What happens when we lose our birdsongs?

African History Project - Preview, Social - Vertis Hayes copy

What happens when we lose our birdsongs?

A casual saunter through veiled histories, mistrustful cities, and the damned sciences


Where I went
Oslo, Norway

What I saw
Niilas Helander’s “No Demands”
and the ASSATA activists’ library
both at KUNSTHALL OSLO

What I read
Reginald M J Oduor’s 
“Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought: The Struggle for Disciplinary Identity in the Era of the Near-Hegemonic Natural and Social Sciences” 
in Philosophia Africana


Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a longtime friend in Oslo, Norway. This is my second visit to the city, the first being in 2014. I remarked to her that the city has changed so much. I wasn’t talking about the architecture but about the racial diversity. She didn’t agree.

As a Pakistani-Norwegian, Oslo has always been for her a diverse and cosmopolitan city. I now think that perhaps it is not that the city is more diverse but maybe on my 2014 trip I was less race conscious. In the post-George-Floyd-current-Black-Lives-Matter era that we live in, perhaps I have become more sensitive about the racial dynamics of space. That, or perhaps, Oslo really is a more racially diverse place than it was previously. 

As my first post-pandemic overseas trip, I wasn’t my usual culture-fiend self and found enough “culture” and excitement in spending long days exploring the veritable cornucopia of hiding places that make up Oslo’s main library. My friend told me it had been awarded public library of the year in a Europe or world-wide poll, I don’t remember. In any case I would absolutely endorse this finding! The openness, freedom, and latent trust of the space, with open shelving throughout, no mafioso noise and coffee cup police, no crazy registration requirements or rules about the use of pens (#TheBritishLibrary) meant that it was one of the most intellectually freeing spaces I have been in in a long while. However, it highlighted to me the nuance and power of culture. It made me realise that Britain’s is not a “free” culture: spaces are overwhelmed by underlying mistrust, fear, and the constant need to prove your right to inhabit a space. Libraries and educational spaces above all.

African History Project - Vertis Hayes - Pursuit of Happiness 1 copy
A mural by the African American artist Vertis Hayes, from his series “Pursuit of Happiness”, painted on the walls of the Harlem Hospital and completed in 1937. I included this mural to encourage a reflection of what it means to be in a space. The murals were so important because they allowed African Americans to exist in spaces in more than one capacity – not merely as service providers and service users but as knowledge producers through the adorning of the walls with the cultural productions of the African American community. That the pieces depict scenes from African American history further adds to the being in space, as the are becomes a public historical discourse, weaving a narrative that then exists in the space independent of any person.

Oslo’s main library was indeed a diverse melting pot of Europeans and Africans and Asians. Many times I imagined I was in London, until I saw the guy in the corner playing a library-provided electronic piano while respectfully wearing the accompanying headphones, and the lady chowing down on an egg sandwich in the bay of desks opposite me making sure to keep her library issued books at bay from her falling crumbs and mayonnaise. From these curtesies I knew I was not in London, such trust to respect stuff and space is just not afforded to the human in the Anglo-Saxon imagining of our public selves. 

But I was reminded of the need to not mistake visual diversity or the perhaps more respectful public conduct of the Scandinavian for a heightened capacity to engage with “the other” when my friend finally managed to drag me to a gallery. The main exhibition on display a KUNSTHALL OSLO documented the loss of language, land, and life of the Sámi people, long suffering the effects of subjugation by northern Germanic, Finnish, and Russian peoples. The stripped back exhibition presented unscalable barriers to entry for someone from outside the region and unfamiliar with the racial and cultural dynamics of the arctic peninsula. Basically someone like me. The gallerist was superb however. A Dane, he confessed his own prior ignorance of the history of the Sámi under Scandinavian suzerainty as well as Denmark’s one-time colonial supremacy in the Caribbean. 

The latter was particularly interesting to me as so much of my work centres on the life and work of esteemed statesman, abolitionist, and de-colonial thinker Dr Edward Blyden. He was a native of St Thomas, which was a Danish colony at the time of his birth, though Dutch and English were more widely spoken than the Danish of the “official” rulers of the island. The gallerist rose to the occasion and was able to guide me into Niilas Helander’s exhibition “No Demands” after which I could appreciate the depth of reckoning that the artist was demanding.

A mural by the African American artist Vertis Hayes, from his series “Pursuit of Happiness”, painted on the walls of the Harlem Hospital and completed in 1937.

