theory, culture, politics
Black History Month 2008
Although our eyes and ears have been bombarded with the news of a crisis in neo-liberal capital (K-punk is customarily lucid on this here), those who try to catch the trails which slip past such a monolithic media event would have noticed that the arrival of October also brought with it the launch of Black History Month 2008. BHM has now become, along with the Notting Hill Carnival, the MOBO’s and Diwali, a recognisable feature of Britain’s cultural landscape, or at least in the cosmopolitan areas. Even though the establishment of BHM signals the continued progress of a project invested in the increased visibility of race, I think it is important unsettle the frame which operates around it. We need to ask what BHM and other similar events indicate about the ways in which race has passed through Britain over the decade or so.
To produce this type of unsettling, I want to begin by taking a closer look at the manner in which BHM comes to unsettle me, the ways in which I find it unsettling, despite a wish to take part in its celebratory ‘history as democracy’ ethics. My vexations around BHM materialise through a peculiar attachment to and overinvestment in the term ‘Windrush’. As a common referent ‘Windrush’ has become an experience, it also names a generation, and I would argue that its use as a kind of default term points to a set of problems in the narrative which has been instituted around the Black presence in Britain. The first problem involves elements of basic historical inaccuracies. ‘Windrush’ feeds into a popular image of the Afro-Caribbean population’s arrival as a singular event, - a fresh off the boat story, when the reality of that movement was far more complex. Following the U.S governments heavy legislation on immigration during the 1940s, Britain, having been second preference became the primary destination for West Indians. But the arrival at the ‘Motherland’, rather than a cross-Atlantic stampede, was a gradual process dependent upon a close analysis of both the strength of the pound and the local employment market.
Secondly ‘Windrush’ as a trope for race and historicism reflects a broader desire to situate a clean, coherent, and ultimately safe narrative around the Black presence in Britain. The history of major port cities such as Bristol and Liverpool point to the fact that the Atlantic slave trade allowed Black communities to form in Britain almost four hundred years ago and there is even evidence that points to the presence of Black Roman soldiers in Britain. The tendency to overinvest in the cleanliness of ‘Windrush’ reflects an avoidance of complexity when it comes to considering the question of race. Paul Gilroy, in his revised introduction to the 2002 edition of ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ describes this as the reduction of race to a “corporate mission statement”:
“Stripped of legitimacy and effectively depoliticised, anti-racism could be reduced to empty, ethereal statements. It became equality of opportunity, was trivialised in the poetry of management science, and then in the theatrical inclusiveness that was regularly staged to create the impression of more solid shifts.”
It is that very “theatrical inclusiveness” that bothers me about BHM. The idea that an a concept-metaphor such a “Windrush” once refined and made palatable, can be placed neatly into, say, a school curriculum - the story of race can be done, box ticked, next item on the agenda please. Perhaps what we need to do is ask how race in this country has moved on from those almost normative positions of Black-British or British-Asian. Perhaps we need to shift our focus and pay attention to striking underpaid Brazilian cleaners, Fauji’s in Southall, or the Muslim schoolboy from Exeter; groups of people who are very much present and serve to upset the minority communities which an event such as BHM tries to celebrate and coerce into an acceptable ideal of Britishness.
It only happens once in a while but wee Sarah Palin has caused our resident political mountebank to come out of his west London hideaway...
So, McCain has picked Palin, a 44-year-old beauty queen. It has widely been read as a cynical attempt by the GOP to cash in on the millions of women voters left apparently disenfranchised by Hillary Clinton's failure to win the Democrats' presidential nomination.
People point at her brief political record, her pro-life, , pro-drilling (anti-polar bear) stance, her advocacy of creationist teaching in Alaska's schools, her NRA membership and the ongoing corruption case against her back home as the many good reasons why she will fail to win over those who feel let down by Obama's accession to the Democratic candidacy.
People may well look at her age, too. At 44, the age gap between herself and the Republicans' patriarchal presidential candidate is 28 years; indeed, Senator McCain is fully well old enough to have finished his education, proceeded into a career and, generally speaking, established himself in life and still be of the age at which to sire his own running mate. Whereas Obama has chosen Joe Biden to bestow upon his campaign a greater sense of experience, in contrast to his youthful appearance and relatively short time in political office, many believe this age gap between McCain and his vice-presidential nominee will only accentuate his own advancing years.
Others too, may recognise that Sarah Palin does not fit into the baby-boomer generation that was so crucial to Senator Clinton's campaign – the generation that has played such an important role in the last 40 years of American history. Further proof why she will fail to take the middle ground in this election battle and appeal across the deep fault lines that run through America's partisan political landscape.
All these points are completely valid, should McCain's choice of running mate be based on what appears at first sight to be that cynical attempt to steal Obama's thunder (and Hillary Clinton's jaded supporters) by picking a young woman governor, fresh in the job. However, that point of view is dependent on whether McCain and the GOP are basing their campaign strategy on seizing the middle ground.
In fact, if there was a Republican in the party most likely to appeal to Democratic voters, it would be McCain himself. But taking votes off the Democrats has rarely been the Republicans' concern; and the times when they have, say, in '72 or '84, their sweeping success came more as a result of a catastrophic collapse of the Opposition from within, than a grand strategic blow.
McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, the pro-guns, pro-life, pro-oil, creationist believer and good Christian hockey-mum of five children (one of whom has signed up to fight the good fight for his country) was made to reinforce his own Republican credentials and maximise the turnout of the GOP faithful in November. Of particular significance are Christian Right element, which has been as important to the Republicans in recent years as they have been suspicious of McCain. McCain's historic position as a maverick of the Republican Party may well have once endeared him to many independents, but McCain, like his predecessor as Arizona Senator, Barry Goldwater, has long been a thorn in the side of the Christian Conservatives, speaking out against the social policies they endorse, and their contemporary domination of the Grand Old Party, and the political debate in general.
Amidst this, Sarah Palin acts as a paean to this powerful group. McCain's liberal street cred will buy him no favours with the Democrats, and if he wants to count on the Party standing behind him, the thinking goes, he has to appeal to the supporters. Palin's selection is not an attempt to cash Clinton's cheque, but instead is another example of how the neo-Cons have been infiltrating McCain's campaign team. McCain has shown in the past that he is more than capable of political expediency where necessary – his endorsement of George W. Bush in 2000 (after an acrimonious battle for the Republican nomination he eventually lost) and his equivocal support for the President in 2004 is evidence of this – but the selection of Palin after a summer of conservative missives dispatched from McCain's campaign HQ is symptomatic not only of an old political war horse ready to sell everything to get what he's most craved for 8 long years: it coldly demonstrates that the liberal side of the GOP is still nowhere to be seen on the political landscape, 34 years on from Nelson Rockefeller's defeat in the Republican presidential nomination at the hands of none other than John McCain's antecedent, Barry Goldwater.
That the liberal Republican wing of the Party is still in hibernation and is nowhere to be seen on the political landscape of the United States is by no means a good thing for either the Democrats or political junkies at large. It appears the upcoming election is likely to be every bit as partisan as the last, and the tone of it will, no doubt, be just as caustic, and by no means fair. Intelligent and reasoned debate will give way to ignorant and uneducated diatribe, spewed out of the sewer outlets of the right-wing media. And if Obama manages to become the first African-American President of the United States, it is highly unlikely the Christian/Conservatives will go into dignified retirement: they will fight the Obama White House tooth and nail, in much the same spirit as they fought the Clinton administration – it will be savage and brutal, like a pitbull in a dogfight.
Hopes for any kind of consensus to take hold in Washington seems further away than ever.