Skip to main content

Cornell University

Ep3_Final_0.mp3

Transcript

Camilla Hawthorne (CH)

So I think, while we can really talk about – in terms of political strategy and analysis – that having geographical and historical specificity, not only does our analysis fail, but our political movements fail as well if we don't think about these deeper historical connections that are shared among the antiracist struggles in different parts of the world. 

Eleanor Paynter (EP)

Welcome to Migrations: A World on the Move, a series brought to you by Cornell University's Migrations initiative. I'm Eleanor Paynter, postdoctoral associate in Migrations and your host for this podcast that seeks to understand our world through the interconnected movements that shape it.  

In this episode, we focus on migration and global racial justice. Questions of inequality, discrimination, solidarity and rights inform each episode in the series; here we explicitly take up the significance of understandings of and movements for racial justice in contexts of migration. I speak with Camilla Hawthorne, a critical human geographer and interdisciplinary social scientist, about racial justice movements in Italy.

Then Camilla and I are joined by activist, poet, and scholar Shailja Patel, author of the book Migritude, to discuss the relationship between migration, borders, racism, and movements for justice. As we get started, I want to acknowledge that I come to this conversation as a white US citizen and also as someone who studies race and migration in the Italian context. And I'm so thrilled to bring Camilla and Shailja into conversation for their perspectives on antiracist and migrant rights movements in multiple regions. We talk about how the racialization of migrants has produced and perpetuated grave injustices, and how migrant and racial justice are critically linked.  

One perhaps especially resonant example of these connections arose last summer, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place across the US and in countries around the world, marking solidarity across borders, and at the same time, also taking shape in response to specific histories and struggles. As we'll hear. In places like Italy, Black Lives Matter has come to speak to longstanding issues of citizenship and the rights of Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In this episode, we reflect on these reckonings for racial justice across borders, and more broadly, the global dimensions of antiracist struggle. To begin, I'm joined by Camilla Hawthorne.

CH

My name is Camilla Hawthorne. I am an assistant professor in sociology and critical race and ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz. 

EP

One of the reasons that I was really excited to get to talk to you for this episode about global racial justice is because of some of the intersections and interests in our work in the Italian context, and I know that you're working right now on a book about Black Italy. And you're also doing some maybe collaborative work more broadly in Black geographies. Could you just speak a little bit about your current projects? I’m especially interested in hearing about the book, but also anything else you feel is especially relevant right now?

CH

Yeah, absolutely. So the book that I'm working on right now, and I'm actually, you know, just in the last stages of, you know, proofing and final revisions before I send it off to Cornell University Press, where it will hopefully then go into production. But that book looks at emergent forms of Black Italian political mobilization in Italy. So, you know, I sort of came to these questions myself, you know, my mother is Italian, from Bergamo; my father is African American. I've been interested in a kind of a deeper contextualization of the Black diaspora in Italy, really, since I was an undergrad in college. And then when I started my PhD, I started meeting a lot of Afro Italians, or Black Italians, who were, you know, around my same age, who, for the first time that I had really noticed – and people remarked on this as well – were beginning to kind of collectively refer to themselves as Black Italian or Afro-Italian.  And so I became really interested in kind of understanding, you know, what was it about this moment that was enabling the emergence of this new kind of political subjectivity of being Black Italian, and what kind of politics that was enabling?

And, you know, one of the key areas where that was playing out was around the reform of Italian citizenship law, which is based on jus sanguinis, so rite of blood descent rather than jus soli, so, right of birthplace descent. And that law has left, it's estimated, between 600 to 900,000 youth of color disenfranchised, so these would be the children of immigrants to Italy who were born and raised in Italy. And so for many Black Italians, the reform of citizenship law was not just about the kind of bureaucratic apparatus of citizenship, but it was also about kind of challenging the racial state and challenging the kind of unspoken whiteness that goes to the heart of normative understandings of who gets to be Italian. But as I continued doing this research, I noticed that increasingly, you know, discussions about Black Italianness, were not just limited to citizenship anymore but were sort of spilling out into all of these really interesting places, you know, like entrepreneurship, like cultural production, but also, the the kind of object of Black Italian politics was not solely oriented toward the Italian nation state and the kind of goal of, you know, recognition and inclusion, but it also was becoming a way to articulate broader diasporic solidarities, whether it's trans-Mediterranean thinking about the connections between Black Italians who are born and raised in Italy, and, you know, African migrants and refugees, or linking up their mobilizations to you know, what's happening in France and the UK and the United States. And that, you know, we really saw very dramatically in the summer of 2020, when, you know, thousands and thousands of people descended into the streets in Italy, for Black Lives Matter protests, that were not just about expressing solidarity with African Americans, but we're actually about sort of naming the George Floyds of Italy as well.

