We Built This: 5 Texts for Universities on Black History

Since the Pan-African Congress in Manchester, 1945, “decolonial thought” (loosely) has had a presence in Britain, and there’s been a push to get Black history on curricula for over twenty years. However, still, Black history is treated like a figment.

oing to school as a youth, I was told West Indian history began in 1492, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his soldiers — “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, said my history teacher when I was ten years old. And that Black meant Caribbean, with no word about the Black histories of rebellion during colonialism but also no word of the African history that occurred before the arrival of Europeans. Now, we know that this history goes back millennia. Below I will talk about five texts that will benefit universities in growing their knowledge on Black history, be it Africa, the Caribbean or the diaspora more widely.

‘Text’ in this article means any secondary resource

Black British History: New Perspectives (2019), Hakim Adi (ed.)

Professor Hakim Adi is an historian, academic and scholar at the University of Chichester, in the area of the Africa and the African diaspora. Edited by Adi, New Perspectives’ introduction touches on things that are not so widely taught, including Afro-Romans — and also naming other historians and texts that I had not all heard of. Historians that are not in the mainstream but are doing important research and work in their field, or have done so historically. New Perspectives will get academics, students and non-academics alike to rethink the history they believe they know — the history we were all taught at school. A history of those “very white” world wars and histories of white kings and queens in Tudor Britain. This is also a text that shows a knowledge production that comes from alternative writers to academics, including community leaders and schoolteachers. With contributions from schoolteachers, early career academics doing PhDs and seasoned academics alike, this was a first for me — showing a diversity of writers from varied Black and Brown backgrounds writing in a subject that has famously been white for centuries in Britain, in both students that study and those that teach it.

Britain produces, famously, lots of white British historians. This text, written by Black and Brown historians, teachers, and community figures is really something spectacular.

In New Perspectives, there are many varied viewpoints on common narratives. Onyeka Nubia’s essay on Black people in Renaissance Britain is an eye-opener making the point that they may have been having discussions about race in the political sense. Titling that essay ‘Blackamoores Have Their Own Names’ is a statement in itself. From the world wars to Afro-Romans and the British Black Panthers, this book is a must for both academics and non-academics.

Today in 2020, there are books where Black and Brown historians centre their own histories. Simply, academics just have to make an effort of looking for them, and signposting their students. And get this, some of these texts might not all be British-origin. What about the number of West Indian historians that have written about the West Indies? We don’t actually know what a decolonised curriculum looks like but books like this are at least a start.

This book is a springboard into this subject with references that will leave academics reading for years to come, and students even more!

African Renaissance: Where Art Meets Power (2020)— Afua Hirsch (BBC Two)

I did not really find out about African history outside of the colonial context until 2015, as I grew up around Caribbean communities in Northamptonshire where there was still an evident divide between them and people from the African continent. So, to learn about the Mali Empire and its like is an incredibly a new phenomena. I knew bits from family friends but nothing as significant as what is discussed by journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch in her new documentary African Renaissance, on the history of African art.

In this three-part documentary series, Afua Hirsch looks at three countries — Ethiopia, Sénégal and Kenya — showing a continent through three nations on its own terms, looking at history via art, music and culture, also touching on the role art still plays in decolonial thought. Moreover, the role it did play in anti-colonial dissent in specifically Kenya and Sénégal with British and French colonisers, respectively. Ethiopia in particular fascinated me, showing a history of an African country that managed to avoid colonial violence.

BBC Two

In Ethiopia’s resistance, pertinent to its attitudes towards religion (brilliant), it made me think about the role colonialism still plays in how Black people in Europe, or Afropeans (as Johny Pits says) see themselves. Can Black people in Britain see themselves outside of the colonial gaze? Would they want to? And does this apply to Black people born and raised in France or the Netherlands, or those that migrated there from former-French and former-Dutch colonies?

