Greenwich has become once more a colonial shipping centre. The other night I was passing through, and stopped briefly to lean on the rail and watch the ships. I saw the Thames as it used to be, in those times when its shipping dominated the waves and black people. Tamesis has long tried to throw off the memory of the naval empire, the slavery it instituted, the kidnappings and terror it relied upon at home – for working the ships was so terrible that forced labour was required. I enjoyed seeing a more honest river. Perhaps we should moor a replica slave ship in the middle of it forever, as reminder that The Island could only lead the way in abolishing the slave trade because it had led the way in establishing it.
The Empire has been dropping large, horrific bombs in countries it does not understand. Again. There is nothing wrong with this, according to the authorities. No outcry. In days of empire, the voice that says empire is cruel and worthless is a quiet one. It cannot be heard except by those who are already attuned to it. I feel part of a rather small community in the face of newly aggressive imperialism, but those who shout loudest don’t always last longest.
Which is a genuine feeling of optimism. I’ve been in a positive mood over the last couple of days, and have had energy to think about future projects.
I’ve just been to see a screening of ‘I am not your negro’ about James Baldwin. He was concerned with the will to dominate and denigrate, the need for a nigger, as he put it, that plagues Western civilisation. In part he locates it in the strange separation of public and private upon which our institutions and economy rest. Nothing that is really felt can be said, and nothing said in public is truly felt, and so we inhabit a strange ersatz reality. If I interpret Baldwin correctly, the fear of this barrier breaking down, of facing our own emotions, of losing control, is one of the sources of the fear of blackness. He implied that there is a form of blackness we only allow to appear in public in musical form, where it can be passed off as entertainment, though secretly we know it to be much more.
Having always been either suspicious or hostile to the liberal separation of public and private, or at least its importance to institutions, I was struck by Baldwin’s emphasis on the damage it does (or represents). Parts of the feminist movement also tried to break down that apartheid but not, perhaps, with much success.
It is significant that empire always begins with enclosure and theft, with accumulation that then becomes more accumulation, and goes adventuring abroad to accumulate more. Yet it must always dress this up as something else, even nobility – power will always have a story to establish respectability. Maybe if commoning is the method to undo enclosure, it must also undo the public face, undo the public story of who we are.
There’s no point in having small goals. There would be a danger of achieving them all, and then what would you do with yourself?