Must Have Books: They Came Before Columbus (1976)

before columbus

I know I’ve been fairly absent recently. I can’t say much about that apart from life is really busy right now and as much as I’d like to take more time to write, it’s not been possible. That being said, in the final remaining hours of “black history month” I felt like sharing a book that I’ve been reading here and there for the past couple of weeks in an attempt to make up for several missed must have books editions, especially since the book relates directly to black history.

While in New York over the summer, I visited the Schomburg Centre for Research in black Culture, located in Harlem. There’s a really interesting book store located there and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Ivan van Sertima’s epic, decolonial, masterpiece They Came Before Columbus (1976). As I mentioned above, I’m choosing to share this book – quite deliberately – in the final hours of black history. I believe black history is more constant than merely the month of October (or February as it is in the USA), however it’s a start in using a platform to re-educate the masses on black (global) histories.

So back to the book then.

Van Sertima wrote this book in the 1970s and throughout the text he references works from as early as the Columbian period itself in order to shake the pervasive myth that Columbus (or indeed any other European individual) “discovered” the Americas. In the years following its publication, Van Sertima continued his research and gave lectures (see below) on his findings in order to promote his assertion that Africans had travelled to the Americas (and contributed significantly to indigenous cultures) centuries before the Portuguese and Spanish. You would think then that by now – almost 40 years after the publication of such a text – that these assertions would be common knowledge and/or informing 21st century understandings of colonial history. Certainly, Van Sertima’s arguments are based on incredibly compelling evidence. However, it doesn’t appear to be the case that the claims made in this book are widely known.

The Atlantic Black Star published a piece recently emphasising early African contact with Olmec communities – as argued by Van Sertima – as well as other archaeological evidence. The fact that any time was spent on such a segment illustrates that this is still news to some people and the very same devaluation of black social, political and cultural structures and contributions – on a global scale – which Van Sertima aimed to challenge, is still something we are required to question and challenge today. Such contempt towards people of African descent and lack of self – awareness on our own parts is the reason black history month is still considered necessary. I would go further by saying that we need black history every month of the year. Clearly we have a lot to learn!

In short, there is more to our histories than being slaves, nannies, butlers, postmen, cleaners, etc. We didn’t just arrive on slave ships. Our histories are much more complex, varied and full of agency, than we ever imagined.


Pleasure and Pain: using spaces for amusement


A younger and much loved cousin contacted me recently, worried about the rising prices of Afropunk festival tickets for this year’s Brooklyn edition, which will be hosted this weekend. She reached out to me as I had told her of my plans to attend the festival with a friend. Besides her more general concerns that I should try to get an early bird ticket to avoid spending too much, she was also worried about the affect an increase in price would have on who would go on to attend the festival. Specifically, she was worried that less local Brooklynites would be able to attend due to the cost, paving the way for more (white) hipsters and yuppies. Communicated here, is the much wider concern over the level of white appropriation of spaces and cultures of colour at the same time as non-white individuals being prevented from enjoying their cultures and spaces. For example, there are numerous tales of black women and girls who have been criticised for or prevented from wearing natural hairstyles to work and school, such as braids, twists or afro-puffs. While it is not known whether or not white women are criticised for wearing braids to work, we do know that in recent times, white celebrities have been credited for starting trends such as “baby hair” or cornrows.

Meanwhile, we are already well-versed in the discourses highlighting the appropriation of various musical styles by white artists established within black communities (from blues, to jazz, to rock and roll to hip hop, etc). Furthermore, neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn in New York, Brixton in London and the Bijlmer in Amsterdam suffered from few resources and bad reputations, before hipsters moved in, removed local institutions and drove up property prices, thereby forcing out families who had been living in these neighbourhoods for generations.

These examples each correspond with my cousin’s fears for Afropunk festival as it becomes more popular and also at risk of becoming the next Coachella, i.e. a moment of recreation for the bored, rich white kids in their tunics and beaded jewellery, rather than an event of expression and celebration for people of colour. I will discuss in a later post on how Afropunk is a sort of pilgrimage for me to make, given my history of event and campaign organising, however for now, I’d like to focus on the politics of using certain spaces for mere amusement.

