Monday, 2 November 2015

Black British history is happening – but to what end?

Guest blog by David Killingray 

Talk at British Black History Conference 29 October 2015 at Senate House, Malet St

Much excellent work has been done recently on black British history.  This rich fare consists of biographies, family histories, lengthy studies of political groups and organisations, theses and books on the slave trade and slavery, and a broad range of studies that place Britain’s black population in the context of the Imperial world and the Black Atlantic.   As we applaud achievement, it is also useful to ask some questions about the endeavour: what is missing?  What is new?  Is it bold in challenging received ideas?  Are there people, group interests, relational networks, ideas and beliefs that are being neglected or ignored?   And who is reading what has been written?  

Historians are faced with a particular challenge.  By writing history they have the responsibility and privilege of helping to shape how the past is viewed and understood.  Are they being true to that calling to be objective and accurate in the analyses that they write?   History does strange things to emotion, and this appears to be particularly so in the case of black British history.  It stokes passions for the past, it kindle fires, a longing to right wrongs, and sometimes a delight in identifying and magnifying the role of heroes and denigrating rogues   - all of which can also distort vision and analysis. [1]

Let me examine some of the challenges that I see facing black British history. 

First of all its Context and Dimensions

I don’t think there is a specific ‘Black British history’.   We might choose to study the activities and institutions of black people in Britain but that is research into a vital aspect of British history.   That labour is for two primary purposes: first, to write a largely untold history of black lives and activities principally of interest to a contemporary black constituency; and second, to bring to the attention of as many people as possible an important aspect of this country’s past that has been ignored.

Black British history is not exclusively about black communities in Britain.  However distinctive a minority, it is important to see its members in the context of the larger, in this case, white population with whom they interact and relate.   Due recognition needs to be given to the way in which black ambitions and struggles frequently involved white Britons.  We can see this in Caroline Bressey’s recent book on Catherine Impey;[2] work on the Brotherhood Movement;[3] the Pan-African Conference of 1900 which, although in the hands of people of African origin and descent, leaned heavily and eagerly on the support of humanitarian-minded whites.[4]  The small handful of black Marxists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s worked with white comrades, and sometimes bitterly disagreed with them, as we see in the two very substantial books by Hakim Adi and by Holger Weiss published in 2013.[5]  And, as with the earlier African Association of the late 1890s, the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930-40s worked closely and profitably with its ‘honorary’ white members.[6]

Secondly Direction

I see a danger in black British history of a desire by some to continue ploughing the same old furrow.  There is more to black British history than Equiano, Mary Seacole, Walter Tull, and C.L.R. James.  This approach is sometimes marked by a lack of curiosity, an apparent sense of  comfort secured by adherence to old received opinions, and a strong reluctance to think beyond a polarised world view of black people as victims involved in an heroic struggle against white racist villains.  It is incumbent upon historians to be broad in reading, deep in thinking, rigorous in critical scholarship, making judgements and analyses that are firmly based on evidence, and, because the aim is to get as many people as possible to read what is written, to write texts marked by clarity and integrity.  

Over-reliance on old texts can continue to shape current views of black British history.  For example, the books by Folarin Shyllon and Peter Fryer written decades ago are still used uncritically by many as authoritative touchstones.[7]  Fryer’s seminal Staying Power was written with a Marxist perspective which severely limited the author’s range of enquiry in to the lives and activities of black people in Britain’s past.   All these books will no doubt continue to be of value but what now is needed is a published history which takes account of the substantial volume of research undertaken during the past 40 years.

So what is left out of the picture of black activity in Britain over the past 400-500 years?   In addition to what I have already said, there continues to be a substantial focus on the role of the political left, work which I generally applaud, but its rhetoric should not be allowed to frame the history of black activity and endeavour in Britain.   Black British history is wider and more complex than that. 

May I suggest four examples of that needed breadth:

(1)  The ideas advanced by Kathleen Chater about the status and role of black people in England and Wales during the 18th century need to be further investigated.[8]  Studies of the presence of black peoples in specific localities would help further understanding of the diversity of black lives and activities.

(2)  More attention needs to be given to the endeavours of black liberals and democrats from the Caribbean and Africa who shaped pan-Africanist ideas in the early 20th century, and in the 1920s-40s, for example those who congregated around Harold Moody and W. Arthur Lewis of the Fabian-minded League of Coloured Peoples.  The League presented another radical and, I would argue, a more dominant and effective voice.  While Padmore, James, and Jones wished to kick down the doors of government offices, and were thus ignored, Moody and Lewis knocked politely and were invariably admitted across the threshold where they persistently presented firm arguments, which actually led to limited changes.  At the same time it is wrong to imagine that all black people living in Britain were caught up in some kind of struggle for civil rights and representation.  It is clear that there were a good number of individuals who just got on with their lives and, as with their white neighbours, made the best of what they had.

(3)  Then there is the long-enduring and important Christian dimension to black British history which has largely been ignored, less so for the late 18th century, but certainly through the 19th and into the 20th centuries.[9]  The primary sources for this are vast, not least the ecclesiastical and Christian missionary records, and the burgeoning religious press and missionary magazines generated over the past 200 years.   Such sources reveal a good deal about the lives of John Jea, Zilpha Elaw, Celestine Edwards, Theophilus Scholes,[10] Amanda Smith, Thomas Brem Wilson,[11] Felix E.M. Hercules, Joseph Jackson Fuller, and the 12 or more black Anglican clergy working in English parishes between 1799 and 1950.[12]   Not long ago I was dismayed to be told by the archivist of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton that there were no plans to collect material generated by the many black churches on their very doorstep in London.

