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Book Review - The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in the Times of Explicit Racial Violence

This flute is played with fire, not with wind…

- Rumi

Rumi wrote about the themes of separation and union in his Tale of the Reed quoted above. His call for the element of fire to energise the demands for justice and coalition seem apt to be recalled in this review of a new powerful publication: The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in the Time of Explicit Racial Violence. The 284-page edited volume comprises a range of voices encompassing new promising scholars of colour as well as established experts united in their demand that British universities take racism seriously and act urgently. Each chapter engages with the present context in which scholars are working and learning within, developing multiple yet related studies of our racist present that range in themes traversing intersectional identities, through to histories of anti-racist activism, to analysing anti-racist politics in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Trump-Brexit victories. At a time when race has re-emerged as an ideology legitimizing the Global North inflicting explicit violence against people of colour, it is essential that anti-racist communities are forged and come together to fight against powers that impose enforced separations, ideas about hierarchized difference and racialized systems for attributing value to human life.

The last four years have been marked by the explicit rise of global right-wing organizing, funding and political victories of which Trump and Brexit are explicit examples. Recent and not so overt examples include Hillary Clinton’s call to curb Global South migration to Europe, Tony Blair demanding that migrants are forced to integrate and the incessant debates about good migrants versus bad migrants, which exploit an economic framework that insists bodies of colour remain in servitude to white or upper caste interests. Contextualise these discourses with global events that openly subjugate racialized people and the current emergency becomes clear: Mediterranean sea deaths, anti-immigration campaigning, Grenfell, Yarl’s Wood, Windrush, Charlottesville. We are living in a political and social epoch that is unapologetically centering white power and caste privilege through enlarging the protection afforded to white racists and racist policies.

At the same time and in direct opposition to right-wing power, people of colour have been organizing in British universities. Sparked by a re-engagement with radical anti-racist philosophy and grassroots organizing, such as Black Lives Matter, scholars of colour are centering themselves and their voices so that their knowledge of being oppressed can drive strategies for safety and inclusion in higher education. Rhodes Must Fall, Why is my curriculum so white? Why isn’t my Professor Black? These are a few, but well-known, examples of organizing that evidence the multitude of political interventions raising consciousness and making connections clearer among the corporatization of higher education, colonial pedagogic legacies and campus racism. Today’s university racism continues the epistemic violence that marginalizes non-white knowledge but it is also particular in the way that explicit violence and discrimination targeting students and staff of colour mark it out as contemporary. Racist incidents at British universities have surged by 60% in the last two years and in response students and staff are self-organizing to protect themselves and demand equity. As incidents of campus racism have been gaining public attention, the Equalities and Human Rights commission has been prompted to launch an inquiry into the scale and depth of racism at universities. The time is now for university scholars of colour to develop anti-racist scholarship that openly addresses the current political crisis but also provides the intellectual scaffolding that activist strategies can build on. The Fire Now sets out to do this by recognising the present political climate as a crisis impacting people of colour’s safety and value in universities and identifies caring for ourselves and each other as a base from which to build a resistance capable of encountering the present emergency.

The Fire Now is a scholar-led anti-racist intervention edited by three academics of colour: Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge. Taking stock of academia’s present and past failures to overturn white privilege within its own boundaries (both disciplinary and structural), the editors curate a collection of 23 chapters composed of more traditional essays alongside experimental textual artefacts and poems written by scholars at the forefront of anti-racist organizing. But the volume is much more than the contents of its covers. The Fire Now is a form of radical community-building that bridges activism to scholarly communities in an act of bearing witness to our present times and context. Embracing a range of writing methodologies that cut through the ambivalence of academic language, readers are presented with short, accessible texts that harness anti-racist philosophy, cross-disciplinary knowledge and political language; sparking the imagination of students and academics of colour alike.

