Before there is solidarity – a strategic political choice, an action that creates or expresses affinity – there is kinship and recognition: not just the bonds of family, but the sense that someone is ‘one of ours’. Identity politics explicitly trades on this similarity (sometimes in ways that essentialise and are easily co-opted) but all politics begins from a feeling of connection. Our sense of affinity stretches far beyond the people we immediately know, hence Benedict Anderson’s theory of nations as ‘imagined communities’, which could be applied to many other collectives; any group in which all its members cannot be personally acquainted requires an act of imagination to see itself as a group at all. A deep sense of relatedness can be produced through political action, identity, or affiliation, and sometimes spools backwards and forwards in time too; we imagine a kind of communion with those who came before us, we act with a sense of responsibility to those who will come after.
Living our lives online can facilitate this feeling of relatedness, collapsing – or at least condensing – distances of time or space. But even without an official end to Net Neutrality (the basic principle, now under threat, that keeps the internet relatively free and open), the digisphere is firmly in the grip of American hegemony. Sometimes this means that what happens in Ferguson or Staten Island can feel closer to many people in the UK than what is happening in Bradford or Hastings. Many British anti-racists can talk of Angela Davis but not Anwar Dittta; of Albert Woodfox but not the Guildford 4. Solidarity demonstrations following the murders of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana in 2016 saw bigger crowds in London than were drawn to the streets following the death of Edson da Costa in East London in 2017. The desire to protest acts of American state violence points to a capacity for kinship that might defy the parochial pull of national identity. But we must, I think, confront what is lost when the USA’s racial violence is more vivid to us than what’s happening under our noses.
There’s a cruel irony in how the heft of American cultural power also globalises the resistance to it, which then obscures more local struggles. What is lost when we disappear into the American digisphere is not just the urgency of anti-racism in Britain, but the long legacy of resistance to state violence, and all of the alliances that have been made in the process. Women of colour have been at the forefront of trying to make sense of these questions of kinship, asking what kinds of sameness and what kinds of difference matter? How does state violence intervene to break natural bonds? How might our own desire for connection lead us to mistake antagonists for allies, or blind us to similarities that come in forms we haven’t yet learnt to recognise? In trying to answer these questions, I turn to Gail Lewis and Avtar Brah, activists and scholars in the tradition of Black British feminism, a term now loaded with all the fraughtness and difficulty of ‘political blackness’, an idea that has lost purchase (even become a sign of bad faith) in anti-racist movements. Though ‘political blackness’ has understandably lost its power to unite, we are in danger of throwing out the knowledge produced by earlier moments and movements. This essay is an attempt to turn back to Black British feminism and see what it might have to teach us.
In ‘Audre Lorde: Vignettes and Mental Conversations’, Gail Lewis confronts the task of how to maintain her connection with ‘the mother of black feminism’ after Lorde’s own passing, and in light of the always difficult relationships we have with mother figures. Lewis’ essay was published in 2005 and, in the intervening decade, Lorde’s cultural power has been amplified, not least through the circulation of quotations by her on social media. In this medium, Lorde is not seen as a comrade or a peer, but as an icon. Lewis goes back to Lorde’s poetry, to the texts themselves not the decontextualized soundbites, reading them carefully – not just closely, but with care. Her aim isn’t disinterested literary criticism, but ‘a personal tribute to the importance of the work of this woman. Nothing more or less than this.’
Lewis picks out a poem called ‘For the record’ in which Lorde compares Indira Gandhi and Eleanor Bumpers, imagining these two ‘colored girls’ together in the next world. The former, India’s only female Prime Minister to date, was responsible for overseeing widespread atrocities during her rule, which ended with her assassination by Sikh nationalists in 1984. Eleanor Bumpers, by contrast, was a Black woman who was shot and killed in the same year by New York City police. As Lewis points out: ‘One was a poor and dispossessed black woman, subjected to institutionalized humiliation and marginalization. The other, in stark contrast, was the head of the world’s tenth industrial power and was responsible for the dispossession, humiliation and marginalization of millions of Indian Eleanor Bumpers.’ In questioning Lorde’s authority here, Lewis refuses to let her need for connection act as a limit. Critique can be a kind of love. Here it is an act of devotion, a tribute, a way of taking Lorde’s seriously. This critique refuses the seduction of sameness, and transforms our desire for icons into a desire for something better, a desire for truth, however painful.