(4)  Black British history also needs to be seen in the wider context of the Atlantic world.   There has been a substantial output of scholarly work on the African slave trade, but to what extent has it informed school teachers’ thinking, and the minds of others, about black British history?  That research raises serious questions about the patterns of transatlantic slave trading, and the extent of West African merchants’ involvement in shaping that commerce.[13]   Let me again emphasise that the task of the historian is to analyse complex data and draw reasonable conclusions; their job is not to label permanently Africans only as ‘victims’ however terrible the structural violence and the inequalities in trade which helped sustain and shape the transatlantic commerce in slaves over so many centuries.

Finally let me say a brief word about Dissemination and Communication

A good deal is happening in black British history, but there is a serious challenge as to how new research, writing, and ideas can reach the wider readership it deserves.   Many studies appear in local and provincial publications, or get buried in expensive scholarly books and academic journals that are largely inaccessible to people up and down the country.  

With the demise of the BASA Newsletter in mid-2012, as a community of scholars and enthusiasts we have lost a convenient medium for our research and queries.  There is an urgent need to rescue current research from obscurity.  Perhaps this requires a new online journal, freely accessible to all, a reference point focussed on black British history and related overseas activities, which might include peer-reviewed articles, research findings, and also a ‘notice board’.    Is it too much to ask that this meeting endorse such an idea and take action to put it in place?    

David Killingray is Emeritus Professor of Modern History, Goldsmiths, and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Advanced Study, University of London.  He taught in secondary schools in Britain and Tanzania for 12 years, then helped train teachers, studied for a PhD at SOAS, and subsequently for much of his career taught African and Caribbean history in several universities.  He has written books and articles on aspects of African, Caribbean, Imperial, and English local history as well as on the black diaspora.

[1]   David Olusoga, ‘Back History Month needs a rethink: it’s time to ditch the heroes’, The Guardian, 9 October 2015.
[2]   Empire, Race and the Politics of ‘Anti-Caste’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
[3]   David Killingray, ‘Hands joined in Brotherhood: the rise and decline of a movement for faith and social change, 1875-2000’, in Anthony R. Cross, Peter J Morden, and Ian M. Randall, eds., Pathways and Patterns in History.  Essays on Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Modern World in Honour of David Bebbington (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 2015), pp. 319-39.  I mention this here, and other chapters and papers of mine below, partly to emphasise a point already made in the text above that work on black British history often appears in fairly obscure publications. 
[4]   Marika Sherwood, Origins of Pan-Africanism.  Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa and the African Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2011).  The ideas of pan-Africanism in this period form a central part of a book that I hope to complete in 2016, provisionally entitle ‘Race, Religion and Gender in the Black Atlantic World, 1890-191’.
[5]   Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism.  The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton, NJ.: Africa World Press, 2013).  Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic.  African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2013).    See also Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2014).
[6]   I am currently completing a book-length biography of Dr Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples.
[7]   Folarin Shyllon, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1974); and Black People in Britain 1555-1833 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977).  Peter Fryer, Staying Power.  The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto, 1984).
[8]   Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories.  Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c.1660-1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
[9]  Several of the black writers in Britain during the late 18th century, Phillis Wheatley, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Ottobah Cugoana, and Olaudah Equiano, were all evangelically-minded Christians.  See the recent research by Ryan Hanley, now at New College, Oxford.   For a broader perspective on black British Christians see David Killingray, ‘’Black evangelicals in Darkest Britain, 1770s-1930s’, in Mark Smith, ed., British Evangelical Identities Past and Present (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp. 128-42; and David Killingray and Joel Edwards, Black Voices.  The shaping of our Christian experiences (Nottingham: IVP, 2007).    
[10]   On Scholes see David Killingray, ‘The Reverend Dr Theophilus Edward Samuel Scholes: Baptist missionary and imperial critic at the heart of Empire, 1856-c.1940, in Anthony R. Cross and John H.Y. Briggs, eds, Freedom and the Powers.  Perspectives from Baptist History (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 2014), pp.175-202.
[11]   Brem Wilson’s diaries, covering intermittently the years 1899-1925, were located with his descendants in southern England.  I have transcribed them and, along with an accompanying essay, they are soon to be deposited in various appropriate archives and libraries.
[12] I have recently written a paper on ‘Black Anglican clergy in the Established Church in England, 1799-1950’, where I examine the ministry of, and public responses to, black clergymen who served as parish ministers.   In addition there were the many black Christian ministers who served in British dissenting churches during the same period; my files on that topic measure some six inches. 
[13] For example, Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester, NY.: Rochester University Press, 2011); and Randy Sparks study of the West African trade of Anamabo , Where the Negroes are Masters: An African port in the era of the slave trade (Cambridge ., MA.: Harvard University Press, 2014); plus the articles by Lisa A. Lindsay and James A. Sweet in the Journal of African History, 55,2 (2014), 133-59.