The editors write: “The Fire Now is above all a call for further conversations and dialogues that push us to care for more, and be better for all of us”. Centering people of colour, centers their dreams and hopes; it enforces a practice that amplifies the voices of the most marginalized in higher education. The aims of the book are to provoke change, to demand responsibility and to do this as an act of self-preservation and self-care. Johnson’s opening chapter uses an incisive self-reflexivity to let surface her micro-experiences of being a “disabled Black Muslim woman in Britain who is troubled and terrified by the violence perpetuated by the British state…against disabled, Black and Muslim communities”. By making herself and her communities visible in text, Johnson provides the broad political methodology that underpins the book: to recognize one’s own intersectional vulnerabilities alongside one’s responsibility to act against racial violence. At the same time, this dual positioning provides the grounds for thinking through how white institutions and white people may be moved to do the same work but with very different stakes and liabilities that are mitigated by their racial privilege.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious chapters in The Fire Now is written by Leon Sealey-Huggins in which he connects structural racism to climate change through a deeply personal narrative threading the work of past Black activists, through to the histories of his Caribbean family to the uneven and devastating impacts of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of Black Caribbean people. By drawing on histories that memorialize the loss of Black life and make clear (neo)colonialism’s intent to devastate Global South economies, Sealey-Huggins works against the global fantasies that imagine the present climate crisis as politically neutral owing to its universal message: “we’re all in this together”. Vulnerabilities to extreme weather are not neutral, and as Sealey-Huggins argues, they are not natural either. Vulnerabilities are the most acutely felt by people living in the Global South and these vulnerabilities are critical because the regions have been managed into dependencies that mitigate against the capacity to autonomously plan, invest in and develop their economies and political strategies. A first step towards climate justice therefore entails acknowledging “the failures of the systems of climate governance to secure Black life”.

Appearing towards the end of the book, Kadian Pow’s chapter implores Black women to, “be exactly who you are”. Beginning her chapter with these words that were whispered to her by her great aunt Vera years ago, Pow draws an arc from her elder’s soulful self/belief to the radical Black politics of racial justice that acknowledges “Black people are entitled to full humanity”. Pow’s chapter emanates both love and anger. Love for her community that has passed down messages of survival to her in both familial whispers and political writings, and anger that is unleashed against systems that oppress Black women as their agency is displaced or eliminated. Acknowledging anger, as well as love, enables women of colour to know what they have accomplished and that they have power. Underscoring the radicality of racial justice is Blackness’ own refusal to be fixed by white structures of power and visibility. To be radical, Pow argues, is not only to be visibly active, politically symbolic or to act out in public, but rather radicality possesses the ability to consistently displace one’s fixity from white structures and exercise “emotional liberation”; to feel and recognise the full range of affective states enables Black women to know themselves, to know their full claim to humanity and then to act to claim it.

Bookending the edited volume are a Foreword by Christina Sharpe and an Afterword by George Yancy. These can be read as essays in their own right that generously engage with “Black and Blackened people everywhere in the world” as well as speaking directly to “forms of white fear” that arrest “self-interrogation… of going to that place of vulnerability that lays bare white racism”. These political essays embrace the 23 chapters of the book in Baldwinian love. They remind Black people and people of colour of our historic and present struggle with white power while encouraging us to use our ancestral knowledge to find ways of surviving the present crisis, the present fire. The Fire Now therefore is a call for Black people and people of colour to burn brightly and fiercely in the face of the current racial emergency. It is a call to organize, to build community and to do this by seeing, recording and sharing our struggles. The Fire Now is an indispensable book of our times. It is urgent, it is written with love and it embodies the politics of inclusive community-building that center Black people and people of colour in anti-racist struggles. As such, The Fire Now is a significant contribution to British activism and scholarship and is a must-read for anyone who is affected by racism at universities and is moved to act against it.

Eds. Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Beth Kamunge (2018). The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in the Time of Explicit Racial Violence, Zed Books: London. Paperback: £8.50, 284 pp., ISBN: 978-1-78699-380-9.

Purchase a copy here, or ask your library to purchase a copy for their archives.