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Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

Top Tips for New University Students: From a Soon to be Second Year History Student

University is hard, and it’s hard to know how to prepare for it. To help, here are my top tips for new students. I made these tips from lessons I learnt from my first-year experience.

1. Know how much money you have.

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I know this sounds simple but it is very important. Before coming to university, I would advise every student to have a conversation with their parents or guardians about how much money the student has with their maintenance loan and whether their parents can give support financially on top of that.

Remember, every student’s situation is different.

Also, make sure you remember to do your student finance at the end of each year, you don’t want to get to 2nd year and have no money: Student Finance England

 

2. Use social media

Before I came to university, I joined the University’s Fresher’s Page: University of Northampton New Students. This meant I could ask questions to staff members easily and also meant I found other people doing a history degree.

We created a Facebook group chat of every history student we found so we could get to know each other a bit.

Social media can also be used to get to know the history department, such as following lectures on Twitter or by reading posts on this history blog. Here is a link to the Fresher’s group for this year University of Northampton Freshers Facebook Page

 

3. Write lists

If you’re moving to go to university and are living in halls, lists are essential when packing. Before I moved, I walked around my parents’ kitchen writing down any utensils that I thought might be useful.

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Even if you’re staying at home while you’re studying, make a list of stationary you might need, documents you need to print out for enrollment and what you need to do before classes start.

Asking parents or friends to help with this can make it less daunting, and means they can suggest items which you may not have thought of.

 

4. Get involved in Welcome Week

Welcome week is your first week at university after enrollment, and you’ll be given a welcome week timetable for history students. Welcome Week includes activities where you can meet other people on the course and the lecturers.

You will also be visited by students in other year groups and those from the History Society.

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Welcome Week is also when university led activities such as Fresher’s Fest and the society fair are held. Welcome week really helps you get used to university and makes classes less scary, so I would definitely make the most of it. Here’s what was on offer in my year: Guide to Welcome Week

 

5. Classes themselves

TV and movies paint a picture of university which is confusing, and I had no idea what classes were going to be like. This isn’t really a top tip, but a clarification.

Seminars are like A Level classes, there is work set which has to be done before the class and it is a group discussion.

Lectures are much more formal, as it is where lecturers teach you the content for the seminar the following week. It’s in lectures that notes are important.

Our university is moving towards more blended types of learning where the distinction between lectures and seminars are less obvious, but there will always be times to listen and times to interact.

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Note taking can differ from module to module, depending on the style of a lecturer’s presentation, the assessment type or how comfortable you are on the topic. You will find how you best make notes with, but the History Society will be holding events to help students with this throughout the year.

 

6. Weird Feelings

Stressed student holding books, anxious, anticipation of finals

To finish up this blog post, I’m going to list some of the stages and feelings I’ve had during my first year. This means that you know that if you have them, they’re normal:

Title Translation
Am I ready for this? This was the week before university, when I was wondering if I was ready to move out or if I was ready to have adult responsibilities like buying toilet paper.
Where am I? Who is this? What is this? Campus is huge and it feels different to how it does on open days. Luckily, there’s a map on the Northampton app if you need it. This year, we’ll all be lost as it’s a new campus so don’t worry.
This feels like a school trip. I genuinely thought that university felt like a school residential trip for about 2 months. There’s no real explanation for this, it’s just kind of an odd feeling.
Wait I’m going home again? I had this when I went home for the Christmas break, when I had to adjust to human sleeping hours and not having the library on my doorstep. The first holiday at home is the hardest, and your relationship will change with your family if you live away from home. (Don’t worry though, it happens to everyone).
Okay I think I’m getting the hang of this. This is when you feel like you know the way to class, you know how to write an essay and you know how to adult. Everything is good.
I can’t… I just can’t deal with exams. They come around quicker than you think, and I made the mistaken of not having good notes. Revise little and often, get help from your lectures and please remember to turn up to them.
Now what? First year finishes after exams (unless you do resits) so you now have 4 months to kill. Have fun with it!

Good luck to all new university students and if you’re coming to study history at Northampton, see you in the next academic year.

Emma Tyler, BA Hons History Student, University of Northampton