I’ve become increasingly interested lately in the imperial nature of globalisation and its link to the tourism industry. As someone who loves to travel (as hinted at since I’m going to New York for a music festival), this is often quite an awkward thought process for me to contend with. However the more I am confronted with the unbalance of space politics and cultural appropriation, the more I realise how much the material implications of the tourist industry (and other leisure industries) should be unpacked, discussed, critiqued and properly resolved.

As I have discussed in an earlier Rants & Raves post as well as in my recent article on The Clearing, the use of Roma caravans to sell a romantic sense of remoteness and isolation rings hollow when juxtaposed with the stark realities of isolation and remoteness experienced by Romany and Irish Traveller families due to NIMBYism and caravan site shortages. Furthermore, treating the cultures of caravan-dwelling communities in such a manner serves as a mechanism that diminishes their actual presence within society as well as undermining their socio-political exclusion. While many Roma caravan accommodation companies might argue they are honouring Roma culture, they do the opposite (albeit unwittingly) by feeding into existing discourses, which claim “real” Travellers live in bow-top wagons surrounded by pristine rural conditions, sustaining themselves by picking fruit in the summer. Anything deviating from this idyllic narrative simultaneously insists the culture is not authentic and therefore, the individuals are undeserving of their civic rights.

While I had noticed a certain level of space privilege and socio-economic unbalance when vacationing, the above conceptualisations surrounding the use of Roma caravans for “glamping” parks was a turning point in the way I understood the blatant cultural exploitation involved in tourism. No room is left for a fair exchange in many situations and thus instead of local communities benefitting from the money being poured into their nations and neighbourhoods by tourists, these spaces in fact become more of a playground for the apathetic and insensitive, who proudly seek to further their own personal geo-foot print.

Often the tourist industry also encourages blatant ignorance and insensitivity at certain locations. Take for instance the reported sale of golliwogs – an enduring symbol of British racism and imperialism – in a gift shop situated opposite the slavery museum in Liverpool, perhaps the UK’s most important institute to deal with this chapter of our history. Then there is the slave trail in Middelburg, The Netherlands, which instead of providing a damning critique of this chapter of Dutch history, glorifies the period and the economic gains established from it. Similarly is the “Africa Room” in a Belgian B&B, located in Brugge, which displays colonial posters and various other so-called African artefacts, which were (according to the owner) collected at various jumble sales and local auctions. The owner admitted he himself had never been to the continent and did not know very much about Belgium’s colonial history in Africa, let alone more general facts related to any African culture or history. The tour guides at Cape Coast and Elmina slave forts in Ghana do their best to honestly portray the horror of their sites of employment, however the gift shop makes light of the historical purpose of the fortresses.

Gift bag at Elmina Castle
Gift bag at Elmina Castle

Southern plantations have been opened up in the USA for tourism, which (for the same reasons as the slave forts in Ghana) doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if these artefacts can be used to properly educate people about this shocking and brutal history. Unfortunately, influential publications such as the Lonely Planet books give a more romantic image, with one edition stating:

“Designed in 1741, this plantation’s vast gardens are the oldest in the US. One hundred slaves spent a decade terracing the land and digging the precise geometric canals…The bewitching grounds are a mix of classical formal French gardens and romantic woodland, bounded by flooded rice paddies and rare-breed farm animals.” – Page 358

Meanwhile, the Maritime museum and lighthouse in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil barely deals with slavery or the true nature of the Portuguese invasion at all. Some details are shoved in as an aside, however the wording on the display implies that these incidents were so long ago that they are not relevant anymore, Brazilian society is entirely interracial and equal. This of course could not be further from the truth.

These issues within the tourism industry became magnified for me by Dutch immigrants in both Tamale, Ghana and Kapas Island, Malaysia (interestingly, former colonies of the Netherlands) who set out to create their own versions of “paradise” in these distant lands. While I only reviewed the website for the Dutch-owned resort in Kapas, I actually stayed at the gloriously described guesthouse in Tamale, where I was greeted by rude owners, who barked at their staff, displayed Zwarte Piet iconography and had furnished their rooms with dirty, broken items from IKEA. These people were not interested in making the best of their opportunity; they appeared to take it for granted that they could hang out, make a decent living and control the livelihoods of local people.


