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Recognition, justice and development: AHRC networks support UN's International Decade for People of African Descent

By Charles Forsdick, AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for Translating Cultures and Esther Stanford-Xosei, co-founder of the International Network of Scholar Activists on Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR)

The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD). In doing so, it aims to provide a framework to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in promoting and protecting the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of people of African descent.

Around 200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world outside of the African continent including in Europe where there are approximately 15 million people identifying as such.

Although the UK government has no specific plans to support the Decade, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded an ambitious call for research networks to explore the underpinning themes of the UN Decade: recognition, justice and development, and contribute to its aims through engagement with the Arts and Humanities.

This call complemented a number of community-led initiatives – coordinated notably by the IDPAD Coalition UK – that have sought to acknowledge IDPAD and contribute to its work of challenging Afriphobia (prejudice or discrimination against, fear, hatred, or bigotry towards people of African heritage).

Eleven projects were funded as a result of the AHRC call, representing engagement with a range of different sectors, disciplines and approaches. Earlier this year, through the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, members of these networks met in workshops to discuss their research, reflect on their contribution to the UN Decade and outline their plans for future activity.

These conversations led to a public event and pop-up exhibition in July 2019 that brought together work from a selection of the funded networks. This showcased the variety of work undertaken and underlined the networks’ wider intellectual, institutional, cultural and societal impact. When considered as a portfolio of interlinked projects, these initiatives constitute a powerful contribution to the International Decade for People of African Descent.

The networks have enabled the development of partnerships both nationally and internationally, permitting Arts and Humanities researchers to collaborate with a range of community groups and other non-academic partners.

Focusing on the Decade’s themes of recognition and justice, for instance, the International Network of Activists and Scholars for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) is a transatlantic project coordinated by Dr Nicola Frith at the University of Edinburgh and Professor Joyce Hope Scott at Boston University in collaboration with activists, artists, state and non-state actors based in Europe, West Africa and the Americas. The network has been dedicated to advancing scholarship and activism that promote cross-community dialogue and learning about reparations and other forms of transitional justice for the enslavement, colonisation and genocide of peoples of African descent.

Other projects have sought similarly to forge new transnational connections. African-Caribbean Women's Mobility and Self-Fashioning in Post-Diaspora Contexts was a two-year collaboration between London South Bank University and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies Mona Campus Unit at the University of the West Indies. The network convened a new network of Black women scholars from the Caribbean, Canada and the UK who reimagined new ways in which African-Caribbean women achieve agency through mobility in 21st-century contexts of globalisation.

Central to the projects has been a response to urgent issues of social, political and cultural concern. Inspired by the international activist movement Black Lives Matter, ‘Geographies of Black Protest’, co-ordinated by Dr Karen Salt of the University of Nottingham (now Acting Deputy Director, Culture and Environment, UK Research and Innovation) and Lisa Robinson of Bright Ideas Nottingham, has sought to understand the origins, dynamics and possible futures of intersectional human rights and social justice movements led by people of African descent.

Much of Salt and Robinson’s research has been site-specific, working for instance with cultural and heritage archaeologists in St Lucia, as well as with former residents and activists connected to the community of Africville in Nova Scotia, Canada, which was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996.

Another network, on knowledge and cultural production in sites of memory, led by Professor Olivette Otele at Bath Spa University, has also focused on realms of memory related to the history and experiences of people of African descent. This particular collaboration has revealed how these places (often reluctantly) tell the story of the legacies of colonial encounters between people of Africa, Asia and Europe and how they provide examples of active participation of people of African descent in shaping societies to which they were forcibly moved. There has also been a focus in cultural production across the African diaspora, with networks studying phenomena ranging from small magazines and literary networks to Afrodescendant media and film production in South America and the Caribbean.

Other projects, whilst continuing to think globally in the frames of the African diaspora, have firmly rooted their activity in national and local contexts. ‘Blackness in Britain: Beyond the Black Atlantic’, led by Professor Kehinde Andrews of Birmingham City University, has developed an interdisciplinary network of Black Studies bringing together a mix of scholars, as well as artists and community activists.

The network on the ‘Diasporic Everyday: Labour, Creativity, Survival’ has led to a partnership with the David Oluwale Memorial Association and is now proving central to the decolonisation of curricula at the University of Leeds. Finally, the project on ‘Ethiopian Echoes on the British Landscape’ has been instrumental in exploring themes relating to the legacies of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who lived in Fairfield House in Bath from 1936 to 1943. The network’s lasting legacies include the establishment of Imperial Voice Radio, an internet station which can be listened to at www.imperialvoice.com.

We are currently working together to produce a report on the networks’ activity, including case studies outlining the impact of each of the 11 projects, which will be published later this year.

As a portfolio of activity, the UN IDPAD networks are an eloquent illustration of the ways in which Arts and Humanities research collaborations can support major international initiatives in the areas of recognition, justice and development among people of African descent.

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