EP

Thanks, that has me thinking also about this piece of yours “In Search of Black Italia” in which you talk about the connections that I guess the resonances between Black Lives Matter in the US context, and maybe more so how Black Italians have navigated their own spaces of protest and their own experiences of violence and discrimination, and how that how that resonates with Black Lives Matter in the US, and also maybe how it doesn't – and I think that pieces from a few years ago, so I wonder if you've noticed something changing even just in the last couple of years in terms of how that conversation is happening?  

CH

Yeah, that's, that's a great question. And, you know, I appreciate you bringing up that piece because I think, you know, in the summer of 2020, I saw a lot of kind of news coverage that was like, you know, in Europe, they're marching for Black Lives Matter, too. And there was this kind of like, linear narrative, you know, like, Black Lives Matter happened in the US, and now it's spreading to Europe, and these Black Europeans are suddenly becoming conscious of their blackness. And, you know, there's a lot of things that's problematic about that story, right? One, it kind of obscures decades and decades of history of Black organizing in Europe. But it also forgets that, you know, 2016 was also a year of global Black Lives Matter protests as well. You know, I think that a lot of the same questions and tensions exist as, you know, the ones that I documented in that piece. And I think there's always the question of that tenuous relationship between, you know, between different parts of the diaspora, you know, a lot of times you kind of assume a diaspora to be this sort of unitary community. But actually, you know, as a lot of scholars of the Black diaspora point out, there's also tensions and power differentials across the diaspora. And so, you know, in that piece, I document the fact that, on the one hand, you have kind of white Italians who are like, Oh, no, no, no, Italy is nothing like the United States, we didn't have slavery, we didn't have Jim Crow. But Black Italians in a different way, are also saying, you know, look, our experiences are different from Black Americans. That doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist in Italy. But it means that while we can gain some inspiration and, you know, share tactics and strategies and cultural resources, we have to kind of build up our own language, you know, for contending with the particular forms that anti-Black racism takes in Italy that are like very much tied to experiences of migration and experiences of colonialism more explicitly than they are in the United States. And so I think, you know, the the, maybe the biggest shift is just that the kind of Black Italian movement has just grown has grown significantly.  

But you know, a lot of the same questions still remain. You know, for instance, I think police violence and the prison industrial complex is really kind of the centerpiece of Black Lives Matter protests in the US. That's not the extent of the protests, but I think that becomes a kind of entry point right into structural racism in the US. And in Italy, even though, you know, a lot of scholars have documented the ways that Black migrants are over represented in Italian prisons, police violence is not at the center of Black Lives Matter mobilizations in Italy, right – it's really focused on, you know, disenfranchisement through restrictive citizenship laws, the exploitation of Black labor in you know, the agricultural fields of the South, the violence of the borders of Fortress Europe. You know, what I'm curious to see, as you know, we saw the language of abolition kind of becoming more mainstream in the United States, and some – you know, but I haven't seen the language of abolition be picked up in quite the same way in Italy yet. And so for me, it's really curious to see if, you know, abolition as a kind of diasporic resource, political practice or orientation will also kind of have its own translation in the Italian context.

EP

That's really interesting. One of the places that I've seen at least the beginnings of a conversation around that has been like with “Abolish ICE” here, around “Abolish Frontex,” which I don't think has maybe as as much of a pronounced platform, but your comment makes me wonder if some of the conversation about abolition – I guess how it might enter a national space, and if thinking about some of the problems with Frontex, the European Border Agency, if that might be one way in which abolition can can become a more, I don't know, more complex conversation within Italian spaces, too.  

