10 Jun Blog: Inscribing George Floyd. Thoughts about Black Lives Matter
By Esther Captain.
It was a sad moment in my academic life. Last week Friday afternoon, after months of intense writing, I had given myself the luxury of reading. I had been rearranging my bookshelves at home with adding books from my office at KITLV and came across The implicated subject written by Michael Rothberg (2019) again. According to the handwritten note that I had made in the book, I bought it on December 28 last year, probably with the intention to read it during Christmas break. As with many good intentions, the book ended up on a bigger pile of publications ‘to read’.
Then this Friday, I started reading Rothberg’s analysis of, in his words, “…one of the most infamous recent cases of racial violence: the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Together with an unfathomably long list of killings of black Americans by police officers, vigilantes, and white supremacists, the murder of Martin helped spark a major political movement: Black Lives Matter.” And already here, on page 2 of the book, next to Trayvon Martin’s name, I took my pencil and added “George Floyd, 2020” at the margin of the page. And I kept doing this throughout the introduction, every time when names of the “…whole host of other black Americans championed by Black Lives Matter” appeared, I felt compelled to add the name of George Floyd in the book.
Why? Perhaps it was an attempt to literally inscribe him in the book. Maybe I wanted to mark the historicity of his murder for later, for myself, when I would pick up the book twenty years from now. Perhaps I wanted to pay respect in an awkward manner (to pay hormat in Indonesian). But this is rationalizing afterwards. I think my feelings were reflecting the absurdity of the synchronicity of this new murder and reading a 2019 academic analysis on this topic. Adding his name was probably and foremost an emotional reaction to the sadness that I felt. Affect, as colleague Francio would say. And same old questions came up again: it is ever going to stop? How long before change? What can I do?
Reading the letters BLM, I unconsciously made an association with an earlier acronym: ZMV. It was attached to ZMV-beweging, where ZMV stands for Zwarte, Migranten- en Vluchtelingenvrouwen: the Black, Migrant- and Refugee Women’s Movement from the eighties and nineties in the Netherlands, that I witnessed and at the same time, belonging to the younger generation as a student and as a PhD-candidate, was a part of. It was the time when a.o. Philomena Essed, Kamala Kempadoo, Troetje Loewenthal and Gloria Wekker were expressing critiques on the white academy and women’s studies, organizing winter and summer schools to explore ZMV-perspectives. Back then, I was thinking about the Indo/Eurasian involvement in this movement, together with my fellow students Guno Jones, Halleh Ghorashi, Nancy Jouwe and Maayke Botman, and sharing thoughts with 2nd generation Indo-thinkers such as Edy Seriese, Pamela Pattynama and colleague Fridus. Thinking in generations and reflecting about intergenerational transfer, ranging from identity/identification to wartime trauma, has been at the center of my academic work. When comparing ZMV and BLM, I think that one of the most meaningful transitions is that in the public realm, the debate on (anti-)racism and decoloniality in the Netherlands has shifted from the periphery to the center over the past decade: (almost) everybody Dutchman or -woman is affected by BLM, the impact of (the debate on) slavery and colonialism or Zwarte Piet, for that matter. Whereas in the eighties and nineties, it felt like we were involved in and committed to a relevant cause, but were acting much more in the margins. With all the sadness and slowness that I also do experience nowadays, I see that as a step ahead, as progress.
I haven’t finished the book of Michael Rothberg yet. We may think about implicated subjects as persons who, following Rothberg’s argument, occupy positions of power and privilege and possibly contribute to, inhabit, inherit or benefit from unequal power relations. However, implicated subjects did not necessarily start nor do they necessarily maintain inequality, as places have changed, time has passed, shifts in societal structures have occurred, thus acknowledging that causal mechanisms are complex. Trying to understand our positionality as academics at KITLV beyond the victim and perpetrator-divide will hopefully enable us to develop into an institution that is embracing its legacy of colonialism by looking behind and over yonder.
(Esther Captain is a senior researcher at KITLV, where she is currently developing a new research line on postcolonial Netherlands, with links to Indonesia and the Caribbean. Moreover, she is a researcher at the ‘Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950’-program at the same institute.)