For universities, like on fine art courses and art history, can the narratives of empire be entwined with art, initiating student discussions? Through teaching documentaries such as this, can this then inspire students to look at the art history of Ethiopia, a country that was able to realise (to some degree), itself and potential? On sociology, would this be an avenue into discussing the complexities of social and political violence, in what we saw in how the local population view the Mau Mau Uprisings of 1952? Anyway, it has left me with more questions than answers and I am sure it’ll leave academics thinking.

Available: BBC iPlayer

Beyond a Boundary (1963), C. L. R James

Today, and I will happily discuss (not argue) with anyone that disagrees — I think cricket is one of the greatest inventions to come out of Britain, pertinently the cricket we see today developed from the days of W. G. Grace, Donald ‘Don’ Bradman and C. L. R James. Not only is cricket a sport and invention, I would go as far as to say it is theatre. It is physical theatre and there is music. It is art. Like film, writing and photography, cricket has a technical foundation. And those with that innate technical foundation can really play it well — because that cricket brain does not come around all that often. For anyone that loves cricket, this is a book for you; for anyone interested in race, history, class, society and the interesections, this is a book for you — a handy prologue to the Stevan Riley cricket documentary Fire in Babylon released in May 2010.

How James saw cricket was not how many others saw it. In his writing, he shows an understanding I have not seen in many ‘experts’ and what’s even more interesting is how he discusses the psychological battle out in the field, between batsmen and bowlers. He saw cricket not only as a sport but as a lifestyle choice (me too). It was a lived sport, as it was when my grandfather left the Caribbean in 1958. For West Indians of a certain generation, they would be able tell you stories of a white man always being captain of the West Indies cricket team — until Frank Worrell (1960), in a society severed by race and by class, from the jobs available to the status amongst club cricket.

CLR unflinchingly discusses race, cricket, class, society and the lands between, in both the West Indies and the United Kingdom.

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slaveowners in the American South (2019), Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is an American historian and associate professor of history at the University of California. Her first book They Were Her Property was referred to me by a criminologist friend and it put into black and white what I already knew — that white men were not the only ones to profit from the toil and torture of enslaved Africans. Whilst the slave trade is not all Black history is, how slavery has been taught in schools up to this point (if at all) is very one-sided. It’s often depicted as something only white men did. And in the British context at least, when people criticise Britain’s role in it, the establishment is quick to remind us of how we abolished it before most countries. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers writes a history I was not taught at school. That while children today learn about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, they are not necessarily taught about are the white women were taught to weaponise their whiteness as children, then as slaveowners:

“Ownership and control went hand in hand, and for white girls who had slaves, developing techniques of management and discipline was an important aspect of their early training.” — Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, in: They Were Her Property

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers gives an insight into the psychology of slavery one often does not hear about in class. That racism was actively taught, not something unconsciously picked up. For white girls / women, to treat enslaved Africans and their descendants in the way they they did was actively taught to them from when they were children. For students and academics in the fields of not only history, but subjects such as psychology, childhood and youth, criminology, sociology and more, this book is a must — about the role of white women as slaveowners under the umbrella of gender and slavery.

This is a hidden gem that should be on numerous course reading lists — from childhood and youth to psychology and education.

The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire (2014), Prof. David Olusoga

Every November, the British public is bludgeoned over the head with Armistice, on how white men gave their lives for this country in what became known as The First World War. I lay emphasis on white because this is the common narrative that is taught. Whilst I know now that World War One was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-national struggle, still the common opinion is it was Europe and America. However, even then, I did not see a picture of a Black America soldier until I was seventeen. But I can tell you about Churchill and how Tommies, Berts and the rest that gave their lives.

Olusoga’s book is the story of how World War One was a racially and culturally diverse struggle fought in Africa, Asia and the Middle East (and Europe), which pulled in people from all around the world. Over four million Black and Brown soldiers, sailors and servicemen gave their lives, and these are people who were expendable, and then erased from history. This book puts their voices back at the centre of this narrative, having remained in the shadows for nearly a century, really giving a global perspective to a part of our history that has for so long been dominated by the white and Eurocentric.

Writer | Muses: history, inequality, identity, arts et al| Race + Black History Educator | Poet: Tre the Poet on Medium | treventour.com | E: tre@treventour.com