Virtual Special Issue

Black British Histories

Introduction: Reflections on Black British Histories in History Workshop Journal

Caroline Bressey, Meleisa Ono-George, Diana Paton, Kennetta Hammond Perry and Sadiah Qureshi

This October marks over thirty years since Black History Month was established in the UK as a time to insist that at least some attention be given to the presence of Black lives in Britain. It falls towards the end of another turbulent year in what is likely to be a period that will be intensely examined and analysed as a key moment in British history. It is a period that may come to be defined once again by the SS Empire Windrush: though this time not as an uncomplicated, mythical ‘Windrush Narrative’ of a ship’s arrival conflated with the emergence of multi-cultural Britain, but for what has become known as ‘The Windrush Scandal’, a process in which the British state denied and sought to erase histories of Black communities, Commonwealth citizenship and individual lives in Britain, as explored by Kennetta Hammond Perry. Further, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter and the Rhodes Must Fall movements in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, defined in the UK by the downing of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in June, led to a renewed interest in historical geographies of Black communities and wide-ranging debates about why what history we remember matters. This moment could have been the opening of hard conversations that many have been pushing for, for so many years. Instead, we’ve already witnessed a pushing back against these interrogations. This highly public and powerful formation is behind what Stuart Hall called ‘the defensive embattlement’ amongst those who see the toppling as one more attempt at ‘erasing’ British history, rather than accepting the role of ‘history’ as a subject of interrogation and the inevitable revisions in the historical stories we seek to tell.

Nurse Ademola c. 1939

One of the debates that tends to re-emerge in one form or another almost every year concerns the continued relevance of marking Black History Month in Britain and the persistent need to clarify the purpose of Black history as a genre of historical writing, study, practice, politics and community engagement that deserves and demands recognition. While some local authorities and institutions are rebranding Black History Month as a broader celebration of diversity, pointing to all the work that remains to be done by maintaining a focus specifically on Black British history and people of African descent is an important and worthwhile task. And the bringing together in this Virtual Special Issue of material published in History Workshop Journal and History Workshop Online over a roughly thirty-year period provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and significance of Black British history.

Black British History was not prominent in the main radical strands of post war scholarship which sought to re-make British history, and History Workshop Journal, as part of that remaking, has not been the primary locus for publishing Black British history. Whilst the early History Workshop movement’s history was in solidarity with antiracism, it was not necessarily constituted by Black history. Nonetheless, the two projects bear close affinities, especially in their commitment to accessibility and in drawing attention to untold stories and in their interrogation of the relationship between public historical narratives, nationalism, national identities, race and political culture. Therefore, it is notable and not surprising that when the History Workshop collective changed its original masthead subtitle, ‘a journal of socialist historians’, they did so by adding ‘feminist’ but not ‘antiracist’. Nevertheless, the papers in this collection – and others that could not be included but which can be found in the journal’s larger archive – reflect and demonstrate a deep connection between members of the History Workshop movement and some of the most important scholars of Black British thought. To be sure there are many voices who have been integral to the field of Black British history whose work does not feature in the pages of History Workshop Journal; however, it is important to think about the ways that History Workshop Journal is a space that is firmly within the orbit of a constellation of radical intellectual thought that has historically informed and been informed by Black life in Britain.

Over the course of History Workshop Journal’s near fifty year history, and more recently in its online magazine, History Workshop Online, History Workshop has created a place to envision multiple geographies of Black British history that take us across the circuits and borders of the empire but also through a global and diasporic lens that is not necessarily always bound to nation or empire (Gilroy, 1990). From one of the earliest papers included by Jennifer Davis through to the most recent contributions to the History Workshop Online forums, it is clear that Black British histories formed simultaneously in relation to nation, empire, diaspora, internationalism, and globality. The articles brought together in this collection also demonstrate how history functions as “both a social project and a mode of analysis,” (168), a point of view which Mary Chamberlain notes was shared by Caribbean historian Elsa Goveia in an History Workshop Journal article that highlights the philosophy of history espoused by one of the few Black women who received a doctorate in History during the mid-twentieth century at a British university.

Though each generation engages with Black history for many reasons, there has been a remarkable consistency in the desire to write Black British history to challenge forms of historical erasure. Consistent exclusion has profoundly harmful consequences, from generations of students being robbed of the chance to learn about their own histories to the deportation of migrants whose citizenship was no longer recognised by a state that has yet to reckon with its imperial past, as explored by Luke de Noronha. In this way, Black British history operates as kind of oppositional and radical politics. It challenges unmarked, unqualified ‘British History’ to be written and taught in ways that do not stop at the boundary of the island Britain. In that so many of its subjects led transnational and mobile lives—as, in fact, have many non-Black residents of Britain—it also requires historians to understand events and processes taking place beyond present-day British borders to be constitutive of British history.

Black British history also helps us to understand some of the dynamics of our present moment, in which official celebrations of diversity sit alongside denials and public denouncements by leading politicians about the significance of racism and legacies of empire, all while pursuing policies that work to entrench racial inequality. Such contradictions sit within the legacy of a British past in which a self-proclaimed tolerant and beneficent nation has frequently grounded itself in imperial projects that relied on extreme violence. As Cedric Robinson suggested in his 1987 polemic, ‘Capitalism, Slavery, and Bourgeois Historiography’, some of the work of maintaining a fiction of British imperial humanitarianism has been done through the writing of history. However, writing history also has the potential to disrupt such fictions, as in the case of Anita Rupprecht’s work which uses insurance policies to excavate the history of African struggle and refusal on board slave ships and their connections to contemporary reparations campaigns. Rupprecht points out, in an analytic move that has become much more widely accepted, the ‘legacy of slavery is not something that merely haunts the present…it contributes decisively to the shape that the present assumes’ (23).

Suturing the ties between past and present has been one of the defining political imperatives of Black British history. In reflecting on the fall of Edward Colston’s statue during the summer of 2020 within the context of a wider debate about how histories are reflected in and refracted through the architectural landscapes that define our current conjuncture reminds us of Bill Schwarz’s injunction to notice the ways that “the past is activated in the present.” And part of the urgency of Black British history now is its relevance to orienting our understanding of what we might call the work of anti/Blackness as it is lived, embodied, refused, imagined and continually remade in the present. This urgency is manifest, for instance, in the continual surprise many express about the scale of racism, particularly anti-Blackness, that is embedded within everyday lives, and the deliberate attempts to stifle any form of reparative change. We must stop assuming that such surprise and resistance are borne of ignorance alone and understand that they are also deliberately hostile attempts to derail both conversations about anti-racism and the building of solidarities that contest the extreme economic inequalities of today’s world.

Yet the radical politic encompassed in Black British history is not just about reflecting and challenging white racisms and structural inequalities as its primary focus. The erasure of Black lives from historical narratives is one thing, but the taking of history from Black lives, as a way of dehumanizing and oppressing, is another. The reclaiming of history as a tool of uplift, healing and empowerment of Black communities—focused on the needs, aspirations, joy, care (and future) of individuals and a community of people becomes another radical and oppositional social function of Black British history. Thus, despite the marginalization of histories of Black Britain in the British academy, including in the ancillary spaces that reinforce its institutional power such as the pages of academic journals, there is a rich intellectual tradition of creating historical narratives that excavate, foreground and interrogate the lives of people of African descent and those racialized as Black in shaping British societies. And as Caroline Bressey attests, networks like BASA created outside formal academic spaces by educators, community historians, archivists and heritage practitioners and independent scholars were formative in propelling ground-breaking scholarship in the field of Black British history. This informed the trajectory of its ongoing institutionalisation within the British education system and its enduring importance as a public resource that should be “researched, written about, debated and enjoyed.”

