Profiles | 2 November 2023

Grad Profile: Leonard Butingan


Leonard Butingan is a PhD candidate in History at UC Santa Cruz. His dissertation, “Specters of Empire,” focuses on Black British activism in the late twentieth century, and particularly the way activists, artists, and intellectuals grappled with the legacies of British empire, and saw their domestic struggles as aligned with broader global movements for liberation of the African diaspora and the Third World. Butingan served as a THI Dissertation Fellow in the Summer 2023, and was part of the 2022-2023 Social Science Research Council-Dissertation Proposal Development program. In October, we learned more about Butingan’s research work, his recent archival research trip to London, and the importance of structured peer community groups for graduate student success. 

Hi Leonard! Thank you for chatting with us about your ongoing work! To begin, would you provide us with an overview of your dissertation project and what you are currently focused on?

Thank you for having me! My dissertation examines the ways in which Black British activists, artists, and intellectuals grappled with the legacies of empire from 1976-2000. While it is often believed that Britain had dissolved its empire in the post-1945 period, I argue that Black Britons across different domains understood contemporary forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia as products of ongoing neocolonialism. I further contend that Black Britons saw their struggles at home as aligned with the global movements for liberation of the African diaspora and the Third World. Finally, this project aims to reinsert some of the period’s less emphasized sites of resistance and political interlocutors such as Black queer intellectuals, Black feminism, Black television, Black publishing, housework, reparations activism, and anti-fortress Europe activism.  

Your dissertation aims to challenge a number of “well-circulated assumptions of late twentieth century anti-racism in Britain.” Could you articulate one of these assumptions and explain how your work reinterprets Britain as a neo-colonial state?

Good question! Part of what I argue is that internationalism continued to inform and guide Black British political and cultural activity much deeper into the twentieth century than we have come to understand. This is in response to a number of long standing and emergent portrayals of 1980s Black British history. Many have maintained that Black activism in the 80s was narrowly interested in domestic concerns embodied in the various urban rebellions against police violence and Margeret Thatcher’s neoliberal austerity measures. In many accounts Black activism was seen as being “deradicalized” in this period vis-a-vis state multicultural funding to ethnic organizations. Finally, scholars of Black global history in Britain and beyond have analyzed the mid-1980s onward as a decline of Black and Third Worldist collective liberation movements, citing the defeat and decline of global socialist movements from the socialist, Marxist, and radical coalition of Iranian Revolution, the assassination of Walter Rodney, the decimation of the American Black Panther Party (due in large part to FBI’s COINTELPRO) and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada.

For prominent Black British activists, imperialism and colonialism were seen as unfinished.

I certainly in many ways agree with these interpretations! However, a lot of this analysis has overlooked some of the rich political actors and sites of struggle that became even more visible in this period. Take for instance, the roles Black women’s groups played in solidarities with the fight to liberate not only, Black Africans under the rule of apartheid South Africa, but also Southern Africa writ large. Even more specifically, Black lesbians in Britain held some of the first global conferences for Black and Third World lesbians, hosting them in London and various parts of the U.K.. Currently, I’m working on a chapter on Black publishing that covers in part the International Book Fairs for Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-1995). These Book Fairs, based mostly in London, brought intellectuals from the African diaspora and the Global South to the U.K. such as C.L.R. James, Jayne Cortez, June Jordan, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, bell hooks, and many others to the U.K.. The Book Fairs also hosted intellectual discussions examining ongoing forms of anti-colonial struggle in South Africa and Grenada.

Black Britons aligned themselves in these ongoing anti-colonial liberation resistance movements… Black Britons saw their own social inequalities at home as being rooted in colonialism.

The examples I just shared at the end of the paragraph above gets at the heart of your last question. For prominent Black British activists imperialism and colonialism were seen as unfinished as seen in apartheid South Africa, the U.S. Invasion of Grenada in 1983, the South African Border War, and other examples. Black Britons aligned themselves in these ongoing anti-colonial liberation resistance movements. Finally, in my dissertation, I take a look at how Black Britons saw their own social inequalities at home as being rooted in colonialism. For example, the Black lesbian intellectual activist Valarie Mason John, in one of the first volumes written by and for Black lesbians, tied contemporary homophobia to British and European colonialism. In fact, Mason John argued, same sex relationships flourished in places like precolonial Africa until the intrusion of colonial Christianity. Thus I use the term neocolonial to elucidate the unfinished project of colonialism.

