In the week of Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and author of Back to black: retelling black radicalism for the 21st century (2018), made a video for the guardian arguing that the West “was built on racism”, that America was created “in the image of the founding fathers of white supremacy” and that British wealth was accumulated through centuries of African slavery. European enlightenment, he argued, was from the beginning a racist endeavor.
The video went viral. The force of his polemic, presented in the context of the mainstream British media, was moving. Authors like Robin DiAngelo and Layla Saad had yet to publish books with titles like White brittleness (2018) and White supremacy and me (2020) on the international bestseller lists. Black Panther (2018) had yet to overturn a century of racist dogma about what could and could not thrive at the commercial box office, and last summer’s actions by Black Lives Matter had yet to make the connection between police brutality in America and the legacy of Columbus. Colston and Leopold II a discussion in the living room around the world.
Talks about race and the deep roots of white supremacy have moved rapidly in certain circles in recent years, and in ways that would have been hard to imagine before Brexit or Trump. As such, with his latest offering, The new age of empire: how racism and colonialism continue to rule the world, which is based on that video from 2017 and, in particular, on the intellectual legacy of Cedric Robinson (author of 1983 Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition), Andrews is not excited as before; this stuff feels more familiar now.
However, it does provide readers with a solid foundation in the 500-year history of racial capitalism – the enduring significance of the genocide of Native Americans, the transatlantic slave trade, and European colonialism – while convincingly working to reveal “colonialism” logic and neocolonialism “are still at stake in the functioning of contemporary global institutions like the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO. Here, Andrews leans on the backs of the giants of black radicalism, from WEB Du Bois to Ava DuVernay, and delivers a book intended to serve as a sort of lead text for a new generation of anti-racism students seeking to confront violence. . of our imperial heritage, broadly speaking.
It is not a book without its flaws. It reflects its sources, but never exceeds them; it also does not live up to the promise of its premise, since the “new age” that Andrews evokes, centered on a critique of the transnational institutions of neoliberalism, could have felt groundbreaking 20 years ago alongside Naomi Klein’s publication. No logo (1999), for example, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire (2000), but it feels now, in this new era of global crisis, clearly retro.
Attempts to deal with more recent geopolitical developments, such as the rise in China or rising global temperatures, feel insubstantial. Crucially, Andrews also fails to meet the larger decolonial goal: not just telling the backstory of the empire, but addressing the question of how we, the mutinous and multiracial descendants of Europe’s enlightenment, from Belfast to Bamako, to Los Angeles to Laos, we can effectively transcend. the violence and sheer injustice of this racist heritage and create the world anew.
In comparison, and perhaps surprisingly, Sathnam Sanghera Empireland: how imperialism has shaped modern Britain, points to the greater decolonial possibility, which it captures, ultimately, as a “broadening and deepening” of the self through knowledge, the broadening of horizons and “the understanding and possible adoption of alternative points of view.”
Sanghera’s debut memohear, The boy with monkey (2009), although widely praised for its commitment to the stigma of mental illness and successfully adapted for television by the BBC in 2017, was also criticized for what writer and critic Kavita Bhanot has described as “its normalization of the white supremacy “, where The Cut of a Chignon is framed as an escape from the shackles of ethnic identity, a happy assimilation into the mainstream of British (white) life.
Empireland it arises from a similar assimilationist motive. Sanghera wants the British to recognize, with him, his “deep and complex relationship with the world through empire”, to regain intimacy with the multiracial nature of a common history.
Along this path, he intends to assimilate everything that, to his “shame”, he had never known about that story. It attempts to integrate perspectives from writers ranging from those considered apologists for empire, including Niall Ferguson and Jan Morris, to the explicitly anti-colonial, including Pankaj Mishra and Shashi tharoor.
Fortunately, this deliberate balance eludes him. As Sanghera grapples with the details of the atrocities, including the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919, and the Tasmanian Genocide of the early nineteenth century, what takes hold, both to his own surprise and ours, is a feeling of moral outrage which in turn interrupts the way he views himself, his past attitudes, his sense of his place in the world. “My education at Oxbridge in private, essentially British school,” he writes, “taught me to value Western history, Western literary forms (such as the novel and memoirs), and Western geopolitical forms (the nation state) above their own non-Western ways. counterparts, and encouraged me to see my own Indian heritage through Western condescending eyes. “
In the wake of personal epiphany, we glimpse with the Sanghera paths of transformative potential. “It could well have been colonized,” he admits. “[But] By embarking on this project, I am making an effort to decolonize myself ”.
It is a simple but profound answer: this introspective introspection and the search for new horizons, combined with the willingness to accept the contradictions of all this.
• The new era of empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World by Kehinde Andrews is published by Allen Lane (£ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
• Empireland: how imperialism has shaped modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera is published by Viking (£ 18.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism