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Q&A with Max Liboiron, Author of Pollution Is Colonialism

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron is Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University. Their new book is Pollution Is Colonialism, which models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.

 

You incorporate Indigenous theory and first-person ethnography into your multi-genre book; at the same time, you hold that your book is a guide for settler and non-Indigenous scientists and readers as well as Indigenous ones. How did you write your book with both audiences in mind, and why is it important that your book be understood as such?

At first, I didn’t. Many young(ish), Indigenous, and gender minority people in academia will be familiar with a set of interactions characteristic of “general” academic audiences: gas-lighting, being called biased, having work stolen and not cited, grandstanding, and other wild rudeness. That’s the audience the book originally anticipated, so the writing was often defensive. The first draft even ended with a manifesto called a “mani-no-no” that essentially told the audience not to steal or appropriate the content, which is an acute problem I have with my lab’s methodological work.

But Reviewer 2, who is definitely an Indigenous aunty, was like, “Honey, why did you invite me into this book if you were going to tell me to fuck off?” (not her exact words). With her guidance and with insights from other senior colleagues, I started to talk directly to Indigenous and other not-White, not-settler audiences that I wanted to be generous with, share jokes with, think with. The tricky part is that those different audiences share the page.

So, I decided to do two things. First, I explicitly address the issue of multiple, incommensurate audiences in text. For example, there’s a footnote in the introduction that talks about definitions of de/colonization, and how the one I use is oriented towards a general academic audience characterized by many white, settler audiences. Then I say hello, literally (“hello!) to those folks. It’s a stylistic strategy meant to show that some of the decisions in the text are because of specific audiences, and the greeting is a way to invest in those audiences and welcome them into the text.

The second move is to flag moments of refusal, make in-jokes, and use code-switching, code-meshing, and other techniques to signal different things to different audiences using the same words. Some readers will be fluent in those backroom conversations, while others will read things more literally. Some audiences will see where there is a moment of refusal and a direction not taken, while others will appreciate the many signposts. All are correct readings. Now it’s a more generous book without giving everything away. Thank you, Reviewer 2!

Like most scientists, you talk about methodology as an important part of your practice. However, in your case, you stress methodology as an “ethic.” What does that mean to you, exactly?

Pollution is ColonialismThe argument that methods are always an ethic isn’t my own argument—it’s an ancient concept that I’m just reminding folks of. People like Shawn Wilson and Linda Tuhiwai Smith say it best in their works, Research is Ceremony and Decolonizing Research, respectively. It’s actually odd that some cultures think epistemology (how you know the world), ontology (what the world is like), and axiology (being good in the world) are separated. That takes a lot of work! In one of my all-time favorite articles, “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans,” Vanessa Watts has written wonderfully about the weird method of separating those out in Western knowledge systems, which “removes the how and why out of the what,” leaving the world empty and ready for inscription as if it were born that way. Science and technology studies (STS) thinkers like Lorraine Daston write about objectivity as a key technique that tries to pry these things apart. I pitch in to this existing tradition.

You assert that colonization is about relations to land, and so “decolonization” is about transforming that relation to land. In your view, the appropriation of this term in other contexts, especially in revising university courses and syllabi, is itself colonial. Assuming that some thinkers might be resistant to this point, why is it nevertheless important that you make the point, and that your fellow thinkers be open to it?

Yes and no, but mostly yes. Colonization is a land relation, and land has place-based relations. That means there are many types of colonization, so there are many types of de/anti-colonization. In Canada, Métis are in a different set of colonial relations than Inuit. Indigenous people in Canada are in a different set of colonial relations than people in Africa, or those who were stolen from their lands in Africa and forced to the United States. So, it’s a bit cheeky to think there’s a stable and sorted definition of colonialism (or anti-/decolonization) that works across places.

But I do settle on a working definition that frames the text—that colonialism is about settler access to Indigenous land (which includes Indigenous ideas, cosmologies, and life) for settler goals, including benevolent ones. This definition comes out of the places I work and live, including white, settler-dominated academic spaces. It’s a definition that calls out entitlement to Indigenous lands, and establishes that if land relations aren’t changing then decolonization isn’t happening. Including more Indigenous people in an academic syllabus is a form of inclusion, and perhaps it is lovely on those grounds (or not—see Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins’ “Rethinking collaboration” on this point). But that inclusion leaves colonial land relations in place. I think this is why Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s text, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” is one of the touchstone articles for so many of us. They talk about when all the bad stuff—imperialism, racism, exclusion, sexism, being a jerk—is conflated with colonialism, then all the good stuff—inclusion, anti-racism, taking off your shoes at the front door—is conflated with decolonization. Which means “decolonial” actions rarely involve giving land back or addressing genocide. This, among other reasons, is why specificity is one of the core ethics of the book. It’s why I differentiate between anticolonialism (a whole host of things that don’t reproduce entitlement to Indigenous land and life) and decolonization (giving land back).

