Decolonizing British history

The general election is being held today. I voted by post a while ago so I’ve missed the ritual of going to the polling station and casting a ballot in person. I’m already nervous about the results. I expect that Theresa May will continue to be Prime Minister and that I will continue to feel aghast whenever I read the news.

Increasingly, I despair at the tone of public debate. For a historian of race, current political discussion resonates with the most xenophobic, racist and violent anti-immigration discussions of the 1970s and the 1980s. Things have been getting worse for a while. After all, whilst Theresa May was Home Secretary she ushered in some of the most alarming anti-immigrant measures that I can remember, including the Go Home vans. As Prime Minister, she has explicitly threatened to dismantle human rights legislation. I find this chilling.

I find myself wondering what historians might do in the current climate. Increasingly, I feel the burden of decolonizing British history. Writing histories that challenge the exclusion of people of colour and erasure of racism have always been central to my work but I feel a new urgency brought on by changes in British politics since the vote to leave the European Union.

To be reminded of how entrenched whitewashed British histories are, you only have to look at the responses to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford. Cecil Rhodes bequeathed £100,000 from the accumulated wealth of his imperial exploitation to Oriel College and his statue still embellishes the college’s façade. Students campaigning for the statue’s removal faced vociferous opposition. Oriel College eventually decided to keep the statue after it reportedly faced losing £100 million from wealthy donors and alumni.

Rhodes may not have fallen yet but, in recent weeks, the University of Oxford announced an overhaul of the history curriculum. Undergraduates are finally going to be required to study black, Asian and extra-European history and figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Among many of my academic colleagues, the changes are seen as desperately needed but not enough because of the underlying focus on heroes.

Universities need to move beyond celebrating extraordinary individuals to embedding alternative perspectives and people of colour into academic life on a much broader scale. After all, most efforts pale in comparison to the work being done at Birmingham City University and the launch of the Black Studies degree programme. Although common in the United States, the course is the first in Europe to embrace the positive political connotations of Black Studies and has already attracted significant interest.

I’ve been thinking about decolonizing British history even more than usual over the last couple of months because I’ve been writing about David Olusoga’s book, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) for the London Review of Books (you can read an extract of the book here).

As well as reading the book, I watched the accompanying BBC series. I’ve been excited about the series for over a year because, during production, I was contacted by a researcher to chat about displayed peoples. It was worth the wait. The series was thoughtful and urgently needed. Some of the most extraordinary footage featured poignant scenes of black plaques emblazoned with golden dedications being erected at sites across Britain, Africa and the Caribbean – English Heritage has long been criticised for dedicating too few blue plaques to people of colour. The ceremonies were attended by enthusiastic local communities and descendants to create a global material network honouring a vast array of lives, whether at the ruins of Bunce Island’s slave fort in the Sierra Leone River or Doctor Johnson’s town house.

Such acts of remembrance are important ways of rejecting visions of Britishness rooted in black erasure. Undoing the harm of selective recollection is urgently needed because, as Olusoga notes, the ‘denial and avowal of black British history…is not just a consequence of racism but a feature of racism’ (p. 10). The disavowal frames current political discourse about immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and ‘British values’. Whether overlooking the longstanding presence of people of colour in Britain, ongoing forms of anti-blackness or eliding the racist violence of British imperialism, erasure has bred hostility and nostalgia for an imperial past in which people of colour were violently oppressed, subjugated and dehumanized. The lasting consequences of that structural violence have yet to be undone.

Britons are not alone in indulging selective memories of the past, but discussions over Scottish independence, the future of the European Union and Brexit have renewed debates about who belongs in Britain and at what cost. For those bearing the brunt of the attendant rise in hate crimes and fearing for their safety, the combined benefits of protest, resistance and historical recovery cannot come soon enough.

I hope that the cumulative impact of renewed efforts will be a new generation for whom inclusion is not a sop to political correctness but much-needed, and expected, historical veracity.

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