Musab Younis

On the Scale of the World: The Formation of Black Anticolonial Thought

University of California Press, 2022

286 pages

$29.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Sheyda Aisha Khaymaz

On the Scale of the World deftly utilizes the notion of ‘scale’ as a tool for conceptual organization and argues that the scale of the world is the basis of interwar Black Atlantic anticolonial thought. It reveals the interwar Black writers’ understanding of scale by examining the world as space in a literal sense and demonstrates that the production of anticolonial theory was inextricably linked to the production of a global scale. Through a meticulous reading of anticolonial writings produced in French and English, most of which have languished in colonial archives in the UK, France, the US, West African, and Caribbean countries, Musab Younis contends that these writers did not simply theorize within a global order already produced by extraneous entities, but rather produced the very scale within which they operated.What drives Younis’s analyses is a cross-disciplinary approach that straddles globalism, international relations, and histories of Black political thought. The book is a deeply probing venture into the idea of the world from the viewpoint of pan-African emancipatory movements, asking, among other things, what it means to reject globality as a domain for the privileged. Early in the book, the author alludes to the scant attention paid to the interwar cultures of the Black Atlantic, positing that this era serves as the bedrock of anticolonial thought developed later in the 1950s and 1960s. Younis, however, not only shows that interwar Black writers were already thinking on a global scale in the 1920s and 1930s, but more profoundly, that a global order was a prerequisite for Black sovereignty. This is a particularly daring assertion, given that the world is increasingly embracing a critique of globality rooted in colonial vision. On the Scale of the World  instead advances the crucial role of globality in the anticolonial thinking of the interwar cultures in the Black Diaspora. Thus, one of the freshest approaches the book imparts is the notion that Black political thought is a practice of reconfiguring space.

The book comprises five chapters, seamlessly building upon previous considerations. Chapter One examines the emergence of a ‘planetary imaginary’ in the writings of Marcus Garvey. The author’s close readings of Garvey’s editorials in the United Negro Movement Association’s newspaper Negro World demonstrate a global political consciousness that was not only anticolonial but also had a strong nationalist component. Younis asserts that Garvey articulated a global understanding of the world, and that it was because of, not in spite of, his essentialism and hermeticism that Garveyism was able to open to the outside world on a global scale.

In Chapter Two, Younis draws the reader’s attention to West Africa, where journalists have challenged the imperial vision of the world through the utilization of new literary techniques; some of which entailed synthesizing political writing with historical analysis, citation, bricolage, and repurposing. These methodological ventures, according to the author, were ‘worldly’ in the sense that they called into question the global structure with which West African sovereignty was intertwined. Examining the structural innovations in Black periodicals, pamphlets, and monographs, Younis asserts that the liberation of West Africa from the exploitation of its resources was, in fact, a planetary matter.

The focus of Chapter Three is whiteness as a global order. Here, Négritude was conceptualized through its antithesis, blanchitude. Younis delves deeper into the West African interwar writing, centered this time around whiteness. By analyzing a few key publications, most notably La Race Nègre, the author argues that African intellectuals invoked Whiteness as an organizing principle of the global order to articulate not only the division of the world around racial lines but also the ‘loneliness’ of living in a white-defined world.

While Younis’s introductory discussion on global scale was somewhat inaccessible and, in a sense, abstracting this notion in some areas, this was aptly remedied towards the end of the book. Since scale is a relative size, it is conceptualized in relation to another entity. Chapter Four therefore turns towards the theoretical counterpart of the global scale, i.e., the body, and shows how operating within the world-body dualism, Black writers conceived the colonial condition as one that produces “a racial bodily instability.” In this analysis, the body becomes something to be sequestrated and controlled or it inevitably dissolves into Nature.

The final chapter centers on the notion of ‘temporality’ as a colonial and anticolonial discourse and focuses on Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia, whose sovereignty was compromised either by direct occupation or political strife. The author begins by examining the evolving Black responses to the US’s invasion of Haiti in 1915, eloquently introducing the term ‘racial atavism,’ which assumed that upon attaining sovereignty, Black nations would “slide backwards in time,” thereby regressing to savagery. Racial atavism, which at times implied “stagnation in time” and at others “stagnation in the present,” underpinned the US’s occupation of Haiti, as well as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and destabilization of Liberia. Younis draws astute comparisons between the mobilization attempts fueled by this conjuncture, pointing to ‘anticolonial simultaneity’ in various pan-Africanist responses.

The book contains a major oversight that must be highlighted: it offers scant discussion on Black women’s writing. For, if coloniality is a lived experience that is manifested, particularly on the corporeal scale, then it is undeniably a gender-defined experience, and anticolonial thought should in turn generate gender-specific responses to subjugation. The book does provide a few opportunities to address or explain the deficiency of gender-focused analyses, particularly in Chapters One and Four, but these are lamentably bypassed by the author, who instead risks appearing to advance the political writings of men. This prompts a set of crucial questions pertaining to anticolonialism as a hypermasculine domain rightly alluded to by the author. “Black women accessed the space of the world in their own right,” writes Younis, though with no further elucidation. When they are absent from the scale of the world, from global to intimate, on which scale do women leaders of Black sovereignty operate? Younis does well to acknowledge the near invisibility of Black women’s political writings in interwar archives, though his meager three-page consideration of what he calls ‘patriarchal anticolonialism’ towards the end of the book relegates this significant point to an afterthought. In this regard, it would have but deepened the book’s remarkable conceptual strength had the author dedicated adequate space to the role of Black women’s writing in the development of interwar anticolonialism.

All things considered, challenging the widely accepted supposition that the Black anticolonial thought of the 1960s lacked a theoretical foundation is no mean feat. As such, Younis’s On the Scale of the World is an ambitious undertaking that, despite its glaring blind spot, offers a valuable insight into the interwar Black Atlantic. It is, of course, challenging to be comprehensive within the confines of one volume when the broader currents in anticolonial thought are taken into account. The author’s effective distillation of an array of sources, including rare ones, encompassing both theoretical and archival research, and the ways in which the seemingly disparate movements were interlinked through skillful textual analyses, render the book one of the most idiosyncratic readings of the era in question.