Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Open letter to the London Review of Books

Posted by Professor Achille Mbembe
19th July 2010

To the Editor,
With its stress on its own 'depth and scholarship and good writing' and its 'unmatched international reputation', the LRB has a responsibility to maintain high standards if it is to retain its enviable position of having the 'largest circulation of any literary magazine in Europe'.

We find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist. In a particularly egregious recent post on the LRB blog, 'After the World Cup', 6 July 2010, Johnson, astonishingly, makes a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He follows this with another between 'local black shopkeepers' and rottweilers. He concludes with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons.

Whilst it might be unfair to pick on a man for his inability to be funny, we believe that it would be wholly wrong to stay silent when he resorts to peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes that the LRB editorial team deems fit to publish. (Indeed, we note from the comments that at some point the post was edited – and yet, in our opinion, it still remains an appalling and racist piece of writing.)

In the particular arena of football, some fans do not need to be encouraged to produce racist abuse. Across Europe for many years, black players have been spat at, subjected to racist chants often including references to monkeys or apes, and have been the focus of monkey chanting noises during matches. Neo-Nazi groups have also been known to use football matches as target areas for recruiting new members and promoting their racist practice. (How ironic that when Johnson does decide to write about ‘Football and Fascism’, 11 July 2010, he produces a piece about Italy that reveals the dearth of his knowledge.)

While South Africa has made great strides, overturning the racist politics of the National Party, it still has a long way to go in combating the racism that thrives among certain communities and individuals. Elsewhere, in the UK for example, this is no time for complacency about attitudes to race. Although British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, may have been humiliated at the recent General Elections, his party now has two MEPs. Let’s not forget that young black men in this country are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than young white men, and they comprise a disproportionate number of the prison population.

We are deeply concerned that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published in the magazine and now, in the blog too. And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive.

Yours sincerely,
Diran Adebayo, writer & academic, Lancaster University
Patience Agbabi, poet
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist & writer
Candace Allen, writer, journalist & broadcaster
Cristel Amiss, coordinator, Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Baffour Ankomah, editor, New African
Nana Ayebia Clarke, publisher, Ayebia
Pete Ayrton, publisher, Serpent’s Tail
Sharmilla Beezmohun, deputy editor, Wasafiri
Benedict Birnberg
Professor Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford
Professor Patrick Bond, University of Kwazulu-Natal
Victoria Brittain, writer & journalist
Dr Margaret Busby OBE, publisher & writer
Teju Cole, writer
Eleanor Crook, sculptor & academic, University of the Arts
Fred D’Aguiar, writer
Dr David Dibosa, academic
Kodwo Eshun, The Otolith Group
Gareth Evans, writer, editor, curator
Katy Evans-Bush, poet
Bernardine Evaristo MBE, writer
Nuruddin Farah, writer
Professor Maureen Freely, writer & academic, University of Warwick
Kadija George, publisher, Sable LitMag
Professor Paul Gilroy, London School of Economics
Professor Peter Hallward, Kingston University London
M John Harrison, writer
Stewart Home, writer
Michael Horovitz, poet
Professor Aamer Hussein, writer & academic, University of Southampton
Professor John Hutnyk, Goldsmiths
Dr Sean Jacobs, The New School
Selma James, coordinator, Global Women’s Strike
Gus John, associate professor, Institute of Education, University of London
Anthony Joseph, poet & novelist
Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright & broadcaster
Candida Lacey, publisher, Myriad Editions
Alexis Lykiard, writer
Firoze Manji, editor in chief, Pambazuka News
Shula Marks, emeritus professor, School of Oriental & African Studies
Professor Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand & Duke University
Dr China MiƩville, writer & academic,
Professor David Morley, University of Warwick
Professor Susheila Nasta, editor, Wasafiri
Courttia Newland, writer
Dr Alastair Niven OBE, principal, Cumberland Lodge
Dr Zoe Norridge, University of Oxford
Dr Deirdre Osborne, Goldsmiths
Lara Pawson, journalist & writer
Pascale Petit, poet
Caryl Phillips, writer
Dr Nina Power, Roehampton University
Jeremy Poynting, managing editor, Peepal Tree Press
Gary Pulsifer, publisher, Arcadia Books
Michael Rosen, poet
Anjalika Sagar, The Otolith Group
Richard Seymour, writer & activist
Dr George Shire, reviews editor, Soundings
Professor David Simon, Royal Holloway
Keith Somerville, Brunel University
Colin Stoneman, editorial coordinator, Journal of Southern African Studies
George Szirtes, poet & translator
Dr Alberto Toscano, Goldsmiths
Professor Megan Vaughan, University of Cambridge
Patrick Vernon, chief executive, The Afiya Trust
Professor Dennis Walder, Open University
Verna Wilkins, writer & publisher, Tamarind Books
Dr Patrick Wilmot, writer & journalist
Adele Winston
Professor Brian Winston, University of Lincoln
Dr Leo Zeilig, University of the Witwatersrand
PLEASE NOTE: Institutions are named for identification purposes only


Gus Gosling said...

Rubbish. Johnson did not make a comparison between baboons and migrants, you did. Projection, maybe? Johnson's post has now been taken down at the LRB so only your shrill, deeply misleading, letter of protest remains. Which is probably what you intended.

Thomas Michael Blaser said...

The blog has been pulled from the LRB site and I trust I did not miss much. The piece below by Terry Eagleton on the World Cup should make for more insightful reading.


Chanda @ Disordered Cosmos said...

Did anyone save a copy of the blog post? It has been taken down, and I would like to see what this letter is about. Thanks!

Lara Pawson said...

We now have a piece up in the Guardian (UK) by Gary Younge and an apology from the LRB on their blog. I have a copy of the blog post, so if anyone would like it, please get in touch.

Lara Pawson said...

Gus: The comparison is there for all to see. In the second paragraph of the piece, RWJ wrote: 'they, too,' etc etc. The link is explicit with that small three-letter word: too. Why not read Gary's article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/21/protest-lrb-blogpost
That way you can avoid having to eat your own words, as did Mary-Kay Wilmers. Moreover, if you do not understand juxtaposition, perhaps you shouldn't be reading esteemed literary journals like the LRB in the first place.

Gus Gosling said...

Laura, as you make plain in your letter of complaint, your issue with Johnson is much larger than one particular, hastily written, blog-post. It's really about your annoyance at there being any diversity of thought at the LRB; Johnson has long occupied space that you and your consigners somehow feel belongs to you --- your sense of entitlement is amusing. Johnson is not a racist. Johnson is not a xenophobe. For readers who take those facts as context (Wilmers, myself, almost anyone without an ideological axe to grind....) your letter seems hysterical. (Your final snipe appears to be in character: petty and snide.)

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