Our favourite CRT: James Baldwin

by | 28 Oct 2020

James Baldwin, Speech at Berkeley (1979)

I call myself a child of this world of empire. The colony I was born in bore recent witness to British district officers who met with one of my grandfathers. My other grandfather was schooled by Scottish missionaries. Colonial anthropologists and sociologists took intrusive photographs of the women of my family. My mother marched at an independence day parade… a parade to mark the removal of the physical signs of empire, while its puppets and economic as well as epistemological machinery remained… like a spectre at the feast, keeping the power in place… out of sight. Out of sight. 

As a child, I was told stories of empire by my grandparents and my parents. I was told about the promise of freedom that came with the unrestricted choice of flag colour, national anthem and currency… but not choice of economic system, education content or political structures. At the same time, we were caught in a global moment of racial [in]justice. Alex Haley’s Roots (a miniseries which traced generations of enslaved from Africa to freedom) was on television. Martin Luther King Jnr documentaries were on regularly too. We were consistently making donations to the freedom fighters in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. We lived in dark but hopeful times. Education and law were constantly prescribed as solutions to all our ills… including the sky-rocketing inflation brought about the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Thomas Sankara suggested that the loans should not repaid. Thomas Sankara was brutally killed in a coup soon after. The United States of America – the land of the free – invaded Iraq, but did not intervene in Rwanda till it was too late. So, I decided to study law, I bought into the promise of this hopeful prescription. However, I was presented with an extremely conservative curriculum which provided answers to questions of order but no responses to questions of freedom. It was not until I began postgraduate study that I came across readings that interrogated the order of the world: Frantz Fanon, Frantz in The Wretched of the Earth; Kwame Nkrumah’s essay on Neo-colonialism: The last stage of imperialism; Steve Biko, who said I Write What I Like… to name a few. 

Baldwin’s writing, with its eloquence, clarity of thought and startling insight is inexpressibly broad in its reach. His speech at Berkeley, is one of my favourite things to listen to. It is often the lens through which I parse the postcolonial writings that first opened my eyes to new worlds of inquiry that actually offered a realistic path out this present darkness and not just suggestions of the best way to stumble around in it. In his speech, Baldwin alludes to the limitations inherent in the use of the English language by the Black writer – a language whose lexicon places the Black writer outside of its assumptions. I think of this observation as quite similar to how a Black African woman lawyer wrestles with the English language. Colonial language emerges in this sense as a colonial gift and the language of the rule of law, but never the language of freedom.

Another startling insight Baldwin makes in this speech I would call ‘an unsettling of time’. Conventionally, we understand our realities to be divided into fragments of time that do not touch each other. Once a time Rubicon is crossed, it is crossed. The time fragment falls and ends there. It is over. If we are told that colonialism is over, then colonialism is over. But how do we get over what is not over? In his speech, Baldwin suggests that the logics of enslavement of Black people in the United States of America are still alive. But by fragmenting time into distinct parcels we fail to properly address what is current in the correct historical context. 

In the same manner, colonial logics still govern the colonies and children born into empire. For children of empire, everywhere we go colonisation follows us. Every land we stand on is colonial ground. Which brings me to another insight of Baldwin’s speech, a question – what happens to the children of empire, the children of the slave machine, when the machine runs on the same logics but in different ways? What happens to the children when they become surplus to requirements? Thus, children of empire, children of the enslavement machine, become disposable, become the things that the machine fears, become a threat just by existing. So, they are left to drown once again in hostile waters, they are confined once more to the modern-day plantations of the Global South and the housing projects in the USA. On the other hand, we are here.

Baldwin then returns to what is a popular refrain in his work – the condition of being Black in this world, this wretched earth, this epistemic creation, this present darkness that has been produced by a particular vision of what it means to be human. A vision of humanity from which most of the world has been excluded. They know they would not like to be Black here… not here, not this wretched earth. What is left then? What hope lies in this narrative, this way of seeing the world that troubles our understanding of language, of time and of humanity? What hope lies in this double desperation? A desperation that impels us to hold on to this epistemic creation and on the other hand a desperation to let go of it? What do we have to lose?

In listening to this speech, I am often left with an odd sense of hope that arises from the total unsettling of everything I have known and have been told to be true. Seeing the world differently means that we can live in hope that this present darkness may possibly not reproduce itself. Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe for the next generation, freedom may finally be brought home. After all we haven’t lost our children yet… Which is why I designate myself a decolonial scholar. This is also why I argue that resistance to decolonial thought is also a failure of imagination… an inability to conceive of a world and a reality radically different from the one we have now, without the structures and oppressions and designs that keep this present darkness afloat. A different world for our children. Until then… we are still governed by the slave codes.

Foluke Adebisi, University of Bristol


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