Listening to the thick smoke of past stories, while Paris, London and Brussels are burning

at some point we all had to learn how to see the invisible. the unborn, the unremembered, the discounted, ourselves. we would have to add the spirit to the air if it wasn’t already thick with it. for us it was a matter of what you can call ritual. repetitive action. we fed the gods that were ourselves by feeding each other. we made the sounds that were our angels by singing aloud. we proved the lie that lay in wait through touch in secret and in public. we made meaning out of the mess by what we did. and what we continued to do. once is a moment. twice is time travel. There are very few things that you are doing for the first time.

alexis pauline gumbs

It is now 40 years ago in France and England, 30 years ago in Belgium, when different relegated urban neighborhoods in these European countries took fire. A memorial, monument, or even a reference in the curriculum, is nowhere to be found. The smoke generated by these riotous and righteous forms of refusal, is by contrast still very present, still asphyxiating. The fire still burning different postcolonial metropoles, was ignited by persevering police control, sharply cutting through, compartmentalizing urban space and restricting movement, hampering respiration in neighborhoods overpopulated by an already damned class of “immigrant workers”. Pointing out the lack of monument or allusion in the curriculum or canon is not a demand for recognition, quite on the contrary. Conscious of your malediction, we don’t want to be pushed back in your game. Nor is it a question of fetishizing the past, to romanticize, disembody or dis-member revolt as mere spectacle. Starting from the impossibility to represent ourselves or to be represented, it merely proposes to compel us to ask from where and in what forms stories can be told, be made to reverberate and finally burn down the simulacrum of History.

As murmured by Fred Moten, history might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.2 Decades of political disputes and structural adjustments pushed the limits of what can be thought, imagined and done to fascist extremes, but could not prevent the inhabitants of these banished quarters to continue breathing, moving and laughing. Despite increasingly fatal police violence, these inhabitants reclaim their right to a free and dignified life, their right to refusal, all the while escaping the spell, preparing for self-defense. With Sylvia Wynter3, the impossibility to think of a monument or reference in the curriculum or canon, rhymes with a longer history of enslavement. This rhyme allows us to re-imagine relations between decades of revolt in the postcolony of metropolitan suburbs in Europe, and hundreds of years of similarly silenced revolt in its colonies. History is in this sense indeed a form of grand fiction story, only briefly interrupted through revolt. Often miscast as (race) riots, these sudden insurrectional and explosive movement and moments are immediate and instantaneous epiphanies suspending, if not subverting this all too resilient fiction of historical time. Allowing, at least for a temporary moment, truth to be spilled and whispering to be heard:

“They do not know what we have seen, for no place has been found in their history books for the fire that burnt us.”4

The revolting rodeos of burning cars continuing until today, are thus not only surrounding the redundant police on the ground and the hardening whiteness of society at large, they also surround the authors of this very thin but ever prolonged fiction called History. Following Wynter, these surrounded histories are not per se written by those holding the pen, they are written by the external forces holding together what she calls the plantation system, driven by the imperialist powers of the market economy.5 Dubwise, Michel-Rolph Trouillot6 echoes Wynter’s understanding of history as the fruit of power marked by its invisibility, challenging us to expose its roots. These are to be found in the struggle, collision and at times clash between the plantation and the plot, two systems with deeply opposite ideals that in their enmeshment create the conditions through which stories are told and decide which ones remain untold.

“Give me your identity card, Mimoun!” This is how the police-officers last words must have sounded, before taking the young man’s life.

You do remember the pyrrhus victory over ‘Het Bad-Le Bain’ discothèque in Brussels, ransacked in spring 1991, as a white middle-class minority occupying public space enclosed the club, and did not have to abide by the same controlling and at times lethal local police forces on the ground, systematically denying entry to its neighbors? There are indeed very few things that you are doing for the first time, but you do remember the one police control that made the bucket of police violence overflow, again. First as a moment, then as time travel, but you do remember Mimoun, who on a hot summer night in August 1991, had the tragic misfortune to kick an empty coke can in sight of the law, embodied in blue, while strolling on the Grand-Place of Brussels with friends. “Death for a can of Coke”, the headlines in local newspapers read. Repetitive action, but you do remember. The young man from the neighborhood who passed away without a name, expulsing his last breath in a police chase, as the criminal was driving a stolen car. We indeed proved that lie in secret and in public, you remember.

Abdelmayak Sayad’s idea of the subterfuge as the continuation of colonization by other means challenges us to dwell on a duality engrained in the plantation itself. Looking over the shoulder of storytellers trapped in the monotonous regime of the plantation, it becomes intelligible how a certain coloniality, a way of knowing and sensing the world proper to that regime is domesticating all bodies, while at the same time exonerating and making compliant those that are recognized for their talent to tell different stories as an alibi.7 Hence, the significance of cultivating plots – as they were the first and last story told – in a caring and loving communal rhythm, a rhythm of keeping ancestral seeds for generations to come, as we will eventually return and take what is always already ours. Contrary to the plantation, the plot evades any form of captivation, domination, appropriation or cooptation by external commands holding together the plantation. Stories, like seeds or land, are cultivated not for their profitability on the market economy and its alienating exchange value, but as a fundamental human need to simply live and survive as sentient beings. Business as usual is time and again being refused, holding space for stories of earth beings and their more-than human needs, cultivating autonomous resorts in relation with a world of use value. By refusing the scorn and contempt of the plantation, its monuments, curricula and canon, refugia emerge where History can be questioned, plots are generated where muzzled stories can be murmured, where silenced histories can re-emerge. Plots in their deep discursivity can facilitate new languages, novel ways of telling the stifled stories, necessarily questioning omniscient and omnipresent narrative formations produced in the plantation, questioning historical facts and myths, the Manichean history taught in schools, melting the very materiality of public monuments to steal it in return. Refusing the call to order generates the conditions of possibility for different embodied monuments to be raised that can relate to a looted memory and dignity without falling into the veneration fallacy of the individual, however glorious. Without elevating anyone as the one, as the special one, not even Lumumba or Abd el-Krim.

