Completing my Patchwork Quilt

Frederick Douglass

I remember I was around 10 years old and living in the Netherlands. My teacher was telling us about justice and about heroes. She talked about Ghandi and about Mother Theresa but when she talked about Martin Luther King Jr (MLK), it made a deep impression on me. I went home and I asked my family to tell me more about MLK. Who was he, what was he fighting for and why was he killed? My family passed me well-used copies of Coming of Age in Mississippi, From Superman to Man and Blues for Mister Charlie. The pages smelled musty and were yellowed with age and the covers were marked with coffee stains but I did not mind. Over the next years, I read and read and I became fascinated with African-American history and the history of the civil rights movement. Later, at law school in Scotland, I went on to study the role of lawyers in this movement, I learned about the NAACP Legal Defence Fund and people like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and the struggle for equal protection under the constitution.

My interest was not fortuitous. Many second and third generation Black Europeans like myself feel a void in our cultural identity. Although we have links to the culture of our parents (be that African or Caribbean) and links to our birth countries (be it France, the UK or Poland), neither of these bonds seems strong enough to create a fully-fledged sense of identity as a “Black European”. Many of us fill up this void with snippets of African-American culture and history like squares in patchwork quilt. We rely on these well-rehearsed tales of heroism, suffering and courage and use them as a source of personal strength, purpose and meaning.

So when Fulbright-Schuman gave me the opportunity to go to the US and learn more about civil rights and public interest law and how these US traditions have been transported to Europe, I saw the journey as something of a pilgrimage. It was a chance to visit the land of my childhood and teenage idols and pay my respect. The journey has not disappointed.

Wall St

New York – The Great American Traditions of Philanthropy and Cultural Exchange

I spent the first three months of my Fulbright-Schuman exchange at New York University Law School. The bustling and cosmopolitan campus of NYU in the heart of the city was a fantastic base for my research program in New York. In a city that never sleeps (although good luck finding pizza in Brooklyn after 2am), NYU’s monastic and cavernous underground law library is surprisingly conducive to deep contemplation, writing and research.

With NYU as my de-facto office, I first ventured out to Wall Street and to the offices of PILNet (a public interest law organisation central to my research that has done a great deal to promote the American civil rights and public interest law traditions in Europe). From there I went on to the Rockefeller Archive Centre in upstate New York to learn about the history of the Ford Foundation.

From visiting the offices of PILnet, talking to staff and meeting the PILnet fellows I was impressed by the strong commitment of the Americans I met to cultural exchange. These days, Americans are too often criticised for their cultural imperialism and hegemony and limited awareness of the culture and history of other parts of the world. My experience proved this narrative entirely inaccurate. PILnet is dedicated to identifying local human rights champions and cultures all over the globe and providing a nurturing environment for them. PILnet listens very carefully to what these local champions need to fight corruption in the Philippines or gender violence in Russia. They do not impose an agenda, but seek to supplement local talent and passion and channel US expertise to places where it can add real value.

This impression was bolstered by my visits to the Rockefeller Archive Centre. Although the US tradition of philanthropy is justifiably contentious for many reasons, through talking to the friendly archivists and other researchers at the centre I have learned that foundations like the Rockefeller Fund and Ford have played a pivotal role in supporting the development of national health systems in South East Asia, eradicating communicable diseases in South America and promoting equal access to justice in South Africa and Eastern Europe. Again, the familiar narrative of US imperialism was very quickly deposed. The archives revealed that these Americans had thought deeply about their mission and were acutely aware of the dangers. They listened carefully to local actors and took note of their needs and tried to add value often in a very delicate and considerate fashion.

Washington DC – The Changing Face of the African-American Progressive Movement

While in New York, I learned that the NAACP (which I had been so fascinated with in my youth) was organising a historic 1000 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC: a journey for justice. The march was to promote a national advocacy campaign arguing for the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. I had to go! Unfortunately, a 1000-mile walk with my 10-month old son would have been equivalent to self-sacrifice (my commitment to justice has a limit!). So, my wife, brother and a friend decided to make the drive down to DC for the culmination of the March at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite a disappointingly low turnout (this was no March on Washington – only a couple hundred people showed up rather than a couple hundred thousand), everyone seemed to be there to give a speech, from Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to the head of the Sierra Club Legal Defence Fund.

