What #LeopoldMustFallQM tells us about the current state of UK academia, and what is to be done by student-led decolonial movements going forward.

By Aisha Morgan & Dauda Barry.

Drawing on the efforts of other grassroots, student-led decolonial campaigns, including student-activists from the University of Missouri[1], Yale University, Brown University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill[2], Rhodes Must Fall[3], Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford[4], the Oxford Pan-Afrikan Forum (OXPAF)[5], Harvard: Royall Must Fall[6], Why is My Curriculum White?[7], Why isn’t my professor Black?[8], the NUS Black Students’ Campaign[9] and Decolonising our Minds at SOAS[10], students from the QM Pan-African Society launched #LeopoldMustFallQM and #LeopoldMustFall in response to two relics, an 1887 foundation stone and a 1987 ambassadorial plaque, in the Octagon library of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) which commemorated King Leopold II of Belgium.

Amidst this growing student-liberation movement, the QM Pan-African Society pulled its collective resources together and galvanized towards creating a Pan-African movement on campus which aimed to decolonize both individual minds, and the wider academic infrastructures and practices at QMUL. It began by raising the consciousness of African students on campus by holding events such as ‘Save the Congo’ with community activist Vava Tampa in October of 2014, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ with Professor Robbie Shilliam and Pan-Africanist intellectual and lawyer Kevin Bismark Cobham in November of 2015, and ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ with student-activists Athi-Nangamso Esther Nkopo, Brian Kwoba, and Ntokozo Qwabe in March of 2016. It then went on to submit a motion at a QMUL student council meeting in April of 2016, vehemently calling for the removal and re-contextualization of the two Leopold plaques. Though the motion was equipped with concrete historical facts, and strong moral and ethical arguments, the level of emotional ignorance displayed by particular individuals demonstrated an immunity and dissonance to the rational, objective and informed case that was put forward.

In June 2016, an online petition was launched which extended #LeopoldMustFallQM beyond simply the conversations at Queen Mary University of London.

On June 21st 2016, the two Leopold plaques were permanently removed from view as part of ‘ongoing refurbishment work to [the] Octagon Library, Queen Mary University of London’[11] by the Estates and Facilities department at QMUL, and replaced by another plaque.

The following article aims to explore these recent developments further, keeping them closely tied to the wider discussions surrounding institutional racism, the Eurocentric curriculum, pedagogical racism and the need for total academic decolonisation.


 

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Queen Mary University of London prides itself on being a progressive, multicultural institution ’with a strong commitment to maintaining the diversity of its student intake’[12]. But with 57% of QMUL students belonging to Black and Minority Ethnic groups[13], an academic body that is overwhelmingly White, no part-time or full-time Black Students Officer, and on-campus relics which remind us of the recent history of European colonialism and imperialism, we are obliged to acknowledge that in order to make significant progress as a society, certain accepted truths are going to have to be questioned, and racism will have to be openly critiqued and challenged, irrespective of how insensitive or uncomfortable some people may find those discussions to be.

It goes without saying that Whiteness prevails on all academic levels and in all academic institutions, with such institutionalised Whiteness having a detrimental impact upon the academic performance and psychological wellbeing of African students and students of African descent.[14]

African students and students of African heritage do not need to engage in respectability politics in order to justify or explain the experiences of racial injustice that they face on a daily basis. The realities faced by these students have been corroborated by numerous reports and reviews, yet many institutions choose to sweep these findings under the carpet in an attempt to ignore the overwhelming evidence that sheds light on just how detrimental these problems are. This selective memory, and institutional apathy, is a clear sign of a conscious desire not to challenge or change the unjust status quo.

Throughout the #LeopoldMustFallQM campaign, Whiteness has proven to manifest itself more visibly, and more vocally, as African students on campus self-mobilize. It has taken various shapes and forms, some of which include:

  • Micro-aggressive remarks that attempt to negate or water down the reality that global African people are still dealing with the traumas and vestiges of colonialism and slavery.
  • The decision undertaken by the then predominantly White student council union at QMUL (a student body that has, at times, proven itself reluctant to advocate on behalf of African/Black students on campus with the same level of diligence shown to other students)[15] to reject the motion calling for the removal and re-contextualization of the two Leopold plaques by two votes.
  • The overwhelming lack of engagement with, and consideration of, students of African descent with regards to the two Leopold plaques. This includes not only the incompetence demonstrated as a Freedom of Information request was made to QMUL on January 06, 2013, and again on February 02, 2013, by a student at QMUL[16], but also the lack of serious engagement with the QM Pan-African Society as various requests were made to formally meet and engage with those in the Estates and Facilities department.
  • The very unsettling, though not unexpected, recent decision of the Estates and Facilities department to remove the Leopold plaques on the basis of refurbishment practicalities and, as suggested in a recent email to the QM Pan-African society, the fear of aligning QMUL far too closely to King Leopold II and the Belgian colonial regime, as opposed to the wider recognition of an African humanity, the importance of reaching out to Black student representative bodies, and the even greater reparatory need to mobilize towards total academic decolonisation.
  • The frustration that is felt by African students and students of African heritage as institutions and their administrators attempt to silence, disregard and ignore the issues that concern these students, as a means to guard their public image.