Your book offers a critique of some texts on plastic pollution and aligns with others. What are you trying to correct and align with? Why?

Some plastic pollution texts and activism align with anticolonial goals and impacts, and some align with colonial goals and impacts. When I started the book years ago, I assumed there would be lots of scientific case studies I would align against because of inherited colonial methods and values in science, and that I would align with more of the grassroots activism against plastics. I was surprised that the reverse was true.

While the book critiques dominant scientific concepts like assimilative capacity and “mismanaged waste” as reproducing colonial land relations, I also found that endocrinology studies led by white, settler scientists had good land relations that refuted an entitled access to land, bodies, and life. At the same time, I found myself aligning with the #SuckItAbleism movement that argues against banning plastic straws, since they show that universal eradication of any type remakes the world in a single image that never fits everyone and will always dispossess. I talk about how benevolent environmental goals like cleaning plastics off shorelines often assume access to Indigenous land without permission or consent. This work aligns with other Indigenous thinkers like Kyle Powys Whyte and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, among many others, who show that mainstream environmentalism foregrounds access to Indigenous land and its ability to produce value for settler desires and futures.

One of the characteristics of dominant systems, like colonialism, is that what it takes to be true, good, and right becomes so naturalized, so normal, that it is inherited as common sense. One of the reasons I think it’s important to analyze research and activism through the lens of colonialism and land relations is because things that can seem good in one register can still enact a single form of life to the eradication of others.

In addition to your position as an academic researcher, you’ve also been a university administrator, an artist, and an activist. Can you tell our readers more about how these roles relate to your research, if at all?

I’d like to focus on the administrator role. University admin, especially executive admin (what people mean when they say “the university”), is often assumed to be the opposite of activism and anticolonialism; but as someone who has been a professional activist for my entire adult life, I found admin to be the absolute best place to do lasting, systemic, and impactful anticolonial work. One premise of Pollution is Colonialism is that there is no blank slate, no terra nullius, no purity politics from which to do anticolonial work. The book takes up dominant environmental science and plastic pollution activism as its “compromised field,” but it works equally well in university administration. La paperson’s A Third University Is Possible is all about the uneven, not-fully-colonial spaces in universities, and it was one of the most useful activist texts I read as an administrator.

I was the Associate Vice President of Research at Memorial University for two years while I was finishing writing and revising Pollution is Colonialism. The everyday work of that administration not only used the main frameworks in the book, but actually led me to more nuanced understandings of those frameworks, including lessons of accountability, specificity, generalization over universalization, and the idea that all things have land relations (including paperwork). In fact, I would say that the new policy I headed on Indigenous research (which eliminated settler entitlement to do work on Indigenous land/spaces), the creation of the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Agreement (which brought good land relations into data management), and many of the funding priorities, terms of reference, and evaluation frameworks we put in place during that time do the work called for in Pollution is Colonialism far better than any of my science. My admin work was more place-based, more accountable, and more attuned to complex and competing ethics of land relations. As a researcher with academic freedom, I still get to pick through the problems I deal with, even if I opt for hard ones and important ones. As an administrator, things are hurled at you that are impossibly tangled and on fire, and you are accountable to them whether you would choose to deal with them or not. That makes for some acute learning, and some nuanced ethics.

It’s not a coincidence that Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) is a Vice-Chancellor, or that K. Wayne Yang (“Decolonization is not a Metaphor”) is a Provost, or that Chris Andersen (Métis) is a Dean. There are many critiques from Black and Indigenous thinkers that the work of anticolonialism and antiracism is not the labour of working on yourself, but the work of changing and reimagining systems. Administrative work is systems work.

Read the introduction to Pollution Is Colonialism for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21LBRN.

 

Poem of the Week

Our Poem of the Week is by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and is excerpted from the “Archive of Fire” section of M Archive. It reminds us of the importance of community and ceremony, and of being meaningfully, intentionally together. Thanks for tuning in to our final National Poetry Month feature! All our in-stock poetry titles are 50% off through May 7 with coupon SPRING21.

