Black history has always mattered, but it’s only relatively recently that universities, schools, the media, and a host of cultural commentators have become vocal in their calls to decolonize the curriculum in the UK. Such calls stem from the argument that narratives of the past are deeply intertwined with colonial concepts, figures and Eurocentric perspectives which can prove retentive in their grip.
The modern professionalization of history—a broadly Western project—not only gave the discipline a very exclusive European focus and set of paradigms, but also enshrined a narrative split between prehistory (time prior to written accounts) and history (time after written accounts), consigning certain peoples, particularly those with little or no writing, to the dustbin of history.
Prior to the 1960s, the notion that Africa had much or any history to speak of was not uncommon. In a 1963 lecture, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, sounding like a figure from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, stated that there was no ‘African history to teach. . . . only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.’ He did not deny that Africa had a precolonial past, but his elitist notions of ‘history’—informed by the racist, anti-black views of 18th-century Scottish historian David Hume among others—upheld the notion that Africa was as yet undeserving of anything so sacrosanct as history.
While such views rightly trouble us today, they are a reminder of the barriers once maintained by academic historians. From the mid-1970s onwards, The Cambridge History of Africa (1975-1986), whose first volume charts the continent from the ‘earliest times to c. 500 BC’, happily blurred divisions between prehistory and history, with the series’ title placing both terms—which feature in the series—under the umbrella of history.
Racism, and the transatlantic slave trade which perpetuated it, cannot be underestimated for its impact on the writing of history. Right up to the 1930s, scholars of Africa such as C. G. Seligman perpetuated the ‘Hamitic myth’ that the most developed African civilizations derived from Hamites, an allegedly Caucasian people. In 1925, the black, Puerto Rican bibliophile Arthur Schomburg argued that ‘the damage of slavery’ had distorted history. As a restorative, he asserted that the ‘American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future . . . History must restore what slavery took away’. In this era, black intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson (the founder of Negro History Week, the forerunner to Black History Month), Joel Rogers and Schomburg wrote black history to counter both its neglect in mainstream historical circles and the racism of historians like Lothrop Stoddard, a Ku Klux Klan member whose book The Rising Tide of Color Tom Buchanon so admires in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Some twenty years after Schomburg’s call for a restorative black history, the black scholar and future premier of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams published Capitalism and Slavery (1944), a major historical work that made the bold claim that slavery was abolished in Britain for economic, rather than moral, reasons. In it, Williams concluded that ‘[s]lavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’, an idea that chimes not only with Schomburg’s view of slavery’s detrimental impact, but also with scholarship which indicates that nothing so entrenched as modern-day racism functioned in the ancient world.
History has indeed begun to restore what slavery took away, to the point at least where Black History is not an unfamiliar concept. We are now much more well-informed than we once were about the transatlantic slave trade, imperialism, national independence movements in Africa and the Americas, and yet we are still not that much closer to a position where non-European history is anything like well-known or easily accessible. We are still on a journey, I suspect, in which the contours are yet to be fully worked out, divisions dissolved, and further questions raised.
Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, University of Essex
Jak joined the Department in 2011 while completing his doctorate at Essex, which formed part of the AHRC-funded ‘American Tropics’ project. His principal research covers American literature in the continental sense, including United States and Caribbean literature in particular, from around the nineteenth century to the twenty first century. His research interests also include the ‘New Negro’, the Black or Harlem Renaissance, postcolonialism, colonialism, black diaspora and black British writing, travel writing and ecocriticism.