“There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.”8

Let us not forget the lingering possibility to refuse being the witness, whenever a random journalist asks us for “a story”, escaping his plantation to cover a brief moment of revolt. Since the fire was ignited in the neighborhood of the Minguettes in Vénissieux in 1981,9 the Brixton district in the same year in London, or the municipality of Forest a decade later in Brussels,10 many stories remain untold, many question and exclamation marks unheard. There are indeed only very few things that we are doing for the first time. Justice pour Mehdi. Haunted by these stories, storytellers remain trapped in the choice to abide by the freedom to realize their individuality all the while being subjected to liberal forms structured by the market economic or to return to different autonomous forms imbued with use-value, following the lively impulse of creation pulsated by the simple and shared necessity to move and breath. Justice pour Mawda. We will decide to embody history in our own person and surge again into your forbidden neighborhood. Justice pour Adil. As indicated by Sylvia Wynter, it is not (only) a racial clash, but also a clash between different levels of awareness of opposite but entangled infrastructural value systems arranged by labor, land and capital, that enable some stories to be heard and others to remain unheard.11 Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer notice how situated point of views elaborated in the plot speak, over and again, against the mythification of colonial pasts in stories produced and told from generation to generation in the plantation.12 Justice pour Lamine. Questions of race, difference and otherness emerge as ideological formations, as innumerable stories told in the plot are being de-marginalized and stories told in the plantation are fundamentally being questioned. Marginalized stories can be heard subverting the cunning and estranging exchange value and its extractivist relations, shedding light on the possibility of abolishing the dual regime of the plantation, its curricula, monuments and canon. Canonical authority destabilized, de-centred and unsettled. With Moten and Harney, abolition vibrates in its most fulfilling and uncanny elucidation, not “as the elimination of anything” but “as the founding of a new society” that “disturbs the critical going on above it, the professional going on without it” that “one can sense in prophecy, the strangely known moment, the gathering content, of a cadence” that “one can sense in cooperation, the secret once called solidarity”.

Carried by her community, the author of untold stories imbued with a profound sense of justice resists and dismantles the fiction of History, as s.he merely speaks in the surround, transforming described realities into an accumulation of always fleeting verities. Compared to the Carribean or the Americas at large, the revolting presence of colonized subjects is only a very recent phenomenon on European territory. It is not even a century that plots are being cultivated and new societies are founded in the hearth of empire, the birthplace of the original sin. That uncanny space where bodies on the run can find refuge, but also where the lineage of the anti-colonial finds itself in a decolonial impasse face to face with its perpetrator, longing for the possibility of repair, a possibility time and again soothed by a shared unrepairable brokenness. Driven by the will to live, conscious by the debts we owe and live in, there seems no other option than recreating (use) value, inspiring different strategies to dismantle the roots of and routes leading to the plantation, on the site where the violence of history was always silenced so that wealth and capital could be accumulated. By speaking close to every breathing body on the run, new societies are founded on the stubborn impossibility of repair in the brokenness of ancestral constellations, re-inventing different economies that can humble humanist pretentions and their will to power. If we decide to live, embraced by a passion for life, destiny is bound to respond and the desire to power to dissipate into thin air. Bright points on the horizon are shedding light on the possibility of an internal outside, where communal values in the surround can abolish the impossible reality in which we are inevitably entangled in an ever expanding now. Indeed, the possibility of marooning, flight, and fugitivity is born and re-born here in the plot as sanctuary, congregating in relation, cultivating seed by seed new caring ways to tell and re-tell still flourishing, but well-guarded stories. What is left then, is just a question of listening to the thick smoke of past stories, while the present is burning.

1Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Dub: Finding Ceremony. Duke University Press, 2020.

2Fred Moten History Does Not Repeat Itself, but It Does Rhyme, in: After Year Zero in: Anselm Franke, Annett Busch. After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration, 2015

3Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, no. 5 (June 1971): 97

4Reid, Victor Stafford. New day. London: Heinemann, Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, no. 5 (June 1971): 97

5Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, no. 5 (June 1971): 97

6Michel-Rolph Trouillot,. Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Beacon Press, 1995.

7Nacira Guénif-Souilamas Standing Still looking over the artist shoulder in: Bouchra Khalili (2018) Blackboard. Paris: Jeu de Paume

8Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), directed by John Akomfrah,

9Hajjat, Abdellali. La marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme. Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013.

10Rea, Andrea. “Jeunes immigrés dans la cité.” Citoyenneté et politique publique, Bruxelles: Labor (2001).

11Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, no. 5 (June 1971): 97

12Julien, Isaac, and Kobena Mercer. “De margin and de centre.” Screen, 29, (4), 1988: 2–11.