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Vincent Vanderveken via Flickr, 2020. CC BY 2.0.
Black Lives Matter in Belgium: Reckoning with Legacies of Colonialism, Violence, and Contemporary Racism
Convened by Debora Silverman, Distinguished Professor of History and Art History, UCLA, and University of California Presidential Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture
With Stef Craps, Professor of Literature and Director of the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative, Ghent University, Belgium, and a past holder of the Antoon Van Dyck Chair for the History and Culture of the Low Countries at UCLA, and Sibo Kanobana, PhD Student in Socio-Linguistics, Department of Translation, Interpreting and Communication, Ghent University, Belgium
The May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd reignited protests in Belgium against colonial amnesia and contemporary racism. Activists had long demanded an end to official silence about the particularly violent history of Belgian colonialism in Congo. The new conjuncture of global eruptions forced the blight of “the great forgetting” into the mainstream and intensified calls to confront racism in Belgian economy and society. In recent months statues of King Leopold II toppled, followed by two significant events: King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” for a brutal colonial past, and the Parliament announced the creation of a Special Commission to scrutinize the history and violence of The Congo Free State (1885-1908) and the Belgian Congo (1909-1960). If and how the Commission will engage issues of apology, reparations, and reconciliation are, to date, unclear.
This multidisciplinary panel brings together scholars to discuss Black Lives Matter in Belgium. Among the topics to be explored are: the distinctive history of Belgian colonialism, which moved from an internationally sanctioned entity of extraction (“The Congo Free State”) to a national settler colony (the Belgian Congo); the intertwined histories of the U.S. and Belgian colonialism; the impact of “BLM” in Belgium and the effectiveness of “trauma activism;” language, race, and citizenship in Belgium; public monuments, the Tervuren Afrika Museum, and the visual culture of colonialism, conscious and unconscious.
The three participants are:
Debora Silverman, Distinguished Professor of History and Art History, UCLA, and University of California Presidential Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture. Professor Silverman has published three books. Her recent publications explore the impact of the Congo Free State on Belgian modernism; Art Nouveau’s “whiplash style” as “Congo Style;” the cultural history of violence, the Tervuren Museum, and the politics of memory in Belgium. Her book nearing completion is entitled Art of Darkness. Her opinion essay on BLM in Belgium was published in June in De Standaard.
Stef Craps is a professor of English literature at Ghent University, Belgium, where he directs the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative, and a past holder of the Antoon Van Dyck Chair for the History and Culture of the Low Countries at UCLA. His research interests lie in twentieth-century and contemporary literature and culture, memory and trauma studies, postcolonial theory, and ecocriticism and environmental humanities. His latest books are Trauma (Routledge, 2020; co-authored with Lucy Bond), Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies (Berghahn, 2017; co-edited with Lucy Bond and Pieter Vermeulen), and Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Sibo Kanobana is a PhD student in sociolinguistics at Ghent University pursuing ethnographic case studies of language, race and work. He is a frequent public speaker on the dilemmas of Afro-Belgian identities, decolonization, and multilingualism. His publications include (with Katrien De Graeve) “Black Identity-Making in Flanders. Discourses and Cultural Practices among Transracial Adoptive Families and Black Native Speakers of Flemish,” and De bastaards van onze kolonie: Verzweg en verhalen van Belgische metissen (The Mixed Race Children in Belgian Congo. Silenced stories of Afro-Belgian mixed race people.)
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