“We must realise that our future chiefly lies in our own hands.” This seemingly simple yet echoing statement, by Paul Robeson, an American artist and black activist, finds its roots in the idea of agency and representation — that has historically been denied to people of colour; who have appeared in mass media as either barbaric and exotic; in an urgent need to be saved and civilised by the Whites.
Though the racialisation is comparatively subtle now, it continues to exist and be propagated. Be it through the controversial World Press Photo Series, titled Dreaming Food, that depicted Indian farmers standing behind a table laden with fake food with their eyes covered, or the fact that ‘60% of news of Africa in international media focused on conflicts, terrorism, disasters, disease and other tragedies’ — making the narratives of ‘people of colour’ in their homeland as well as in diasporas largely negative, limited, and stereotyped.
Moreover, the myriad of POC identities, as journalist Dahaba Ali Hussen writes in The Independent, is largely represented as monoliths — disrupting the space to discuss and argue the nuance and narrative surrounding each community.
This othering is also because of the lack of diversity in newsrooms. A 2016 study as reported by The Guardian found that British Journalism is 94% white.
Although the burning issues of agency and representation of minority groups have been under focus in academia, little has been done to tackle it.
The creative and journalistic absence of authentic narrative for PoC within the UK was what first inspired Hisham Parchment and Apoorva Sriram, undergraduate students at SOAS, to conceptualise and become the founding editors of ‘The Robeson’— an exclusive magazine of and by people of colour in the institution.
Launching in spring 2020, The Robeson aims to be published every term to bring together stories about arts, culture, lifestyle, academia, and essays told in a variety of formats.
“The foregrounding of PoC voices is central to the ethos of The Robeson, particularly in an environment where PoC students find their own subjectivities being discussed and debated by the (predominantly) white academy, and even being silenced by it,” states Hisham, 19, a World Philosophies student, who first gauged the idea of a publication whilst trying to come up with creative initiatives to tackle racism on campus while running for the Anti-Racism Officer for the SOAS Student Union last year.
Providing PoC students with an accessible space to be heard in a way they want to be heard, The Robeson aims to disrupt existing hegemonies and reject the academy’s focus on ‘hierarchical attainment’.
The character of the magazine largely resonates with the work of Paul Robeson, who also had ties with SOAS, thus making ‘The Robeson’ an apt name for this student-led magazine.
Hisham said: “Paul Robeson was an exceptional athlete, actor, musician, scholar and renowned civil rights activist through which he expressed his adamant beliefs in socialism and anti-colonialism — at great personal cost. He is said to have had an ‘ideological awakening’; whilst studying at SOAS. Thus, for our first issue, we pose the following question to potential contributors: do you remember the first time you came into some kind of awakening?
“Each new issue of The Robeson will revolve around a theme that prompts the exploration of identity and the challenging of normative ideas about race and racism. The Robeson hopes to embody and build upon Paul Robeson’s legacy of creating art and culture for the empowerment of fellow PoC and solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world.”
Although a decision is yet to made if The Robeson will be a distinctive SOAS magazine or will also accommodate other student voices from across the country, it does perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the SOAS student body who is committed to bringing forth a positive change. It launches at a crucial time, when the campus is brimming with controversy, debate, and movements such as ‘Decolonise Our Minds’ and ‘Bridging The Gap’, which aims to close the attainment gap between white and non-white students.
Embodying a strong essence of freedom of expression for PoC students, The Robeson is also all set to lead a Zine Making Workshop on Friday January 17th as part of the Refreshers Week. The workshop will help develop a POV to focus one’s zine around whilst also producing a DIY zine, using various collaging techniques. Being held in the JCR, 4pm onwards, the aim of this two-hour workshop – in the words of Hisham – is to ‘encourage the power of the individual voice. If you have something to say, there’s bound to be someone to want to listen.’
The Robeson is also accepting submissions until Jan 26, 2019, for their first issue from students and alumni of SOAS, as well as students outside of SOAS. Please check their Facebook page for more updates and information on submissions.
- Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo