This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

From the New York Public Library's digital posters. Via Open Culture.
From the New York Public Library’s digital posters. Via Open Culture.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From being black in the USSR to the Revenant‘s justification of settler colonialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Black in the USSR

Calvert Journal

“When people ask me about my background I usually start by explaining how my mum is Russian, my dad is Ghanaian and that I was born in Bulgaria,” says the photographer Liz Johnson Artur. “It often becomes a long explanation.” The explanation goes something like this. Along with many African students in the 1960s, Johnson’s Ghanaian father was given the chance to study in Eastern Europe as part of the Soviet Union’s efforts to expand its influence across the African continent during the Cold War. His time in Bulgaria studying biochemistry was cut short after four years when all Ghanaian students were expelled from the country following a confrontation between African students and the police. By then he’d already met Johnson Artur’s mother, who gave birth to their daughter in 1964, a few months after his departure.

Johnson Artur spent her childhood in Bulgaria and then Germany and has been based in Britain since 1990. Her father was unable to return to Bulgaria and is now settled in Ghana. She only met him for the first time in 2010. After doing so, she felt moved to start documenting the stories of other Russians of African and Caribbean origin. “Most black Russians that I met in Moscow and St Petersburg had also grown up without their fathers. Some had been fostered or grown up in children’s homes and had never met their mothers. But we all agreed that we felt Russian as well as African.” [continue reading]

The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot

James Renton

Ever since Islamic State (IS) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced the establishment of a caliphate on June 29, 2014, analysts have been busy trying to explain its aims and origins. Much of the discussion has concentrated on the IS leadership’s theology – an apocalyptic philosophy that seeks a return to an imagined pristine Islam of the religion’s founders. But this focus has led to a neglect of the group’s self-declared political aims.

For all the importance of religion in the way IS functions and justifies itself, we can fully understand the caliphate only if we pay close attention to the public explanations – the modernist manifestos – of those at the helm of its overall political purpose. Viewed from this perspective, the caliphate appears primarily as an attempt to free the ummah – the global Muslim community – from the legacies of European colonialism. [continue reading]

Whiteness Burning


First they came for the statues. Last year students in Cape Town sparked national protests by calling on the University of Cape Town (UCT) to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist who, like most Englishmen of his time, held racist views. The statue was removed but students were still angry. Many marched on South Africa’s parliament to complain about high college fees, among other things. That prompted a cash-strapped government not to raise fees after all.

Whiteness Burning

Protests about statues of dead racists soon spread around the world. Students demanded that Oriel College, Oxford take down its statue of Rhodes. (It refused.) The University of Texas at Austin has moved a bronze of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president, and will put it in a museum. Meanwhile, back in Cape Town, UCT students starting a new academic year after the long summer break were quick to resume protests, this time over gripes such as not having enough spaces in university dormitories. They stormed through the campus grabbing artworks and burning them. Most of the paintings they heaped on a bonfire were portraits of white historical figures. They were, declared one protester, “symbols of the coloniser”. [continue reading]

Lo Mein Loophole: How U.S. Immigration Law Fueled A Chinese Restaurant Boom

Maria Godoy

Americans craving kung pao chicken or a good lo mein for dinner have plenty of options: The U.S. is home to more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants. One could think of this proliferation as a promise fulfilled — America as the great melting pot and land of opportunity for immigrants. Ironically, the legal forces that made this Chinese culinary profusion possible, beginning in the early 20th century, were born of altogether different sentiments: racism and xenophobia. Anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant in America in the early 20th century — and had been since the latter half of the 19th century, when as many as 300,000 Chinese miners, farmers, railroad and factory workers came to the U.S. Many non-Chinese workers felt threatened by these laborers, who often worked for lower wages.

The interior of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, circa 1880. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection,The New York Public Library.
Amid mounting social tensions, the U.S. passed immigration laws that explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens, and made it extremely difficult for even legal residents to re-enter the U.S. after a visit home to China. But, as MIT legal historian Heather Lee tells it, there was an important exception to these laws: Some Chinese business owners in the U.S. could get special merchant visas that allowed them to travel to China, and bring back employees. Only a few types of businesses qualified for this status. In 1915, a federal court added restaurants to that list. Voila! A restaurant boom was born. [continue reading]

What Lies Beneath the Revenant

Ato Quayson

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, nominated in 12 categories at the Oscars, which take place this weekend, is based in part on the novel of the same title by Michael Punke. And yet all the force of the film turns on that “in part”. By transforming the novel’s largely functional descriptions of the natural environment to the fierce wintry features of mountains, plains, rivers and waterfalls, the entire landscape of the movie becomes a character in itself – helping to focus more fully on the survival struggles of the character Hugh Glass, the main protagonist superbly played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

By giving him a Native American son, Iñárritu also adds a more meaningful plot twist than anything we find in the novel. The novel is a canvas upon which the director has projected many wishful things that evoke an American supremacy of yesteryear. Perhaps the most important of the film’s reworkings is the subtle justification it lends to the notion of settler colonialism. [continue reading]

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