One piece, a recording of the song of the critically endangered bird, the regent honeyeater of southeastern Australia, was particularly poignant. With not enough older males to teach the younger males their birdsong, the male regent honeyeaters are losing their song, mis-learning the songs of other birds instead. As a result, speaking a foreign language so to speak, the male regent honeyeaters are unable to attract females and reproduction is in steep decline. Taking this all in while staring at the text pasted to the gallery wall of the law passed at some point instructing Norwegian teachers to prohibit Sámi children from speaking their indigenous languages made the point: don’t look at the beautiful colours of the beautiful feathers and skins of the people who have been let into the spaces, ask them first to sing their songs. When all you get in response is silence, garbled nonsense, or your own song in response, then you’ll know the true measure of the diversity you perceive. It’s not that deep.

This call to confront the accolades collected for changing the look of things by facing the realities of the losses on the other side was further drummed in by what was peeking out of one of the corners of the gallery. Having arrived ready to explore Norwegian culture, I was surprised to find my people peppering the walls of the space. The first two rows of the ASSATA activists’ library, currently in residence at KUNSTHALL OSLO, once again made me feel I was back in London, but this time in my own apartment, staring at the shelves of my own personal library. Scaling the walls with my eyes brought me into visual conversation with the works of intellectuals from Africa, the Arab world, south and central America, and south Asia. It is a collection of the works of the global majority, says one of the curators. The gallerist tells me that what makes the collection particularly poignant is that most of the works are not currently available for purchase or loan in any of Oslo’s bookstores or libraries. 

I felt I had been a participant in a fraud. There I had been moments before, scanning the multi-storied intellectual haven of the Oslo library, listening to the melodies of the Somali school children teaching each other science, and the Arab scholars on every row scribbling away, and the Indian entrepreneurs discussing the potential of Oslo’s coffee scene. Nothing compelled me to actually check whether any of these peoples were actually on the shelves, not solely decorating the bays of tables surrounding them. Were their intellectual productions as valued as the colours they brought to the space, and the bodies they brought to the jobs that no one wants to do anymore? And what had they lost to get in there? The electronic piano is pretty cool, but what of the birdsongs of all the people taking space in Oslos intellectual jungles? Did they have to abandon their song before entering like the law in Helander’s installation reminds us?

African History Project - Assata Library, Oslo, Norway
Assata Activists’ Library, Oslo, Norway

The ASSATA library is a particularly interesting project for me because it is run by a multi-cultural team of women. The team reflects the diversity I saw on the streets of Oslo but these bodies are fighting against silence. They refuse to learn just the songs of others and are using their diversity to ensure that their songs, the histories and philosophies of their ancestors, are brought into the spaces their bodies pepper. I hope to be able to invite the ASSATA team to the AHP soon to discuss their work and why the preservation of the intellectual “birdsongs” of the global majority is so important to them. 

Their passion, like that of Helander, to prevent erasure in all forms is truly inspiring and brings home the existential crises faced not just by physical bodies, but by ideas and even consciousnesses. In this post-George-Floyd-current-Black-Lives-Matter era that we live in, one cannot deny the push to fill up spaces with more colour. But we also cannot deny that there is a challenge in allowing people, once inside, to be themselves, to sing their songs so to speak. 

As a historian I experience this in what I perceive as the erasure of the African voice in the western historical tradition. African history in the western academy has always been a thorny issue. Western academics are just beginning to show an ability to distinguish between colonial and imperial history on the one hand, and African history proper on the other. This battle was famously fought between two competing anthologies on African history, the first produced by a European-led team for the University of Cambridge Press, and the other produced by an African-led team under the auspices of UNESCO. What the UNESCO masterpiece aimed to show was not just that the Cambridge offering took the wrong perspective, but that it took the wrong methodology. It may have sought to make space for Africa on the shelves of libraries but it did not actually make space for the African’s mind, in this case the African philosophy of history. 