 

Gumbs_cover_front

they looked each other in the eyes every time and did not leave each

other without singing a prayer: the name or the wish. they learned to

add touching hands into the ritual, a tradition newly sacred after the

memory of the epidemic.

and of course none of that would have been possible if they didn’t

remember to look themselves in the eye every morning. or to chant

the name of the prayer. or to track their dreams for keeping and

sharing.

there is a sacredness to every day. every time.

it means again and again. it means all of us. it means this moment.

this time. you and me. we’re here.

which was something they would never again take for granted.*

* disciplined freedom capable of renovating the collective terms of our
engagement
. M. Jacqui Alexander, “Pedagogies of the Sacred,” Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 329.

 
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a poet, independent scholar, and activist. She is also the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and Dub: Finding Ceremony, both also published by Duke University Press; coeditor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines; and the founder and director of Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, an educational program based in Durham, North Carolina.

Q&A with Thomas Aiello, Author of The Life and Times of Louis Lomax

Thomas_Aiello_4

Thomas Aiello is Associate Professor of History at Valdosta State University and the author of many books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand and The Grapevine of the Black South. His new book is The Life and Times of Louis Lomax: The Art of Deliberate Disunity, which traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur. 

David L. Chappell has called your book a “thrilling adventure story,” in addition to a “great intellectual biography.” How do you merge these two genres? That is, how do you work to craft a biography that is stylistically enjoyable for the reader?

It certainly helps to have a subject who lived an interesting life. Louis Lomax was a public intellectual, but also a media personality hungry for fame, a criminal, a crusading advocate for civil rights, and someone who lied consistently about his past. His life was itself an adventure, making telling an enjoyable story about it far easier. It is rare that a public intellectual like Lomax would become involved in the kinds of pursuits in which he was engaged. The most interesting part of his story is not evaluating his ideas, though the book certainly does that, but in figuring out why he thought what he thought and did what he did. It is ultimately that “why” question that combines the adventure story with the intellectual biography. Lomax’s thought and his strategy for relaying it to the public was shaped by his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, of lying about his college career, of his conviction for car theft and fraud, of his hustling journalism efforts, and of his desire for the limelight. Melding those stories with the ideas such experiences created is what merges the genres and makes the story enjoyable.

Why has Lomax been left out of the civil rights narrative of the 1960s? What are the stakes of incorporating him into that narrative?

Lomax has largely been given short shrift in discussions of civil rights because most of the era’s well-known figures staked out a position and defended it in the public sphere. Lomax’s position, however, was in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to pin down where he stood on various issues at various times without a full-length study like this one. Also, he was never part of a specific rights organization. He was a media personality that sometimes worked behind the scenes to help various causes and at other times worked to publicize them through his writing and his television and radio program.

When he does appear in civil rights narratives, then, he does so tangentially, because without a full understanding of his life, his influence, and his changing positions, it is difficult for most civil rights historians to pin down exactly where he fits. Hopefully this book can change that. Hopefully it demonstrates how important Lomax was to the trajectory of the movement. The stakes of that addition are significant because civil rights groups, whether the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other group in between them on the ideological spectrum, could have no substantial influence without the media. Lomax’s access to public platforms gave him the ability to publicize messages he cared about, to give louder voice to those he deemed worthy. In the process, he served as a (sometimes unreliable) gatekeeper for the messages of civil rights advocacy. Both as a thinker who helped develop the messages presented by advocates and as a vehicle to popularize those messages, Lomax was vital to the development of civil rights in the 1960s.

Can you summarize “the art of deliberate disunity,” as Lomax preached it? What might it have to offer our current political moment?

“The art of deliberate disunity” is a phrase coined by Lomax in a 1963 speech. He made the case that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.” He criticized the idea that all civil rights victories were made equal, and that there was one right answer to the problem of Black equality in the United States. He saw as healthy the differences of opinion between, for example, his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Such disputes spurred innovation, which only benefited the movement writ large. If civil rights advocates only thought in a bifurcated way about “what we think” and about “what white people think,” the diversity of Black thought  would get reduced to a lowest common denominator. By cultivating good faith debates among Black leaders, the art of deliberate disunity better respected the variety of Black opinions and demonstrated a version of democracy among a group seeking democracy from those in power. If we force everyone into a monolithic way of thinking, he argued, we are no better than white leaders.

