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Black British History reveals neglected and hidden histories of the African diaspora in Britain from the Romans to the twentieth century, finds Paul Fredericks

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Black British History: New Perspectives, ed. Hakim Adi (Zed Books 2019), ix, 229pp.

Much of human history of the last 5000 years or so is the history of exploitation, and this is starkly brought into context when we consider Black history. As history is written (mostly) by the exploiter, it has often been difficult to hear the voices, stories and struggles of the exploited and to grasp fully the historical circumstances in which their suffering was endured. The exploited voice has been debased as the exploited are enslaved, colonised, murdered and often pitted against one another (resulting in what Marx called the muck of ages). 

Black British History - New Perspectives, edited by Hakim Adi is then a welcome contribution that focuses solely on the historical experiences, struggles and radicalism of the African diaspora in Britain throughout the ages.

This collection of eleven essays spans from the middle ages to the present day. From black Roman governors onwards, and predating the Angles and Saxons, black people have lived in Britain not only as slaves but as individuals of high status. As the introduction by Hakim Adi points out, since Peter Fryer’s seminal book Staying Power, huge advances have taken place in DNA analysis, indicating that Cheddar man and other early hunter-gatherer Europeans were black. The trading of goods long pre-dates the Norman conquest, meaning not only slaves came on these routes, but also that skills were traded in medieval Britain. Black individuals and families would have come back with crusaders for example, though many likely as captives.

By challenging Eurocentric historical perspectives (that not only erase black people but also tend to erase women and particularly the working class who produce the wealth), this collection of essays by young and emerging black academics and activists, aims to address the underrepresentation of African and Caribbean young people studying history, particularly at tertiary level. Certainly, my own experience of learning history as an adolescent only ever included exploration of ‘noblemen, fratricide and internecine conflicts’ as described by Onyeka Nubia in ‘“Blackamoores” have their own names in early modern England’. This essay on early black agency in Tudor Britain, details a time before the narrative that cast black people as ‘perpetual slaves’ was established and used to enable the transatlantic slave trade.

What is impressive is that these modern historians, when unearthing early manuscripts or forensically trawling parish archives, have been able to see through the ‘white gaze’ that cannot seem to recognise or acknowledge the black experience. For example, researchers of early-modern English black history - pre-slavery - as Nubia points out, cannot rely on ‘slave registers’ or ‘coloured peoples’ records’, as the othering and pseudo-scientific dehumanising thinking that accompanied slavery was yet to emerge as a coherent set of ideas. Using pre-modern archives to widen the understanding of the black experience in Britain to construct a picture of the times, certainly takes some doing.

The world wars

The racist pseudo-science that was eventually established alongside the transatlantic slave trade also shaped the experiences of black soldiers during the world wars, as they were deployed in theatres of war that were suited to their ‘biological’ make-up, namely tropical climates. Moreover, when those black men who enlisted in World War Two did see action on the western front for example, they were often restricted to non-combatant, labouring roles, leading many historians to portray the wars in Europe as a ‘white man’s war’. As John Siblon highlights in his essay ‘“Race”, rank, and the politics of inter-war commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen in Britain’, the exclusion of black servicemen from the peace-day celebrations in 1919 revealed the establishment’s racism in light of an economy in crisis and it’s pandering to the racist call of jobs for whites. This also set the template for the later exclusion of black service people in future memorial events and a ‘hierarchy of remembrance’. 

There is a fascinating essay on radical African and Caribbean anti-war voices in the lead up to and during World War Two, many inspired by the labour rebellions in their Caribbean countries. These radicals saw the conflict as a ‘war over colonies’, where black people were being asked to fight for the colonising imperialist nations to maintain their imperial dominance. In this essay, ‘“You ask for bread, they give you lead”: when Caribbean radicals protested against conscription for colonial subjects,’ Kesewa John points out that the price for maintaining this dominance would result in colonised people being used as ‘cannon fodder’ and the imperialist status quo maintained. Theirs was not just a principled anti-war stand but also a call for full independence for all imperialist colonies as a way to ‘cut the ground from under Hitler’s feet’. 

Black liberation

In ‘History without borders: teaching Black Britain and reimagining black liberation,’ Kennetta Perry focuses on the need to look at a shared history to enable an effective challenge to social and political order; a ‘diasporic approach’. This essay beautifully details the connections between the racist criminal-justice targeting of Angela Davis in the US, and the equally racist targeting of the Mangrove Nine in the UK. Once these connections are made by activists and struggles are seen in historic terms, Perry argues that blackness becomes so much more than a marker of identity, and the realities of state power and economy are revealed. From this a much more coherent strategy and challenge to racism can be mounted. 

International revolutionary connections are carried through by W. Chris Johnson in ‘“The Spirit of Bandung” in 1970s Britain: The Black Liberation Front’s revolutionary transnationalism’. This was a time of undercover policing targeting radical black groups in contrast to the emerging fascist threat that was actually terrorising communities. This certainly has parallels today in the near silence by governments in the West on the rise of white supremacy and fascist politics across the world. 

This book is a mix of fascinating stories of the black communities and their legacy that has shaped the Britain we know today. It is certainly a useful addition for those of us who hope to develop a deeper understanding of state sanctioned racism and how this has been and continues to be used to cover up the economic destruction of whole communities at home and across the colonised world.

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