Migrant workers – enduring relevance

Seventh Man


From the brilliant Verso Publishers website: http://www.versobooks.com/books/533-a-seventh-man

‘I have to turn this prize against itself’—John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972

In 1972, John Berger won the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel G. He shared half of the proceeds with the Black Panthers, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country”. The other half funded A Seventh Man, his study of migrant workers in Europe.

Making a direct link between Booker McConnell’s involvement in colonial exploitation of the Caribbean and the modern poverty of the region, Berger declared his intention, “as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean, people who are involved in a struggle to resist such exploitation and, eventually, to expropriate companies like Booker.”

Given the current pre-occupation with ‘migrants in motion’, and all the related constructions of risk that discourses are utilising (terror, economic and cultural drain, problems in ‘over-crowding’, more terror), it seems wise to remember that this world we occupy is, has been, and continues to be built on migrant labour. The very victims of global politics and economic decisions (usually underpinned by agendas related to the long term financial and political ‘stabilisation’ of Eastern folk), are on the move, eventually becoming ‘migrant’ labour in whichever country they settle, for however short or long a period. To strip their experiences of humanity, and reduce them to numbers, ‘movement’ statistics indicated by diagrams with arrows ‘coming in’ and arrows ‘going out’ is reducing the full capacity of the human spirit. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil in relation to the holocaust and in particular the trial oin Jerusalem of Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil) and as the world watches millions of people risking lives, moving, falling, crying and dying – just to seek safety, the world is at risk of perpetuating a type of banality.

Berger’s book (and other work) perhaps reconstructs that breakage for us – the disruption in ethical-biographical continuity (a play on words borrowed from Bury and Glaser and Strauss’s medical sociology terms). Putting it bluntly, there’s been a breakage in how we connect with populations undergoing suffering – it is neither new nor surprising. In fact, as Sociologists have constantly told us, we are living in an era of unprecedented rate of social change, and so we have in the middle of deep social, emotional, psychological and personal turmoil, become rather immune to those issues that don’t directly impact us.  However, our connection with suffering populations is not extinct or impossible – it is selective. We select, choose, opt to connect with lives similar to ours, not because ‘thats human nature’ – that would be playing into the cold, sociologically limp hands of cultural essentialists who argue hey, “we prefer our own kind…” (see my article at “New Diversities”). No, we choose these selective modes of connection because of a two way, dialectic: it requires less emotional energy to connect with suffering experienced by people who are similar to us in a variety of ways, and the discursive formations around which these representations are produced make them more salient, are hurled at us in specific ways.


When I read the sentence “Europe is literally the creation of the third world” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth”), I don’t simply see the vital resistance and empowered self governing machinery being articulated in the identification of first world riches generated (literally) on the backs of slaves; I read the on-going generation of capital, suffering, and constant repetition of bonded lives, generation after generation, and the many blind eyes whose averted gaze perpetuate the misery. Migrant labour is still creating the lives of people the world over who enjoy the pleasures of safety, stability, and the luxury of being. 


Black British History Month. Just for a month though.

Ok, so clearly there are a number of contested truth claim making debates we can have with this one. Or we can just accept the spectacle that is a temporal, spatial, intellectual and historical compartmentalisation of the distorted re-configuring of all historical relations. I’ve just read these two really interesting articles:

An article by Zak Cheney-Rice http://mic.com/articles/111890/12-reasons-we-definitely-don-t-need-black-history-month-anymore

An article by Gary Younge http://www.thenation.com/article/white-history-101/

They are quite oppositional in many ways, but I agree with them both. That makes me a considered, thoughtful, intellectually ruminating but ultimately un-decisive observer at best, and a fence sitting, ivory tower occupying, position-phobic at worst. Actually, though, I think its OK to agree with both of them. Here’s why.

