Librarians need the knowledge and willpower to challenge decolonisation

Identity politics’ 1960s progenitors had a level of nuance and erudition that today’s EDI activists would do well to emulate, says Martin Levy

May 21, 2024
Montage of a library person with head deep in shelf and another person leaning out of a shelf to illustrate Librarians need the knowledge and willpower to challenge decolonisation
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If you want a date for when identity politics American-style arrived in the UK, you can’t do better than July 1967. That was the month when the Black Power firebrand Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) addressed the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation at London’s Roundhouse.

Speaking with his trademark wit, obstinacy, charm and bitterness, Carmichael lashed the Western powers as plunderers, murderers and rapists, and he called out white liberals and non-violent activists for what he called their “unconscious racism”. He also took the opportunity to introduce them and the people of colour in his audiences to a concept that he’d recently popularised in the US and which, 30 years later, was to figure prominently in Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence: “institutionalised” racism.

The impact of Carmichael’s speeches and television appearances that July was profound. Multiracial organisations like the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) haemorrhaged supporters; segregated bodies gained in influence; and the politics of identity was placed firmly on the agenda, with incalculable future consequences for UK institutions.

This was despite the fact that, as an American who had spent his early years in Trinidad, Carmichael knew very little about the UK. Moreover, during the little over a week that he was in the country, he didn’t leave London once. Fearing assassination and, in any case, loath to waste his time on the sort of people he despised, he largely limited his appearances to majority-black audiences in the metropolis, spending what little down time he had with the West Indian and African activists who would be the major beneficiaries of his visit.

Campus collection: Decolonising the curriculum

Yet Carmichael’s intellectual influences were wide ranging. He had a BA in philosophy and had turned down a full doctoral scholarship at Harvard to devote his life to the causes he espoused. When asked to name his heroes at the congress, he cited Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the French-African Marxist critical theorist Frantz Fanon. But, as he made abundantly clear, he’d also read Sartre, Camus, Machiavelli and Mill, as well as Lewis Carroll, whose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland he used to make important points about language and power.

Despite his ardent opinions about racial biases in the “white” curriculum and the superiority of “black” African civilisation, he always remained open to new (and old) ideas and never made the juvenile mistake of not reading intellectuals he disagreed with. You don’t have to agree with even a part of what he said to recognise that he spoke from a position of deep knowledge, learning and earned conviction.  

Contrast him with librarians and similarly placed professionals in today’s universities, many of whom do not profess to know anything about history, philosophy or politics except what they’ve picked up second-hand from university-recommended presentations on YouTube. Typically, they are good people: kind and attentive to colleagues and devoted to the pursuit of student welfare. But they lack the knowledge, the confidence and the willpower to challenge Carmichael’s epigones, the specialists in EDI, who themselves enjoy the support, and often the indulgence, of senior management.

Take the subject of decolonising the curriculum, which has taken centre stage on and off university campuses in recent years. Academic librarians typically think decolonisation is a good thing because it has something to do with inclusion and diversity – which they tend to view as absolute goods, rather than as values with variable and competing interpretations. But they still struggle to define exactly what it means.

In reality, decolonisation has many features of an ideology. Not only do its most vociferous advocates turn a blind eye to evidence they disagree with, but they routinely traduce the bona fides of their critics. These are said to be “right-wing”, as if in a democracy that is a lethal criticism.  

But my major criticism goes deeper than politics. It penetrates to the heart of what it means to give and to receive an academic education.

The fact is that decolonisation is simply incompatible with the accurate transmission of knowledge. Its advocates demand that academics add authors to reading lists not because of the accuracy of their facts or the insightfulness of their analysis but because the authors’ identities are said to be underrepresented. This is a sort of inverse version of the ad hominem form of argument, which focuses on critiquing the author’s personal characteristics rather than the quality of their arguments – and which has been recognised as a fallacy by competent authorities at least since the time of Aristotle.

The poet Allen Ginsberg once recounted a telling story. It was Carmichael’s last night in the UK, and the two men happened to pass on the stairway of an elegant mansion in central London. Realising how his presence in such privileged surroundings must have looked, Carmichael said, “Well, things aren’t all black and white” and winked at Ginsberg.

If only today’s academic decolonisers had a portion of Carmichael’s wit, knowledge and irony. I doubt it would make their arguments any more persuasive or actionable for university librarians, but it would at least make them more amenable to rational interrogation.

Martin Levy is a librarian at the University of Bradford. His new book, Roundhouse: Joe Berke and the 1967 Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, has just been published by Ibidem.

