You step off the train at Amsterdam’s central station with pack on your back. You stop for a moment. You take in the sounds: the chatter all around from Europe’s weekend vacation town, the seagulls’ song, the boat engines from the canals, the tram’s three-sounded bell. You walk to the central square to sit and observe this other world. You think about what you’ll learn here at the Black Europe Summer School the next three weeks–about home, Ohio, the United States, and how our justice system fits into the global system of law and order.
Then, a familiar friend beckons you. You see a 30 foot high red banner on what looks like an old cathedral. “World Press Photo 2017,” it reads.
‘Wait a second?’ you think. ‘Tyra is in that.’
You go in. You see her. Tyra Patterson: a woman who has spent 23 years in prison for crimes she did not commit. One of the best people you have ever met. Dynamic and kind. You are comforted in a way, watching people halfway across the world read her story. But she should be free.
That is what you experienced if you were me about a month ago, OJPC communications manager, part-time law student, human in search of how we move forward together justly. I had the great opportunity to attend the 10th annual Black Europe Summer School in Amsterdam, led by Kwame Nimako and gathering about 35 people from across the world. Among the group, our work or lives pushes us to interrogating the social-legal-cultural-political systems that structure our society. We were there to think, share, and learn together. It was a brilliant experience, and it was brilliant to start it by seeing Tyra Patterson’s case gaining international attention. Tyra deserves it.
Black Summer School in Europe: The Setup
International Relations Professor Kwame Nimako started the school ten years ago out of necessity. The European acadamies were resisting strongly the idea that blackness in Europe mattered and that it was a worthy academic study. In France, in the Netherlands, as well as other European countries, racial data is not publicly tracked.
France, with its revolutionary, republican spirit of egalité, likes to think of itself as a color-blind society, steadfastly refusing, for example, to measure race, ethnicity, or religion in its censuses. And yet France is, undeniably, a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multiracial society, and has been at least since the nineteen-fifties, when large waves of immigrants began arriving from its former colonies. It has significant problems of discrimination, and of racial and economic segmentation, but limited tools to measure or correct them. [New Yorker, 2015]
Want to know the disparities in the prison population? There is no data. Want to know disparities in employment and housing? There is no data. Merely naming race would be giving into racism, so the story goes, and studying racism is untoward and unnecessary in a post-racial society. Racism is not a problem Europe has, so the story goes. That is the United States. Europe is colorblind. We in the United States recognize these hollow and inaccurate justifications to suppress black people and suppress knowledge production centered around the racism of our society. Meanwhile, we encounter the same arguments here about post-racialism, most seen around the election of Barack Obama.
The Black Europe Summer School forcefully rejects this story, and it brings people from across the world together to think through how to create and spread honest knowledge around race and racism across the world.
Sharing Learning: What is the Basis for Black Studies and/or Black Centered Activism?
Professor Kwame Nimako:
“Emancipation is a process: giving legal status is an act of law.”
Professor Nimako, an economist with a social-historical-political analysis, identifies a 500-year world system centered around black slavery and afrophobia. Through the Treaty of Westphalia and subsequent nation-state agreements, Europe created and defined the boundaries of claims to citizenship. It recognized some and did not recognize others, creating boundaries to citizenship, rights, claims for harm, and basic respect. The black experience in this system Professor Nimako outlines with the concept:
Intertwined Belongings, Parallel Lives
People living in Europe and its colonies/former colonies may share the same space, relationships, may walk the same streets (intertwined belongings), but they, based on their ascribed race, experience it entirely differently (parallel lives). I see this as acutely applicable to the US context and across the world. Do you?
What then characterizes the traditions of Black thought and activism over the last 500 years? Professor Nimako finds the Distinctive African Intellectual Tradition in a combination of six themes:
For the professor, and this is an important point, this approach is ‘humanocentric,’ meaning we study and produce knowledge emanating from the black experience, but that study has meaning for and in relation to all human beings in this global system. The idea that black studies or black advocacy would have no bearing on others, or their understanding of how the world works, is itself afrophobic and based on non-recognition. The professor rejects that idea. Europe, the U.S., the system of international relations is and has been a contested, evolving project. Emancipation is a process, and black studies and black activism have an essential place in that process.
Professor Nimako; resources:
Kwame Nimako (2014) Location and Social Thought in the Black: A Testimony of Africana
Intellectual Tradition In: Sabine Broeck and Carsten Junker, Postcoloniality,-Decoloniality-
Black Critique: Joints and Fissures (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2014)
Kwame Nimako (2014) ‘Let Citizenship Blossom’ In: B.S. Santos (Ed) Letters to the
Europeans (Coimbra: ALICE ERC Project, 218-233; 2014).
Kwame Nimako (2015) Conceptual Clarity, Please! On the uses and abuses of the concepts
of ‘slave’ and ‘trade’ in the study of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery, In: Marta
Araujo and Silvia Rodriguez Maeso, ‘Race’, racism and knowledge production: debate on
history, political struggles and the academia in Europe and the Americas (Palgrave, 2015)
Kwame Nimako (2011) Reorienting the world: with or without Africa? (MnM Working Paper
No. 5; University of South Australia, 2011)
Professor Philomena Essed:
“The personal is the political.”