It is from this point of refusing the idea of a kinship between Eleanor Bumpers and Indira Gandhi – and in the process, challenging and transforming her affinity with Audre Lorde – that Lewis turns to a more local example: Hillsborough. In this act of state violence and in the cruel and cynical collaboration between the state and the media that followed, Lewis sees the circumstances of her own life, and the lives of many others, reflected and refracted. She says:
April 1989, ninety-five die at Hillsborough. They had wanted to watch football. It was a Saturday – free time, their time. The media, orchestrated by the police attempt to debase them and their deaths: hooligans, drunk, animals, Liverpudlians – the messages are a scourge on our eyes, our compassion. Later the tables will turn, we will know a little more of the truth, and the resurrected humanity of the dead and bereaved will rise to haunt its would-be assassins. The portrayal of people as animals to be corralled and penned, of people to be despised, invokes images of slavery. So does its refusal. We black people know this. We lesbians and gays know this. That day football died. Liverpool died. We died.
Hillsborough is part of a constellation of state repression, which produces a kinship of the fucked-over that stretches back to slavery and forward to a future in which the once-powerful are forever haunted. The groups Lewis names are not equivalents, but are connected by sympathy, recognition, and fury. Many saw their own lives as deeply bound up in seeking justice for Hillsborough, just as many now do again in seeking justice for Grenfell. In pushing back against a vision of collectivity that is blind to class and power, Lewis opens our eyes to the way that experiences of state violence might speak beyond race, gender, and sexuality, producing connections that could disrupt the linear march of history.
In her essay ‘the scent of memory’, Avtar Brah explores similar ideas from another direction. Rather than begin with someone who is already ‘one of ours’, Brah asks what kind of kinship could be possible between white and South Asian people in Southall? In the 1970s, the National Front were on the march and they set their sights on Southall, where a burgeoning anti-racist movement, led by young, militant British Asians, was finding its feet. Brah turns to the death of Blair Peach, a white teacher from New Zealand who died marching in Southall against the National Front in 1979, from head injuries suffered, according to evidence presented in courts, when he was hit by Special Patrol Group police officers. No officers were ever charged over Peach’s death, though Commander John Cass, who led the inquiry into Peach’s death believed that Peach was ‘almost certainly’ killed by one of six SPG officers, some of whom then lied to cover up the actions of their colleague. It was only after the death of Ian Tomlinson, a 47-year-old newspaper seller who was attacked by police at the G20 protests in London, that the Met police finally released the Cass report at all, along with thousands of other secret documents related to the case.
Days after Peach’s death, 10,000 people marched past the place where he collapsed. The now-demolished Dominion Cinema, Southall, where his body was lying in repose, was visited by thousands of people from the area on the eve of his funeral, and thousands of activists from across the country marched across London on the day he was buried. As Brah describes:
I saw older Asian women file past his coffin, calling him ‘put’ (my son) as tears streamed down their agonized faces. He was no ‘outsider’, as far as they were concerned, although they did not know him. He was very much ‘our own’, laying his life down for a future where racist and fascist activity would not stalk their neighbourhood. The women’s lament was no superficial gesture of sentimentality, as some forms of ‘hard politic’ might maintain. It was a profound expression of love and inclusion.
For Brah, this story is an example of how, in the process of struggle, Blair Peach became apna – Urdu for ‘one of our own’. He was neither alien to the community in Southall nor inherently a member of it, but became a lost son to many mothers through the circumstances of his life and untimely death.
These lessons from Black British feminism cannot be turned into a meme or a soundbite. My own attempt to summarise only skims the surface. But even the surface here is teeming with possibility. The eternal present of digital life can facilitate all kinds of connections, but right now it follows the grain of American cultural power. Dwarfed by the USA’s hegemonic story of race and injustice, the specifics of the struggle against state violence here can seem remote or obscure. But, as Lewis and Brah generously suggest, one kind of kinship need not exclude another.
Brah, Avtar. “The Scent of Memory: Strangers, Our Own, and Others.” Feminist Review, no. 61, 1999, pp. 4–26.
Lewis, Gail. “Audre Lorde: Vignettes and Mental Conversations.” Feminist Review, no. 34, 1990, pp. 100–114
Sita Balani is a lecturer in contemporary literature and culture at King’s College London. Recent work has focused on sexuality and the ‘War on Terror’. She has contributed to Feminist Review, Open Democracy, Boundless, Ceasefire, Photoworks and the Verso blog.