History Is Not for Black People

by Lauryn Davis about a year ago in education

How the Consistent Erasure of Our Presence in History Has Forced Us into Academic Reclusion

History Is Not for Black People

World War I. William the Conqueror. The Magna Carta. The Trenches. Elizabeth I. Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War. Jack the Ripper. World War II. The Russian Revolution. The Blitz. Nazi Germany. The Holocaust. The Tudors. These are only a few of the history units I can remember studying — or having been taught — during my time in secondary school, but there is one glaring similarity between all of them. There is not a single Black face amongst any of them; or at the very least, none important enough to mention by name. And this recognition has led myself, and many other people, to (often subconsciously) draw this one, firm conclusion:

History is not for Black people.

And I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense, as in, “We have been systematically excluded from historical narratives, and thus have no voice in our past.” Nor do I mean it in a flowery sense: “History has never been on our side.” I mean it in a very literal sense. History — the (so-called) thorough investigation into the past — is not and never has been tailored for us. It is not for us. It simply isn’t.

No matter how you personally feel about this statement, it is the truth. If the entirety of history looks like an old, white person, how on earth is it supposed to be applicable to the average Black British student? Sure, history might be fun, but it certainly is not presented as a viable option for university choices, or even for work or career opportunities. What am I supposed to do with a history degree? Become a historian? Everyone knows that historians are old White men, and the occasional middle-aged white woman. Museums are curated by tired-looking caucasians who appear to be themselves artefacts of the institutions, and even history lecturers are overwhelmingly un-coloured. How can we then expect young Black students to seriously explore this subject beyond compulsory education?

In most other industries, recent years have seen a shift in balance and distribution of race and gender, and with the growing demand for women (and Black women) in STEM industries specifically, many people are able to see themselves as a part of the worlds they aspire to enter into. There is a mural with a blank space in amongst these other Black engineers, doctors, teachers, IT technicians, and program designers, and the ambitious students have already painted themselves into it in their minds. But this self-visualisation has not seemed to happen in the world of history.

It would be unfair to conflate the humanities together, as I personally know many Black students who aspire to — are currently do — study English Literature or an ‘-ology’ at university (myself being one of those who wanted to study the former before I changed to history), and thus the fault does not lie with humanities as a whole, but history in and of itself. Even within the white-washed world of Literature, the average Black student can see themselves fitting in here somehow; recent trailblazers of Black Literature like Benjamin Zephaniah, Patience Agbabi, and Zadie Smith give us the hope and reassurance that a world of Colour and light exists beyond Tolstoy and Shakespeare. Especially with the recent call for many universities to “decolonise” the curriculums, it appears that for the first time, boards are beginning to recognise the many talented writers of colour who exist that are within reach of our fingertips.

However, I truly wish the same could be said for history. As Black people emerge and speak of their great successes in their fields, as organisation after organisation forms to support Black people in certain industries, I can do nothing else but watch sadly, knowing that there will probably never be this kind of mass-clustering in the Black Historian World — because it simply does not exist. Of more than 14,000 British professors, just 50 are Black. Of said 50, only 1 (Hakim Adi, Chichester University) is of history.

I googled ‘famous Black British historians’ and only two names appeared — and of course, one was Hakim Adi. Then I had an idea; I replaced the word ‘British’ with ‘American’… and I was greeted with an extensive list of 50 on Wikipedia. It begins to become clearer, then, that the problem not only lies with history as a subject, but also with the word ‘British’ in that equation. This is not to say that Black historians in America on a whole do not struggle, nor that I feel 50 is an acceptable number in any way, but I do genuinely feel there is something to be said about understanding one’s identity before beginning a thorough investigation into it. Not to mention, 50 is a considerably greater number than 2.

Marcus Garvey once famously said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” And while its sentiments ring painfully true — especially in regards to our lack of knowledge (or dare I say, interest) in our own British histories, it annoys me to have to use it. Why? Because without even meaning to, I have aligned myself with an entirely different world of Civil Rights. And no, Garvey does not belong, in that sense, to America, but it seems somewhat pathetic that I must use the words of a man who indeed did “fight the good fight”; but neither for me, or my ancestors. The fact that I cannot tell you anything of ‘British Marcus Garvey,’ that I do not even know their name, while I can spout fact after fact about Malcolm X’s political ideology, or the organisation of the SNCC and CORE, and the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program, truly appals me. Our history has been so watered-down that I know next to nothing about my own past in the country I live in, and close to everything about the Civil Rights era of an entirely different one. The fact that it takes me great effort to conjure up the name of even one person who worked towards equality for Black people in Britain also identifies to me a failing not just in my own conscientiousness, but the system as a whole. Because we don’t have enough Black historians. And there is simply no need to care about Black history if we don’t. (Publicly, that is; one can care about Black history without studying it at a higher education level but said person won’t be taken seriously or recognised as a voice in an academic context).