It was amazing to hear the incredible oratory skills of NAACP head, Cornell William Brooks but the soaring oratory style seemed out of place in light of the patchy crowd, half listening and half cowering from the hot, hot sun. I was sad to see what appeared to be a hollowed progressive movement lacking the energy and sheer force of numbers that I had seen in television footage of the March on Washington. Was racial justice no longer a problem in the US, were African Americans and American progressives too apathetic to take to the streets? Where was everyone?! I would soon find out.

Before heading back to New York, my gang of family and friends decided to stop off first at the various Washington monuments (including a brief encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the founders of international human rights) and then at the historic African-American University, Howard. Howard was established shortly after the American Civil War as an institution to educate African Americans. It was pivotal to the work of my heroes like Charles Hamilton Houston (who was Dean of the law school) and Thurgood Marshall (who is an alumni). Today the student body remains almost entirely African-American and we marvelled at the well turned-out, bright-eyed new freshmen that looked ecstatic to be among a warm community of intelligent and driven young individuals.

Yet I left DC still wondering about the fate of the African-American progressive movement. I found out the answer on my return to New York where I attended an event at Columbia Law School to promote Rise Up October. The event aimed at bringing attention to police violence; specifically the deaths of multiple black and brown women and men at the hands of the police. The speakers included Cornel West and Kimberlé Crenshaw. The contrast in atmosphere between the NAACP march in DC and the Rise Up October event in NYC was like night and day. The event in New York was full of fire and passion; the audience members hollered, howled and hallelujahed. They chanted the names of the dead, over and over and over, as if to will them back into existence or at least burn them into the conscience of all who were present. Cornell West admonished the Black Columbia students, saying that what was needed now was love and compassion not smartness and personal achievement: “we need more than colourful faces in high places!” he yelled.

I learned a great deal about the new face of African-American progressivism which seems to have moved beyond a call for inclusion towards a focus on the most impoverished, marginalised and structurally abused members of society. The election of President Obama brought a great deal of progress but also rendered irrelevant all the achievements and struggle that had made such an election possible. That is just history now as the central thrust of the fight for African-American justice has settled elsewhere on more thorny issues that require much hard work and sacrifice ahead.

Savannah/Charleston – A Country Founded on Race

My US pilgrimage would have been incomplete without a journey to the Deep South. My wife, my infant son and I decided to take five days out of my busy NYC research schedule to visit Savannah and Charleston. The trip completely revised my understanding of the United States as a nation. We visited plantations like Wormsloe with its beautiful but haunting avenue of Oak trees and Boone Hall with its eerie reconstructed slave cabins. We visited the Pin Point Heritage Museum and learned all about Gullah culture (which made a very big impression on me given my father is from West Africa) and the Slave Mart Museum on the site of the most significant slave auction in the US.

This trip completely opened my eyes to the significance of race in US history and culture. I had thought the African-American story was an important but marginal story in American history. I now see it as the central story. I learned that America is a country that simply could not have existed without the contribution of slaves. This contribution and the relations between the races have defined this nation, its politics, laws and culture ever since. Today, racial and ethnic minorities surpass non-Hispanic whites as the largest group of American children under 5 years old and so the story of race relations looks set to continue to shape this nation for the foreseeable future.

UCLA

Los Angeles – A Little Time for Fun and Sun

After my first three and half months in NYC, my family and I relocated to Los Angeles where I am conducting my research at University of California Los Angeles for the second part of my exchange program – a welcome relief. The beautiful UCLA campus with its aromatic pine trees and rolling green lawns is a haven of sunshine and tranquillity compared to the hustle of NYC. Ok, traffic sucks. Every journey takes at least twice as long as Google Maps says it will take. Nevertheless, a trip to the beach at Santa Monica will put everything into perspective. I remember that life is truly wonderful and I am hugely lucky and grateful to have such an opportunity to visit this fascinating nation.

But I can’t reflect for too long! Now, I must look forward to returning to Europe in the New Year where I will build on all that I have learned here in the US. Working not only on my PhD research but also at the EU Public Interest Clinic in Paris and my new NGO, TheGoodLobby, I hope to borrow from the US experience and bring new models of civic engagement and public interest work to Europe. It won’t be easy; Europe has a very different story (multiple very different stories). But a bit of cultural exchange and a bit of borrowing here and there can help complete our European narrative… just like squares in patchwork quilt.

– Lamin Khadar (European University Instiute)

2015-2016 Fulbright-Schuman grantee