Your dissertation also focuses on harmful legislative measures enacted in Britain during the 80s and 90s, including the banning of birthright citizenship (1981 Nationality Act), the stripping of rights for asylum seekers and undocumented peoples (1996/1999 Immigration and Asylum Acts), and the now infamous Section 28,” which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local institutions. I wonder if you could talk about the long shadow of these types of laws, and the lessons Black activists in Britain have carried forward from this time. 

I would say a lot of the laws mentioned in this question continue to reverberate in contemporary Britain. In fact, while many believe that things have advanced for the better for racialized and queer people, there have been numerous laws and political developments that seem reminiscent to the ones seen in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance the “Windrush” Scandal (as a note the term Windrush is a loaded complicated term) saw many people who had been born as British subjects and had lived in the country for decades lose their welfare/health benefits, had their passports confiscated, refused re-entry into the U.K., and even deported. Due to the state’s questioning of their citizenship, many even lost their jobs and were forced to live in poverty. Preceding the “Windrush” Scandal was what the then Home Secretary and future Prime Minister Theresa May called “hostile environment” policies, a series of laws and measures enacted to drive out undocumented peoples from the U.K.. During her administration May had the nerve to propose a “Windrush Day,” to celebrate the contributions of migrants, adminst not only the “Windrush” Scandal but the daily deaths of those attempting to cross into Britain via the English Channel. In one his earliest speeches, the first non-white Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 2023 vowed: “We will halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats.” The latter point “stop the boats,” is in reference to people crossing into Britain from the English Channel. What makes Sunak’s dangerous discourse especially ironic, is that his own parents were once migrants themselves from East Africa. Finally, in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Evarard at the hands of police officer Wayne Couzens, Metropolitan Police (MET) officials commissioned an inquiry into the force. The report revealed a culture of racism, sexism, and homophobia within the MET. Needless to say this is not the first report that has revealed problems with the MET. I would thus sadly argue that not much has actually changed…

Yet people have not stood passively in the face of all of this. In fact some groups formed in the 1980s such as the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) continue to provide services and safe spaces for women (particularly of Asian descent) survivors of domestic violence and abuse, services that the police cannot be trusted with. In more recent years revolutionary feminist groups like Sisters Uncut have resisted racism, cuts to domestic violence services, deportations, immigrant detention, the prison system, policing, and other forms of state violence and austerity measures. Most famously, adminst the global protests against the police murder of African American George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, one of the largest and most significant slave ports of the transatlantic slave trade, ripped down the statue of Edward Colston, a seventeeth century slave trader. While they were much maligned by the British press and state and accused of “erasing history” (and even compared to the Taliban), they, as the scholar Kojo Koram argued, did the very opposite. According to Koram “the tearing down of Colston’s statue transported his name-and deeds- into the public consciousness.” I would agree wholeheartedly with Koram as the British state itself has repeatedly erased the histories of Black lives in Britain. It was only in 2012 when the then Secretary of Education Michael Gove rationalized his calls to remove Mary Seacole (a Jamaican born nurse) and Olaudah Equiano (an ex-slave writer) from school curriculums as a “back to basics” philosophy of education.  

This Summer, you served as a THI Summer Dissertation Fellow, and conducted an archival research trip to the UK. Could you share a bit about your trip? Which institutions/holdings did you visit? I’m sure this trip revealed a host of fascinating documents and histories, but I’m wondering if there was a specific text or a specific moment that stands out to you from your research–a moment of surprise, shock, awe, or understanding you’d like to share with us?

By linking contemporary racism with that of the Holocaust and a significant historical moment in the transnational Black liberation struggle, EARESJ demonstrated that fortress Europe was not new, but rather something rooted in the long histories of European racism and colonialism.