Another immigrant I did meet in Malaysia, was a guy from Den Haag who helped out with a market tour and cooking course in Georgetown. While his enthusiasm and welcoming nature were really great initially, things became awkward when he began correcting and contradicting the chef. Of course, the chef could well have been wrong about key ingredients to recipes in her own cook book or the history of the local market she had frequented for years before this Den Haag dude showed up with a backpack. But it’s unlikely, isn’t it? This year, I attended another market tour (which is also part of a cooking course) in Den Haag with my husband. Truth be told, the tour and course were a wedding gift to us. We never would have picked it out for ourselves on account of the fact that I hate fish (and the chef only uses fish) and the tour is at our local market, which turned out to be very awkward when we began walking passed our usual vendors. Furthermore, the chef and tour guide turned this neighbourhood shopping space into a site of intrigue and exploration for the suburban set who came to gaze at the “coloured” urbanites in their natural habitat. One telling moment included us going over to a Caribbean vegetable stall to just look at the produce. The chef openly admitted that he didn’t know what any of the products were used for and did not engage with the vendors at all to find out, instead showing off his knowledge of onions and potatoes. Moreover, he insisted that I “must know” – even after I explained that I was English and not of Caribbean descent.

In our neighbourhood, we have Turkish restaurants, Moroccan bakeries, Hindustani dress-makers, Ghanaian braiders, Polish delis, Dutch florists, Iranian jewellers… all before getting to the well known and much loved Haagsemarkt. There is real cultural vibrancy and exchanges in our quarter however as the above example illustrates, this provides plenty of opportunity for appropriation, gentrification and voyeurism.

This brings me back to the concerns for Afropunk festival.

It remains as critical as ever for people of colour around the globe to have access to safe spaces where we can express our cultures and our politics undisturbed and without threat of violence, especially given the level of brutality and control exhibited towards black bodies, be it in the USA, Europe, North Africa or South-East Asia or Australia. It is worth reiterating that white people have been able to travel unhindered and unharmed to all of these aforementioned spaces, turning them into their own adventure wonderlands, with very little regard for the socio-political unbalances that they may contribute to by just showing up. It must be easy to ignore that the USA and Australia were stolen from indigenous people and founded upon racist ideals for the purpose of white gain, if all you want to do is have a good time. But is it right? Especially given the current institutional racism of both countries?

Where we have the opportunities and resources to understand how our histories connect to present conflicts, we should make the most of them, which from a tourism and leisure perspective, requires us to divert attention from foolishness and promote healthier knowledge systems. We should for instance, support conscious and collaborative tourist projects such as the One Africa resort in Ghana – who take a critical approach to the West’s effect on Africa and promote a better understanding of West African culture and history. We can also contribute to and promote critical travel blogs and journals, which give a much needed counter narrative to mainstream tourist rhetoric. Furthermore, we should be more open to learning simple points of information, such as where to stay, how to behave, when to travel (during the calendar year) as well as how to spend money responsibly. Finally, we should ensure that when we launch projects that are supposed to be for our communities, be they for entertainment or education, that they remain accessible to those communities and that their cultural and political essence is sustainable.

Calais Crisis & the UK

Hello folks,

Just a quick update from me with some interesting pieces on the current refugee crisis in Calais and how this is being used in the UK debate on whether or not the UK should remain within the EU. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this situation is being used as a reason for us to leave the EU as some claim we are currently too attractive and accessible to asylum seekers and other (apparently) unwanted immigrants. Also, there appears to be a highly regarded myth that the UK has “its fair share” of refugees already, so we should just send “them” back… Ahem.

Obviously there is another, better informed and more balanced side of this discussion. For instance this piece from the Independent which succinctly undermines 10 myths in frequent circulation with regards to the refugees at the camp in Calais as well as immigrants coming to the UK in general. For those who will continue to be in doubt after reading that one, they should follow it up with a similar piece in the Huffington Post. Still not convinced? Travel blogger Jaz O’Hara (of Worldwide Tribe) recently visited the camp at Calais to interview refugees and document their living conditions for this piece, also published in the Huffington Post. She plans to go back to make a documentary on the situation too and is currently delivering much needed resources to the people she met there. Another great piece on Britain’s current attitudes towards migrants and increasingly explosive xenophobia – which in itself reveals the mounting fascism sweeping through Europe – was published by the New Statesman last week.

So there we have it. Some of the reasons we should be more sympathetic to the plight of the individuals and families in Calais and the implicit reasons we should continue to be in the EU and keep our borders open to our neighbours as well as to those in need. Moreover, what the anti-immigration rhetoric reveals about the shifting – and terrifying – political views of today.