CH

Yeah, I mean, I think that that's, I think that there's a lot of possibility there. I mean, we've even seen the way that, you know, conversations about abolition in the United States have kind of grown and expanded to kind of consider immigrant detention and borders as part of a broader abolitionist project, because of the ways that, you know, the prison industrial complex bleeds into the system of immigrant detention. And, you know, I often think a lot about, you know, the way that Angela Davis, you know, points our attention, even to the fact that a lot of the same kind of private contractors that, you know, build prisons and detention centers and border surveillance technologies in the US are doing the same kinds of work in Europe, and are doing the same kinds of work in Palestine, Israel. And so, you know, there are these real connections as well, that can, I think, serve as the the kind of basis for even kind of transnational solidarities around this abolitionist project in the different forms that, you know, that that detention and incarceration take in different contexts.

EP

There's also, I think, a way in which border policies are often treated as if they're completely separate from some of the other kinds of policies that that affect people within the country. And so there's a real push, both in terms of policy and in terms of cultural imaginary, to think about what's happening at the external borders as somehow completely separate from the experiences of people of color within these spaces. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about how some of the movements for migrant rights – thinking about people who are arriving now – are being connected with the movement around citizenship. 

CH

Yeah, I think that's so I think that's so important. And I think that there's a lot of work and kind of critical migration and border studies that, you know, think about borders as both material and discursive, right, that aren't just limited to the kind of geopolitical edges of the nation state. But that, you know, whether it's, you know, whether we're talking about the telescoping of borders, kind of within and beyond, right, the borders of Europe, or the way that kind of discursive and everyday borders get reproduced through forms of surveillance or disenfranchisement or restrictive citizenship law. You know, I think, what was, what was kind of a challenge, and something that was interesting for me earlier in the research was the way that the citizenship reform movement wasn't always kind of connected to these kind of broader struggles around borders. And part of it was, you know, the kind of, the the complicated negotiations that activists have to make when they're working, sort of with and against the racial state, right, because the Italian racial state positions Black Italians as always outsiders, no matter, you know, how long they lived in Italy, regardless of whether they were born there. And so it placed these citizens to perform activists in the equivocal position of having to kind of assert, no, we're not migrants, right, we are just as Italian as the next person. And then that also as a kind of unintended consequence sort of separates these struggles that actually do have a lot of things in common. But what I've noticed increasingly, is that these are connections that, you know, refugees, and second generations are increasingly making for a lot of reasons. So you know, one of the things that I talk about, you know, toward the end of my book is the work of second generation Eritrean Italians in Milan, engaging kind of self-organizing to do mutual aid work with newly arrived Eritrean refugees, where they're actively trying to disrupt this binary of citizen versus migrant and thinking more about the ties of diaspora and ties that also are very much, you know, that were set into motion by Italian colonialism. 

EP

I wonder if we could then maybe back up a little bit to think – you've mentioned a few different ways that race gets constructed in Italy. So through colonial history, being one of the significant ways, but I mean, also thinking about Italy as a space that has long been defined by different kinds of migration, in out through, and how different different groups have been racialized because of that. And I wondered if you could say something about that specific context, as a way also of introducing this concept of the Black Mediterranean. 

CH

Yeah, you know, I think that's what makes Italy such a generative place to think about, you know, race and citizenship and borders, because Italy is not really a place where whiteness – I mean, whiteness is a whiteness is a power laden social construction, and we know that. But in Italy, whiteness has always been so precarious and so tenuous that I think it kind of puts – it throws into sharp relief, right, the way that, like the shifting borders of citizenship are caught up with the shifting borders of race. And so you know, on the one hand, I know that there's been a lot of interest, especially like, in the last 10 years, you know, as there's been more attention to the violence of the Mediterranean border, and kind of going back to these deeper histories of migration across the Mediterranean as a way of saying, you know, look, Italy, you know, Italy actually has always been a site, a crossroads, a site of exchange, of civilizational encounter.  