The history of the Leopold plaques and the decision undertaken by the Estates and Facilities department offer us much insight into the current state of UK academia. Before we can interrogate this dynamic even further, however, let us first turn to the Estates and Facilities department’s statement to the QM Pan-African Society:

“As part of ongoing refurbishment work to our Octagon Library, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has removed from view a Foundation Stone inscription and associated wall plaque, which referenced a visit from King Leopold II of Belgium. QMUL has no historical ties with King Leopold, other than he visited Mile End in April 1887, and then returned to lay the Foundation Stone in June 1887. The size and prominence of these inscriptions suggested a strength of association that was never the case, and as such the decision was taken to remove both from view. Background information relating to King Leopold’s visits and the laying of the Foundation stone can be found in the QMUL archives.”

Though the archives suggest no evidence of financial investment, we need to do away with the capitalist assertion that money constitutes all. It is precisely this hackneyed emphasis on money which obscures the current widespread call for reparatory justice in a global African historical context.

QMUL is far from innocent, and its relationship with King Leopold II – whether it be no more than symbolic and gestural – must be interrogated, researched and investigated further. Marcus Garvey once affirmed that,

“a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

The very same can be said of academic institutions like QMUL: we cannot know the tree – Whiteness[17] and the Ethnocentric academic body – and the fruit that it bears – the Eurocentric and Whitewashed knowledge that is produced – without first grasping hold of the root: the wider history of European colonialism, imperialism and systematic and systemic racism.

Indeed, Malcolm X reminds us:

“You can’t hate the roots of the tree without ending up hating the tree”.[18]

 

In order to make sense of the present, we must go back to the past; and to go back is to question:

  • why, in 1887, amidst the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’[19], individuals in Britain felt very comfortable inviting King Leopold II to Mile End in East London to lay the foundation stone of the library (now commonly known as the Octagon Hall) located in the original building of the People’s Palace[20]. Why QMUL, upon purchasing the People’s Palace in 1954, chose not to uphold the values of community outreach and engagement (an issue that reverberates to this day, particularly given that little has been done by the Estates and Facilities department to adequately reach out to black student representative bodies on campus) but instead chose to privatize a space initially designed for the cultural and educational enrichment of the wider local community. Why did QMUL choose not to carve out its own progressive identity in 1954 when it purchased a building that, essentially, housed two colonial relics if, as the Estates and Facilities department claim, there is a false strength of association? Why did QMUL not critique the symbolic relationship between Leopold II and the two foundation stones, and why did QMUL not consider the message that this would send out to the world as an academic institution?

 

To go back is to also question,

  • why, in 1987, QMUL was bold enough to invite the ambassador of Belgium back onto campus to commemorate the original foundation stone by adding yet another plaque of commemoration. Such a decision reinforces a continuing relationship with the Belgian imperial STATE[21], of which Leopold was only ever a representative. This not only contradicts QMUL’s recent statement of disassociation (as suggested by the aforementioned response from the Estate’s and Facilities department) but also the way in which attempts to orient institutionally-backed “postcolonial” and “global” research (research that aims to offer nuance and historically-contextualized political theory) were not matched by a consideration of how to orient institutional policies relating QMUL to global history and global relations.

Save for the tenth National Union of Students/Anti-Apartheid Movement annual student conference that was held at QMUL in July 1981[22], why was QMUL not engaging more deeply, and more seriously, with the anti-apartheid movement that existed across UK university campuses at the time?[23]. Apartheid, like ‘slavery’, is now roundly condemned. But unlike with ‘slavery’, those who did not condemn the brutal system of apartheid at the time are not, typically, seen as ‘people of their time’, and are, for that reason, excusable. The fact that QMUL invited the Belgian ambassador back onto campus in 1987 to commemorate the original Leopold plaque, alongside what appears to be a general lack of engagement with anti-apartheid activism, means that QMUL was, long after Leopold II, still complicit in the Eurocentric curriculum, and thus, still on the wrong side of the moral fence of history.

  • Why has it taken one hundred and thirty years for an academic institution that prides itself on its historically grounded approach to politics and society to suddenly realise that it must do away with the vestiges of colonialism? For one hundred and thirty years, QMUL has been willfully and neglectfully complicit in the colonial White power structure: is QMUL as progressive as it claims to be, or is it now beginning to show its true colours? Can we truly say that White supremacist, colonial attitudes have disappeared, or have they simply refashioned themselves into new, subtle and “politically correct” ways? If the decision to efface the two Leopold plaques was spurred on by a wider, uncritical plan for refurbishment, surely this demonstrates an attitude of non-acknowledgement as opposed to genuine atonement? One is inevitably reminded of the words of Cheikh Anta Diop in this regard:

“Intellectuals ought to study the past not for the pleasure they find in so doing, but to derive lessons from it”[24].

The same rational can, and should be, applied to institutions. What type of reparatory work is QMUL willing and, more importantly, going to do in order to repair at least one hundred and thirty years of damage?

  • Where, in the recent actions of the Estates and Facilities department, is a demonstration of public acknowledgement and public atonement, particularly given the student activism that has occurred for the last few years? What is now being done to re-contextualise the two plaques and the history of the Belgian imperial state, and how does the Estates and Facilities department intend to include the QM Pan-African Society and otherblack student representative bodies in this process?

 

A physical vestige of colonialism has been removed but we know, both empirically and intellectually, how much is left to do at an institutional level. This applies not only to QMUL, a Russell Group university readying itself to apply for the ‘Race’ Equality Charter Mark[25], but to the state of (UK) academia as a whole.

Keeping in line with the United Nations’ International Decade for people of African descent[26], QMUL have between now and 2024 to set in motion the institutional reforms that will amass to a more progressive, more nuanced, understanding of the world. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Reforming the nature, and praxis, of the Eurocentric curriculum across all academic fields of study. This includes ensuring that African students and students of African descent are supported in both undergraduate and postgraduate study, and a more dedicated attempt by QMUL to hire African academics, and academics of African heritage.
  • Recontextualising the two Leopold plaques by
  • establishing a public museum or space on-campus, preferably one dedicated to the history of colonialism and imperialism, where the two Leopold plaques can be relocated and permanently housed.
  • incorporating black student representative bodies at QMUL, including the QM Pan-African society, into this process of re-contextualization. This includes determining the academic and historical lens through which the narrative of King Leopold II, the Belgian colonial regime and the two Leopold plaques are told.
  • ensuring that the archives are made accessible not only to students and staff at QMUL, but to the wider public also.
  • ensuring that a space is reserved, each year, on the ground floor of the Mile End library during Black History Month showcasing literature around Black history, Black intellectual thought, and, central to this campaign, King Leopold II and the Belgian colonial state.
  • renaming the QMUL bursary to the ‘Patrice Lumumba bursary’ (taking into account the link between the colonialism of King Leopold II and the Congolese Independence led by Patrice Lumumba: the latter of which so-called ‘progressive’ institutions such as QMUL should, and ought to, be memorialising.)
  • QMUL has buildings and rooms named after prominent figures from history (take, for example, the Francis Bancroft Building located in the Mile End campus). It is, therefore, more than feasible for QMUL to rename one of their buildings after figures from history who actively led the movement for decolonial reform. Thus, we propose changing the name of the Octagon library, the library in which the two Leopold plaques were formerly housed, to the ‘Patrice Lumumba library’.
  • a public announcement of atonement by QMUL, accompanied by a strategic pledge to ensure that the above demands are met and carried out by the university going forward.
  • Diversity training for students and staff.
  • Collection and divulgation of statistics about the degree classifications awarded to students, including a breakdown based on ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ classification and gender, by the various departments at QMUL.
  • Establishing a Black Students Officer at QMUL.
  • Engaging more diligently with African students and students of African descent with regards to the issues that directly concern them.

 

Concluding remarks:

We will continue to use our minds, our voices, and our collective energies to fight for a world where African people are respected, their humanity is recognised and acknowledged, reparatory justice is served, and the economic, political, cultural and social scales are balanced by the self-organisation of African people against the racism deeply entrenched in these institutions. We recognise all of these fights to be unquestionably important and urgent: Eurocentric institutions, and meek, docile, and apologetic academics should not try to silence the voices of such students.

In the words of Frantz Fanon:

“The future will have no pity for those men who, possessing the exceptional privilege of being able to speak words of truth to their oppressors, have taken refuge in an attitude of passivity, of mute indifference, and sometimes of cold complicity.”[27]

Empirical and lived experiences should never be open to debate without a good dose of empathy from those involved. It is very telling, and symptomatic of an oppressive and unjust system, when people would rather spend time finding counter-arguments to criticize and perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to undermine the efforts of the de-colonial movement, rather than to listen and to help push for improvement. The student de-colonial movement has numerous goals, the most crucial of which is the need for academics and institutions to be intellectually honest and historically accurate. This can be put into action by, as aforementioned, the erasure of the Eurocentric curriculum, and, academic institutions having the integrity to admit that they are far from being meritocratic and ‘post-racial’. Racism still plays a major part in the academic performance and outcome of students, and it impacts greatly their university experiences. Hopefully we are all wise enough to know that a few token Black students and academics are not representative, and will never be representative, of the majority.