I’ll be back again soon with more updates so stay tuned and much love and peace!


Must Have Books July 2015: Imperial Persuaders (2003)

Victorian Pears Soap advertisement circa 1890
Victorian Pears Soap advertisement circa 1890

Hello Folks! So I’m posting this edition of MHB with just a couple of hours left of July. I’ve been busier than ever since getting back from Brazil but in between work, ERIF, family, etc I’ve been making time to read a book I received for my birthday last year. This month is Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising by Anandi Ramamurthy.

This has to be one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received – especially given the antigolliwog campaign I’m involved in. Also, after reading this I’ll never look at a bar of chocolate or soap in the same way again. Previously familiar with bell hooks’ Eating the Other masterpiece, Ramamurthy’s work (based on her PhD thesis) has reinforced and enriched my knowledge of British colonialism as well as providing an even more concise understanding of the links between the exploitation and  consumption of black and brown bodies alongside the draining of non-European resources. The text explored the very real land, resource and labour exploitation carried out by Britain in the name of Empire between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Liptons Tea ad in The Graphic, 1896.
Liptons Tea ad in The Graphic, 1896.


Making use of discourse analysis of advertising text and imagery, Ramamurthy explores the creation and use of stereotypes and rural tropes in advertising, which would go onto be at the centre of house-hold brands we continue to take for granted today. For instance, she comments on the tea industry:

Lipton’s must have been conscious that its advertisements of tea plantations and factories surrounded by countryside echoed this image of British philanthropy. For the British consumer already fed with a diet of Empire, it must have appeared as though the Ceylonese labourers were not only in their rightful place as servants of the Empire, but also that they were being treated relatively well. (p. 122)

These observations and criticisms continue to be relevant into the 21st century as we experience globalisation’s modern methods of exploitation of natural resources and manpower across the world. In discussing the legacy of the neo-colonial modernisation era of the 1950s and 1960s, Ramamurthy elaborates:

While on a superficial level these scenes of industrialism appear to suggest a new path for African development, the notion of the West as responsible for or inevitably involved in harnessing the resources of various colonies, which modernisation theory supports, dates back to the turn of the century…Bearing this in mind, it is important to note that these images of industrial ‘development’ were not ones which suggested dramatic change for Africans, but were geared towards the more efficient extraction of African resources. (pg. 186)

african resources

Aside from critical theorists and scholars of cultural studies, this book is an excellent read for advertising and marketing specialists, especially those working within the FMCG field.

Enjoy and happy weekend!!!

I’m back from Brazil!!!

The view from my balcony in Salvador, Brazil.
The view from my balcony in Salvador, Brazil.

Last month I travelled to Brazil for the first time. While it was a really amazing trip (more on that later) I seem to have brought back with me a mild and unspecific tummy bug, which caused me to work a couple of days at home this past week. During those days, I decided to make the most of the sunshine and a tea break to hang out some laundry.

Out on the balcony, I see Slick and the cornershop-keeper’s daughters, breaking down Slick’s garden shed. One of the daughters stands and watches while the other hammers with a lot of effort but very little effect. Meanwhile, the “tokkie” from next-door is breaking down the fourth wall of the shed. We call him a tokkie but it’s mainly due to his appearance. He doesn’t cause any trouble and seems to be nice enough. I’m not actually sure if that’s even an appropriate term of phrase…

Slick, who took care of our plants while we were away, asks about Brazil. I say it was wonderful – but that word doesn’t do the trip justice. Actually, it was in my opinion our best trip so far, barring maybe Bulgaria. It’s true, it was a little unnerving that everyone seemed to think I was Brazilian and that a few people didn’t approve of Toon and I being together. It’s also true that it was difficult at times for us to communicate as many people we met didn’t speak English. However, most of the people we met were friendly and helpful and aside from the food, weather and beautiful scenery, some of my favourite moments were when we could lose ourselves among the locals, be it in a neighbourhood bar watching the Brazil vs. Paraguay game (Paraguay won..), or on the Pelourinho while sipping a caipiriñha and listening to some samba…

They call out to one of the cornershop assistants next door to help with the fourth wall. He’s the friendly one I see most days there. I almost say “Óla!” instead of the usual “Hoi!” when he appears. I’m still in Brazil…

Now they’re arguing over who should pay for the fence, which collapsed with the shed wall almost taking the shop assistant with it. I sit on the balcony and drink my tea.