My concern with some of that work, even though I appreciate the kind of political impulse that is behind it, is that I think it also sometimes overly romanticizes the Mediterranean as a hybrid space when you know, if we actually look at Italian history, there, you know, liberal Italy, and even Fascist Italy used the kind of the hybridity of the Mediterranean as a way of kind of drawing racial boundaries, as a way of legitimating colonial expansion. So like, that in and of itself doesn't get us all the way there. You know, I even, you know, I wrote a piece with my comrade Pina Piccolo a few years ago about, you know, the way that white leftists often use this notion of Mediterranean meticciato, or hybridity, as a way to kind of make arguments about the irrelevance of race in the Italian context. So I think that we have the the Mediterranean is very politically polyvalent. And we I think we always have to be really careful about the work that this metaphor of the Mediterranean as a hybrid space, or a third space, or a space of a cultural contact zone, is doing.  

I think this is where I think the metaphor, the concept of the Black Mediterranean becomes really helpful, because on the one hand, it is kind of making a claim about, you know, the sort of deep historical presence of people who are now racialized as Black, right, in the Italian peninsula, and kind of throughout the civilizational history of this region. But it does so in a way that also takes seriously the Mediterranean not only as a site of civilizational encounter and cultural mixing, but also, in many ways, as the kind of, one of many places where we can tell the origin story of racial capitalism, as well. And so in many ways, the Black Mediterranean is not just about, you know, saying like Black people have always been here, although it does do that. But it's also about saying, you know, if we want to talk about the the global history of race and race making and its impact, for example, on Black struggles in Italy, that we can't just talk about the Black Atlantic, we actually have to think about the Mediterranean, kind of as a precondition for the Black Atlantic and also the Mediterranean as this ongoing site, right, of kind of the reproduction of Black subjectivities and different forms of racial violence.

EP

To continue this conversation on global racial justice and migrations, Camilla and I are joined by poet and activist Shailja Patel.

Shailja Patel (SP)

Hi, I'm Shailja Patel. I'm a Kenyan writer and activist, mine, the author of Migritude, and I'm currently a Research Associate at the Five College Women's Studies Research Center in western Massachusetts.

EP

I've asked Shailja to open our conversation by reading her poem, what we talked about when we talk about movement, which was published in a recent issue of the Minnesota Review that focused on migritude, edited by Ashna Ali, Christopher Ian Foster, and Supriya Nair. And we’ll link to that issue on our website. You'll hear the first part of the poem now and you can listen to the poem in full at the end of this episode.

SP

"What We Talk about When We Talk about Movement"

How do you, the migrant, see Us, the Other? asked the man last night, after my talk in Venice. Guess the race of Us. Guess the citizenship.  

I've said so often that I'm forced with it: Kenya is cities, towns as well as wilderness. See us. Kenya is people, humanity, not just wildlife. See us.  

What we talk about when we talk about freedom is the right to be seen. To be visible – and to be normative. Visible while safe. Visible while unquestioned.  

How do I, who you construct as migrant, see you, who believe you belong here? You who think yourself stable in Venice, city of wedding cake palazzi balanced on fast rising waters. 

I said:  What I see is that white migrants to Kenya call themselves expatriates. Before, they called themselves settlers.  

I said:  

What I see is the painful smallness of your window on the world. Barely a slit in the wall. The scantest sliver of light. 

Enlarge your window, I said. Swing a sledgehammer through the brick. Make a jagged hole at least 200 years wider.

EP

Thank you. And again, for listeners, you can hear the poem fall at the end of this episode. Shailja, thanks so much for this reading, and for this poem, which opens up so many threads for conversations about racism and racial justice, in the way that the poem itself is crossing borders, and also as it’s addressing different kinds of violence, and the urgency of this need for settlers and those who operate in privilege to, as you write, “swing a sledgehammer through the brick” and enlarge our perspective to account for colonial history. And one of the things that especially strikes me is your reference to colonizers and today's ex-pats as white migrants, which is a descriptor we don't often hear, because of the ways the word migrant is racialized. So perhaps we could start here with the question of racialized border crossing. 

SP

White migrants are often given elite, preferential elite status; they are described as expatriate. And they even though they are economic migrants; we know that, for example, there's European professionals are migrating in large quantities to the Global South in pursuit of professional opportunities “in pursuit of better lives,” that wonderful phrase that, that mythologized phrase that's used a lot in the US. But white people who migrate in search of better lives are seen as conferring some kind of benefit on their destination in the Global South. Whereas brown and Black and yellow people from Asian and African countries and Global South regions who migrate north, even if they are bringing professional status, even if they are providing essential labor, they are seen as somehow needy, as somehow less than and as somehow a problem.

