On the 13th of September 2019, I convened a conference at the University of Bristol titled, ‘Decolonising the Law School.’ (The conference was sponsored by the Society of Legal Scholars as well as the Law School at the University of Bristol.) The purpose of the conference was to contribute to a process of accurate practice and theorisation of decolonisation which forces us to confront the history and effects of imperialism upon our academic practices (i.e. research and teaching) in law. This, I think is vital, because in a lot of the contemporary discourse on epistemic decolonisation, there is a focus only on decolonial practice and teaching, to the detriment of decolonial theory and research. Without decolonising research, I believe that we decolonise our teaching in vain.
I have written elsewhere, and much more extensively about my driving thoughts behind convening the conference. This is a process which for me continues to continue. Watch this space. In the meantime, below is the text and video of my welcome address at the conference. A programme of the event also follows.
In what has now become a tradition in many conferences across the globe, I would like to welcome you all into this space with a series of quite specific acknowledgements. I would like us to acknowledge the land where we stand. To acknowledge what this land means to the people who have lived on it, what it means to people who have passed through it, and what it means to people who have been affected by it though they are far removed from us in time and space. I would like us to recognise, remember and acknowledge the fact that Bristol is a city which is in many ways built on the trade in kidnapped African people. Stolen lives, stolen labour, stolen pasts, stolen futures and stolen possibilities. We should acknowledge the fact that this university is in many ways built on the back of that and that anywhere epistemicides preceded physical death, the academe as a whole is implicated. We should acknowledge that this building that we stand in was built from a legacy that cannot be disentangled from a history from which we have not divorced ourselves. Richard Stone, a historian here at this university discovered a saying about Bristol that dates back to the time of Queen Anne. The saying is: ‘There is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave.’ And so, we must acknowledge the trauma that lives on in the atmosphere, we must acknowledge the history that bleeds into the present, that holds the future captive. We must acknowledge that we walk here, side by side with history’s ghosts. We must acknowledge that history lives with us.
And history is the heart of decolonisation. Decolonisation of law in particular is an attempt to acknowledge that the legal history which created our present realities has not always been benign or kind. In creating and maintaining global inequalities, extreme poverty, exploitation of labour, environmental degradation, torture, oppression and oppressions, physical destruction of lives and livelihoods, immediate or gradual death… the law has not been and still is not innocent. The epistemic boundaries created by law in the past and present have marked themselves on the bodies of those othered by race, gender, sexuality and in so many other ways. Those bodies that empire used, abused and then contemptuously consigned to the abyss of forgetfulness. This is why we cannot talk about decolonisation without confronting Empire and its afterlives. And so a reminder that decolonisation is not just about diversity or inclusion or representation or equality or any other liberal comfort blanket that allows us to continue to avoid difficult conversations about the ways history has influenced how law is taught, what law is taught, who the law works for, and who the law does not work for. To avoid difficult conversations about how the colonial lives on in the soul of the law. How everywhere we go colonisation follows us. How everywhere we step upon is colonial ground. The law is also memory. The law is also record.
But does acknowledging that we live in law’s memory mean that we will forever dwell in the past? Eternally bound to evil covenants that emptied law of humanity? If the history of the world and the history of law is full of such depravity, does the earth even have a future? This is where hope is important. In his book Pedagogy of Hope, Paulo Friere suggests that although hope alone is not enough to achieve liberation, without hope there is no future free from the brutality of the past. So, as we acknowledge the past and its pain, trauma and atrocities, I know that we must also hopefully acknowledge epistemic possibilities. Decolonisation is a means by which we unveil a complete picture of the past, not to so that we shut ourselves in it forever, but so that we can truly break free from its patterns. Together we must hopefully acknowledge the possibility that the world will not be destroyed, that we will not destroy each other, but we must also make this future happen. And so I urge us to make this is a conference of hope, of joy, and action for legal education. We must be honest about where we are now, but we must also be clear and confident about where we want to go and what we need to do to get there. And we must be ready to do what this journey of hope requires of us. So that the world will not be destroyed, that we will not destroy each other…
So I welcome you once again into this physical and epistemic space. Please engage. Please be respectful of each other and each other’s experiences and knowledges. Academic kindness is such a beautiful thing. And if the universe is willing and the earth still smiles on us, we will gather again soon for more hopeful conversations about the future.
Before I introduce the next speaker, I want to leave you with an amalgamated quotation from Starhawk and Arundhati Roy
‘Another world is possible!’ … Another world is also necessary, for this one is unjust, unsustainable, and unsafe. It’s up to us to envision, fight for, and create that world, a world of freedom, real justice, balance, and shared abundance, a world woven in a new design… Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’
Today, in this room, in this space, with you all … I can hear her breathing.