Coming Back Out of Africa

I’m sitting in the Heathrow airport on my way home from a week and a half spent in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. In the last half hour, I’ve seen more white people than I’d come across in the last ten days straight and my heart sinks within me.

Guess my “race vacation”–a key treatment for race fatigue–is over. It was magnificent while it lasted.

Photo of a sunrise from an airplane window

Sunrise during my flight from Johannesburg to London, April Hathcock, CC-BY-NC

It’s been over a decade since I last visited the African sub-continent, and I’d forgotten how essentially life-giving and invigorating and renewing it can be to spend time in a place where my Black body is the norm and not seen as an anomaly. To be somewhere where everywhere I look, I see faces that look like me and mine. Everyone I encounter could be an aunty or uncle or cousin. To be automatically greeted as a long-sought prodigal daughter with “Moni! Muli bwanji?” and to witness the confusion on the speaker’s face when I respond in English that I’m not Malawian and don’t speak any Chichewa. Even if I couldn’t always follow the conversation beyond a child-like greeting, it still filled my heart with joy to be approached right away as though I belonged. (And inevitably, Aunty So-and-So would eventually say, “Well! You must learn Chichewa for when you come back!” Not if but when.)

And yes, there were painful and frustrating parts, too. I was there visiting my sister and spent time with some of her muzungu (“white/foreigner”–I love that in Chichewa, the word for “white (as in race) is synonymous with the word for “foreigner” or “outsider”) global health colleagues. I witnessed the differences in the way she–as the only Black non-Malawian in the group–built relationships with the local folks, as compared to the ways in which her white colleagues approached the people, culture, and work. In other contexts, as well, I saw neo-colonialism and white supremacy rearing its ugly head time and again. But I also saw how my Malawian cousins rise above that oppression, took what they needed from the patronizing hands offering, and continued working with joy to build back their independence and self-sustaining strength. The colonizers might have thought they were calling the shots, but the Malawians were definitely getting their own brand of reparations for centuries of the rape, genocide, and enslavement of their people and their land.

But, like their cousins whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage and Reconstruction and Jim Crow–all of which are the direct predecessors to what we are now surviving in the police state and industrial prison complex–the Malawians are finding their own way to joy and fulfillment. We always have been a hearty people. That’s why our diaspora has lasted so long, reaching so far and wide.

So even as I sit in the business class lounge of the Heathrow airport (Look, my ancestors! No Middle Passage for this Nubian daughter. No sitting at the back of any transport. I ride up front with the massas and missuses; and their precious lily white young ladies have to address me as “Madam” and serve me tea!); even as I endure the scrutiny of the white gaze–always wondering if I know where I am, if I really belong–even with all of this, I sit quietly in my corner with a smile on my face and joy in my heart that can only come from knowing what it is to spend time in a place I can always call home.

Ndakondwera kukudziani, Malawi! Tionana. I’ll be back to see you soon.

Decolonizing Social Justice Work

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole false dichotomy of theory vs practice and the divide it seems to have spurred among those who do social justice work in libraryland and beyond. While I wasn’t there, I hear Dave Hudson gave a great keynote about this at the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium last week. Judging from the response on Twitter and the community notes, this discussion really got people thinking about and reframing things they’d already been mulling over. I call that a win.

But through it all there was still something about the discussion that was missing. I agree that theory is practice and that any attempt to distinguish between the two is setting up false camps. I also agree that lived experience is a form of intellectualism and theorizing. And I’m totally there for the idea that calls for plain language and practicality can be used to further erase the intellectual work happening in marginalized communities. There is nothing about that with which I disagree.

What has been bothering me—and truthfully, this has been bothering me for months now since the #whyicritlib meta-discussion Kevin Seeber hosted a few months ago—is that the discussion has gotten conflated and simplified such that the real issues are being hidden by straw men arguments. Essentially, exactly the stuff that Dave Hudson wisely warns us against doing.

We’ve been framing the debate as theory vs practice or lived experience vs theory, but for those of us who critique critical theoretical work from within, we’re talking about something much more nuanced. We’re not saying theory has no place or lived experience can’t be theoretical. What we are saying is that much of the theory we see and hear from our colleagues remains largely colonized, that is, it is largely white, male, Western, cis-het, Judeo-Christian.

When we call for more value for lived experience and “practicality” or “plain language,” what we’re really calling for is more value for the theoretical work coming from the margins. We want to hear a bit less from the scholar in the ivory tower and a bit more from the scholar on the street. A bit less of “traditional” ways of knowing and a bit more from “alternative” ways of knowing. Community knowledge. Mother knowledge. Tribal knowledge, so to speak. Maybe less Foucault and more hooks or Davis or Hill Collins (all of whom, wonderfully enough, combine ivory tower scholarship with alternative ways of knowing in beautiful and empowering ways).

So when I decide to forgo talk of panopticism and instead talk about how my black parents, grandparents, and extended family taught me that “the Man is always watching us,” it’s okay. I’m not dumbing down the theory. I’m not even changing it. But I’m bringing intellectualism from a different quarter, speaking it in a different language.

I think, moving forward, it would help if we refrain from speaking of this tension as theory vs practice and acknowledge it for what it really is or should be: a call to decolonize our social justice work. We want to step away from the white, male, Western mainstream and gather intellectual work from the margins. We want to feel comfortable citing examples from Grandmama and Miss Peachy down the street, even as others cite wisdom from Althusser or Marx.

I’ve been watching a talk given by Dr. Spencer Lilly at the University of British Columbia during his stay from New Zealand. In it, Dr. Lilly talks about what it means to decolonize “as a long-term process” that goes beyond mere governmental transfer of power to the “cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.” (Lilly, 2015, quoting L. Tuhiwai Smith, 2012).

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Screenshot of slide from Dr. Spencer Lilly’s “Decolonize or Indigenize?” presentation at UBC

This is what I’m talking about. Let’s divest colonial, dominant power from the cultural, linguistic, and psychological realms of our critical work. Let’s open up what it means to be mainstream and capture the intellectualism happening at the margins. And let’s do this work openly and honestly, without the use of false dichotomies.