EP

Camilla, did you want to respond to the poem or to this question? 

CH

Well, first of all, thank you, Shailja, for that amazing, amazing poem. And I think, you know, I, when I teach my class on migrant Europe, I always like to start with, with poetry. And I'm going to have to add that to the first week of my syllabus. And it also reminds me of, you know, some of the debates that happened in 2015 and 2016 during the, you know, one of the many Mediterranean refugee crises, which was around the use of “migrant” versus “refugee”. And so what was interesting was that there was a kind of a first wave of critique that came from, you know, some journalists and NGOs in response to the kind of xenophobic backlash by politicians, as well as the kind of implicit xenophobia of many news outlets that said, now we have to be accurate, these people are not migrants, they are refugees, and their movement is protected by the United Nations. And then after that, there was a second wave of critique that said, wait, we actually need to trouble this binary that we're drawing between migrants and refugees, which assumes that one category, one category that has been able to reach a certain precarious level of international recognition is somehow more deserving than another, right, that there's a there's kind of problematic assumption of – a very liberal notion of agency, right? Migrants are making agentic choices to travel and therefore can totally be subject to the violence of borders, but refugees are being compelled to move. And I believe it was, if I'm not mistaken, Teju Cole, who wrote a piece that, you know, that, you know, basically said that, you know, the violence of grinding poverty is just as urgent, as you know, the gun to your head. And so I think, you know, really problematizing the categories and the assumptions behind them about race and worth, is really critical in this moment.

EP

Yeah, we hear the ways that those narratives end up racializing, both by criminalizing, and by rendering vulnerable. I'd like to shift and think with you both about the phrase “global racial justice.” We're in a moment when conversations about racial justice have become global in many ways. And so I wanted to hear from you both how this term resonates with you, and what it means to then understand racial justice, really, in global terms, and the extent to which questions of racial justice perhaps need to be also contextually specific. 

CH

You know, I think the answer, you know, and I hope this isn't too much of a cop-out. But I think the answer is really both. And, you know, this is coming from my experiences, again, you know, working with Black activists in Italy, who are working really hard to craft a language and a set of political practices that can contend with the particular – particular entanglements of border violence, post-coloniality, and anti-Black racism in the Italian context that produce a very kind of distinct set of struggles, right, you know, particularly – this is largely what I study – around citizenship. But at the same time, I think, you know, we have to be careful not to kind of fall into a sort of methodological nationalism with how we talk about these mobilizations because, you know, that plays, again, from my experience, and really, that plays very easily into the hands of, you know, white Italians who would like the status quo to say, stay as it is. Because there's a tendency to bound racism as something that happens everywhere else, something that happens elsewhere, right, racism is always in the elsewhere, it's always in the United States. And so I think, you know, what I like to think about is like, rather than thinking about bounded national groups, or about a kind of superficial politics of comparison, to think relationally. And what that means is sort of understanding that there is also a kind of global set of ideologies and practices of, you know, racism, racial capitalism, anti-Black racism, that really was set in motion by the, you know, kind of twinned moment of, you know, the birth of capitalism and colonial expansion and slavery, right, that really brought together the whole world into, you know, a system of racial domination, where really no one was immune.  

So, you know, I think about, you know, finding an image of Sarah Baartman, in the Cesare Lombroso archives, you know, so even though, to my knowledge, Sarah Baartman was not brought to Italy, right, the fact that there is this spectral presence in the archives shows that Italy was part of a kind of transnational circulation of theories and ideas and practices of anti-Black racism. So I think while we can really talk about – in terms of political strategy and analysis – being kind of having geographical and historical specificity, not only does our analysis fail, but our political movements fail as well, if we don't think about these deeper historical connections that are shared among the antiracist struggles in different parts of the world.