It is an idea that does potentially have something to offer our current political moment, wherein warring factions are divided into separate camps, never the twain shall meet. Lomax, were he still around, would argue that the bigotry of the right and the push for ideological orthodoxy on the left create similar problems. The modern civil rights movement, Lomax would argue, needs to foster more internal debates about strategy and about goals. Such is not a weakness, but a democratic benefit that serves as a driver of creative growth.

In your account, Lomax has made a lasting impact both in terms of his contributions to Black journalism and his resistance against global colonialism. How exactly have these two projects benefitted from his influence, and how could they continue to benefit from readers’ increased knowledge of his life?

Lomax was able to move his journalism from his early work with the Black press to a more mainstream profile, publishing with white newspapers and publishers, becoming the first Black host of a news/talk television program, and developing a series of radio shows. His influence in that realm is vital, as so many mainstream journalists, television and radio hosts all benefit from his pioneering work. His success on The Louis Lomax Show, for example, was the country’s first demonstration that a news/talk program hosted by a Black man could be financially viable, removing that potential stigma and opening up that space to more journalists of color.

A similar claim could be made about his anticolonialism advocacy. While Lomax was in no way the first leader to argue against Western hegemony on the global stage, his popular comparisons between colonialism abroad and civil rights abuses at home brought such concerns to a popular audience. Much commentary in that regard came from the far Left, from voices that mainstream (and predominantly white) audiences never heard. But Lomax’s voice was able to make that case to a wider audience. Many others made similar arguments in the years after Lomax’s death, and of course colonialism has not disappeared, but Lomax’s advocacy was the first mainstream comparison of foreign colonialism and domestic racism and among the first public expressions of concern about the tumultuous situations in Africa and Thailand, places often forgotten by American audiences obsessed with Vietnam.

Lomax, as you describe him, is a complicated figure. He was a trailblazing newsman with a sharp political mind; at the same time, he loved to be the center of media attention, and was accused of womanizing and spousal abuse. Is there a Lomax figure living today who matches this combination of laudable attributes and personal flaws?

There is certainly no one today with the same basic profile as Lomax. The background check process would simply eliminate him from consideration for those kinds of jobs. There are, however, many with profiles that retain elements of Lomax’s trailblazing career. The Breakfast Club, for example, have been able to maintain a popular, mainstream radio program that relates news and serves as a hub of racial advocacy. Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy have been able to find a space in the media landscape where they are both media reporters and media creators, chroniclers of advocacy and advocates themselves. On the other side of the political spectrum, pseudo-journalists like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh have used entertainment platforms to help guide policy and governing theory for their own side, usually in the cause of the very bigotry that people like Lomax sought to eliminate. Then there are broadcasters like Brian Williams, who was caught lying about a variety of stories,  but has been able to make a comeback and continue his career despite that scandal. These are approximations, of course. Lomax’s profile simply could not exist today. His infidelity is probably still very common among news reporters and political theorists, but spousal abuse, lying about academic credentials, and his largely hidden prison record are not the kinds of things that could be covered in modern society.

Religion seems to have played a significant role in Lomax’s life and work. He was the son of a Christian preacher, a friend of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and accused by some of antisemitism. What can we learn from this confluence of religious affiliation and political movements?

Lomax saw religion as a means to an end. His upbringing was one of strict religious zeal, raised by preachers in the deepest of the Deep South. But his stories about his childhood emphasize religion’s value to people’s lives rather than its inherent truth. The same could be said about his feelings toward the Nation of Islam. He saw the group’s power not in its religious principles but in its political messaging. The religion itself was simply a vehicle for its larger aims, and when that religion got in the way, as when Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, it was ultimately expendable. His supposed antisemitism, too, was less the result of any disagreement with Judaic thinking or belief. It was instead rooted in politics, a concern about the role of high finance in the plight of Black impoverishment. Thus it was that religion was invariably important to Lomax. It was always present in his life. He himself experimented with preaching for a time after he moved to Washington, DC. At the same time, however, religion was a pragmatic presence, there to be marshalled when necessary to make various arguments and influence the proper people.

That confluence of religious affiliation and political movements is also common today. While there are several leaders today whose faith is at the heart of their activism (Reverend William Barber seems to be the most high-profile example), the vast majority of people use their opinions about religion to justify their political beliefs, not the other way around. Lomax wasn’t necessarily allowing his politics to direct his faith, but he was using that faith to selectively influence those to whom he wanted to speak. And he supported that strategy in others like the Nation of Islam.

Read the introduction to The Life and Times of Louis Lomax and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21AELLO.