Everyday Racism, Gendered Racism, Dignity
How does racism show up in everyday life? How is it lived? What are the effects? How does gendered racism show up? What does it mean to maintain dignity?
For Professor Essed, racism “is about creation of hierarchy of worthiness attached to groups of people. Racism is a historically anchored ideology, structure and process, where one group privileges its members, while disadvantaging other groups on the basis of (attributed) racial, or cultural (ethnic) factors. These factors are used to explain perceived superior and inferior ways of being and of being human.” But it does not just show up in the extreme (but regular) killings of black men and women that are so publicized. It is everday.
Everyday racism is “a process of numerous day-2-day violations of the human right of ethnic minorities to live in dignity. It is expressed in and outside of institutions, in schools, at work, through the media, shopping or in the neighborhood—there is no relief.”
The everyday is about living in the world and the need to navigate what is acceptable and normal in the culture in order to live. Everyday goes to the repetitive, the accumalotory, and triggers past memories of abuse and oppression. The more status or authority involved, the greater damage resulting from common sense prejudiced statements and discriminatory behavior.
Dignity is something we center are work around at OJPC, and Professor Essed expanded my concept about what dignity really is. She made me want to fight for it even more.
Dignity is not a thing one has, she says, it is a practice. It is a state of being. Dignity is an expression of self-worth based on respect for other people. It is relational. It is the ability to honor all living things in daily life. People with dignity feel that this ability gives them self-worth. It defines the directions of living and is based in the interconnection of all things. Confronting everyday racism is a way to increase our ability to live in state of dignity. In the video below, Professor Essed gives the “5 R’s of Resisting Racism” in the everyday.
Professor Essed; resources:
Essed, Philomena. 2009. Intolerable Humiliations. Racism, Postcolonialism, Europe.
Graham Huggan & Ian Law (Eds). Liverpool: Liverpool UP. Pp 131-147
Essed,Philomena. 2005. Gendered Normativities in Racialized Spaces: Cloning the Physician.
John Solomos & Karim Murji (Eds.). Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice.
Oxford: Oxford UP. Pp 229-249
Recommended: Puwar, Nirmal. 2004. Space invaders: Race, gender and bodies out of place. Oxford: New York: Berg. Chapter 4: (In)visible universal bodies. pp. 55-76
Professor Stephen Small:
“Historically, nations of Europe acted as separate fingers of a hand in competition across the world, but as a common clenched fist on black people.”
Decolonizing the mind
There is a colonized and a decolonized way to think about race, citizenship, and immigration. In colonized conversation, black people are always problematized. But there is a different way to think about and discuss things, one that locates the problems in the institutional and cultural setup around black people. For a deeper exploration of how these two frames play out, and how we can do the work in everyday thought and conversation, I highly suggest the series of works Professor Small has helped put together: Decolonizing the mind. I picked up and found right on point “20 Questions and Answers about Reparations for colonialism” (Note: I have not been able to find this resource in the US at an affordable cost or for borrowing. I have one copy at OJPC I am willing to lend out). There is a legitimate and necessary conversation about reparations and repairatory justice that most people in the world system seem ill-equipped to have or actively evade. In the video below, Professor Small begins at timemark 21:31.
Front left: Kwame Nimako, Founder and Leader of Summer School in Black Europe; Behind: 2017 Black Summer School Participants; Back Right: Me reppin’ Cincinnati with my new homies.
A Closing Vignette
Coming home has been interesting. I like to write fiction to help me process things. Sitting in a coffee shop in Ohio, this dialogue between two characters came to me. It seems fitting to include here:
“How do you like Ohio?”
“What do you mean which one?”
“Well, there are two Ohio’s for me. There is the State, which I see as organized around black slavery and afrophobia. Then there is the land, the trees, these rivers, the fireflies in August, the crow’s in late October, the sun above, the rich raw earth beneath. I quite love the latter Ohio, and am not fond of the former.”
“You’re cray. I’m tired of you.”
“You’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. That’s by the State of Ohio’s design. It’s ordered around the brokenness of our spirits but the aliveness of our bodies. But not the other Ohio, that I love. It depends on and insists on the vitality or aliveness of all living matter, on spiritual vitality, on living in a state of dignity.”
“Dignity? I don’t know how I feel about dignity.”
“Well, it’s not a thing one has. That’s where most get it twisted. It’s a state of being, and this is the state of Ohio and myself in it that I’m concerned with. The daily waste and pain and violent harm being done to living things around me strips me of my ability to live in a state of dignity. I’m not powerful enough to address what needs to be addressed. It vexes me. 70,000 people in cages. Poisoning the land and water. How does one maintain one’s dignity in that circumstance?”
“Impossible. That’s why I don’t be thinkin on stuff like that too hard.”
Want to talk about anything in here? Hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s my only request: read or watch at least one of the resources on here and come with ideas and questions to share. Let’s build our state(s) of dignity.