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Reader's comments (10)

I think as academic librarians, we simply have the responsibility to ensure that our colleagues have access to literature beyond the 'canon'. We should acknowledge that our mainstream bibliographic databases index western literature to the exclusion of others and look for ways to include similarly excellent literature in other languages and from beyond the 'norm', not as a tick box exercise, but as a way of being curious to work outside the exclusive garden we have cultivated in the past.
Most academic librarians I know don’t use the term ‘decolonisation’ as anything other than a shorthand term when talking to academics, because we recognise the impossibility of ‘decolonising’ libraries, curriculum, knowledge production systems and higher education in general - not without tearing it all down and starting again. But it’s a useful and recognisable term to use when encouraging educators to look beyond the mainstream canon of white, male, Western thinkers.
"Decolonisation" is such a negative term. I'm all for increasing diversity, seeking out what is good from other cultures, widening our students' minds, exposing them to different voices - but not to rubbishing what has gone before. Babies and bathwater come to mind every time I hear that term. It's not a popular view these days, but I believe that any discrimination - positive or negative - based on what people ARE rather than what they SAY or DO is wrong. We don't get to choose what we are nor can we change it however we might wish to. We do get to choose what we say, what we do, what we write... We are all one race, the human race. Until we are ready to accept that, silliness will continue. Unfairness will continue.
As an academic librarian, my experience does not align with your own. Certainly when it comes to decolonising, diversity and inclusion, these are all terms I and my colleagues can define and connect to work being undertaken within libraries, in classrooms, and at a strategic university level. You seem to imply that 'decolonising' collections/reading lists is just a numbers game, and results in less intellectual diversity. I suppose both these claims could be true if the librarian or academic doing so was making decisions based solely on author identity, but again that isn't my experience.
As both an academic and university library employee, I vehemently disagree with the author's position on this. Even more so, I feel that it is ill-informed and willfully misconstructs the concept of decolonial action. He writes that "Its advocates demand that academics add authors to reading lists not because of the accuracy of their facts or the insightfulness of their analysis but because the authors’ identities are said to be underrepresented." This is a violent misconception of the decolonial project. Rather than make such assumptions about decolonial action taken by libraries (and universities more widely), I suggest the author should familiarise himself with scholarly work on this. While there is certainly work available to showcases the disursive pitfals of using 'decolonising' as an empty signifier, there is also substantial work available that presents case studies on successful decolonial projects. Particularly, the work of Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt (2022) gives a good overview of what it means to address institutional colonial legacies in meaningful ways for libraries in the 21st century.
I'm not a librarian but a retired academic. As a victim of false accusations of 'Eurocentrism', orientalism', 'Islamophobia', 'racism' and 'colonial' thinking, I fully agree with what Martin says. The campaign to 'decolonize the university curriculum' suffers from three principal problems in addition to the ad hominem issue. First, it's simply an inappropriate and misleading metaphor. It's not possible, for example, to decolonize anything that hasn't previously been colonized and it's difficult to see how most university degrees, particularly those in STEM subjects, have ever been colonized in any credible sense. Second, it tends to put the cart before the horse because universities have typically embarked upon 'decolonizing' their curriculums without first finding out where precisely the alleged problems lie. Third, like all current fashionable slogans in the academy it is primarily used as a weapon to shut down debate. If you contest the campaign you must be racist and right wing and therefore deserve to be denounced rather than engaged in constructive dialogue. Let's have as much diversity in the curriculum as possible. But the sooner the campaign to 'decolonize the curriculum' disappears from higher education the better.
I disagree with this position too. Maybe the author has read the originators of CRT - Critical Race Theory - including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and others. If so, read again - Unlearn and Re-learn. If not, read and learn. One of CRT's tenets is a commitment to social justice, something many library workers are committed to through the practice of decolonisation / decoloniality in many forms. The author's arguments are ill-informed and smack of privilege.
"Contrast him with librarians and similarly placed professionals in today’s universities, many of whom do not profess to know anything about history, philosophy or politics except what they’ve picked up second-hand from university-recommended presentations on YouTube." er, citation needed?
If you, dear reader of the comments section, are a librarian and enjoyed what Martin Levy had to say above, I welcome you to join HxLibraries, a community of Heterodox Academy. Learn more at Heterodoxacademy[dot]org/hxcommunities/
The "author" never defines "decolonization," because he can't. This is raw ideological distortion. The endorsement by the Orthodox Heterodox '[sic] "Academy" confirms that