I am not in any way suggesting that the only thing that Black historians are good for is Black history, as I myself am greatly interested in Plantagenet and Tudor England, and could tell you of the many happenings at each of the courts in the reigns of the Kings and Queens. In fact, I’m deeply proud that I know so much trivia (did you know Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, married his ex-brother-in-law Thomas Seymour after Henry's death?) just for the sheer joy of knowing. But there can be no doubt that my abilities as a historian are greatly limited by the not-knowing of things which shape who I am as a person. It seems natural that we know so much of the Tudors, especially Henry VIII with his policy-creating penis, as he (and it) effectively shaped the Protestant England we know today. So why therefore is it not deemed necessary to know much of the black people in the very same era, who up until the release of ‘Black Tudors: The Untold Story’ were not even widely known to exist? Nor do I refer to only Slavery, as History as a whole seems to have forgotten that black people existed (both in our countries of origins and England) as freemen both before and after the slave trade, but for some strange reason refuses to acknowledge this in its syllabuses in schools or universities. Black history in British schools is confined to African-American Black history, slavery, and Mary Seacole; and even those are all taught in a sugar-coated form.

It hurt me to even have to mention the book Black Tudors, as while I am deeply grateful to Miranda Kaufmann for uncovering this hidden history which we have so anxiously ignored as a nation, it seems a slap in the face that a White woman released this. Where were our Black historians to research and write about our unnoticed and ignored presence? Where were our Black historians to bring this uncovered truth to the British public? Instead, we have left the investigation of our own past to people who cannot even understand our current present.

The very fact that I should have to prefix ‘Black’ to the word ‘history’ reiterates the fact that history is certainly not for me. The very fact that I should have to specify which history I refer to when I speak of history is, in itself, dehumanising and alienating. We do not generally label other eras ‘Let’s F- Up the World’ History, or ‘White People With Guns’ History, or even more simply ‘Colonial’ History. It is known only as history, for it is no secret that said ‘history’ supposedly encompasses all the different elements of the past for the respective country — or region — it reflects. The very phrase ‘Black history’ suggests to me that ‘history’ in its simplest form does not encompass the enslavement of my ancestors, the rejection of their humanity, their animalisation, their liberation, the struggles they faced in returning to their home countries — or staying, the cultures they birthed, the languages they created, the light they somehow managed to salvage in a country full of people who did not want them here. When I speak of ‘Black history,’ I too often find myself speaking of people from the ‘Land of the Blacks’; Sojourner Truth, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, Angela J. Davis, and the others who fought for freedom, yes, but not for my freedom as a Black British.

In Autumn 2018, I will be attending university to study history. Of a class of more than 150 students, I will be the only Black girl. In fact, I will be the only Black person. It will be my responsibility as a historian to speak up in defence of my own history when there is erasure, when others do not wish to side against the ‘textbook-accepted’ answer, and I will have to do this on my own. There will be no other help, nobody to back me up. And it is very obvious as to why; History is not for Black people.

We have all heard the phrase endlessly: “Those who do not remember their pasts are condemned to repeat it.” Not only do we not remember the multicoloured-entirety of our past as a country, but we choose to ignore it and instead set America as the backdrop of our personal history. History has been cast as an endeavour for White people, not something aspirational or at all productive for Black people, and Black history has been conflated to a chapter in a history textbook about slavery. The reality of the solution seems obvious; nothing can ever truly be unbiased. Some historians will not criticise the morality of our nation in colonising the entire world — we benefitted some people, right? — as they feel a dash of pride for their homeland and wish to defend its murky past. Others refuse to judge those who owned slaves — it was the norm, and some treated their slaves nicely — as they frequently parrot, “Morality is relative.” But amidst all this erasure and cover-up, what we truly need right now are Black historians to be biased for us; to criticise the morality of our nation in colonising the entire world and judging those who owned slaves. We have spent our entire existences living the repercussions of our history and yet know very little about it in truth.

Black people may not have a place in history, but there is nothing to say that we cannot have a future in it. For it is extremely evident to me that something needs to change… or nothing will.

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Lauryn Davis

Black. Female. Proud.

See all posts by Lauryn Davis