New Books on Black British History

Ryan Hanley
University of Exeter

October marks Black History Month in the UK, providing the perfect excuse to delve into some of the best new history writing in this dynamic and rapidly-expanding field. Since my first monograph, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, c.1770-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), was published last October, the field of black British history seems to have been completely transformed. The past twelve months have seen several (I counted six) new permanent academic posts in the UK and a new MA programme, all dedicated more or less specifically to black British history. And January 2020 sees the launch of a new seminar series in London supported by the Institute for Historical Research, showcasing some of the best new work in the field from within and beyond the university – hope to see some of you there!

Some of this will have to do with the publication in October 2018 of the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report, which highlighted the chronic underrepresentation and overwork of ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ academic staff in British history departments. But the sudden heightened visibility of black British history in UK academia is not purely down to newfound resolutions to build stronger, better history departments, nor solely to the ongoing work to ‘decolonise’ history curricula, though both are important factors. The simple fact is that we have had an incredible year of high-quality scholarly research publications, accounting for some of the most innovative, dynamic, and vital work on British history as a whole.

Don’t call it a ‘turn’ – but there is more and more great work out there that, taken together, is changing the way we think about Britain’s past and its relationship to global and imperial history. Some of you, especially if you don’t work on topics obviously related to black British history, might be curious about how this impacts on your research interests. So, to celebrate and spread the word about this new wave of black British history scholarship, here are my top picks from the past twelve months.

Onyeka Nubia, England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society (Zed Books, 2019)

A common misconception about black British history is that it is relatively short, but as Nubia’s book so ably demonstrates, the presence and agency of Africans in early modern England was linked to the type of sustained debate and anxiety about ‘race’ and identity that we tend to associate with later periods. Nubia’s book takes quite a different approach to Miranda Kaufmann’s Wolfson-shortlisted Black Tudors (OneWorld, 2017), situating the experiences of Africans in Britain very firmly within the contexts of shifting cultural, theological, and philosophical ideas about ‘race’, including an illuminating discussion of the ‘curse of Ham’ as represented in a number of different English translations of the Bible. As in his earlier book Blackamoores (Narrative eye, 2013), Nubia pulls no punches in his criticism of British academia and its failure to engage with the work of scholars of African descent who have published through independent and radical publishing houses. For those keen to benefit from this underappreciated body of work, Nubia’s new book is a great place to start.

Amanda Goodrich, Henry Redhead Yorke, Colonial Radical: Politics and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1772-1813 (Routledge, 2019)

The eighteenth-century Atlantic was a complicated place, and the people who navigated its margins were complicated, too. Partly because of the field’s traditional association with Marxist social historiography, scholars of the British black Atlantic can sometimes fall prey to wishful thinking about the straightforwardness of their subjects’ radical credentials. Tracing the evolution of one ‘mulatto’ radical’s political ideology as he travelled from the West Indies to Britain, Goodrich’s book is as much an examination of the inherent personal contradictions brought on by tidal forces of revolution and repression as it is a straightforward biography. Redhead Yorke went from proslavery polemicist to outspoken abolitionist, and from political radical to trenchant loyalist, all in a chronology of ideological contradiction that only partly maps onto our models for understanding popular politics during this period. His story acts as a welcome reminder that the broad generalisations we necessarily rely upon as historians seldom wholly reflect the messily human experiences of those who carved out lives for themselves in the tumultuous age of revolutions.

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

One of the things that makes black British history so distinctive is that much of the best work has always been undertaken beyond the walls of formal academia; you can’t really stay perched in the ivory tower if you want to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field. In this agenda-setting collection, eminent professor and leading light in the field Hakim Adi has drawn together voices from a new generation of scholars, activists, and educators. The majority of contributions here focus on the twentieth century, though essays by Nubia and Molly Corlett deal with early-modern languages of race and the impact of eighteenth-century colonial-metropolitan political relations in black British history, respectively. For me, one of the most enlightening contributions was from scholar-activist Esther Stanford-Xosei, who provides a long view of the African/Afrikan reparatory justice movement in Britain from the perspective of a current advocate. This will be of particular interest to those who are keen to reframe their teaching of modern British history to take proper account of black leadership in decoloniality and social justice movements. Altogether, this collection captures a particular moment in the evolution of a field that refuses to be constrained by traditional dividing lines between ‘academic’ and ‘public’ history.

Rob Waters, Thinking Black: Britain, 1964-1985 (University of California Press, 2019)

Black radicalism was a fundamentally international collection of movements in the 1960s and ‘70s, and Britain was a major site for the development of new intellectual currents of black liberation. In fact, as Waters’ wonderful books shows, this period saw a fundamental redefinition of blackness in the British context – the emergence of new set of cultural and political identities, broadly organised around a flexible and dynamic concept of ‘radicalism’. Waters’ focus here is on the intellectual and cultural developments of blackness during this period, and he has a rich body of sources to draw upon. These decades saw the heyday of the West Indian Students’ Centre in London and the establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, where Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, and other great black British intellectuals made their names. Decolonisation and decoloniality were central to this intellectual milieu, and Waters draws out the transnational elements of this story with great skill. But the theatre of action for this book is firmly situated within Britain, and the core of the analysis is around how black radicalism, its allies, and its opponents helped to reframe British identity.

BONUS PAPERBACK: Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2015; paperback 2018)

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but Hammond Perry’s 2016 account of the ‘Windrush Generation’ is fast becoming a classic in the field, and it came out in paperback late last year. If you’re looking for a new account of post-World War II Caribbean migration to Britain that is firmly situated in the experiences and perspectives of the migrants themselves, then this is the book for you.

*Publication dates refer to print versions; online publication dates may vary.

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