Continuing our series on Folúkẹ́ Adébísí brilliant Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge (Bristol University Press 2023), Beth Kamunge-Kpodo and Folúkẹ́ Adébísí have a conversation about how to use decolonisation to uncover the silences and absences in legal knowledge.
BK-K: I said it before, but I cannot say it enough: thank you so much for the time and labour that you put into this book. It is such a vital contribution to discussion on acknowledging, dealing with, re-routing and uprooting the colonial routes and roots of the law. Moreover, it contributes to discussions about what is, and dare I say, ought to be, the function of a law school. This is an extremely important jurisprudential question in any context but particularly now when we are in a moment of perpetual and multiple crises including the climate crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, healthcare crisis, mental health crisis and many more. My questions and reflections focus on the last 3 chapters (chapters 4, 5 and 6), which complements the reflection of Katie Bales who focussed on the first 3 chapters of the book. I will also pose an open question from the concluding chapter. There was so much richness in the whole book overall, and the last 3 chapters in particular from which I pose my questions. Thus, I apologise in advance that I will not be able to do justice to all the different strands of thought within the allowed word limits, but I am thankful for a book that invites us to slow down and ponder how the law school can be a place from which anti-colonial worlds emerge.
BK-K: You begin Chapter 4 (Defining the Law’s subject II: Law and creating the sacrifice zones of colonialism) with a focus on land, and its place within logics of accumulation and dispossession. Are there ways in which the land on which, and from which we teach law from may be implicated in that logic of accumulation, dispossession and the extraction of ‘unfree labour’? How do you think Law curriculums and Law schools can think critically through the land from which we teach students turn into lawyers?
FIA: I am grateful for your appreciation of the book and its invitation to slow us down, so that we may ponder on humanity’s future. When we think of how we move through space – how we exist on land as a species – I think that this slowing down is a vital step that we must take. My main concern in Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge is to examine the different legal epistemologies through which colonialism, as the currently dominant mode of world-making, underwrites accelerated accumulation through dispossession. As I examine in the book, the violent and large-scale dispossession of colonised and indigenous people of their land is an integral facet in the production of this modern world structure. A key part of that dispossession was underwritten by legal epistemologies that transformed ‘land as the source of all life, into ‘land as a source of largesse for some’. That transformative move was then rendered invisible. To understand the impact of that move, we need to slow down and contemplate our historical and contemporary relationship to the earth and to each other. Environmental and planetary collapse makes that need urgently imperative, as well as law’s seemingly inadequacy to handle what is coming. As such, we also need to think of our epistemologies in new ways. Land acknowledgments are one way through which we can contemplate what it means to be human on the earth. However, it is evident that land acknowledgments can be and are often shallow performances. Land acknowledgments as enduring cultural practices – among African ethnic groups for example – have always been both an invitation and a call to act in ways that recognise the import of that invitation. An invitation to remind ourselves of humanity’s relation to the land – that we are mere stewards of the earth, and we will ultimately be covered by the earth when our time on its surface is done. My enduring question for law schools – in every facet of our work, curricula, and research – is what world we want to produce from this work. Can our work produce epistemologies that ensure that the earth and humanity have a future? As we teach in buildings named after colonial architects and/or profiteers from the trade in enslaved Africans, we should be thinking of our law schools as more than engines to produce more of the same.
BK-K: You invite us to consider the question of ‘who has value, and whose labour has value?’ In your view, does the law curriculum value all human life and labour?
FIA: I think that the answer to this is straightforward. No, the law curriculum does not value all human life and labour equally. However, I should point out that in the book my focus goes beyond the curriculum to consider knowledge in law schools more generally. This expands the ambit of the question into research and administration. This devaluing is reflected in the idea that law schools are elitist. A number of legal scholars have reflected on the law school’s role in reproducing hierarchy, most notably in my view, Duncan Kennedy. We can also interrogate the location of the law school within higher education and within a nation-state. I think all of these locations and positions are relevant to answering the question. What I mean is that the question of ‘who has value and whose labour has value’, is not only answered by what we teach or do not teach. It is also answered by what we research and what we do not research, what gets funded and what does not, what projects get institutional support and which ones do not. It is also answered by what university activities governments support and whose bodies can cross borders easily into Global North universities. A question I invite readers to reflect upon is the question of how we assign value – especially within the law school. In the book, I argue that the onto-epistemology of Euro-modern law, by regulating and reproducing Eurocentrism, has placed primary value in property and property-fication as well as its relationship to capital accumulation. Thus, beneath the question of if the law school values all life, is the question of what value means to law. I like Patricia Williams’ intervention in this regard, when she states that by placing a price on what should be priceless, we make such a thing valueless. Thus, by designating certain humans as property – the category human is destroyed for all. By reducing land to a commodity – life on earth is destroyed for all. As such, if legal knowledge is geared towards the protection of life as precious, then we need to rethink how we assign value beyond commodification.
BK-K: On page 101-102 you state that:
‘Marked bodies mark designated space, and designated space objectifies illegible bodies. This process also produces technologies of belonging and non-belonging. Thus, Ahmed suggests that in a white world produced by Euro-modern world-making epistemologies, bodies racialised white are orientated such that they move easily and are held up by spaces around them (2006: 132–42). Bodies racialised as Black indigenous, or otherwise non-white or non-normative, are restricted in how they are permitted to enjoy space.’
This leads me to reflect on conversations about the ‘awarding gap’ and ways in which Black students are often failed within Higher Education in their pursuit of a law degree. What do you think a decolonial framing of ‘awarding gap’ discussions might look like?
FIA: I am unsure that there can exactly be a ‘decolonial framing of “awarding gap” discussions’ but I think my response to this question links to the previous one. To wit – what is the purpose of a law degree? What makes it valuable? In that light, I think it is definitely useful to critique the fact that an awarding gap exists. 18.4% is the gap between the percentage of white students and Black students awarded a First or 2.1 in their degree. A number of suggestions have been made as to the reasons for such a wide gap, such as the whiteness of the curriculum and the various forms of racism faced by Black students on campus. I am however wary of applying a decolonial framing to a thing without considering if the thing can be ‘decolonised.’ As I assert in the book around the phrase ‘Decolonising the curriculum’, without engaging with the specificity of the political and anticolonial origins of the praxes and logics of decolonisation, such phrasing operates as a mismatched action and object. In that sense, it is akin to phrases like ‘measuring the yellow’ or ‘climbing the fragrance’. If universities are concerned with assigning value to academic performances upon measures that replicate colonial logics of property-fication, for example, the degree as a consumer product, then maybe a decolonial framing for the awarding gap may not be the thing we should reach for. If we turn our attention more inward than the move from ‘attainment gap’ to ‘awarding gap’, new questions may arise. Universities have to conclusively actually answer the questions: why is it that when corrected for entry results, the gap between Black and white students awarded a first or 2:1 is as high as 18.4%? Why are so few Black students funded to do PhDs? Why are there so few Black women professors in UKHE (61 at last count)? And we must be honest in our answers. At the moment, there are moves purporting to solve the problems, but very few answers to the questions that I have set out. The problems cannot be solved without answering the questions. To begin to answer these questions, universities must acknowledge their historical entanglement with the colonial project and its enduring logics. Within the law school especially, we must acknowledge the fact that many legal scholars provided the legal architecture for trade in kidnapped Africans, the dispossession of indigenous land, the brutal annihilation of the indigenous peoples, and the retention of the capital unjustly gained through these enterprises. For example, in the book, I explore cases such as Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug. KB 232 and Re Southern Rhodesia  A.C. 211 which illustrate the uses of law to dispossess land and life. There has not been any great overhaul of legal epistemologies. Is it any wonder that when the descendants of the Zongcome face to face with Euro-modern law, the meeting is not a cordial one?
BK-K: You talk in Chapter 5 (Defining the Law’s subject III: Law, Time and Colonialism’s slow violence) about how trauma does not contain itself in the archives but is relationally experienced. You had the beautiful line on page 120 that, ‘sometimes you can feel the damage and disturbance in the land, in the water and in the air.’ On the same page you also note that ‘Euro-modern legal knowledge fails to reckon with the damage it has wrought on bodies and space-time’. In your view, in what ways might law curriculums and law schools still be contributing to trauma, particularly for staff and students from lands that have experienced ‘damage and disturbance’? And a follow up question, in what ways is your teaching practice and philosophy cognisant of colonial trauma in the classroom space?
