Only One Way to Anchor Yourself: Barbara Harlow

By Christopher J. Lee

Barbara Harlow (1948-2017), a professor of literature and scholar of Third Worldism, passed away on January 28 from cancer in Austin, Texas. Based at the University of Texas for over thirty years, she also taught at the American University in Cairo, once serving as acting chair in the English and comparative literature department (2006-2007), and twice held visiting appointments at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg (1998) and Durban (2002). She was a longtime member of the editorial working committee for the journal Race & Class as well as a member of the editorial board for Current Writing (South Africa), Humanity, and other publications. A committed critic, she published a series of books and articles that addressed pressing questions of political concern: the theme of political resistance in world literature (Resistance Literature, 1987), the voices of political prisoners (Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, 1992), the legacies of revolutionary thought (After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing, 1996), and, more recently, the practice of detention and torture by the US government (“‘Extraordinary Renditions’: Tales of Guantánamo, a Review Article,” Race & Class 52, no. 4, 2011). An internationalist in spirit and practice, her work remained consistently dissatisfied with the parameters of national boundaries and their official histories. Her work treated geographically dispersed locales such as Palestine, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, and South Africa within a single framework, due to each facing similar conditions of political injustice. In addition to addressing the effects of the global “war on terror,” Harlow’s most recent book project concerned Ruth First, whose life she previously examined in her book After Lives and whom she wrote about in a special issue of ROAPE (“‘Today is human rights day’: Ruth First, Human Rights and the United Nations,” Review of African Political Economy 41, no. 139, 2014). She was involved with the Ruth First Papers project, serving on its advisory board along with members of the Slovo family, Albie Sachs, Shula Marks, and others.    

I should mention at this point that I knew Barbara personally, and, though not formally a student hers, she was a cherished mentor. With Bernth Lindfors, Toyin Falola, Neville Hoad, and other UT faculty, she trained numerous students in literature and African studies, including such highly regarded scholars as David Attwell, Joseph Slaughter, and Jennifer Wenzel. My friendship with her was more circumstantial, but nonetheless of great value and influence. As with most intellectuals of her caliber, Barbara was able to blend seamlessly the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and political engagement. These connections can be found throughout her published work. In a 1991 interview with Edward Said, undertaken within the context of the first Gulf War, Barbara asked Said about the tasks of the intellectual today, in which he replied, “One would have to pretty much scuttle all the jaw-shattering jargonistic post-modernisms that now dot the landscape. They are worse than useless. They are neither capable of understanding and analyzing the power structure of this country, nor are they capable of understanding the particular aesthetic merit of an individual work of art…Reengagement with intellectual process means a return to an old-fashioned historical, literary and, above all, intellectual scholarship based upon the premise that human beings, men and women, make their own history…. There’s only one way to anchor oneself, and that is by affiliation with a cause, with a political movement.” (“The Intellectuals and the War: An Interview with Edward Said,” MERIP 171, vol. 21, July-August 1991) These qualities of criticism grounded in historicism and through political commitment apply to Barbara. They distinguished her approach apart from a number of her peers.

Her first two books were works of translation. The first was Spurs (1979) by Jacques Derrida—an ambitious assignment and, in retrospect, an effort that paralleled Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology (1976). Spurs is a minor, though characteristically playful, work by Derrida, in which he, prompted by Nietzsche, dwells and digresses on the question of style and how it can act in the manner of a spur (éperon), at once cleaving forward, protecting, and provoking. Though a work of high theory of the kind that Said critiqued (and Barbara would later depart from), these characteristics of provocation can be found in her subsequent books. Her second translated book, for example, took a different direction, but marked another step forward in her emerging political agenda: Palestine’s Children (1984), a collection of short fiction by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972). Kanafani was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and assassinated by the Mossad in 1972 at the age of thirty-six. Her experience teaching at AUC during the late 1970s and early 1980s stimulated this new focus on Palestinian literature and her lifelong commitment to the Palestinian cause. Kanafani would remain an enduring influence. In her first monograph, Resistance Literature (1987), Barbara cites Kanafani’s study Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine: 1948-1966 (1966) and its use of “resistance” (muqāwamah) as a central reference point for her book’s approach. This choice was undertaken at a time when other “postcolonial” critics were employing European thinkers, whether Derrida or Lacan, without consideration for what we now call theory from the South. Furthermore, she viewed “resistance literature” as a genre that critically transcended the “‘national’ criteria” of most literature departments, which had often excluded African, Caribbean, Asian, and Middle Eastern literatures in favor of those from “the more northern parts of the globe.” Following the Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi, she asked if it was merely coincidence that “deconstruction” emerged during the same time period as “decolonization”?