I visited several archives: the George Padmore Institute (GPI), the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), the Feminist Library, the Bishopsgate Institute, and the London Metropolitan Archives. I continue to be amazed at the wide breadth of holdings of these archives and their staying power in the face of state repression, institutional racism(s), and lack of funds overall. These are some of the few depositories documenting cultural, political, and activist lives of African, Caribbean, and Asian descent in Britain and beyond. Amidst continuing state perpetrated racial violence as seen in BREXIT, the 2017 Grenfell Tower Fire, the aforementioned so-called “Windrush” Scandal, the continuing crackdown on the socioeconomic rights of refugees, and ongoing police violence, these archives remain even more relevant in our contemporary times. In concert, these archives serve as important forms of supplementary education in the face of ongoing attacks on histories of race, racism, and colonialism in British universities, as exemplified by Goldsmith’s Black British History MA program and the University of Chichester’s Dr. Hakim Adi (the first Black history professor in the U.K.), along with his course in African history, all being made redundant. I encourage people to donate to these institutions and causes!

In regards to the final part of the question: over the past two summers, the collection that has most stayed with me is the European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice (EARESJ), a group (most active between the years 1989-1993) led by some of the stalwarts of the Black, Asian, and wider anti-racist movement in Britain, and also activists from the Black German/Black German women’s movement and France’s Arab youth movements. EARESJ thus represented an important example of a pan European coalition of racialized peoples. While it would take more than the entirety of this interview to sum up EARESJ’s interventions, what sticks out to me is the ways in which they challenged the white western perspective of post-1989 Europe. Often this period of European history is portrayed as the peak of liberal democracy, unification, and the zenith of human progress as represented by the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the fall of the USSR, and the creation of the European Union. Yet what this fairy tale leaves out is that for racialized and minoritized peoples, this period marked a vicious recalibration of racism, xenophobia, and fascism. For instance, for all of the praise and fetishization Germany has received for addressing its “past” (particularly in regards to the Holocaust), shortly after German reunification the country saw a rise in attacks against racialized people and refugees as seen in Hoyerswerda (1991) and Rostock (1992). EARESJ rose up to resist this and challenge the Eurocentric portrayal of the post-1989 period. The group’s philosophies of resistance can be summed up in this flier featuring their slogan and “aims and objectives.” The slogan: “Don’t wait until the oven’s begin to burn. ACT NOW!” most obviously drew not only from the Holocaust, but also from a Malcolm X quote. The African American revolutionary had visited Smethwick in the West Midlands in February 1965 days before his assassination. Smethwick had recently been the site of one of the most racist political campaigns in 1964 when the future Conservative MP Peter Griffiths relied on the conservative rallying cry: “ If you want an n–word for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour,” to win his electoral seat. In response Malcolm X told reporters “I have come…because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly…they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler…I would not wait for the fascist elements in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.” By linking contemporary racism with that of the Holocaust and a significant historical moment in the transnational Black liberation struggle, EARESJ demonstrated that fortress Europe was not new, but rather something rooted in the long histories of European racism and colonialism. (see image below)

George Padmore Institute: GB 2904 EAC/1/2/3

You were also a member of the 2022-2023 cohort of UCSC’s Social Science Research Council-Dissertation Proposal Development program. How did participating in the SSRC-DPD program help you in your research and writing process? Why is it important to have a structured cohort of peers as you move through graduate school?

[The SSRC-DPD program’s] importance laid in bringing together grad students, which is no small feat considering how grad school can often be a stressful and isolating experience! 

My big takeaway from the SSRC-DPD program is not even the various workshops and guest speakers, but really the community! It was for one, an important space that brought together emergent scholars from different disciplines such as history, feminist studies, anthropology, HAVC, musicology, sociology, and many others. While I believe in the power of some of the tools history can provide (when used correctly of course), it was extremely beneficial to learn from people engaged in different fields! Furthermore, and most importantly, a lot of us were either in the midst of stressful qualifying exams, so it was a space to vent and encourage one another. I even came out making some lifelong friends! Overall to me, its importance laid in bringing together grad students, which is no small feat considering how grad school can often be a stressful and isolating experience! 

Finally, can you share your favorite spot in Santa Cruz?

Any of the freeway exits leading out of town. 

Banner Image: Black and white photograph of The George Padmore Institute (GPI) Archive