Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource

Laura Sangha
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from The Many-Headed Monster

If you are thinking about decolonising your history module this year, this seminar plan [pdf] might be of use to you. It’s based around ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’, but with minor tweaking of the reading and primary sources it could be adapted for most modules, whether pre-modern or modern.

John Blanke (detail from 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll).

The seminar aims to introduce students to some key concepts whilst also encouraging them to think about methodology and historiography. It combines synchronous and asynchronous activities, and is equivalent to four hours of synchronous seminar time (it’s designed for my Special Subject which in non-pandemic years is taught by means of 2 x 2 hour seminars a week).

In this post, I want to share some of my recent experiences and which provide some context to where the seminar emerged from.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the concept of decolonising, and have been part of many conversations where its implications for higher education have been debated and discussed. As a scholar from a mixed heritage background I was not unaware of the concept of structural racism, but after I became a member of Exeter Decolonising Network (@ExeterDecol) and Exeter’s BME Staff, Student and Allies Network (@ExeBMENetwork), the invaluable work of these two groups has deepened and widened my understanding of racism, anti-racism and what exactly calls to ‘decolonise’ mean.

After listening and learning as a member of university wide groups, last year I set up the Exeter Centre for Early Modern Studies ‘Early Modern Futures’ reading group, a space where colleagues from across the College of Humanities can share resources and ideas and work towards an understanding of what decolonising means for scholars of the early modern period. I’ve found it both helpful and intellectually invigorating to be able to think about and try to apply ideas to my/our own research and teaching.

Earlier this year I then became part of a working group within the History department at Exeter whose principle aim is to decolonise the curriculum. Within the Decolonising History working group we are currently focusing our efforts on revising our two first year, core, team taught ‘survey’ modules: Understanding the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds; and Understanding the Modern World. The sudden increase in workloads that has followed on from the pandemic has slowed us down, but we are proceeding with some changes this year on the understanding that the revisions will need to continue in years to come.

One of the seminar tasks asks students to work with Peter Brathwaite’s wonderful lockdown project ‘Black Portraiture’.

At the same time many of my colleagues are taking a similar approach to the modules that we are solely responsible for convening and delivering – we are beginning to introduce changes with the intention of building on them in the future. For instance, in my third year Special Subject (A New Jerusalem: Being Protestant in post-Reformation England) I drew together some of the resources that I have found most helpful to put together the seminar template that I am sharing here. My ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’ seminar will take place during Black History Month in the UK.

I’m looking forward to discussing this all with my students, and in particular in hearing their suggestions and opinions about what decolonising means for scholars of early modern religion in England. We will return to these concepts and suggestions in a seminar in the spring term, which considers the place of the English Reformation in historical ‘grand narratives’, assessing how and why the story of the Reformation has been told and retold across time.

Related monster posts:

Michael Ohajuru, ‘John Blanke, Henry VIII’s Black Trumpeter, Petitions for a Back Dated Pay Increase’.

Gajendra Singh, ‘Reading the Embattled Text: Muslim Sipahis of the Indian Army and Sheikh Ahmad’s Dream, 1915-1918’.

Brodie Waddell, ‘A reading list of scholarship by people of colour on slavery and colonialism, c.1500-1750’.

More details about the work of the Exeter Decolonising History group can be found on our university webpages.

For updates on the decolonising work in History at the University of Exeter, please see the Imperial and Global Forum.