I can sympathize, and indeed agree with ALL the points in Cheny-Rice’s article, because quite simply of the unavoidable truth of racialised experiences in the world we know. Representations, myths, stereotypes, criminal and justice systems, official policies, economic and social inequalities, violence – daily and intermittent, these are lived realities of black people the world over. So, what function does have a black history month serve? It provides some much needed educational benefits to people everywhere about ‘black’ achievements (what on earth is a black achievement?), it raises the profile of black people who have  done wonderful things in history, in all sorts of fields such as science, technology, literature, arts, humanities, etc. BUT this is ALL TEMPORALLY located – and SPATIALLY segregated, in minds as much as in space. For one month of the year, we can enter a psycho-social comfort zone, where the troubling and troublesome spectacle of blackness (and all the other racialised identities this container can hold) is restrained, kept in a semblance of order so that fragile, sensitive, mainly white middle class minds (and I DONT mean white racially, I mean the symbolic and practical existence of privilege) can process the placement of blackness within the ‘Proper’ schema of Proper History. What do I mean? If allows, for a limited time only, for the blackness in history to be shown. After this period, the ‘black’ parts of history are placed back in psychic boxes, and shut away (so that we can consume the now ever present, exciting, ‘normalised’ and less troubling history docu-drama-tainment on our TVs).

The WHOLE of human history has been about the meeting of difference, either through conquest and murder, science and religion, or trade and conquest, over long periods of time. That means that embedded inside the so called ‘DNA’ of the very epistemic roots of our existence, is the idea of PROCESSING DIFFERENCE. History is not, by and large, WHITE.!!! Nor is Black history by and large black. It is history, but as Gary Younge eloquently tells us in the second article, we all need to explore be subjected to history that is ACCURATE, and involves Black and White lives, together. Inside the history of the UK, there are many different racial, cultural and ethnic hues very clearly situated in texts and accounts, but for some reason they disappear, a bit like Race does in some other areas (see my paper here http://diversityhealthcare.imedpub.com/schizophrenia-and-psychosis-the-magical-and-troubling-disappearance-of-race-from-the-debate.php?aid=3730).

As Younge writes, Black History Month helps clear a space to relate the truth about the past so we might better understand the present and navigate the future.” and clearly, doing this over a period of 28 days is not enough. And here lies the problem: “The very notion of black and white history is both a theoretical nonsense and a practical necessity.” and it is indeed a problem, because although race is a social and political construct, a discursively formed regime of truth, a non-sense, it also, a very REAL, VIOLENT INJUSTICE, to all human societies, not just black people. So we need the exposure to the ideas, the narratives, the histories, in a word the LIVES of people. As Younge writes, Black history isn’t  always told in a passive voice, In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.”

And for that reason, I can understand the Black History month, its necessity, its importance, and the way in which it CAN, POSSIBLY, mobilise an engagement with wider communities of people, with these important realities. But. But. there’s always a but. I don’t think it works this way with the White Privilege Racial imaginary. Because it reduces, segregates, offers a BLACK RACIAL LIFE SNAPSHOT ,  and then the intellectual camera lens, the racial lens, moves back to the main subject of the picture. The Unraced nature of Whiteness, in all its non-apparent-ness. Because that, as Dyer (1997) has written is the nature of the power of being just human – not being ‘raced’, as non-white people are, means that you can claim a stake in the process of ‘being’. By being raced, we are, in all aspects of emotional, psychological, social and political processes, having to speak to, from and at a position of ‘race’. Whether we like it or not.

For these reasons, I think Black History Month is a problematic relation. By changing the nature of history itself,  I’ll quite Younge here, it would give:

white people options and role models and all of us inspiration while relieving the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year. White people, like black people, need access to a history that is accurate, honest and inclusive. Maybe then it would be easier for them, and the rest of us, to make history that is progressive, antiracist and inclusive.”

My issue is that institutions, mainly academic, mainly White, reproduce this compartmentalisation, and buy into the convenient, one-stop shopping trip for black-experiences. Perhaps its part of the neo-liberal, fragmentation of black unity, that Sivandandan so appropriately remarked on in 2008; perhaps it is really well intentioned; If its the latter, its not good enough. We, black and white, who are part of a race-class consciousness that sees history as an ever changing, materially located, discursive act of power relations, and which necessarily involves the social actions of ALL its actors want to see a different engagement with ‘histories’. Sociology, philosophy and other social sciences are no saints here either – they have all played dangerous roles and continue to exacerbate some of the these problems in the racial-writing of history.

Black history month? Maybe. I think I prefer a ‘contested histories’ month, year, decade… or maybe just EVERYONE’S HISTORY.