Azeezat Johnson introduces a new co-edited volume which looks at the implicit and explicit racism in our so-called post-racial states
I’ve been stuck on the impossibility of finding the right words to introduce people to our book The Fire Now: anti-racist scholarship in times of explicit racial violence. I was talking to my friend Wasi about it a couple of weeks ago: it felt like in the midst of all this horror and hate, I needed to find a voice that could lift all of us up and speak of a brighter future that is yet to come. But that’s not what is in front of us right now, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that all of us – as contributors, editors and responders to this book – are not tired, afraid and angry as we look at our current surroundings.
The Fire Now was born out of this moment. After the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, Remi, Beth and I were talking about the reality of where we are – the continuous implicit and explicit racism in our so-called post-racial states, the increased border patrols, the continuous deportations, and relentless nostalgia for colonisation through Britain “gaining their independence” or America “becoming great again”. This is the reality that informs how we think of the fires that surround us. As we say in the introduction:
“We write from the ashes and embers of Grenfell Tower, where fire so quickly engulfed so many of our working-class siblings in the UK. […] We write knowing the fire was not random: it is but symptomatic of much larger fires, and a warning of fires to come. We think through this elemental fire as we see our people battle for clean water in Flint and Standing Rock, and as we watch, heart-broken, by the ever-increasing climate disasters killing People of Colour across the globe. We foreground the fires that have left so many of our countries torn apart by neo-imperialist wars, and the fiery right-wing rhetoric that continues to terrorise and silence so many of us within our daily lives.” (Kamunge et al., 2018, p. 3-4)
Yet even as we think of the terrifying and exhaustive fires that surround us, I also think of what it meant for Audre Lorde (1995, p. 32) to say “it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.” Those words could not have been easy for her to write, as a Black feminist lesbian mother of two children in a world that devalues Black and lesbian, and particularly Black lesbian, lives. But she must have also been thinking about her survival in the context of her cancer diagnoses, and what it means that – whether due to illness, hunger, abuse, wars, police intervention, prison industrial complexes – many of us don’t survive the fires that surround us.
It is living with this fear of our present and yet desperate hope for our future that informs our decision to speak up and bring this book into existence. What does this kind of speech look like, and where can it take us? This is why we wanted to connect to James Baldwin’s work – as someone that described himself as a witness (Houston, 2017) – and why we wanted to continue the legacy laid out in Baldwin’s (1963) The Fire Next Time specifically. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes a loving letter to his nephew explaining with care and compassion the racist world that his nephew was going to be growing up in.
His words helped us to understand what it means to speak up as critical scholars in the context of mass oppression and violence. This kind of speech must be loving yet honest. It must be critical, daring and vulnerable. We must speak from the realities of our own positionings, be critically located somewhere. It cannot – as too many (past and present) academics have assumed – speak for everyone, everywhere.
This type of speech must also be speaking to someone in the hopes of showing them that we know and deeply care about their existence. In the last chapter of this book, each of us as editors reflect on the people who inspired us to do this work. I wrote about my youngest sister Basirat, while Remi thought of his sisters India and Talia, and Beth thinks of her nieces and nephews in Kenya and the UK. When I told my sister that I had written about her, she decided to tell anyone that would listen: “I’m in a book without having to write a word myself. Imagine being so important to someone that they write about you in a book.” As obnoxious as the statement is, she is right: the people we wrote this book for, the communities that we wrote this book for, are that important to us that this reckoning with our reality had to be done. For us and for them.
As academics and activists, this is what we believed was necessary after the events of 2016. We needed to show bravery in our speech and do the necessary analysis to understand where we are, how we got there, and where we can go. Part I (Transforming Academia) reflects our sense that anti-racist scholarship needs to begin by accounting for the institutions that many of us function within. In Part II (Intersectional Identities, Intersectional Struggles), the contributors show time and again that anti-racist struggles that are not intersectional are both inadequate and dangerous. Part III (Lessons from History, Connections across Spaces) allows us to situate anti-racist activisms within different historical and regional contexts. Part IV (Understanding and Reframing Oppression) recognises that we must take stock of and speak back to the white supremacist conditions that we face.
We as editors are incredibly proud of the many different voices represented in this book as they speak so daringly and lovingly from their own expertise, bearing witness to this moment that we are living in and refusing to stay silent as we see violence upon violence committed across the world.
Yet what of the voices that remain absent from this collection and this room? What does it mean to celebrate this moment from the UK; within a place where we know so many (national and financial) borders prevent some of our contributors and wider community from participating in this celebration?
And what of the erasures that we perpetuate even through this collection? What about the absence of trans and non-binary people of colour from this book, even as we know the horrifying statistics of their murder and harassment? What about a discussion of prison abolition that we know is sorely needed given the brutal penitentiary systems that have locked up so many People of Colour across the world? How do we situate the resurgence of white supremacy across the West within a global context of fiery right-wing oppression, from Bolsonaro to Mohdi to Netanyahu?
These erasures can no longer be overlooked or ignored, both within this book and within our struggles for a different future. It is why we know that this particular contribution is not the end nor the beginning. The Fire Now is part of a call for all of us to rethink anti-racist scholarship and re-learn how to care for those of us that are too often forgotten and marginalised.
So that’s where we as editors hope the book will take us. We hope it is read as both a critical accounting of this particular moment that we are living in, and as a demand for vastly different ways of relating and caring for one another. And that this work has to start now, in this moment. It starts with us learning to care for those that are too often forgotten within these white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchal systems. It starts with us reminding ourselves again and again that justice for all is dependent on justice for the most marginalised.
So even as I began ruminating on the impossibility of this particular moment, and the fires that we see around us, we know that – as Baldwin (1963, p. 89) himself stated – “the impossible is the least that one can demand”. We demand it for ourselves and our loved ones. We demand it for all of us in the hopes of a future that is yet to be actualised. And that demand has to begin by accounting for our own words and actions.
We end with our beginning demands in The Fire Now:
[…] we also hold onto a fire that is cleansing, that comes from speaking up and out against the violence that surrounds us. We write The Fire Now because we recognise that our silence will not save us (Lorde, 1984, p. 41), and that our anger has its uses. We write with fire. (Kamunge et al, 2018, p.3).
Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage Books.
Houston, S. M. (2017, January 11). Can I Get a Witness: I Am Not Your Negro Gives the Race Problem Back to White American Film Critics. Paste Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/01/can-i-get-a-witness-i-am-not-your-negro-gives-the.html
Kamunge, B., Joseph-Salisbury, R., & Johnson, A. (2018). Changing our fates in The Fire Now. In A. Johnson, R. Joseph-Salisbury, & B. Kamunge (Eds.), The Fire Now: anti-racist scholarship in times of explicit racial violence (pp. 1-9). London: Zed Books.
Lorde, A. (1995). The black unicorn: Poems. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Azeezat Johnson is an ESRC postdoctoral fellow in QMUL School of Geography, working on Black feminist politics and Black Muslim women’s clothing practices. She is a co-editor for The Fire Now: anti-racist scholarship in times of explicit racial violence (published by Zed Books). She tweets as @azeezatj
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