Qualia's Qualms

Liminal confutations from a historian of race, science and empire


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Teaching Black and South Asian British History

I’m currently on leave and due to teach again from September 2018. When asked what I wanted to teach, I decided to refresh my course on genocide studies and offer a new course on Black and South Asian British history. I’ve taught these histories before, but I’ve never put together a dedicated survey.

My thoughts are now often preoccupied with thinking about how best to approach race and British history in this course. I still need a title and a final list of topics for my weekly seminars. I may call it ‘“There Is Black in the Union Jack”: An Introduction to Black and South Asian British History’. The title is both a play on Paul Gilroy’s classic book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and refers to a documentary of the same name and series of events recently held by the Black Southwest Network, promoted through #ThereISBlackInTheUnionJack.

I’m genuinely excited about catching up on lots of wonderful work whilst contributing to the broader decolonization of British history that has become so prominent with campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ and Rhodes Must Fall. My module will span at least four centuries of settlement and migration by peoples of African and South Asian descent in Britain.

The course is deeply personal to me, both because of my identity and commitment to antiracism. At the moment, I’m writing a book about the history of extinction but, in the long run, I want return to race and British history in my writing and historical research. I hope this course will help me keep in touch with this field and generate ideas for future projects.

Given my interests, I turned to Twitter to ask my colleagues if they had recently published, or had work forthcoming, of relevance to this course. I was overwhelmed with the response. My tweet received tens of thousands of impressions and many people shared details of their own work or those of colleagues.

Below is a list of everything that I suggested to others, everything mentioned in responses to my tweet and a couple of pieces I only encountered through following up on tweets and new followers. As some work is forthcoming, not everything will be available immediately or have full publication details.

I will not teach the entire list, but I’ve included every suggestion as a thank you to everyone who responded. This list is by no means a comprehensive guide to the wonderful range of work on this subject. However, I hope it will prove a useful resource for colleagues. Happy reading!

Reading List

Amanda Bidnall, The West Indian Generation: Remaking British Culture in London, 1945–1965 (Liverpool University Press, 2017).

Bekeh Utietiang Ukelina, The Second Colonial Occupation: Development Planning and the Legacies of British Colonial Rule in Nigeria (Lexington Books, 2017).

Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

David Holland, ‘The Social Networks of South Asian Migrants in the Sheffield Area during the Early Twentieth Century’, Past & Present 236 (2017): 243–279.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016).

Edward Anderson, ‘‘‘Neo-Hindutva”: The Asia House M.F. Husain Campaign and the Mainstreaming of Hindu Nationalist Rhetoric in Britain’, Contemporary South Asia, BASAS Conference Special Issue, 23 (2015): 45–66.

Edward Anderson and Patrick Clibbens, ‘‘‘Smugglers of truth’’: The Indian Diaspora, Hindu Nationalism, and the Emergency  (1975-77)’, Modern Asian Studies, forthcoming 2018.

Evan Smith, British Communism and the Politics of Race (Brill, 2017).

Gavin Schaffer, The Vision of a Nation: Making Multiculturalism on British Television, 1960–80 (Palgrave, 2014).

Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916–1963 (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Hannah JM Ishmael and Rob Waters, ‘Archive review: The Black Cultural Archives, Brixton’, Twentieth Century British History (2017).

Ian Cobain, The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation (Portobello Books, 2017).

Jason Toynbee and Catherine Tackley, Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance (Routledge, 2014).

Jerri Daboo, Staging British South Asian Culture: Bollywood and Bhangra in British Theatre (Routledge, 2018).

Karamant Iqbal, A Biography of the Word ‘Paki’: Racist Incident in the Workplace (Kindle, [n.d.]).

Karen Sands-O’Connor, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965–2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Lucy Bland, ‘Interracial Relationships and the “Brown Baby Question”: Black GIs, White British Women, and Their Mixed-Race Offspring in World War II’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 26 (2017): 424–453.

Matthew Francis, ‘Mrs Thatcher’s Peacock Blue Sari: Ethnic Minorities, Electoral Politics and The Conservative Party, C. 1974–86’, Contemporary British History 31 (2017): 274–293.

Miranda Kauffmann, Black Tudors (Oneworld, 2017).

Ole Birk Laursen, ‘The Indian Nationalist Press in London, 1865-1914’, in Constance Bantman and Ana Cláudia Surian da Silva, eds, The Foreign Political Press in Nineteenth-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Richard Duckett, The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Burma: Jungle Warfare and Intelligence Gathering in WW2 (IB Tauris, 2017).

Rob Waters, ‘Student Politics, Teaching Politics, Black Politics: An Interview With Ansel Wong’, Race and Class 58 (2016): 17-33.

Rob Waters, Waters, ‘Thinking Black: Peter Fryer’s Staying Power snd The Politics of Writing Black British History in the 1980s’, History Workshop Journal 82 (2016): 104-120.

Roberta Bivins, ‘Picturing Race in the British National Health Service, 1948-1988’, Twentieth Century British History, 28 (2017): 83–109.

Rochelle Almeia, Britain’s Anglo Indians: The Invisibility of Assimilation (Lexington Books, 2017).

Shirin Hirsch, In the Shadow of Powell: Race, Locality and Resistance (Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Simon Peplow, ‘The ‘Linchpin For Success’? The Problematic Establishment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its Conciliation Board’, Contemporary British History 31 (2017): 430-451.

Simon Peplow, ‘A Tactical Manoeuvre to Apply Pressure’: Race and the Role of Public Inquiries in the 1980 Bristol ‘Riot‘, Twentieth Century British History, 2017.

Simon Peplow, Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain (Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Suchita Choudhury, ‘“It Was an Imitashon to be Sure”: The Imitation Indian Shawl in Design Reform and Imaginative Fiction’, Textile History 46 (2015): 189–212.

Suchita Choudhury, ‘Fashion and the “Indian Mutiny”: The “Red Paisley Shawl” in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale’, Victorian Literature and Culture 44 (2016): 817–832.

Sumita Mukherjee, Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Sumita Mukherjee, ‘The All-Asian Women’s Conference 1931: Indian women and their leadership of a pan-Asian feminist organisation’, Women’s History Review 26 (2017): 363-381.

Sumita Mukherjee, ‘The Reception Given to Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Itinerant Indian Christian “Mystic”, in Interwar Britain’, Immigrants & Minorities 35 (2017): 21-39.


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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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The labour of racialization

For a while, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more broadly about race in everyday lived experience. I made the decision after reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015). I had an exceptionally powerful and visceral response to this work, partly because I encountered it during a period of immense frustration with endemic discrimination around me. The book’s raw anger resonated and, unexpectedly, renewed my commitment to writing history.

Right away, I felt as if Coates had articulated more clearly than I ever had, either to myself or my colleagues, why I write the history I do. ‘The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863, it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names’. When I first read these sentences, only six pages in, I had to put the book down and come back several days later. I could have finished the book in a single sitting but I decided to take my time and read it over several days slowly absorbing the words.

I soon found myself poring over Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2015). If only I could have read this when I first went to university. I can’t articulate how uncannily familiar Rankine’s observations felt, especially on the toll of racism. Everyday experiences often confirm patterns of social injustice. Sometimes, the harm is obvious but, more often, it becomes barely visible through historical erasure and gaslighting. ‘Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition’. As Rankine notes, achievement can be deadly and the physiological cost of trying to outrun the ‘buildup of erasure’ even has a name: John Henryism, coined by Professor Sherman James.

Soon after, I came across The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016). The book was conceived in response to a Guardian article featuring writers of colour, including Shukla. An anonymous commentator ‘wondered why there wasn’t a more prominent author interviewed’. For Shukla, the ‘constant anxiety’ people of colour face to ‘show that we have earned our place at the table’ is a tiresome burden. I know that Coates and Rankine will have a lasting impact on me: even so, reading something about racialization in contemporary Britain hit home with unexpected force. I’m especially excited that Shukla is editing a new collection of essays, Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youth, that you can help crowdfund.

I felt renewed by the exquisitely unapologetic tone of the essays. Struggles to break free of awkward and limiting expectations unite numerous voices in the book. The very notion of a ‘good’ immigrant is rooted in the fear of ‘bad’ immigrants stealing jobs and taking advantage. The good immigrant wins gold medals at the Olympics, bakes cakes for the Queen’s birthday, assimilates to a pleasing degree, shrugs off discrimination and is forever grateful. The burden does not end with success. ‘Integrate well. Move upwards in society. Be praised – until people worry that you’re doing too well, and then they remember that you’re foreign’, observes Wei Ming Kam, founder of BAME in Publishing. Without exceptional achievements belonging is never granted but, even with glittering accomplishments, it remains conditional.

Importantly, the book illuminates the labour of racialization. Racialized classifications are not inherently natural or obvious. We all learn to use them through social learning. Once learnt, they can seem obvious but this is an illusion that requires conscious effort to unlearn. People of colour become aware of the historical and social baggage of their skins because racism can thrive on the cumulative impact of unremarkable acts.

