Voices Across Borders
The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH
‘X Week’ – Debating Race in Oxford, Britain and the World
The past week has seen a string of lively events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X coming to speak at the Oxford Union. On Monday, Professor Stephen Tuck’s (Director of TORCH) book launch event was a huge success with a rousing talk by Tuck himself, followed by stimulating responses from a panel including Selina Todd (Oxford historian and author of The People), Hope Levy-Shepherd (co-chair of CRAE, the Oxford University student Campaign for Race Awareness and Equality) , and Malcolm X's nephew, Rodnell Collins.
On Wednesday, the "Race Relations in Oxford" series began with an afternoon session on "Malcolm X in His Final Year, and In Memory" at Pembroke College. This featured talks by Saladin Ambar, (“Malcolm X and human rights”); Dawn Marie Gibson, (“Malcolm X’s Religion”), Britta Waldschmidt Nelson, (“Memory of Malcolm X”), and Rodnell Collins, (“Remembering Uncle Malcolm”). The discussion grew tense and contentious as debates crystallized around Malcolm X's legacy, his evolving stance on Black nationalism, and whether the Nation of Islam, under Malcolm X's leadership had preached "Black supremacy."
At 5pm the focus shifted to the Oxford Union for a re-playing of Malcolm's speech there 50 years ago, followed by responses from Angela Davis, Ben Okri, Christie Davis (who was part of the original Union debate in 1964), and Graeme Abernethy. Hearing and watching the video of Malcolm speaking 50 years ago to the day evoked a mood amongst the audience that was somber, reflective, and deeply sensitive to the contemporary relevance of Malcolm's scathing indictment of racism in the United States, particularly in light of the recent protests in solidarity with the Black protest movement in Ferguson, Missouri.
That evening, the Union sponsored a debate on the original proposition that Malcolm X spoke in favor of, "Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue". The highlight of the debate came in the form of the Black prophetic fire of Cornell West, who delivered a rousing, sermon-like presentation for the proposition.
Thursday morning began with a panel about international dimensions of racial struggle, entitled "Civil rights Circulations" at Pembroke College. Imaobong Umoren presented her doctoral research on "Race women across borders", Joe Street presented on "Malcolm X in Smethwick" and Jed Fazakerly spoke on "British multiculturalism."
In the afternoon there was a session called "Race Relations in Oxford: 1964 to 2014". This featured a moving testimony by Hope Abrahams, the sister of the first Black president of the Oxford Union, Eric Abrahams, who invited Malcolm X to speak in 1964. Other speakers were Clive Sneddon (a fellow student anti-racism campaigner with Abrahams, and author of a report on colour bar in student housing in 1964). His presentation included the airing of BBC recording in which an Oxford landlady refuses to let her (vacant) room to Eric Abrahams. The third and fourth presenters were Michael Joseph (organizer of the 100 Voices campaign), and Anne Meeker (the current co-chair of the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality). The session was chaired by Shakina Chinedu.
The day was closed by an informal story-telling session by Donald Hinds, author of Journey to an Illusion, about what life was like for Jamaican immigrants to Britain in the 1950s and what it was like to work as a reporter for Claudia Jones' West Indian Gazette.
All in all, it was a rare and powerful series of events about race in Oxford, Britain, and the world. The week was a significant continuation of discussions and debates that are sorely needed.
Brian Kwoba is a DPhil student in History, at Pembroke College, completing a thesis on Hubert Harrison.
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Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century