Black British History and the Politics of British History

This collection also calls attention to the fact that Black British history itself has a history (Bressey, 2017). In this Virtual Special Issue, Black British history includes research focused on the histories of people of African descent living in Britain and parts of the British Empire, but also processes of racialisation and of memory-making that have formed and contested specifically anti-Black and anti-African formations of racism. Much of this early activism can be gleaned from the ‘Reports Back’ of conferences and ongoing debates in the field (Davin 1994; Chamberlain, 1994; Bressey, 2002; Evans, 2011). In drawing together the works for this VSI for the UK’s Black History Month, we are joining those who take this opportunity each October of calling Black history into view, insisting upon its social function, interrogating its ontological and epistemological forms of articulation and perhaps most importantly, making room for the argument that it matters (Waters, 2016). The work of engendering this thing that we are calling ‘Black British history’ is often derived from labouring intellectually, emotionally and politically against currents of erasure, violence, and disavowal that are sedimented within our primary tools of inquiry—archives, “theatres of memories,” the residual effects of life and death as well as that which remains undocumented. And such erasures are not easily redressable or overcome.

Undertaking Black history work is hard. It requires painstaking archival recovery; it is work that cannot be bounded by regional or national borders; it requires reading archives with and against their grain; it requires working in archives that can be deeply painful to engage  with and reading words and images that carry the notations of violence and continue to violate, as exemplified by this collection but particularly in Christienna Fryar and Mary Chamberlain’s research. It is work that has many emotional burdens. It is work that raises important questions about the ethics of making personal histories of pain and marginalisation and humiliation public; and it is a form of history writing that always connects the past to the present. Such themes of research are not unique to Black histories in Britain, but their coming together within and upon the lives of Black and Brown bodies is.

To some extent the need to mark Black British history draws our attention to a set of questions that involve grappling with the political stakes of the production of history. Ultimately, the problem is with the structure of the discipline itself. The erasures of Black diasporic histories (and other histories of people marginalized within British society) is endemic within the academy, publishing and beyond. The constant efforts to reclaim and reinsert Black life in a narrative constructed using conventions (and within boundaries) established alongside the same structures designed to dehumanize and dehistorize Black people places us in a never ending cycle of violence, pain and erasures. This is not a discipline that was developed to capture the histories and knowledges of people of African ancestry or the extraordinarily rich and varied ways in which people around the world express and know the past. As Ono George’s “The Power of the Telling” asks, as historians how do we contend with and attend to these dynamics in the histories that we tell, how we tell them, where we tell them? What can the historical absences marked by the necessity of Black British history’s existence tell us about the political stakes of history and the interpretative possibilities and limitations of the methodological tools that we conventionally employ to explore, write, teach, study and produce and capture ‘history’?

Black British history raises foundational political and epistemological questions about whose work we value, who we write for and our own positionality with respect to the people we write about and work alongside. In recent years, a decades long debate about the exclusion of Black historians from the academy has intensified as departments across the UK finally realise that they have never hired a Black historian in any period or region, never created dedicated positions in Black British history, that their students have never been taught by a Black professor and that they have a shockingly low number of Black students in undergraduate degrees and funded doctoral positions. With a number of new positions in Black British history, institutions are finally taking much-needed and long overdue action, yet there are many challenges ahead. In this climate, will new hires be entering safe workplaces where they will be properly supported in their careers? Will academics writing Black British histories in freely and publicly accessible forms be supported in doing so or will their efforts fail to be recognised by existing expectations about writing primarily for academic audiences and meeting shifting institutional expectations around ‘research excellence?’ Things are changing, as the exceptional Young Historians Project demonstrates, but too slowly. Impact remains narrowly defined and community work is often far too unequal to be considered co-produced. Will the inclusion of Black British history within academic institutions further marginalise the community historians whose work has been so important to the very existence of the field, or will those community histories and historians be acknowledged and supported? These are particularly pressing issues that require urgent attention. And as Ono-George’s piece reminds us, these are not just political questions about representation, but much bigger questions about epistemology and methodology.