African History Project - Apeike Umolu

“Oduor offers us not only a defence of the humanities, and particularly of the philosophical method, against an assault by the sciences, but his defence is of humanity itself as a dynamic organism engaged in multimodal knowledge production”

– Apeike Umolu

For me, this is part of a wider denigration of history in the academy that poses a deeper existential threat to the African than it does to anyone else. I would go so far as to say that historical methodology itself is facing an existential crisis due to an extreme aversion to history in the academy. The result is that the African experience is becoming solely the preserve of the social scientist, with all his “development” complexes. Chronically underfunded and atomised by area studies departments that glut on the economy of Africa’s perpetual poverty, history options at university level pepper rather than form any meaningful part of African Studies programmes. It is a wonder that anyone wants to study African history at all as so deep is the “knowledge” of the history undergraduate that she will never actually use her degree. This reflects a complete devaluing of the historical method as an mode of intellectual enquiry, not to mention what it suggests about the value of the actual historical narratives produced. History is a major consideration within the Black Consciousness intellectual tradition which I explore in my upcoming book on Black Consciousness, as well as an important aspect of the explorations of culture and identity demanded by Pan-African theories of liberation, something I touched on in my open letter to the participants of the 2022 Pan-African Youth Conference, of which I was one of the Chairs.

But this is not a problem faced just by historians, according to philosopher Dr Reginald M J Oduor, all African knowledge production is under the tyranny of the social scientist: ‘Philosophers who inquire into indigenous African thought must undertake their investigations utilizing the various techniques of philosophical reflection without succumbing to pressure to adopt the empirical methodology of the social sciences’ urges Oduor [Oduor (2021), 154]. There is no secret in the fact that it is widely felt that the current hegemony of the sciences poses an existential threat to the humanities. While I am loathe to succumb to the doctrine of incessant delineation and specialisation that accompanies the western intellectual tradition, as a historian I have long felt “terrorised” by the sciences with their dogmas and pathologies of truth. These are often no less onerous than what intellectuals of previous eras must have felt under the tyrannies of various theologies. 

It is important to note that this position is not masking any deep-rooted insecurity about my mathematical or scientific ability as some may imagine. In a past life I studied mechanical engineering, and I spent many years as a banking and finance lawyer funding large-scale engineering, energy, and infrastructure projects in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Thus, I would firmly categorise “the way I think” as being “mathematical”, but I abhor still the tyranny of the natural and social scientists and our society’s granting to them of a monopoly on truth. No one way, as no one language, no one culture, can hold all the possible truths of humanity. 

African History Project - Vertis Hayes - Pursuit of Happiness 2 copy
A mural by the African American artist Vertis Hayes, from his series “Pursuit of Happiness”, painted on the walls of the Harlem Hospital and completed in 1937.

Thus, Oduor offers us not only a defence of the humanities, and particularly of the philosophical method, against an assault by the sciences, but his defence is of humanity itself as a dynamic organism engaged in multimodal knowledge production. The assault I speak of seeks to strip all which is not empirical of its value, something that strikes more potently at the heart of African knowledge production than others given, the African’s deeper embracing of the psychological and the spiritual in her systems of knowledge production. 

Perhaps we can take encouragement from the position taken by the philosopher Claude Ake who held that ‘far from being an objective enterprise, the social sciences are actually a reflection of Western imperialism’ [Oduor (2021), 157]. The result is that, according to V Y Mudimbe, ‘until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order’ [as quoted in, Oduor (2021), 158]. Oduor, like me, frames the issue in existential terms, noting that science is so “dangerous” because of the notion that ‘only claims that can be verified empirically are meaningful’ [Oduor (2021), 155]. He further holds that the battle is thus an epistemological one – by erasing the challenger epistemologies afforded by the historical and the philosophical, the scientific can present its theory of truth as truth itself and perpetuate the dichotomies and sub-humanisms of a social science tradition that has ‘sought to present [its] methodology as the only one with potential to generate reliable knowledge on African realities’ [Oduor (2021), 154].

All of this is to say that in putting up a defence against the reductions born of imperialism, we cannot be content with the superficial colouring of things. We must accept our susceptibility to learning false-songs and singing them proudly imagining we are providing some kind of representation when we are in fact facilitating our own cultural and intellectual deaths. We must challenge both the content and the philosophy of things; not just what is in spaces but who can be a knowledge producer within them. We cannot be merely the fodder stock of the spaces and sciences that shelter and study us. We must be allowed to think, and create, and add to, and take away, and defend ourselves from falling away. And we cannot be content simply with peopling other people’s spaces, we must be space creators ourselves, holding our cities, libraries, galleries, and intellectual practices to the highest standards of what it means to participate. I wish not to just pepper desks and discourses but to find room in the intellectual and cultural sub-structures to sing my ailing birdsong.

References

Oduor, Reginald. Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought: The Struggle for Disciplinary Identity in the Era of the Near-Hegemonic Natural and Social Sciences. Philosophia Africana. 2021

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