Power in the Telling

“Power in the Telling”: Community-Engaged Histories of Black Britain

Recent movements have laid bare the political and contested terrain of Higher Education.  The university is not a site of neutrality, separate from the historic and embedded structures of inequality and power. It has played a central role historically within the colonial project and still today in creating and shoring up social inequalities. The recent Royal Historical Society (RHS) report on racism highlighted the way historical and socio-cultural inequalities play out within the discipline of history and specifically in relation to both the study of Black British histories and Black British students and staff. While the RHS report identified ways that historians can address these inequalities in teaching practice and the dissemination of research, the articles and podcasts that make up this HWO feature consider the production of Black British histories. These histories, produced either in collaboration with academics or within communities, aim to decolonize the curriculum and to make the discipline more equitable.

An extract from the 60ft-long Westminster Tournament Roll (1511). It shows six trumpeters, one of whom is Black and is almost certainly the musician John Blanke. Wikimedia Commons.

The professional historian in the UK – that is, those employed by universities to research and teach history – is more than likely to be racialized as white, whether British or from abroad. Indeed, it is unlikely that an undergraduate student studying history at a UK university will be taught history of any kind by a person who is not white and even less likely that they will be taught be a person of African ancestry. According to recent survey of History Departments in UK higher education, there were 3,115 academics employed. Of these, 15 (10 UK, 5 non-UK) identified as either Black African or Black Caribbean. The overwhelming majority of historical texts a student will read throughout the three years of their undergraduate degree on any aspect of British history is equally unlikely to be authored by a British person of African ancestry. While this data may seem surprising, what is actually surprising, because it’s so very unlikely, is that an undergraduate student studying the history of Britain will encounter a Black historian, in print or in person, in UK universities.

But the absence of Black historians in British universities is not just a question of diversity and representation, nor identity politics. This is not a matter of who should or should not write or teach Black histories, but rather a much more significant issue of equity and social justice. To be more specific, the absence of Black historians employed in history departments is not isolated, but is revealing of a larger and more pernicious issue of inequalities within the study of history in UK higher education.

As documented in the RHS report, Black students are less likely to achieve a ‘good’ honours History degree than their peers and even more unlikely to achieve a first (a trend which mirrors other subjects). The data also shows a ‘leaky pipeline’ when it comes to the progression of Black history students from undergraduate studies to masters to PhD, and then on to academic posts. While there are several contributing factors to the ‘awarding’ gap and ‘leaky pipeline’, for many Black students the negative experience with the curriculum and in the classroom is a major one. In qualitative studies, students have cited the absence of Black tutors and lecturers, as well as narrow, Eurocentric reading lists and curricula as contributing factors to their alienation within the institution and negative outcomes. The inequalities do not just pertain to student experience within Higher Education, but move beyond academia and have wider implications for Black British communities. A lack of Black historians means that people of African ancestry may be the subjects of research, but are rarely ever the ones determining the research questions or focus and thereby deciding what historical research is important and what forms of knowledge are of value.

Though Black bodies are absent from the institution and Black perspectives have been absent in the production of academic histories, there has been a long history of Black communities and individuals producing their own histories. To name just a few examples, in the late 1950s and 60s, articles on the history of Caribbean and Black Britons were published in the West Indian Gazette and other newspapers. In 1972, the first book-length history of Black presence in Britain was published by Edward Scobie. The Black Cultural Archives was established in 1981 and other community-held archival collections have been established over the past years. And today, exhibitions and community-led walking tours take place in major cities. Across the country, Black folks working outside of the institution and history departments have been at the vanguard of Black British history.

An exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives (2014). TripAdvisor.

But these non-academic, often community-led histories have, with few exceptions, stood on the margins of academic historiography. These are not the histories that are read or discussed in university classrooms or research that has access to major UK funding bodies. The knowledges produced are not those valued or the scholars referenced or called upon as ‘experts’ within the field of British histories. The perspectives and interpretations of Black Britons are not sought out. And it is certainly not Black Britons constructing or informing the national narrative or the community’s place within it. Black folks, Black British folks, are rarely ever seated at the table.

History is not just about what is known, but also about the process and politics of its production. This understanding of history is captured in the 1991 Julie Dash film, ‘Daughters of the Dust’, when an elder tells her children that “There is power in knowing but there is also power in the telling”, reminding them of their responsibilities in the preservation of the family’s histories. And it is in the telling, the production of history, that community-led and community-engaged histories hold transformative potential for academic studies of Black British histories. Ethical and decolonial community-engaged research methodologies, such as those used by Black participatory research scholars in the social sciences and Indigenous studies scholars in the writing of Indigenous histories, provide models of how historians of Black British histories, those outside and within, may engage in such a way that is not exploitative of Black British communities. It is in the telling that historians concerned with social justice, and the politics of what we do, might work to foster a more inclusive and equitable discipline, where the knowledges of the marginalized are valued.  But it is also in the telling that, as the rest of that quote goes, Black Britons might “reclaim as our right” to intervene in the narratives of production, working with and beyond the institution.

This feature is concerned with the politics of production in Black British history. The articles in this feature provide samples of community-based or engaged work that have reclaimed or seek to reclaim the ‘telling’ of Black British histories. The pieces are all co-produced with and from Black British communities, but from very different standpoints. They reveal the very different ways that those inside and outside academia are thinking about the politics of community-engaged and community-led Black British history and what that might mean for academic histories. Together, they are a sample of the continuous efforts of Black communities to intervene in the telling of Black histories, but also to empower, decolonize, and reimagine histories that “speaks directly to the needs and the aspirations” of Black British communities and peoples.*

*Larry Neal, ‘The Black Arts Movement’, The Drama Review: TDR 12, Black Theatre (1968), 28-39. Larry Neal is talking about the role and relationship of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) with the Black Power movement of the 1960s America. However, his argument that Black artist and writers have a role to play in the construction of a “Black aesthetic”, in a vision of the world that speaks to the truths of the oppressed not the oppressor resonant with much of my thinking around the politics of production in history. I come back to this quote repeatedly and am inspired by it.

One Comment

  1. I agree with the above publication about the lack of black researchers and the circumstances faced by the black community. I am white but may have faced something (while not as extreme) along the same lines with my own education.
    Once failing the 11+ in Liverpool in 1962 the opportunities for girls of my time were limited to ‘do you want to work in a shop, or an office?’ The lessons offered included a whole day out of the five for learning how to cook, clean and how to look after children.
    The opportunities to improve your lot were hard to achieve, as you believed that this was normal and accepted being second best.
    I have now arrived in advanced education with a BA(hons) History and have begin a MA. As the song says ‘things can only get better.’

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *