Recognising that we are committed to more deeply embedding Black history into our teaching, the History team have put together a suggested reading list for the summer – for our students and for ourselves! To make this list as accessible as possible, we have selected texts that are either available as e-texts through the university library or that are quite cheaply available.
Those who have studied, or are going to study, my First World War module may be interested in reading Richard Slotkin, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (2005). It focuses on the experience of a Black American army unit and integrates their story with those of other minority identities during the war and afterwards. It’s available in paperback and is written in an accessible style. Another good choice related to that conflict, which is coming out soon in paperback, is George Morton-Jack, The Indian Empire at War (2018). Wide-ranging, informative and also very readable.
Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (London: Two Roads, 2018)
Akala is a media commentator, educator, and hip-hop artist. This book is partly biographical, and it offers a searing account of being black in Britain from the 1980s onwards. It is a disruptive testimony, which is very strongly rooted in the political history of post-imperial Britain. This is a fascinating and insightful read for anyone, but it would also be helpful for the second term’s work on HIS2009 on the aftermaths and legacies of Empire.
Overall, most of the reading list for Empires is useful for thinking through the construction of race, the representation of Others and difference, and the ways in which c19th ideas about non-whites still percolate into the present. For an easy entry to the field, seek out the work of John Mackenzie (all his books are available as ebooks from the library, just do an author search), who writes about popular imperialism: the ways in which imperial ideologies and events were transmitted to the public in metropolitan states and their capitals.Its objectives were first to enhance the power of rulers or, in modern times, of ruling parties, and second, to reconcile the common people to the policies of imperial expansion and rule, as well as to the sacrifices required in their achievement, for example by the military. Popular imperialism can be conveyed in a whole variety of ways, by visual spectacles, displays, and games, by sculptures, architecture, and coinage, or by the great range of entertainment and visual media of modern times. Read it, and see how much of it still resonates today.
Small Island by Andrea Levy and Dido: the true story of Dido Belle by Paula Byrne would both be readable options for the summer.
David Olusoga’s Black and British as well (although its temporally out of stock at Amazon – as Dan says other booksellers do exist!).
Looking on NELSON they have the Oxford Companion to Black British History as an e-book, as well as Fischer’s America in white, black, and gray : A history of the stormy 1960s, Black Tommies : British soldiers of African descent in the First World War by Costello, Hanley’s Beyond Slavery and Abolition, and James Welwyn’s A Short History of Slavery. All e-resources.
For my modules on the history of fascism and the history of the Holocaust, it is very helpful to have a robust understanding of how scientific-seeming, or ‘scientistic’, languages of race can appear very authoritative, yet are not based on good science at all. Genetic differences between people are complex, and there can often be more genetic similarity between people of different ‘races’ than there are between people of the same ‘race’. The meanings behind the superficial markers of race, such as skin colour, are culturally constructed. There have been two recent popular science books that explore the history of race, and offer readable guides through the complexities of the so-called science of race, which is making a resurgence in various far right online spheres. One is Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science, and the other is Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. If you have ever wondered what ‘race’ is, either these books will be very helpful.
Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s first novel, When Memory Dies (1997), explores a Sri Lankan family across multiple generations as they experience colonialism and later liberation and the struggles for independence, from the 1920s to the 1980s. The novel is informed by his own experiences as a Sri Lanken who emigrated to Britain in the late 1950s and his work documenting issues of race and conflict within Britain as part of (and director of) the Institute of Race Relations. His essays on Black resistance and struggle within Britain from the 1940s to the 1980s were collected in the book A Different Hunger (1982), with an introduction by Stuart Hall.
A classic of black British history is Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), which is still very useful for the period I work on, the eighteenth century. On the Victorian period, see Catherine Hall’s chapter in Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race and Gender and the Reform Act of 1867 (2000), which we think about in detail in HIS3018. And a key book on late-twentieth century Britain that made a big impression on me as a student is Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987). All are available in paperback or in the library.
Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages (2018, available as e-book via NELSON) is a masterwork in understanding “race before race” – that is, before modern racial categories were invented. What does it mean to talk about race in the Middle Ages? Students taking my second year module Medieval Chivalry and its Afterlives will find this text particularly useful.
A key part of trying to decolonise our reading lists means not just including scholarship on race, however – it also means making an effort to read BAME scholars, whatever topic they write on, and including them in our set reading. The brilliant Black woman scholar Prof Monica Green is a world expert in the history of infectious diseases, and her project The Black Death Digital Archive is a very useful one for students studying my module The Medieval World.
As a sidenote, I run a Zoom book club and this month we are reading Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – you are welcome to join!
Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms: from the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) is a good overview of the subject. Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2012) unpacks how ideas about race in early modern Europe were viewed through a religious lens.
Some time ago English Heritage held a conference to discuss how the connections between English country houses and the slave trade could be engaged with and how that connection might be presented to the public in country houses today. A volume of papers was published from this conference: Madge Dresser & Andrew Hann, Slavery and the British Country House (2013). You can find the book free to view here.