SP

Thank you, Camilla. I really appreciate that framing. And what comes to mind for me when I hear the term or think about the term global racial justice is June – I start with June Jordan’s definition of justice, which is, “Justice is indivisible, or it is not justice.” And so, for me, it really requires that we think internationally, that we think intersectionally, that we think as feminists and as radicals, and that we bring a decolonial lens to our interrogations of justice, because otherwise it becomes much too easy to work with parochial definitions of justice. Because it's all, you know, it is much more demanding and complex to realize that to interrogate first of all your own placing in the hierarchies of race and justice, and global racial capital, and to deal with the contradictions, that you can be an oppressed minority in the Global North, for example, if you are a Black person in Europe, or the US, but you still have imperial privilege, and the privilege to enact imperialism on the Global South. You can join the US military and have power, the power of life and death, over millions of people around the world. You can be a member of an elite hegemonic ethnicity in an African country that gives you access to global privilege and global mobility but still experience the violence and the oppression of anti-Black racism when you exercise that privilege and travel to the Global North.  So it's really important to me that when we talk about racial justice, we always complicate it, as Camilla says, we include sub-imperialisms in Africa and Asia, we include histories of caste apartheid, and the erasures of indigenous peoples on every continent, and the ongoing violence towards indigenous peoples on every continent by elite ethnicities, who have also fought anti-colonial liberation struggles and won liberation against European powers. And all of that is really hard work. And to me, perhaps one of the litmus tests is that if you're not troubled, and if you're not uncomfortable and constantly interrogating your own placing in these hierarchies, and your own mobilities and powers and who you have power over, and – then you are not really engaging with racial justice in a, in a rigorous way.

EP

Let’s move to the very relevant question of abolition. What's the place for each of you of abolition in different forms in your thinking and work for racial justice? Camilla, we brought this up a little bit in our conversation a moment ago, but I wondered if you wanted to say more about the connectedness of different abolition movements. 

CH

I really, Shailja, I really appreciate your, your insights about, you know, thinking about the many kinds of nested and nuanced kind of global imperial racial hierarchies. This is definitely something that I, you know, that I encounter in my work. And even, you know, through the Black Europe Summer School that I help to coordinate where, you know, we often have African, young African American students who are coming to Europe for the first time, and sort of beginning to understand their complicated entanglements with US imperialism, their conscription into US imperialism, and what that means in terms of sort of global solidarities for racial justice. And, you know, one of the things that I keep coming back to is that there's a, I think, because there is a kind of institutionalization of Black studies and critical race and ethnic studies in the United States but not in Europe, there is a way that the United States sort of looms very large in global theorizations about race and racism, which, you know, we talked about this previously, Eleanor, help inadvertently reproduce this narrative that you know, that the United States is sort of at the forefront of anti-racist mobilization, and the rest of the world is catching up to what we're learning from the United States. And one of the things that I you know, I'm always trying to emphasize in my work is what we really have to learn from Black Europeans. And, you know, I think about Angela Davis's remark that, you know, the refugee movement is sort of the political movement of the 21st century. I think one of the most powerful things that I've learned from working in Europe where, you know, working with Black Italians who are also migrants or have, you know, intergenerational family experiences of border violence and who are postcolonial subjects in a very immediate way, and are also racialized as Black, the inextricability of struggles for racial justice, struggles against borders and, you know, struggles against colonialism, and all of the ways in which it is reproduced in like small and large ways in the present. And I think, although, you know, you know, in the United States, you know, Black Lives Matter has, you know, definitely, I think, you know, engages with questions of settler colonialism and migrant rights. I've taken a lot of inspiration from, you know, groups like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. But I think that in kind of popular discourse, there's a tendency to kind of disaggregate those struggles and map them onto distinct groups. And I think that the work in Italy is such a reminder that, you know, the struggles always have to be they always have to be interconnected. And so you know, to your question about abolition, you know, I think about, you know, what does it mean to abolish citizenship? What does it mean to abolish borders? What does it mean to abolish migrant detention? Right, because these are all sort of tentacularly connected, right, as you know, different arms of the racial state different arms of racial domination?

EP

Yeah, I think I think my question is really, can we talk about racial justice for migrants or in a context of migration without confronting the abolition of borders? And it sounds like that that's a fundamental part of the conversation, in many ways. 

