Race and nation in an era of postcolonialism: notes from a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Professorship

By Bridget Anderson.

In June–July 2022 we were delighted to host Professor Nandita Sharma from the University of Hawai’i as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor. It was a productive month for MMB as we kept her busy with a range of events that got us all thinking more about postcolonial nationalist ideologies, decentring the ‘foreign’ and liberating movement. This blogpost is the first of a series that reflects on the discussions arising during Nandita’s visit.

Fresh off the plane Nandita participated in the MMB workshop ‘Divisive Solidarities’, where UoB staff and students discussed how to counteract public narratives that cast some people as more deserving than others of sympathy and support. As part of this workshop she facilitated a group discussion on humanitarianism and its possibilities and limitations.

The main event of Nandita’s visiting professorship was her public lecture ‘Are Immigration Controls Racist? Lessons from History. We had a great turnout despite the stormy weather, with about half the audience coming from outside the University – thanks in part to our collaboration with Bristol Ideas. Nandita discussed how, following the Second World War, there was a wide-scale effort to delegitimise racist ideologies by demonstrating that ‘race’ was socially and historically constructed. This ran alongside the nationalisation of state sovereignty, which led to the proliferation of immigration and border controls. Nationalist ideologies were rendered not only legitimate but practically mandatory in politics, leading to the normalisation of distinctions between Nationals and Migrants.

In her beautifully illustrated talk Nandita charted this history to understand the relation between racism and nationalism, and how it is organised, practised and resisted in an era of postcolonialism. The discussant, Dr Maya Goodfellow, author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020), followed Nandita’s talk with an exploration of the connections between racism and immigration controls in the UK and beyond. We will be publishing Maya’s contribution as a blogpost later this year. If you missed the public lecture, you can now watch a recording of it here:

The public lecture was sponsored by SPAIS, who also hosted a departmental seminar with Nandita on ‘Decolonisation and mobility: decentring the “foreign” and liberating movement.’ In this she explored how class relations are sidelined when anti-colonial struggles come to be seen as largely about the achievement of national territorial sovereignty. Postgraduate researchers also had the chance to engage with Nandita in a more informal workshop setting. They discussed their research in light of her previous talks and learned more about her own research trajectory. A grant from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law meant we could continue the conversation over dinner – a great opportunity for MMB’s cross-faculty network of PGRs (do get in touch if you would like to join).

It wasn’t only talks and seminars. Nandita and I continued to develop a proposal for an edited volume, Hydra Rising!, which takes as its starting point The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000) by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. This book examines the making of the Atlantic world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries from the standpoint of those dispossessed of their common lands in Europe, Africa and the Americas, as well as the motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, labourers, market women and indentured servants whose ideas about freedom and equality forever changed history. It shows the genealogy of the deep structural violence that orders our contemporary world and, perhaps most importantly, the resources that we can draw on to challenge it.

Hydra Rising!, by re-animating the specific set of revolutionary politics of the Hydra for our time, sails the same waters navigated by Linebaugh and Rediker by focussing on the new, revolutionary bodies, subjects and subjectivities forming as people struggle for freedom. By luck, our co-editor Cynthia Wright, from York University in Toronto, was also in the UK and visited Bristol for a day’s workshop to develop the project, along with our other contributors who joined us online. We were delighted that Peter and Marcus also attended, and we were able to have a very productive conversation. We will submit the proposal for the edited collection before the end of the year – watch this space!

Nandita and I ventured outside of Bristol too and both of us spoke at the Radical History School of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This year’s theme was ‘Migration’ and we’re delighted to have been invited to speak at next year’s School on the theme of ‘Protest’. While Nandita was in Bristol MMB also held a screening and panel discussion of the film African Apocalypse, which explores the colonial violence and legacies behind today’s migration from West Africa. We will be publishing a blogpost on this later in the autumn.

We are very grateful to the Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professorship Scheme for enabling Nandita’s visit and giving us the opportunity to introduce her ideas and inspirations to new people, inside and outside the University of Bristol. As one anonymous reviewer of MMB’s recent events wrote:

I found Nandita’s public lecture particularly inspiring and thought provoking. It has encouraged me to think more deeply about the connections between states, nationalism, racism and capitalism. The framing of “home/class-state rule” has been really useful for me in pulling together these connections and helping me, following Nandita, in imagining and articulating alternatives that lie beyond the nation state.’

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. 

Previous MMB blogposts by Nandita Sharma include: ‘A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet‘ (May 2022), ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism‘ (March 2021) and ‘From “social distancing” to planetary solidarity‘ (July 2020).

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