I have been reading, thinking, rereading and rethinking through what you wrote, and trying to find a way to respond. At the same time, I have been ploughing through Paul Gilroy’s After Empire that you recommended, noting developments in my thoughts as I read through the book, in relation to our discussion. My sense is that the different stages, or flux, of ideas I have had form the most generative basis for a response.
When I first read your observation of the original inhabitants of the British island revolting against Roman colonisation — I was simultaneously defensive and mystified. Defensive because I have grown accustomed to thinking about Europe, the ‘West’, the ‘Global North’, the ‘colonisers', and ‘Britain' (by extension) in a way that is quite singular, and anti-. So reading your email I felt that to ’sympathise’ with a narrative of Britain as also having been colonised, was to be disloyal to a kind of anti-Eurocentric approach that began to grow in real strength at the start of FeesMustFall. Then on the other hand, I felt mystified, because I have never really engaged with British history to this extent, or in this way that you outlined. I wondered what bearing this had, or could have on the ideas I am thinking through in my current work.
Reading both your email and Gilroy, I have noted a contradiction in my own thinking. In an article of mine that will be published towards the end of the year, I argue for a nuanced approach to dress, that focuses on the multitude of personal narratives that are knotted into an understanding dress, as it appears in the work of a number of artists worldwide (e.g. Judith Mason, Yinka Shonibare). I favour this kind of textured approach as a pretext to one that focuses on the macro-political (gendered, racial, cultural, national, socio-economic) identities that dress might be seen to communicate. In the macro-political, the complexity of individual identification is often arguably overlooked.
However, in the email I wrote to you, I did quite the opposite in terms of the way I spoke about a 'European', and ‘British’ understanding of archive. So Gilroy’s paper makes me think about how easy it is to slip into a narrative of simplifying and singularising.
What has been difficult for me in articulating a response to you is exploring a position in which I complexify and nuance this idea of opposing Eurocentrism, and its hegemonic legacies. I wonder if I might be exploring a territory which is ‘disloyal’ to the cause of decolonising the university, to the cause in which I was involved as a student and now as an independent researcher?
However, I feel that is worth surfacing whether, if in the process of trying to define an African epistemology — which as you suggest can actually have problematic effects of singularity, and homogeneity —ideas of a Euro/ Western / British / Northern / White colonising force is necessarily singularised too, deleting the multiplicity of opposing individual narratives and conflicts that currently exist and have existed within and beneath those umbrella terms.
I have really been struggling in my own work to deal with the problem of what Gilroy (p.34) calls reproducing
"the obligations of racial observance, negotiating them but basically accepting the idea of racial hierarchy and then, inescapably, reifying it.”
I keep asking myself how to oppose singular narratives of anything really without adopting a ‘comeback’ that is itself singular.
Here I want to thank you for pointing me towards Gilroy, and for your indication that:
"the archive is always determined by our sense of what the present and the future mean."
I find that kind of approach, following Gilroy, to have real force, especially in complicating the dialectics and binaries I am consistently faced with (black white centre periphery africa europe). I want to work more carefully with this idea that Gilroy (p.59) introduces of "the ability to imagine political, economic, and social systems in which “race” makes no sense”.
I wonder if this could be used in quite an idiosynchratic way with Edourad Glissant’s call for the “right to opacity”…
I still worry though, that the types of positions I explore in this email might lead to uncomfortable, and notably unpopular articulations — and a position that resists any kind of singular narrative, no matter where it comes from (eg. dominant ideologies emerging from FeesMustFall). This reminds me of a collection of essays edited by William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni, On the Poverty of Ideas.
So while I go back Gilroy, I must thank you for the suggestion which has pushed me in a direction that, although uncomfortable and unstable, is very very generative.
All the best,