SP

I would say it absolutely is. I think unless we are discussing border abolition, we can't begin to address histories of colonialism and the repair that that requires. We can't begin to, you know, I come back to – thank you for referencing Angela Davis, Camilla – I come back to what how she defines radical, which is simply seizing things at the root. When I think about – I was doing some reading of Camilla's work on the Black Mediterranean, and we can't talk about the Black Mediterranean without going back to the root of why are Africans leaving their home countries? Why are Africans being driven out of their home countries? They’re being driven out by extractive colonialism and neocolonialism. We can't talk about, you know, dozens or hundreds of Africans drowning off the coast of Libya, trying to reach Europe, every day, every week, without talking about Obama's invasion and destruction of Libya, that country that had the highest standard of living in Africa and had many of the social welfare structures that Americans are fighting for today. We can't talk about migration from the African continent without addressing climate justice. And, so, all of these things are so inextricably bound up with hundreds of years of colonial history and the entrenched systems of extraction that they have imposed. I think most specifically of the African continent because that's my field of study, but obviously, this includes many other regions of the world as well – South America, Asia. And in this particular moment, I think of the two great immediate crises that are facing humanity. One is the climate crisis. And the second is the pandemic, the COVID pandemic. And with both of those, to talk about justice, to talk about vaccine justice, to talk about climate justice, requires that we abolish the notion of borders, we abolish the notion of nationalisms and hierarchies and the idea that countries should take care of themselves and their own populations and to hell with the rest of the world.

EP 

I wanted just to close with this question about the role of creative practices in the work of racial justice and in the activism that you're both involved in. And I mean, creative practices in a really broad sense, I'm thinking in, in some senses, I'm thinking about my own experience coming to study questions of migration in the Italian context, which was really opened up to me by the work of Italian writers of African descent, who have, I think, been some of the key voices in bringing questions of cultural memory and really rewriting Italian history to acknowledge the colonial present also. And so I have that in mind when I pose the question of creative process: could you talk a little bit about how this factors into your work? 

CH

I mean I think, I you know, similarly, you know, Eleanor since we both work in Italy, you know, the work of Black Italian writers and documentarians is really important for me, you know, again, because there isn't sort of institutional infrastructure for, you know, Black Studies, or, you know, again, you know, critical race studies in Europe. And so it – I mean, I think this is always the case, but again, particularly in Italy, it's a reminder that the sites of knowledge production are vast and varied and are not limited to the ivory tower of academia. And so, you know, I very quickly found that you know, that some of the sharpest writing about, you know, Black experiences and about, as you said, the colonial present are not coming from scholars, right, but they were coming from artists, artists and filmmakers, and writers and poets. That's where I was, you know, not only incredible kind of creative inspiration, but just incredibly rich analysis.  

And then, you know, for me, I've also, you know, I'm, I'm, I'm a huge sci-fi nerd. And so reading speculative fiction has always been kind of huge part of my, my intellectual and political practice – you know, Octavia Butler, and NK Jemisin, Adrienne Maree Brown, in part because of the way that I think speculative fiction renders slightly unfamiliar our world, brings things into very sharp relief, and then gives us kind of tools to liberate our radical imaginations and think about alternative forms of world building. So, you know, for me, as a very kind of boring academic writer, I draw so much inspiration from from reading fiction, to think politically.

SP

Thank you for that, Camilla. That's, that's really great for me to hear, because I have to admit that right now, as a poet, and a writer, I'm really feeling, you know, a sense of despair about the possibilities of the arts and creative work in the face of the crises that face us as humanity. I've spent most of my adult life, being a ferocious and passionate advocate for the power of art as theory and art as knowledge production, and the importance of art, to enter people through the gut, to give people a way to genuinely integrate the unbearable truths of history, of human existence, of violence and power, and what it means to be fully alive here on this planet. And right now, I'm at the point where I think centuries of art and great literature, great poetry, great music, great cinema, great theater, have brought us to this precipice: somehow they have failed. Somehow, all the extraordinary history of human creative endeavor has failed to wake up humanity enough to shift us to the place where we can actually value our own lives and all life on this planet to not destroy ourselves. So I would say right now, for me, there is an enormous question mark about what can art do in this moment? What does art do in this moment? What is the work of creative endeavor, in this particular moment, when, literally, our existence as a species will depend on what we do in the next decade, whether we are able to dismantle these immense structures of oppressive power, capitalism, militarism, to allow us to continue to exist on this planet, or whether we are going to be defeated by them. So I think, and actually, as I listen to myself, I realize I'm also, you know, conceptualizing this epic struggle in artistic and creative terms. And I'm also reflecting back on you know, what are the, the models we have for this in literature in art and everything else? So it's this, I guess it's this, being in this state of constant interrogation and argument with myself about what is the most urgent and effective work that we can be doing right now, what tools can we bring to bear on this enormous crisis that we face as a species. 

