This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

fake miniature
A fake miniature depicting the preparation of medicines for the treatment of a patient suffering from smallpox, purportedly from the Canon of Medicine by Avicenna (980-1037). Allegedly in the Istanbul University Library. Photo by Getty.

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

From the global ways of white supremacy to the Stalinist Truman Show, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The global ways of white supremacy

Christopher J. Lee
Africa is a Country

White supremacy has never operated in isolation. While it has always asserted its malevolence in local and national politics, it has consistently relied on an international receptivity and interdependence, whether formal or informal. Activists and intellectuals cited such connections time and time again during the 20th century. Consider, for example, what Nelson Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom (1994), when comparing the South African situation to Algeria, remarking, “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority.” Or consider an observation by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), as if in an imagined dialogue with Mandela, when he concludes, “The colonial subject is a man penned in; apartheid is but one method of compartmentalizing the colonial world.” Or, in the American context, consider Malcolm X and his geographically expansive “Message to the Grassroots” speech—ranging from Bandung, to Kenya, to Cuba, to Detroit—delivered in 1963, in which he states:

We have a common enemy. We have this in common: we have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite—on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy—the white man. He’s an enemy to all of us.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt attempted to pull together this dispersed racialization and its political effects into a single framework, outlining how the roots of authoritarianism and the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War were not, in fact, European alone, but could be located to the colonies—in part, the “race society” that had been constructed in South Africa. [continue reading]

Dried Fruit and the Cocktail Menace: Race, Food, and Purity in Interwar South Africa

Sarah Emily Duff
Historical Cooking Project

In July 1912, the White Ribbon, the official publication of the South African Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), published an article extolling the virtues of a ‘fleshless diet’. Not only would it save readers money and was surprisingly easy to prepare – servants, the author noted, could ‘soon be taught to prepare vegetarian meals without supervision’ – but it was also a ‘“clean” diet,’ which had long been adopted by ‘many of those who have most deeply influenced our world of thought’.[i] Encountering a reference to ‘clean’ eating in a 1912 magazine represents a moment of surprising recognition, when the past and present seem to meet. The White Ribbon’sdefinition of clean eating is strikingly similar to that in the current language of wellness food culture: clean food, the author implies, fosters a healthy body and sound morals. A clean diet encourages a healthy mind, and a healthy body.

Of course, most societies around the world have long associated moral goodness with consuming – or not consuming – particular foodstuffs. And although it would be inaccurate to argue that the origins of a powerful contemporary food fad can be located precisely in the publications of the WCTU, both these movements’ preoccupation with clean eating are part of a longer history of reaction to the industrialisation of the food chain in the nineteenth century. Globally, the WCTU occupied an important place in the early history of regulating the food industry. Historians of the Progressive Era United States have shown how women associated with the WCTU campaigned successfully for food purity in the face of rampant food adulteration. However, the food purity movement was also a powerful weapon against immigrant-run businesses, which were disproportionately targeted by government authorities. [continue reading]

Undoing the Work of the Windrush Narrative

Kennetta Hammond Perry
History Workshop

In a speech that quickly went viral, Tottenham MP David Lammy offered a stinging critique of the British Government’s treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’ during Parliamentary debate in late April 2018. Citing the names of his constituents who had come to Britain from the Caribbean with imperial birthrights to the protections and privileges of full citizenship guaranteed by the British Nationality Act of 1948, Lammy condemned the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies towards ‘illegal’ immigrants. He insisted that they effectively served as a pretext to create a cloud of suspicion and initiate a process of criminalization that has been used to deny public benefits, employment and the permanent right to remain in the country.

Lammy argued that the headline-making ‘crisis’ of citizenship affecting the ‘Windrush generation’ was more than series of heart-wrenching media stories documenting the impact of a racialized anti-immigrant political climate that preceded Brexit. Moreover, he suggested that addressing this national “disgrace” required acknowledging that it had occurred “because of a refusal to remember our history.” He urged, “We need to remember our history at this moment.” [continue reading]

Forging Islamic Science

Nir Shafir

As I prepared to teach my class ‘Science and Islam’ last spring, I noticed something peculiar about the book I was about to assign to my students. It wasn’t the text – a wonderful translation of a medieval Arabic encyclopaedia – but the cover. Its illustration showed scholars in turbans and medieval Middle Eastern dress, examining the starry sky through telescopes. The miniature purported to be from the premodern Middle East, but something was off.

Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo developed it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object. When I tracked down the full image, two more figures emerged: one also looking through a telescope, while the other jotted down notes while his hand spun a globe – another instrument that was rarely drawn. The starkest contradiction, however, was the quill in the fourth figure’s hand. Middle Eastern scholars had always used reed pens to write. By now there was no denying it: the cover illustration was a modern-day forgery, masquerading as a medieval illustration. [continue reading]

Stalinist Truman Show: artist paid 400 people to live as Soviet citizens

Mark Brown

In an art project that has been compared to The Truman Show, Big Brother and the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York, a Russian artist has paid 400 people to live for three years in a fictional but functioning Stalin-era research institute. In an experiment long anticipated in the film and art worlds but confirmed by the Guardian on Friday, Ilya Khrzhanovsky created an institute of theoretical physics in eastern Ukraine modelled on the shadowy facilities which existed in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Inside it were more than 400 real people, who relived 30 years of the Soviet experience in three years between 2008-11, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, and obeying the same rules as Soviet citizens would have. People fell in and out of love, conceived 14 children, formed friendships and made enemies, according to executive producer Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon. [continue reading]