Ken Olende

Harriet

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Harriet Tubman became legendary in her lifetime as “Moses” who led so many of her people out of slavery to freedom. She was the leading “conductor” on the Underground Railroad escape route that ran in the 1850s.

Many risked their lives guiding or sheltering escaped slaves, but Tubman, who had escaped herself in 1849, went further — personally returning to Maryland to lead escape parties. She personally took at least 70 slaves out and gave instructions that allowed another 50 to escape.

Obituary: Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina

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Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–2019) was part of a new generation of African writers who grew up after the radicalism of the independence struggles and the highs of Pan-Africanism and African Socialism in the 1960s and 1970s. He has died after a short illness aged 48.

His writing was subtle and critical. In an article on the terrible ethnic violence in the slums of Kenya’s capital Nairobi after the 2007 elections he recalled going there earlier to write an article on the spread of plastic bags:

Richard II

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This production of Shakespeare’s history play is entirely produced, directed and performed by non-white women — a first for a production on a major British stage. The costumes, set and music are non-specific, sometimes African, Arabic or Indian. Around the theatre are banners made from photos of the cast’s ancestors from across the world.

The play concerns the emerging national identity and it is fascinating how different the many references to gender and race come across with this cast, raising a new commentary about their original meaning.

The Common Wind

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This is a worthy companion piece to CLR James’s Black Jacobins, which immortalised Toussaint L’Ouverture and the successful slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1790s. The book’s core brings to life the everyday resistance that often gets lost when recording revolutions. The slave owners were terrified of the slaves’ endlessly creative ways of spreading news. The existence across the Caribbean of “masterless” free black people made it harder for owners to control their slaves.

The Zulus and war

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It was refreshing to read Barry Conway’s article on the Zulu victory at Isandlwana in South Africa (January SR).

It can’t be overemphasized that the British were defeated because of racist arrogance. Lord Chelmsford, leading the British invasion, couldn’t conceive of the Zulus as a serious enemy. So he didn’t follow standard procedure and set up a defensive perimeter around his camp, and then he fell for a clever trap set by the militarily experienced Zulus, drawing away most of his best troops.

Get your queens right

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John Newsinger is right to make links between Donald Trump and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (October SR), but he has mixed up his queens. Both quotes he gives are from the befuddled White Queen. The Queen of Hearts representing petulant, blind fury comes out with the very Trump-like, “Off with their heads.”

Ken Olende
London

Samir Amin: a lifelong critic of capitalism

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Samir Amin, who died in August, was a leading Marxist thinker in the Global South. Unlike many of his contemporaries he did not retreat from radicalism with the collapse of the “communist” east. In the period since the millennium he threw himself into the World Social Forum.

Amin was born in Egypt in 1931, to an Egyptian father and a French mother. His parents were both doctors. He went to university in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to Egypt as a member of the Communist Party during the excitement and ferment of radical nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule.

Luke Cage, season 2

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Harlem super hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has cleared his name, but is broke and wondering whether to accept a sponsorship deal from Nike as the show’s second season opens.

The first season came out before the film Black Panther with its largely black cast and concerns. In fact it links much more into the radical traditions of black nationalism, Malcolm X and the Panthers. Unlike Black Panther, Luke Cage is not rich. Another character says “just because you’re woke, you don’t have to be broke!”, advising him to become a “hero for hire”.

Ambalavaner Sivanandan, 1923-2018

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Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who died on 3 January, was the director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and one of the most important anti-racist activists and intellectuals in Britain.

Sivanandan talked and wrote on all aspects of racism in an anti-imperialist, Marxist framework. He spoke out strongly against the idea of celebrating fixed ethnic or racial communities as the basis for fighting racism. He said that the fight must come out of “communities of resistance” — people who came together and thus defined themselves as a community in the fight against racism.

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