Even the simplest of questions pose dilemmas for people of colour: what to wear, whether on the head or body; whether to use given names and honour the genealogies they trace or acquiesce to Anglicized substitutes; whether to bear salutations such as namaste being misused or offer corrections; how to identify one’s heritage, particularly when complexions create dissonant expectations: these are all quotidian conundrums that must be solved in split seconds only to be worried over in hours of private reflection.

I would never consent to being called by an Anglicized nickname. When people don’t even try to get a name right, they’re prioritizing their own comfort over another’s dignity. I refuse to allow that. I also love my name and would never change it, both because of its religious significance and meaning – I am a blessed little (tiger) shark. And yet, I know many people who feel compelled to change their names because they cannot bear the abuse or mockery having a ‘foreign’ name can bring.

Seeing gifted writers of colour articulate the labour of racialization has made me realise that I’ve been reading far too many books of the wrong sort. Too many of the books I read about race do not pay enough attention to lived experience, mental well-being and the hopes and aspirations of their subjects. As I mull over these three books in particular, I hope they help me find a new voice. After all, there is a reason I have a recurring dream that I have written a book called The Unbearable Whiteness of Being. The title is too good not to have been used but, for the moment, it lingers in my thoughts.


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Exhibiting Melbourne’s histories

I’m currently conducting archival research for my second book in Australia. During my trip, I’ll be visiting libraries, museums and state depositories in Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart and Sydney. I’ll also be giving a conference paper for a conference on Colonial Formations at the University of Wollongong. It is a wonderful opportunity to make substantial progress on my second book whilst meeting new colleagues.

In Melbourne I chose to work under the dome of the stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. It was a wonderful place to work. The library holds an extraordinary collection of Australiana and I spent much of my time looking at manuscripts describing early settlement in Victoria.

I was especially keen to visit the Royal Exhibition Building. Opened for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880, the building also hosted the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition of 1888 and is still used for contemporary shows. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, inaugurated the tradition of holding world’s fairs. By the mid twentieth-century, millions of people had visited fairs in places as far-flung as London, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town and Melbourne. The Royal Exhibition Building is an extraordinary edifice that bears witness to the lasting importance of world’s fairs.

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Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

Directly behind the Royal Exhibition Building is the new Melbourne Museum. The museum houses some beautiful displays including the ‘Dinosaur Walk‘ and ‘Forest Secrets’ but, without doubt, the most outstanding was ‘First Peoples‘.

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Bunjil’s feathers

The galleries recount the history of Aboriginal Victoria using the voices and languages of the Koorie community and was co-curated by a Yulendj Group of Elders, community representatives and staff at the museum. Throughout labels using ‘we’ describe the creation, the violence and dispossession of colonial settlement and the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It was the first time I have seen ‘we’ used in a museum gallery showcasing indigenous history.

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‘First Peoples’ stands in stark contrast to the representation of indigenous histories and cultures in museums across the world. It is far too common to see displays about indigenous peoples, presenting perspectives that have not been shaped by broader communities and where the violence of colonization often remains unspoken.

I hope to see many more museum labels using ‘we’ in the future.


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Why I describe myself as a historian of ‘displayed peoples’, not ‘human zoos’

My first book Peoples on Parade was published five years ago this month. I will never forget the day that the first copies were delivered. After so many years, having my book in my hands left me utterly overwhelmed. I spent a long time leafing through every page as I absorbed the book’s beautiful reality. That moment has been on my mind this summer as I’ve spent most of it writing essays that I expect will be my last on displayed peoples for a while.

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One of the strangest things about writing a book is the experience of being reviewed and seeing my work on reading lists. I’m immensely pleased with the reviews that I’ve received and excited by how many people use my work to explore the history of race, science and empire with their students. Reading reviews and seeing my work cited makes me I wish I’d been more explicit about describing myself as a historian of ‘displayed peoples’.

Peoples on Parade traced how foreign peoples were displayed in galleries, theatres, museums, and private rooms. For a shilling or more, the public could meet groups of Sámi, South Americans, Inuit, Native Americans, Africans, Arabs, Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians, Indians, Japanese, Chinese, and ‘Aztecs’ performing songs, dances and cultural rites. I focused on nineteenth-century London but such shows were common across Europe and America and continued into the twentieth century.

Many writers describe these shows as ‘human zoos’ in both specialist academic histories, art installations and broader public discussion. I can see why. The term is catchy, evocative and seems to encapsulate the degrading ways in which many performers were treated. Even so, I think the term is deeply misleading and one I deliberately avoid.

Firstly, visitors to the shows came away with complex and multiple interpretations of their experiences. Some were deeply negative about the performers in deeply racist and culturally chauvinist terms. Many others came away with an abiding impression of the common humanity between themselves and performers. These reviewers frequently noted their observations on performers’ quick wits, skills and maternal instincts. Crucially, these commentators were not promoting racial equality but endorsing hierarchical visions of humanity in which performers were considered to be relatively lowly. These complexities are not captured by insisting that performers were routinely seen as little more than animals.

Secondly, we need to pay attention to performers’ agency instead of assuming that they were passive victims of patrons’ gazes. Frustratingly, there are few sources from which to reconstruct how performers felt about their experiences. Even so, eyewitness reports, newspaper reviews and scientific reports abound with revealing details. For example, Sara Baartman, better known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, was exhibited in Europe between 1810 and her death in 1815. Whilst in Paris she was exhibited to the men of science working at the Jardin des Plantes. They asked to view her labia because they were rumoured to be longer than usual in European women. Baartman categorically refused even when offered extra payment. We know about this incident from the irritation expressed by one of the men at the meeting, yet it also makes clear that, even in heavily restricted circumstances, Baartman found ways to maintain her agency and some measure of dignity. We must not conflate agency with freedom or forget to acknowledge the deeply unequal power relations that usually characterised the shows. Nonetheless, we should also remember that even small acts of refusal or accommodation can tell us a great deal about performers’ experiences.

Finally, the shows were important opportunities for intercultural encounters between peoples. Some of the most powerful stories I found in my research involved performers making a life for themselves abroad. Baartman, for example, was baptised and married whilst being exhibited around England. In 1844, the American entrepreneur George Catlin exhibited a group Native Americans. Their interpreter, Alexander Cadotte, who had Native American ancestry, married Sarah Haynes after a brief courtship. In 1899, Peter Lobengula was the headline act for a show called ‘Savage South Africa’ at Earls Court. He attracted enormous press attention for being engaged to a white woman nicknamed ‘Kitty’ Jewell. These relationships are extraordinary examples of the personal associations that could be built by performers outside of the shows. It is far too easy to overlook these complexities if we assume visitors saw displayed peoples as performing beasts.

‘Human zoos’ is so suggestive that many historians will continue to use the term. I will always prefer ‘displayed peoples’.


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‘Dear Leader…Winter is coming’

Finding unexpected things in the archives is always a joy. Recently I spent a week in Dublin visiting the wonderful National Archives of Ireland and National Library of Ireland. The library is in an impressive nineteenth-century building opened in 1890 and full of beautifully crafted woodwork and marble. I found so much that I finally decided to start my blog.

I spent my time tracking down government papers, travel writings and newspaper articles about the evacuation of the Great Blasket Island. An Blascaod Mór, as it is known in Irish, rises out of the Atlantic to become the main island of the Blaskets, off the Dingle coast in County Kerry, Ireland.

For centuries, the Great Blasket formed Ireland’s most westerly settled community. In the nineteenth century, the population rose and fell reaching a peak of around 140. By the 1946 census the inhabitants had dwindled to 46 people. Emigration led to many more men than women living on the island, very few children being born and a sense that the population had become unsustainable. From the mid-1940s, the islanders began pleading with the Irish Government to be migrated to the mainland but faced great reluctance.

The head of the Irish Government, the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, had visited the island in the summer of 1947. He promptly set up an Inter-Departmental Committee to investigate living conditions on the island. The subsequent report made several recommendations to improve life on the island such as providing better landing facilities for incoming boats. Curiously, the Committee did not recommend mass migration even though it noted that the islanders wished only to leave. The hesitancy was partly due to the cost and the difficulty of finding suitable land on the mainland. The fear of permanently losing a distinctive Irish-speaking community also loomed large.

Among the papers in the National Archives of Ireland, I found a letter from the ‘Islanders’ addressing the Taoiseach as ‘Dear Leader’. The letter is undated but was probably received in late summer, 1947. The message pleaded for the islanders to be told of what would be done ‘immediately for Winter is coming’. The islanders had not eerily foretold the motto of House Stark but, even so, the unexpected familiarity of the phrase and sense of impending hardship struck me. The appeal resonates with other reports of the islanders’ isolation and likelihood of being cut off from the mainland in bad weather.

Reading through these papers, I became increasingly dismayed at how long it took to decide the islanders’ future. The migration was finally approved in 1952, five years after the Inter-Departmental committee had been set up. Even then, the move took place a year later in 1953.

Over the summer, I will be exploring how the migration took place and connecting it to broader attempts to preserve the Irish language. I’m excited and hoping this will all come together into my first article on Irish history.

I really ought to finish before the winter.