FIA: So, I just spoke about the Zong case, in reply to your previous question. The absence of that case from law schools is an implicit example of that trauma, in that the killing of 130 African people is considered an unimportant legal event. And so, we message to our students what is important. When they do learn about the case, it is difficult to explain its prior absence to them in any other way. But these absences and traumas are replicated in the many ways we try to tell only benevolent stories about law. To maintain that fiction, we must leave out large swathes of histories from our curricula. These absences and false narratives are rudely disrupted by current experiences that unveil their fiction. These absences also point to the fact that the law school, by not linking the present to the past, is constantly unprepared for the future. In thinking of the future, I recently contributed to an edited collection of chapters that each tried to answer a similar question in relation to climate change. In other words, is the law as it currently is, prepared for the challenges that environmental disaster is throwing up and will throw up? Questions of environmental disaster are not unrelated to questions around enduring colonial trauma in legal knowledge. As we know, countries with histories of colonial dispossession, contribute the least to environmental degradation but are most in danger from it. The law school needs to currently be thinking about how to respond to the nexus of these challenges through environmental repair, rethinking nationhood and citizenship, reparations, reviving of indigenous knowledges around stewarding the earth etc. As much as there is space and freedom, I bring all of these into my own scholarship and pedagogy, in what I teach and write about.
BK-K: On page 126, you think with Ta-Nehisi Coates on time and temporality. You state:
‘Coates argues that one of the main outcomes of being racialised Black is the ‘inescapable robbery of time’ (2015:91). This robbery of time is found in the moments lost, not just to racialised enslavement and colonisation, but all the smaller stolen moments that flow from that. The moments spent preparing for and dealing with the ongoing/slow violence that structure a world built on logics and praxis of accumulation and dispossession. It is in the moments used up arguing for the right to exist. The moments lost writing this book. This robbery of time also refers to moments of love poured into lives lost too early to disproportionate acts of racialised violence …and the trauma that follows the loss.’
What implications can you draw from this specifically for Black scholars, particularly those who see themselves as scholar-activists? How should the awareness that our time as Black people is being robbed, change how we teach, research, and do scholarship?
FIA: Racism, put simply, is a thief of time. In academia, this often manifests in time spent over and over again explaining things to people who are intent on misunderstanding, and time lost engaging in bad faith arguments masquerading as sincere debate. Time spent justifying the existence of racialised and indigenous peoples. Time spent having to justify the relevance of our work. Time lost to disproportionate unrecognised labour on EDI committees and to pay gaps that are essentially examples of wage theft. I have written elsewhere about scholar-activists, but I think it is important to make a distinction between those who see themselves as such and those who are labelled so. Furthermore, as academics racialised Black in the academy, we need to decide where we want to spend our energies and how we can spend our energies in ways that are not futile, frustrating, and unhealthy. To leave our discipline and society better than we found it means at the absolute least, acknowledging the horrible things that have been done in the name of our discipline and not repeating those things. Making sure that the spaces that we are entering into do not reproduce harm – that always requires extra care, extra labour, extra exposure to harm. I don’t know that this acknowledgement necessarily changes the way we teach, research, and do scholarship. No matter what we do, those things are impacted. But we must be honest about the way things are. And so, Haney and Moten argue for the abolition of the university. In other words, if the academy cannot provide safety, then safety will be constructed without it.
BK-K: Exploring Chapter 6 (The Law School: Colonial Ground Zero – A colonial convergence in the human and space time), on page 135 you emphasise that the question you are asking is not so much, ‘how do we decolonise the law school or the law curriculum’, but rather, ‘what does it mean to dream of new anticolonial worlds from within the law school?’ Are you able to share a reflection, anecdote, or experience as a legal academic, that gives you hope that the law school can itself be a space from which to dream of a world otherwise?