These interrogations found in her scholarship of the 1980s have since become commonplace. Her second monograph, Barred (1992), similarly fills a gap between the early critical work of activist-intellectuals like Angela Davis and the present proliferation of studies on the US prison industrial complex by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Michelle Alexander, and others. Barred possesses a geographically unbounded ambition similar to her first book, examining cases of political detention in Northern Ireland, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, El Salvador, and the US. State injustice and the human rights of those imprisoned brought these disparate places together. Moreover, prison writing as a censored discourse provided a means of addressing once more the apolitical nature of mainstream literary criticism. “Literature, that is, when abstracted from the historical and institutional conditions that inform its production—and its distribution—can serve in the end to underwrite the same repressive bureaucratic structures designed to maintain national borders and to police dissent within those borders,” she writes. “The literature of prison, composed in prison and from out of the prison experience, is by contrast necessarily partisan, polemical, written as it is against those very structures of a dominant arbitration and a literary historical tradition that have served to legislate the political neutrality of the litterateur and the literary critic alike. Reading prison writing must in turn demand a correspondingly activist counterapproach to that of passivity, aesthetic gratification, and the pleasures of consumption that are traditionally sanctioned by the academic disciplining of literature.” 

After Lives (1996) continues this trajectory of questioning the boundaries and function of literature and literary criticism. In this text, she returns to three figures from Resistance Literature—Kanafani, Roque Dalton, and Ruth First—to ask what comes after a politics of resistance. The book is a sequel to her first. All three writers were assassinated, a theme that prompts a secondary set of questions about the relationship between writing and political violence, the state versus the individual, and, from the critic’s standpoint, the differences and challenges between “exhuming the corpse and examining the corpus.” To say that writers and activists have been killed for their beliefs is not enough. Rather, Barbara pushed further to address the reciprocal effects of this fact, how the power of the word could invite violence, and why post-revolutionary societies frequently obscure and deny this reciprocity, instead choosing reconciliation over the truth of past trauma. As she writes in the concluding paragraphs to After Lives, revisiting these political and literary lives is not “in order to recuperate conventions of authorship or subjectivity as it has been to allow for an inquiry into the complex, often conflicted, position of the intellectual within the structures of a political party or organized resistance movement and to question their function as historical agents in actively challenging dominant, even oppressive, orders.” “Can truth be committed in the telling? In exhuming corpses or in examining corpuses?” she further asks, answering, “Their struggle, for popular liberation and truth in the telling, engages new political commitments, other cultural concerns, and new territories of critical inquiry.” 

These passages are but a brief sample of her body of work that also includes several edited volumes, numerous articles, chapters, and book reviews. I quote at length because her words are what we have left, and we need to remind ourselves and know what those words were, and still are. Her last project—a biography of Ruth First—continued in these directions and is reportedly still forthcoming. Indeed, a sense of affinity can be seen between Barbara and First, considering their mutual concerns for political issues that stretched across the continent. Given her unassuming and often quiet manner, Barbara would have quickly demurred at such a comparison. Nonetheless, a connection can be drawn. The role of the individual, as indicated, is a defining feature of Barbara’s work, being the grounds for politics itself—whether through activism or through incarceration, the practice of writing or the practice of torture. The individual is the starting point for politics and, often times, its most palpable end. I had the good fortune to see Barbara on a number of occasions when visiting Austin, most recently last spring. While a visiting fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at UT in 2012, she generously introduced me to a number of faculty and graduate students. Before that, she provided early inspiration for a book I did on the 1955 Bandung Conference, through a talk she gave at Stanford University in 2003 when I was still a student myself. A close listener and unafraid to offer a sharp counterpoint when needed, she became a valued reader and friend since that first meeting, one of a small handful of people in the acknowledgments of all three of my books. In sum, she marked the beginning and now end of an important period of my own political and intellectual development. In these ways, I feel this loss.                    

Christopher J. Lee is an associate professor of history at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. His books include Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives (2010), Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa (2014), Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism (2015), and A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition (forthcoming, 2017) with Alex La Guma.


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