As Eric Williams once stated:

“Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours, which has been forced by events to re-evaluate our conceptions of history and economic and political development.”[28]

Indeed, shifting narratives is one of the most important steps towards transforming society, and institutions like QMUL must take heed of our needs as a people and a student body if they really want to nurture the development of great individual visionaries who hold the key to the future that our society faces.

An eternal voice of gratitude to Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman for his intellectual prowess, guidance and supervision, Professor Robbie Shilliam for his direction and support, the QM Young Greens for their humanitarian values and determination, and those few, progressive-minded elected officers of the Queen Mary Students’ Union for their dedication and strong character.


Footnotes and Commentaries:

[1] http://dailycampus.com/stories/2015/11/20/yale-missouri-protests-spark-nationwide-backlash-on-college-campuses

[2] http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/robin-d-g-kelley-black-study-black-struggle

[3] https://www.facebook.com/RhodesMustFall/

[4] https://rmfoxford.wordpress.com/about/

[5] https://oxpaf.com

[6] https://reclaimharvardlaw.wordpress.com and https://www.facebook.com/RoyallMustFall/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dscx4h2l-Pk

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdJyRooGkTM

[9] https://www.facebook.com/nusBSC/

[10] https://www.facebook.com/DecolonisingOurMinds/

[11] emma.pngEmma Bull, Director of Student Services, The Estates and Facilities Department at QMUL. Email response.

The publishing of communication between the QM Pan-African Society and QMUL has been strategically borrowed from #RhodesMustFallOxford. Please see the following article: http://discoversociety.org/2015/12/01/the-violence-of-liberalspeak-eulogizing-cecil-rhodes-the-businessman-and-munificent-benefactor/

[12]https://www.offa.org.uk/agreements/AA_0139%20Queen%20Mary%20University%20of%20London%201213.pdf, p.3.

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[13] https://www.offa.org.uk/agreements/Queen%20Mary%201617.pdf, p. 1

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[14] https://robbieshilliam.wordpress.com/2016/07/10/black-academia-1-2/.

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[15] Take, for example, the reluctance to cover the expenses of a self-identifying ‘Black’ student at QMUL to attend the NUS Black Students campaign in May 2016. It was only once a certain amount of pressure was applied to the student union, both from students within QMUL and from representatives of the NUS Black Students Campaign, that the student union agreed to fund a QMUL delegate. Even then, only one self-identifying ‘Black’ student ran and was elected as a QMUL delegate, given the lack of ample time, preparation and promotion on the part of the student union.

[16] https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/plaque_dedicated_to_king_leopold.

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[17] “When we talk about Whiteness we are not talking about people; we are talking about power. Whiteness is an ideology which says that people racialised as ‘White’ are morally and intellectually superior to other racialised groups.” Dr. Adam Elliot Cooper, ‘Why is my curriculum White?’.

[18] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gb-tjIUu0i4

[19] http://bethechangenetwork.tumblr.com/page/35. As a Pan-African, student-led campaign, we stand in solidarity with other black liberation campaigns and groups. Here we acknowledge the contributions made by The European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD) (#BeTheChangeNetwork) and the commemorative conference that was held in Berlin in November 2014, 130 years after the Congo conference.

[20] http://www.qmgreathall.co.uk/history/

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[21] ‘Imperial’ in this context refers to Belgium’s continuing colonial relationship with its remaining colonies, and its Neo-colonial relationship with its former colonies. ‘Neo-colonial’, here, means factually dependent, despite formal ‘independence.’

[22] http://www.aamarchives.org/file-view/file/12073-stu37-nus-aam-campaign-paper,-1981.html?tmpl=component&start=40

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[23] Hoefferle, Caroline M., ‘British Student Activism in the long sixties’, p.160 suggests that there were student-activists at QMUL, including later political figures such as Peter Hain, engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle, but what was QMUL doing to engage with, and support, these students on an institutional level, particularly at the height of anti-apartheid politics?

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[24] Cheikh Anta Diop, ‘The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and of Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity.’

[25] http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/race-equality-charter/

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[26] http://www.un.org/en/events/africandescentdecade/

[27] Frantz Fanon, ‘Towards the African Revolution’, p.117. The use of Frantz Fanon has been greatly informed by the arguments put forward by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in his contributions to Tim Garton-Ash’s debate on ‘Free Speech.’ Please see the following link for Sizwe’s contributions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYCNkfRPEek.

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[28] Eric Williams, The Preface to ‘Slavery and Capitalism.’

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Photo credit: https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51rsi4-TAGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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