2020 marks the 33rd anniversary of Black History Month (BHM) in the UK, and it has never seemed more relevant.
One outstanding feature of the wave of protests, conversations, and questioning that has followed the murder of George Floyd has been the centrality of history. Statues, institutions, language, and curricula have all been scrutinised with an eye to understanding who we are as a nation and, most importantly for historians, how we got here.
For our profession this is an intriguing and hopeful development, but also an implicit rebuke. The widespread interest in questions of race and black history in the general public is still not well represented in UK higher education. As the 2018 Royal Historical Society report on Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History showed, we are an unrepresentative profession, and have done far too little to attract BME undergraduates to study history. Some of the reasons for this, and possible first steps towards solutions, were discussed in a previous blog.
At the start of BHM it is worth restating that we have a duty to address this failing, both for reasons of social justice and because a more inclusive history will be a better history.
Over the next four weeks we will be highlighting some of the work going on in the department that is making our small contribution to building that better history.
Each Tuesday we will retweeting links to relevant recent blogs by our graduate students; and each Friday we will be publishing a new blog by a member of staff which highlights the connections between their individual research and an aspect of black British history.
We will also be using BHM as an opportunity, in consultation with our students, to reflect upon ways in which we might develop and deepen our curriculum.
Our Department, of course, shares many of the more general failings of the sector highlighted in the RHS report, so, as well as enjoying our contributions, interested readers will also want to use the next month as an opportunity to engage with the wider literature on black history and the black British experience.
As a starting point, here are ten (very arbitrary) recommendations.
For a general survey, David Olusoga’s Black and British: a forgotten history (2016) has become the standard text. Also still worth reading is the book which inspired a young Olusoga, Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: the history of black people in Britain (1984).
Sometimes the voices of the disenfranchised can be better represented in fiction than they are in standard histories, and Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, has been justly praised for representing a diverse range of black British women’s experiences divided by class, generation, and sexuality.
For a more concentrated novel about the life of a young black woman, Queenie (2019) by Candice Carty-Williams is a light read which illustrates some of the deep inequalities in society.
General histories and novels, however, can only get us so far. Those seeking a more theoretical understanding of issues of race – and its intersections with questions of class, gender, and sexuality – will enjoy two classic works by leading US feminists: Audre Lorde’s short essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House and Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race & Class (1981).
More recently, two books by black British authors that have attracted much attention are Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) and Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018). Natives, in particular, will appeal to historians, as Akala explores his own experiences through a deep understanding of history and historical legacies.
One of those legacies, of course, is racism, and Angela Saini’s Superior: the return of race science (2019) is a very readable account of the rise of the concept of race, and the insidious and destructive role played by race science.
My final recommendation is a work of poetry, Jay Bernard’s quite remarkable Surge (2019). Surge excavates and explores the New Cross Fire of 1981, and connects it to the more recent injustice of Grenfell. Although not strictly speaking a work of history, Bernard’s collection, by taking an often forgotten historical event and linking it to the urgent need to address contemporary inequality, perfectly embodies the positive spirit of Black History Month.
These are my recommendations. Tell us yours.
David Stack is a professor of history in the Department of History.
The University is hosting events throughout Black History Month.