Decolonize 1968! How to shift the Perspective of Collective Memory
In this article Peggy Piesche writes about how much the liberation ideas of 1968 owe to the anti-colonial movements and how to decolonize “68” through focusing on the historical contributions by BPOC women*.
Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton, Memorial Park in Oakland, CA. Photo credit: Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch
The year 1968—or simply “68”—denotes the period of protest and liberation that radically changed our understanding of equality, sexual self-determination, tolerance, and freedom of expression. Fifty years on, 1968 has even taken on the characteristics of a kind of global political watershed in mainstream popular memory, one which has shaped our modern understanding of democracy more profoundly than any other event.
The commemorative culture of 2018, with its public conferences and expert discussions, has presented itself just like the protagonists of the time: predominantly white, male, West German, or Western European. And yet the movements of 68 were fundamentally inspired by the international civil rights and liberation movements of Black people and people of color, which, in the context of the contemporary commemorative construct known as “68,” have been woven into a very Western-oriented history of anti-capitalist and left-wing movements. Above all, this kind of image produces and leaves behind empty spaces, by writing diverse groups and protagonists out of the mainstream collective memory. The focus on the historical experiences of BPOC women* in their various movements entails a change of perspective and looks at those who were not only “part of the movement” but often made decisive contributions, owing to their involvement in anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The online dossier Decolonize 1968! brings to center stage the experiences and perceptions of BPOC-women* in their struggle against racism in the period in and around 1968 and especially in the years that preceded it. For it was their collective anti-colonial struggles which provided the transformative energy, rooted in the history of their movements, that motivated the intellectual production lines of white Western academia to stand up and fight for decisive change in their own societies in 1968. The stories and voices presented here make it possible both to reinterpret “68” itself and to rethink its influence on our own contemporary understanding of society. Particularly when set against the background of the challenges that face us today in confronting an increasingly strong global right-wing movement that not only seeks to combat the fragile gains of the feminist movements of the 68 generation but also has no problem reinterpreting these in national, völkisch, and racist terms, it is important to show where and how the linkage between dimensions of inequality and categories of difference has been actively practiced and urged in the past. Our usual narrative of “68” omits these aspects and thus contributes to the disguising of inequalities in the present day and to the perception of the perspectives of BPOC-women* merely as an additional factor.
If we consider today what kind of feminism we wish to live, with whom we want to ally ourselves, and what history we want to learn from and draw on, then we should know the stories of this time. These activists fought for self-determination, both in terms of sexuality and in their lives as a whole, in the nexus of sexism and racism in the years around 1968, and were important protagonists in sociocultural transformation processes. When we understand that although society was able to turn itself away from rigid sexual morality, the newly achieved gains in sexual self-determination and reproductive rights did not, however, apply equally to everyone, this will do more than merely shift our image of 1968. The question as to how anti-colonial liberation movements are passed on in, with, and through “68,” and how they came to be subsumed within the myth of 1968 as a white Western movement of emancipation creates a bridge to the significance of an internationally oriented process of solidarity in the struggle for reproductive rights and sexual self-determination. Understanding—or even decolonializing and learning from—“68” also means bringing together (today’s) debates and discourses and providing them with fresh political impetus, which is the task that has been set us by the years of the great movements of the last century. This is why we have placed the focus of Decolonize 1968! on rearticulating and emphasizing the plurality and heterogeneity of the narrative within the international social movements.
Processing the historical lessons of the transnational social movements requires us to reflect on the ideological content of feminist consciousness, the challenges it faces, and gender-specific political roles, and to consider their significance for the collective experience of the anti-colonial struggles in the Global South and for the creation of the new social movements in the Global North.
Peggy Piesche, born and raised in the GDR, is a Black German litarary and cultural scientist and transcultural trainer for critical whiteness reflection in academia, politics and society. She has been part of the Black (German) movement and a co-woman of ADEFRA e.V. (Black Women in Germany) since 1990, and an executive board member of ASWAD (Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora) since 2016. Her research and teaching focus on the fields of Diaspora and Transcoloniality, Spatiality and Coloniality of Memories as well as Black Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Whiteness Studies.