EP

Thank you, I don't, I don't have ready words to respond to a but I really appreciate what what you've both said about the power of imagination, the need to find ways to imagine differently, imagine outside the ways the world is, is being defined for each of us, but also the struggle that that represents – the imagination, imagination itself, maybe as a constant struggle, and therefore also as part of the work. 

And now, here's “What We Talk about When We Talk about Movement” in its entirety. [Note: to access the poem in full, with original formatting, please see the Minnesota Review issue linked at the top of this page.]  

SP

"What We Talk about When We Talk about Movement"

How do you, the migrant, see Us, the Other? asked the man last night, after my talk in Venice. Guess the race of Us. Guess the citizenship.  

I've said so often that I'm forced with it: Kenya is cities, towns as well as wilderness. See us. Kenya is people, humanity, not just wildlife. See us.  

What we talk about when we talk about freedom is the right to be seen. To be visible – and to be normative. Visible while safe. Visible while unquestioned.  

How do I, who you construct as migrant, see you, who believe you belong here? You who think yourself stable in Venice, city of wedding cake palazzi balanced on fast rising waters. 

I said:  What I see is that white migrants to Kenya call themselves expatriates. Before, they called themselves settlers.  

I said:  

What I see is the painful smallness of your window on the world. Barely a slit in the wall. The scantest sliver of light. 

Enlarge your window, I said. Swing a sledgehammer through the brick. Make a jagged hole at least 200 years wider. See European migrants storm the borders of China, flood the country with opium.  

Swing the hammer again. Knock out another 200 years. Stand back from flying shards of masonry.  

Look to your east. Watch white migrants, locusts in pet helmets, swarm over Asia. See the famished corpses, the vandalized temples, in their wake.  

Look down. See the hungry hordes of Europe pile into rickety vessels, set sail South. See their scurvied bodies surge onto the African continent. Hands outstretched. Jaws in perpetual motion.  

Swing the hammer again. Wait for the dust to settle. You now have a panoramic view, 500 years in breadth. There are the boats packed with ravenous European migrants scrambling the shores of North America.  

We won't speak of what follows. 

Citizen, you call yourself. Denizen of the Citadel. The fantasy of rooted nativity. The fiction that you live where you began. What I see when I look at you is ceaseless torrential migration of your material effluvium. 

Your mountains of disemboweled computers in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Your tsunami of discarded plastics in China. Your bales of used clothing in Nairobi's get Gikomba. Your canisters of nuclear waste on the beaches of Somalia. Your oil spills and pipeline flares across Ogoniland. Your raging psychopath man-children raping girls from Afghanistan to Okinawa. Your guns. Your bombs. Your tanks. Your drones slicing the skies over Africa.  

What I see when I look at you are throngs of Italian child rapists on the streets of Malindi, tugging skinny twelve-year-olds by the hands.  

You did ask.

What we talk about when we talk about seeing is the size of the window. What direction it faces. What we talk about when we talk about migration is, What moves, and who is moved? By whose muscle? Where does it come to rest? What we talk about when we talk about talking is, Who defines and delineates? Where does their detritus go? Who is safe, and who is ultimately free? 

EP

Thanks for listening to Migrations: A World on the Move, a podcast by Global Cornell's Migrations Global Grand Challenge, a multidisciplinary multi-species initiative that studies how the movements of people, animals, microbes, resources, ideas, and more shape our world. You can learn more about the initiative at migrations.cornell.edu, where you can also find relevant links from this episode. Follow us @GlobalCornell and #CornellMigrations. This podcast is hosted by Eleanor Paynter, migrations postdoctoral associate with the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and produced by Megan DeMint. Much of the podcast was produced at Cornell University on the traditional homelands of the Cayuga Nation, and we recognize Cayuga Nation’s sovereignty and the indigenous peoples who have lived and continue to live on this land. Our music is “Basically Really” by Steve Fawcett. Migrations: A World on the Move is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.