Black British History Now

There is an urgency to take stock and seriously consider how to handle the latest ‘history wars’ that have already begun, and are likely to escalate. The rise and fall of Edward Colston’s statue is emblematic of many presences in absences in British national memory and the celebrations of British history in the public sphere (Caseley-Hayford, 2002). As part of a History Workshop Journal special issue marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British Slave Trade in 2007, Madge Dresser mapped a series of public monuments connected to slavery and abolition in London. She reflected it was at the time ‘a topic that has attracted remarkably little empirical research.’ The appointment of Professor Olivette Otele to the University of Bristol’s first Chair in the History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement is illustrative of limited change. In addition, as Catherine Hall suggests, unpicking the legacies of British slave ownership presents an extraordinarily rich seam that has yet to be fully explored, despite decades of poring over Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Yet, the focus upon the representation of history in public spaces and the criminalisation of challenging it shows that this is a subject that has, for now, become central to how Black history in Britain is thought of and discussed, though the experiences of Black historical actors remains greatly marginalised in these debates. The developing culture wars against ‘wokeness’, in which history is prime battleground, have shown the need for a complex approach to the question of the impact of Britain’s imperial history on British formations of whiteness. We need histories that recognise the deep and longstanding ways in which the identities of those who became white have been bound up with empire and claims about British ‘greatness’. Those histories look different across the different nations and regions of Britain. To be sure, we also need histories of how those narratives have been disrupted and contested by formations of solidarity that have crossed racialised identities, and of the unevenness—in class and geographies—of the distribution of the extracted spoils of Empire among white British people.

Black British history, or even Black studies more broadly, holds immense potential for accurately diagnosing the present moment, but also imagining equitable and liberatory futures. In one sense the urgency of Black British history now— particularly as it is being summoned as a resource to reckon with the indignities of the present— is its ability to interrupt and destabilise progress-oriented narratives of British history that would consign the racialised colonial order and its logics of violence to the past. How can we unsettle this frame? How can we use History to map a way forward? If History is, as Édouard Glissant argues, ‘a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone “made” the history of the World’, then how can we reimagine this fantasy from Black perspectives, and how might this reimagining change the discipline?[1] Black British history highlights the need for this change, but also, in the way it has been produced and experimented with within communities, it sets possibilities for a different way of doing and knowing that may just lead us to the kind of future in which History becomes the expression of consciousness that captures and embodies the full complexities and nuances of the existence and humanity of all peoples. And this is the power and the urgency of Black histories: they push us to consider the very function of History as a social tool in bringing us towards such an imagined future. This is precisely why political demands that do not centre individual representation and diversity, but reckoning, redress and reimagining are so powerful. If this world was made through historical forces, it might also be unmade but, more importantly, be remade.

[1] Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1989), p. 64 and p. 93.


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access to all of the articles below for a period of 6 months.


Capitalism, Slavery and Bourgeois Historiography
Cedric J. Robinson | 23 (1987)

From ‘Rookeries’ to ‘Communities’: Race, Poverty and Policing in London, 1850–1985
Jennifer Davies | 27 (1989)

Nationalism, History and Ethnic Absolutism
Paul Gilroy | 30 (1990)

Gender and the Narratives of Migration
Mary Chamberlain | 43 (1997)

Breaking bread with history: CLR James and The Black Jacobins
Stuart Hall interviewed by Bill Schwarz | 46 (1998)

From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence
Stuart Hall | 48 (1999)

The Black Umbrella: Some Reflections on the Sainsbury African Galleries
Augustus Casely‐Hayford | 54 (2002)

Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London
Madge Dresser | 64 (2007)

Excessive Memories: Slavery, Insurance and Resistance
Anita Rupprecht | 64 (2007)

Gendering Property, Racing Capital
Catherine Hall | 78 (2014)

Thinking Black: Peter Fryer’s Staying Power and the Politics of Writing Black British History in the 1980s
Rob Waters | 82 (2016)

Radical History Then and Now
Caroline Bressey | 83 (2017)

The Narrative of Ann Pratt: Life-Writing, Genre and Bureaucracy in a Postemancipation Scandal
Christienna Fryar | 85 (2018)

Reports Back

‘Black Peoples in Britain: Local Histories’, People’s College, Nottingham, 16-17 October 1994
Anna Davin | 37 (1994)

‘Women and Gender in Caribbean History’, Mona, Jamaica, November 1993
Mary Chamberlain | 37 (1994)

‘Erasing the Colour Line? The Past, The Present, The Future’, London, 27 October 2001
Caroline Bressey | 53 (2002)

‘Our Memories of the Uprisings: The 1980s Revisited’, British Library, 25 October 2010
Sarah Evans, Philip Hatfield, Gail Lewis | 72 (2011)

History Workshop Online