As far as the ‘I’ can hear

Taking up the challenge that Paul Warmington set for The Guardian readers to name ‘a Black British intellectual, now that Stuart Hall is gone’, I found myself simultaneously nodding my assent to his well-reasoned tribute to an inspirational role model of mine, but also fundamentally disagreeing with the very terms and conditions of the challenge.

I very much fear that Dr. Warmington’s effort to locate the black public intellectuals of today is tainted by a desire to look for them, almost exclusively, in the physical geography of academia, thus reproducing a common trope, if not an outright bias, in how and what we understand intellectuals to be. Any such search operation, using as its sole criterion the (public) intellectuals’ academic descent, simply reproduces the tired image of a pampered scholarly clan while sidelining, belittling and even ignoring the every-day presence of black Britons as active participants in and custodians of a superbly rich urban, convivial multicultural exchange, to which we bear witness, not just with our minds but with our senses too, in the cities we live in.

Commendable though Dr. Warmington’s argument is when applied to the absent presence of black intellectuals in the academy, I would urge us to widen the dimensions of how and what we understand public culture and intellectual life to be by inviting many more cultural allies in our discussion than academic orientation allows, given that they are co-authors of our every-day experience of urban cultural life. To paraphrase an arresting snippet from Rousseau’s Émile, ‘we can be public men and women without being scholars’, by aspiring to be and to live among public intellectuals, rather than public intellectuals, and one of way of doing so is to turn away from the monopoly of the mind’s ‘I‘ by embracing our ‘other’ and better senses; the ability to hear, smell and feel public life as the sum total of activities that gently weave the tapestry of our daily metropolitan experience as forms of intellectual and public life that happen to our bodies through our senses, in ways that transcend the mere transmission of electro-chemical signals located in the brain.

Public participation, intervention and collective action, all assume multiple forms which do not and should not fit the intellectualist formula, and are represented by a host of public intellectuals who contribute to public cultural life in ways that urge us to re-consider the way we make sense of culture and public life as a hybrid, syncretic activity mediated through a number of genres where intellectual activity may and does indeed flourish. There is an entirely new black music network (Radio 1 Xtra) broadcasting dancehall, hip-hop- drum n’ bass, garage, dubstep, grime and so many other distinctively black British musical styles, we have the cinema of Menelik Shabazz and John Akomfrah who have directed splendid films on lovers’ rock and the 1985 Handsworth riots respectively, we see black British photography at its best at Autograph ABP, we always learn from the biting commentary of Gary Younge and Roifield Brown, we indulge in reading the popular history of black London’s soundscapes borrowing the ears of Lloyd Bradley (who also was the executive producer of BBC’s Reggae Britannia), we dance and cry our hearts and souls out at international festival line-ups where black Britons top the bill, we entice our literary flair with superb craftspeople of the pen such as James Berry, Caryl Phillips, Courttia Newland, Alex Wheattle, Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Andrea Levy, Salman Rushdie, we learn more about black British literature and history by holding a copy of Penguin’s IC3 book of new black writing in Britain, Onyekachi Wambu’s companion to fifty years of writing about black Britain or Kadija Sesay’s collection; ‘Write Black, Write British’, and indeed delight in savouring spicy Carribean delicacies and frequent specialist record shops that have long served as public agoras of black Caribbean culture at broad. More importantly however, we enjoy the virtues of soundsystem lit-orature and culture in Britain which has contained all the tensions of the black British experience since the Windrush generation and has revolutionised not just the way we listen to music but the way we perceive sound, its frequencies, its message and role in the shaping and the possibilities of re-making public culture into something that is lived experientially rather than pondered on intellectually.

Besides, for every deluded, ignorant and bigoted version of David Starkey’s comments, of which Warmington is rightly critical, there is the sensibility of Dreda Say Mitchell; restor(y)ing our public, intellectual life to its quotidian cosmopolitan dimensions by replacing noise with sound, theory with experience and academic insularity with broader socio-cultural context, thus opening up the scholarly ‘I’ to our other senses.

Lambros Fatsis is a doctoral researcher and an Associate Tutor in Sociology at the University of Sussex, specialising on the history of public sociology and the sociology of intellectual life. He also performs as a reggae selector with the alias, Boulevard Soundsystem. 

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