 1980 in St. Paul’s, Bristol and climaxing, among other English cities, in Handsworth, Birmingham, on 10 July 1981. That was the day, on which, in Birmingham, I was born. I was born into riot, and my bid to recover “where I’m from” is a matter of my getting philosophically to grips with the context of protest into which I was thrown.
Now all this might just seem like Nathaniel navel-gazing. I have two responses.
First, it bears remembering, given the recent 50th anniversary of that speech, portending “rivers of blood,” that I am one of Powell’s “piccaninnies”—one of those “blacks” born in Britain who could never, he thought, belong. Indeed, I read White Studies at Merton College Oxford, that place where Professor Stuart Hall discovered he, too, didn’t belong. We who are falsely alleged not to belong where we encounter ourselves have a special right, indeed a special duty, to research and gather evidence that, for our own sake, not for the sake of our accusers, firmly establishes the fact that we belong.
What’s more, I and other children of the eighties and nineties, am a Millennial. I am that middling Generation Y, caught uncomfortably, between an inter-generational failure of mutual understanding between, on the one hand, the Windrush Generation X and the so-called iGeneration, Generation Z. It is my duty as a Black British Millennial to exhume the hidden histories of my own generation, in order that I may, through a better knowledge of myself and of how I belong, act as a bridge between the two generations either side of me. Indeed, this is the motivation underpinning my current participation in the Global Warwickshire Collective’s project, Windrush Strikes Back: Decolonising Global Warwickshire, which aims, within the Caribbean community in Britain, to train members of the generation that comes after us, in the tools of historical research that will enable them to recover and record the stories of the generations that came before us. And I think that’s quintessentially what I’ve come to realise my belonging is: it is the role I have to play in an ongoing multi-generational struggle.
This post previously appeared on Discrimination and Disadvantage here. The essay was originally presented at the People of African Descent in the 21st Century: Knowledge and Cultural Production in Reluctant Sites of Memory Conference, The Engine Shed, Bristol, UK, September 14, 2018. https://reluctantsitesofmemory.com/conference/
Schooled in Oxford (Double First in Greats), Paris (Entente Cordial Scholar), and Michigan (M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy), Dr.
Coleman taught social philosophy at University College London and Wadham College, Oxford, where he participated in the decolonial social movements (a) asking “Why Is My Curriculum White?,” (b) answering that “Philosophy Was Whitewashed By Eurocratic Empire,” and (c) arguing, as a consequence, that “RHODESian Social Relations MUST FALL!.” Thereafter, back home in Birmingham, Dr. Coleman taught sociology for Birmingham City University’s Black Studies Research Cluster and researched local history for the University of Birmingham’s Centre for West Midlands History. Now, as honorary researcher in sociology at the University of Warwick, Dr. Coleman is currently coproducing, with colleagues in the Global Warwickshire Collective, “Windrush Strikes Back: Decolonising Global Warwickshire.” Dr. Coleman is Senior Teaching Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies, and Member of both the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and the Centre for Black Humanities, at the University of Bristol.