FIA: I think the fact that you and I are having this conversation is a sign of that hope. Through our words, we are bringing our legal knowledge and our shared and different histories into conversation with each other because we hope and dream of something better. For that purpose, we are trying to think through all we know and have experienced, because it matters to that endeavour. The hope is also evident in the fact that people encouraged me to write the book, that the book got to be published, the long journey that got us here, and in conversations with students and colleagues too numerous to mention. I like to find hope in the small moments. I think I find most hope in students. Throughout my time in academia, they have continued to push the envelop of what is possible. They enquire, they challenge, they imagine, and they hope. As such I describe the book as a defiant love letter to the world to come for them – for my students. They are the hope.
BK-K: Through various parts of the book and in this chapter, you caution against a ‘decolonisation of X’ approach to decoloniality. In this chapter you remind us that ‘to decolonise is not change the players in a game, but to question and upturn the very rules upon, and reasons for which, the game is being played. To decolonise is the change the game itself […] for the flourishing survival of humanity, all life, and the earth’ (at 139). What are your continued concerns as to how the decolonisation movement within Higher Education has (mis)understood the essence of the decolonisation project?
FIA: Going back to what I said earlier, it seems that the neoliberal university wishes to assign some capitalist value to ‘decolonisation’. It is often spoken of in the same breath as EDI, or as a way to ensure student satisfaction, or internationalisation. And so, it seems to me that there is an almost wilful refusal to learn from history. The role of colonial institutions has often been to dilute and slow down the flow of radical movements. The UNGA Declaration on Decolonisation diluted the radical force of the global anticolonial movements demands. The Acts that abolished slavery compensated the slaveholders, and in granting liberty and emancipation distorted the demand of the enslaved for freedom. Decolonisation demands dismantling, delinking, decentring, or disobeying epistemic coloniality of power and the reproduction of hierarchy upon which it proceeds. So, that the university may be superseded by an equal pluriversity of knowledges. If the university feels threatened by this possibility, rather than respond honestly to the demand to decolonise, it coopts, subsumes, mishears and ultimately disappears the demand. Yet, it seems the demand to decolonise has refused to die. We must not forget that decolonisation has had a long history – at least from 1492. And so, to achieve anything within its purview, we must, with commitment, build on previous work. We must also work alongside other institutions and in places near and far to us. We cannot detach our decolonising in UK Higher Education from the wider spatial-temporal decolonisation movement. In fact, they lead the way not us. It is this detachment and superiorisation that I call ‘decolonising X’, where X has been anything, from a unit/module, to an institution, an activity or an item of clothing. For example, ‘decolonising academic gowns’ or even ‘decolonising the curriculum’. ‘Decolonising X’ often fails to link the current political and social climate of the world, especially global inequality, racial violence and climate change, not only to historical events like colonization and the trade in enslaved Africans, but also to the development of the fundamental concepts that we use in our disciplines to understand the past and present of the world we live in. ‘Decolonising X’ is often a way to do nothing while pretending to do something.
Conclusion: Another University is necessary to take us towards pluriversal worlds
BK-K: For my last question, I would like to know which conclusions with regards to you feel even more strongly about, now that the book has launched, and you have been engaging in conversations around the book.
FIA: The people I have been in conversation with have had very different things to say about the book depending on what knowledge and experience they bring to it. One thing that has struck me across the board is how many people have pointed out that it is a hopeful book. The book contains many accounts of atrocities and genocides – some of the paragraphs were really traumatic to write. Thus, it was important to me while I was writing to reflect on why I was writing it – the hope that a better world can supersede this one. Nevertheless, I also did not want to be too idealistic in articulating the difficult work that is necessary for that new world to be achieved. So, I am relieved that both those things came through in the writing. I think my other conclusion, is not necessarily something I feel more strongly about. I continue to feel strongly about these connected ideas. This is what drove me to write the book. That is: we need to have a better understanding of what decolonisation entails, what it is responding to, and where the demand to decolonise comes from. Decolonisation invites institutions in the Global North to cede power for the possibility of new worlds. It responds to the inauguration of colonial ways of living, thinking and being that prioritise possession and accumulation over shared relation and flourishing. Decolonisation is a specific anti-colonial political project of justice instituted by colonised peoples, racialised peoples, and indigenous peoples as a stubborn and enduring refusal of the conditions of life imposed by the logics and praxes of colonial domination. ‘It entails nothing less than an endless fracturing of the world colonialism created’ (Modiri 2020: 172).