On the 24th of March 2023, the official book launch was held for “Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility.” Full details here. If anyone is interested in getting the book, there is a 50% discount code: PODALK23. This discount is available till 30/04/2023. It can only be used on the BUP site. In this blog post I will summarise the launch event and reproduce my opening remarks.
Before that, I want to express profound gratitude to everyone who made the event and the book itself happen. Writing through a pandemic would have been an impossible task without the support of my husband, friend and foremost supporter. He gave me the space to write, the belief that it was possible and listened very patiently to my countless ramblings while I tried to figure things out by talking them through. There would have been no book without him.
The panellists and chair had such lovely words to say about the book. I am exceedingly grateful to them for the intellectual care they demonstrated towards me. Everyone who turned up to the event and who honoured me with their presence has my profound gratitude. The person who drove hours just to be there, you know who you are! Thank you. Everyone who attended in person and online – over 200 of you. Thank you! Gracias! E se pupo. I wrote these acknowledgments for you all.
A Brief Summary of the Event
The panellists: Babatunde Fagbayibo, Sujith Xavier, Suhraiya Jivraj and Ambreena Manji. They spoke in the order outlined here. They all had exceptionally high praise for the book, for which I am very grateful. Here are some of things they said about the book:
- A lyrical and loving text for how we imagine anew, rethinking order both in a disciplinary and socio-legal/political sense.
- It invites us to auto-critically question the links between the tool we are practionners in (law) and enduring colonial violence. What is left of the law to rejoice in?
- Includes voices pushed to the periphery that help us to rethink embodiment and the law.
- Dissolves present, past and future.
- Uses extra- textual sources and imagines a pluriverse from below and through taking up space.
- The book is in accessible language and is useful for non-law scholars and non-scholars.
In the Q&A, we talked about what it means to write in English, especially in the shadow of loss of indigenous languages and the inability of colonial languages to properly engage with this loss as well as loss of sovereignty in the world. We also considered how linked decolonial work is with intellectual traditions that have not always used the vocabulary of “decolonisation” to self-describe. The book follows in those traditions and encourages conversations within what is designated the Global South.
My Opening Remarks
Good evening, everyone. My list of people to thank is its own set of opening remarks, but I will try my best to cover the necessary ground. First, I want to thank my husband and son without whose love and support I could not have written any of this. This book exists because of the love and encouragement I have from them. I also send thanks to my brothers and parents and extended family members and friends who are online. I want to thank my publisher BUP, the care you offered throughout the process was invaluable. Thank you to staff and students of the law school for your inspiration and encouragement and support for organising this programme. A special mention to my students past and present thank you so much for your insight. Thank you to all attendees in-person and on-line. Thank you for honouring me with your presence. Finally, I am grateful to the discussants and chair for agreeing to be in conversation with me. This conversation is one link in a chain of conversations with you all that have led to this book.
I want to open with a word on poetry. Poetry is important to me for many reasons:
In the words of Audre Lorde “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
I use poetry to engage with the dreams and visions of the very real people who existed and exist through the often-horrific situations that I talk about in the book. To remember that behind technical academic language, we are talking about real people who hope and dream, laugh and cry and live and die. We are attempting to hear the words that the subaltern cannot speak.
The Angry Bird
I have always been interested in decolonisation. However, with the increased focus on decolonisation in UK higher education, I became increasingly frustrated with what I saw as the misuses of decolonisation. So, I could argue that the 6 years it has taken me to think through and write this book have been fuelled majorly by sheer frustration at peoples’ misunderstanding of what colonialism and racism entail.
I focus in my book on unpacking the structures of the latter (colonialism and racism), rather than advocating for the former (decolonisation). This I hope responds to our rush to Decolonise 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. These moves have exposed our own lack of understanding not only of what colonialism entails, but also the complicity of our knowledge forms and disciplines in reproducing its logics.
A framework of stories
I want to tell you about 4 stories. The first is the story of the Zong as described in the case of Gregson v Gilbert. In 1781, 130 Africans were thrown overboard and an attempt to claim their lives in insurance. This is a story that illustrates what it has often meant to be human in this world. How we are still leaving bodies to the waters. Whose bodies we are still leaving to the waters. The second is the story of Re: Southern Rhodesia decided in 1919, in which Chief Justice Sumner uses to the law to unrecognise Matabele and Mashona land rights. This is a story that illustrates the rewriting of what has often meant to be human on the land – dispossession and dislocation. Both these stories are also stories of time. How the time returns in various bodies of water – in various bodies in water. How everywhere we go colonialism still follows us. How everywhere we stand is still colonial ground. The third story is the story of a young woman of sixteen or seventeen, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, who died by suicide in her father’s modest apartment in North Calcutta in 1926. Spivak uses this story to explain the deep silencing of the subaltern. In a later interview Spivak expresses frustration that critics of her essay “Can the subaltern speak?” almost collectively silence Bhuvaneswari. This is also a story of what it means to be human, also a story of space and time, but more than that, an illustration of how there are many stories in which the law and our epistemologies are inadequate, insufficient… too many times complicit in producing silence. How the subaltern cannot speak. Not because she physically cannot, but because to hear her we have to find new ways of knowing and hearing.
The fourth story is really my story. I had been planning this book since about 2016, trying to figure out the optimum time to write it. Then in 2020 the pandemic hit. Strange media questions were everywhere: from why are people in Africa were not dying enough to what is wrong with black people that they are dying too much. And then George Floyd was killed in May 2020. And I was reminded of the same questions raised by the waters surrounding the Zong, by Matabeleland and Mashonaland, by Bhuvaneswari’s silencing… questions of what it means to be human, what it means to belong to the earth, what it means to live in the devastation of time.
So for many racialised people, especially people racialised black, the video of the killing of George Floyd was a reminder that for children of empire, born into its rift, its schism and its void, not enough time has passed, and despite independence movements, wins for equality and human rights, all the power in the world has not resulted in radically different possibilities for us all and the world upon which we currently survive. Therefore, the killing of George Floyd calls to mind the many dyings that empire oversaw and continues to oversee – the dyings of the earth, of nature, of opportunities, of people with forgotten names and families and dreams and hopes.
It calls to mind how George Floyd’s last words had already being spoken an incalculable number of times under the jackboot of coercive power’s destruction and will certainly be spoken again. “Everything hurts, I cannot breathe, don’t kill me, I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe”:
Everywhere we go colonialism still follows us. Everywhere we stand is still colonial ground.
And still, we cannot breathe.
Book Structure: A series of questions
To respond to the social production of subjectivity raised by these stories, the book is concerned with the following questions:
- What makes the demand to decolonise relevant to the law school in the here and now?
- What is decolonisation?
- How has the law been complicit in producing a colonial world?
- What does it mean to be human in this world?
- What does it mean to be human in space and time?
- How can the law school respond?
The Final Question
My final concern is a word of caution asking us to pause before we rush into action. Our academic departments are contained within university structures and within geopolitical ways of life that make the changes we wish to see, almost impossible to dream of. So, decolonisation is almost rendered impossible, because the university and the world structure refuse to be decolonised. However, I suggest that we have no choice but to dream of it and fight to see it be brought to fruition. Survival is being threatened on a planetary scale, through among other things the combined forces of global inequality, racial violence, and climate change. But as long as we are still here, as long as we can still breathe, we can dream of more beautiful worlds. Our presence on this earth is evidence that this is still possible. In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez “To oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life.”