Review by Sara Salem
The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence, edited by Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge, was published by Zed Books in November 2018.
Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities at the University of Manchester. He is the author of ‘Black Mixed-Race Men’, a trustee with the Racial Justice Network, and part of the Northern Police Monitoring Project steering group. He tweets at @RemiJS90.
Azeezat Johnson is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in QMUL School of Geography. Her research focuses on Black feminism and Black Muslim women. She tweets at @azeezatj.
Beth Kamunge is an African black-feminist and doctoral researcher in food politics, at the University of Sheffield’s department of Geography.
“The essays collected here imagine and perform grace—they imagine and inhabit possibility. Imagination is central to the work of the antiracist writer, thinker and teacher. It has always been. So is bearing witness to one’s times.” (xvii).
I am sitting down to write this review in the wake of the horrific attacks on a New Zealand mosque that targeted and killed over fifty Muslims. This book is timely and incisive not only given the historical juncture at which we find ourselves in, but in its articulation of how we can respond to explicit racial violence. The word explicit strikes me, because while much has been said about what is ‘new’ about our current moment, this idea of the explicit nature of racial violence today is what seems to separate the now from what happened before. On the one hand, we know that what came ‘before’ also includes explicit forms of racial violence. On the other hand, there is also a sense that there is something different today, about the ways in which people are openly and in large numbers deploying racist rhetoric. As Christina Sharpe writes in the foreword, “The fire is now. How do we survive it?”
This volume, a product of the labour of collecting, archiving, remembering, inspiring—“We write because we are simultaneously afraid, tired and angry”—gives us a lot (2). It spans geographies, lifetimes, and pressing political crises. I learned so much from each and every one of these pieces, and deeply appreciated the commitment to writing in a multiplicity of ways and to bridging divides between the Global North and South as well as between past and present. The result is a lovingly curated collection that bears witness to the complexities of our current moment, as well as to the hope and optimism we see constantly rising to imagine different worlds. In this review, I want to focus on three themes that crop up across many of the pieces, in order to tie together the many layers offered.
The locations of racism. White supremacy is a global structure that permeates much of what we interact with on a daily basis. The volume brings to light how racism is part and parcel of institutions, from universities to courtrooms, of everyday microaggressions, and of the way we think, write, speak and feel about certain subjects. The first section looks at academia and its various institutions, including the university. Which subjects are allowed to produce knowledge? And which types of knowledge are seen as legible? From Azeezat Johnson’s piece on bearing witness in academia to Derrais Carter’s piece on how we write, the multiple layers of the university are unpacked. We are called on to take seriously how the history of the university is a colonial and racialised history, and that this, inevitably, has structured its present. Tony Talburt reminds us of past legacies of anti-racism, focusing on the Pan-African movement. Just as racism is located in multiple places, so is anti-racism. Connected to this is the theme of intersectionality, which makes up the second part of the volume. Viji Kuppan, for instance, explores the intersections of racism, disability and class by “bringing into focus disabled bodies of colour, bodies that are often invisible, even whilst being in plain sight,” (60). This section reminds us of the increasing centrality of intersectionality in understanding the complexities of global structures today. We need to always think, teach, write, and act intersectionally, while acknowledging that we are always at risk of erasing and silencing.
Affect. Shock as an affect has come to dominate our times. The third section looks at our current political moment, centring on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It calls on us to de-centre these events and instead see them as an almost-inevitable outcome of the way the world has functioned for the past five centuries. Kehinde Andrews recalls Malcolm X’s warning to “not be so caught up condemning the ‘Southern wolf’ that we take our eyes off the ‘Northern fox’,” (117). Layla Brown-Vincent challenges the “newness” of what is taking place today, asking what it means to erase the past in the making of the present. I found myself thinking of Gloria Wekker’s book White Innocence as I made my way through the volume. The display of shock, incomprehension and sadness that we have seen multiple times in the last few years is not as innocent as it may seem. Innocence, as Wekker suggests, is instead further proof of the ways in which whiteness disavows the seriousness of white supremacy, pretending it had no idea all along. Many of the contributions to this volume address this, asking who was shocked and why they experienced shock as an affective response. Who does not have the privilege of being shocked in the face of racial violence?
Time and space. How can we think of racial violence across time and space? In the introduction, the editors of the volume unpack some of the tensions that lie between the West/non-West binary, a binary created through European colonial rule and that continues to structure the way we imagine the world. I have been struck since moving to the UK by how clear, at times, a division seems to exist between anti-racism and anti-imperialism. This division is imagined geographically, with the former mapping onto the West and the latter onto the “non-West.” This not only serves to erase the ways in which racism and imperialism co-constitute one another, but also erases the universal logic behind white supremacy. Importantly, it impedes the kinds of solidarities we desperately need today, as we see techniques of repression tested in one place before traveling to another. What does it mean, then, to always and consistently think of empire as racialised, and race as empire? Leon Sealey-Huggins’ piece on race and climate change points to the ways in which certain bodies are always more at risk than others, pointing to the universal logic of racism and the way it separates those who live and those who do not. This is in spite of the claim we hear that climate change “affects us all.” Perhaps; but not in the same way. Keguro Macharia has written a piece asking how Trump travels globally, looking at the context of Kenya. Patricia Noxolo asks how we can explore the politics of “re-imagining post-Brexit Britain as a shared place,” (251). The first time I read that sentence, I read it as a “shattered place”—it seems to work just as well, although perhaps it is what we need to recognise before we re-imagine it, as Noxolo suggests.
As I put down the book, I wonder how we can use it to continue building, thinking, writing and hoping. What would it mean to de-centre the West—and Trump and Brexit—and ask what is happening everywhere? Why is it happening everywhere, now? We seem to be caught in the middle of trying to think globally, while still centring certain contexts, events, and histories. What is intensely frightening about the current moment, among many things, is the global nature of far-right politics, austerity and deepening neoliberalism, and ultranationalist racism. We see this across the globe, not only in the US, UK, and Europe. We know there have been many popular responses to this, and that many of these have happened in the Global South. Fifty years after the “end of empire” we are constantly left wondering if empire ever really ended.
And yet in all of this there is always hope, as exhausted as we might all be. In the last part of the collection, there is a conversation between Beth Kamunge, Wambui Mwangi and Osop Abdi Ali. This lovingly crafted contribution reminds us of the importance of love, care, and simply being there for one another. Throughout this volume, James Baldwin appears and reappears; his presence seeping through the book. Politics does not just happen in the streets, they remind us: “opening up our homes, listening, sharing food, allowing others to crash on your couch, offering clean bedsheets and towels, being the shoulder they cry on, maintaining confidentiality—this and other forms of labour are political acts too,” (189). And yet this hope does not come to us from nowhere; it is in the histories of resistance that we think with and through each day. In this piece and many others, the authors recall the debt we owe to Black feminism. In the words of the Comhabee River Collective, “As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” The volume, above all, is a reminder to remember. Not only to remember the social violence that has led us to this moment; but the brave and loving forms of resistance that have always met racial violence. This is not to romanticise these histories of resistance, which, after all, took place as a means of survival; but rather to learn from them as we continue to face global white supremacy and its intensification of racial violence, neoliberal austerity, and imperial counter-revolution.
Sara Salem is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. She has recently published articles on Angela Davis in Egypt in the journal Signs; on Frantz Fanon and Egypt’s postcolonial state in Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies; and on intersectionality as a travelling theory in the European Journal of Women’s Studies, among others. She tweets @saramsalem.