History Department, University of Exeter
From the transnational roots of Black History Month in Britain to how bad medieval history feeds far-right fantasies, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
E. James West
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, historian and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, announced the first “Negro History Week.” It was a public history event that sought to disabuse ‘the Negro mind of the idea of inferiority’ and create ‘an increasing conviction among the whites that racial bias undermines all truth.’ Held during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the annual celebration quickly became one of the nation’s most prominent public history events.
Student demands for greater historical representation and other efforts in Black organizing during the 1960s and early 1970s – part of what Vincent Harding describes as the post-war ‘Black history revival’ – fed calls for the celebration to be expanded. In February 1976 president Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month (BHM) calling upon the nation ‘to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.’ Today, BHM remains a widely celebrated, albeit often commercialized, yearly event; an opportunity to reflect on both the historical contributions made by Black people to the nation’s development, and to recommit, both individually and collectively, to the continued struggle for racial justice. [continue reading]
In September 1989, Margaret Thatcher flew to Moscow for talks with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a time of hope, when the first cracks were appearing in the Iron Curtain between East and West in Europe. Soviet troops were withdrawing from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Poland had formed a non-communist government, ending more than 40 years of one-party rule. Hungary had opened its border with Austria, and protests were spreading in East Germany. Yet Thatcher’s message at the Kremlin was so inflammatory that she asked for the recording to be stopped, so there would be no official record of her remarks.
Britain, Thatcher told Gorbachev, was deeply worried about where the upheaval might end. “We do not want the unification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the postwar borders, and we cannot allow that.” Unification “would undermine the stability of the entire international situation, and could lead to threats to our security”. [continue reading]
On Monday 2 March 1981, Leila Hassan Howe led a 20,000-person march through the streets of London. It was designed, she said, to “cause maximum disruption” and so, for eight hours, on a working day, the protesters marched; when they stopped the traffic on Blackfriars Bridge the police were so angry they tried to end it there. When they continued down Fleet Street – then synonymous with the British media – Hassan Howe says that “people were throwing banana skins at us”. Yet neither the police nor overt racism in the home of the press could stop them.
The protest that Hassan Howe helped organise – with her partner, the journalist, activist and publisher Darcus Howe – was dubbed the National Black People’s Day of Action. And it was unlike anything seen in Britain before. Today it is considered to be a turning point in black British identity. [continue reading]
New York Review of Books
The first photograph in the series of installation shots I received shows two rectangular plinths, placed a handbreadth apart. Each plinth, measuring forty-eight inches on the long side, bears a framed serigraph, a silk-screened image with three words: in the first, “La questione Italianna,” and in the second, “La questione Affricana.” This is the entryway to a multimedia exhibition of Dawit L. Petros, an Eritrean-born Canadian artist, guest-curated by Irene Campolmi at the Power Plant, a contemporary art gallery in Toronto (now temporarily closed to the public due to the pandemic). The title of the show, “Spazio Disponibile,” is an Italian phrase that translates as “Available Space”; it refers to the advertisement spaces offered by a government magazine to businesses during the heyday of Italian colonialism. Together, the exhibition title and the words on the serigraphs show an artist concerned with Italy’s historical relationship with Africa.
This focus on Eritrea’s former colonial power is clearer when considering the thirty-eight prints mounted on a long dividing wall, each of which is a page from the journal Rivista Coloniale, the widely circulated official mouthpiece of the Italian colonial government published between 1906 and 1943, informing Italians living in the colonies or abroad about the economy of their country. One series of monochrome pigment prints, titled “The constant re-telling of the future in the past” (2020), is a cluster of archival images—machines, farmhands, processions, a city center full of new cars, a Fiat factory—taken in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, sometime during the Italian occupation. These images of Asmara, taken between the mid-Twenties and the late Fifties, when it was described as piccolo Roma, show Italians filling the city’s roads with Fiat cars, Italian bakeries, butchers, clothes shops, hairdressers, theaters, and cinemas. Indeed, a central preoccupation of Petros’s is how we choose to engage with the archive. He is interested in “metaphorical possibilities,” as he says in a video posted on the website of the gallery, in how histories are “either suppressed, are displaced, or are unexamined.” And specifically, in this exhibition, “the extent to which Italy has never confronted its colonial history.” [continue reading]
The medieval world was an era of immense and global change, when monk-spies stole silkworms from China to bring the finest fabric of the age back to Constantinople, when the Malian king Mansa Musa went on the hajj with so much gold he collapsed the Mediterranean economy, and when arguably the greatest sports hero in history, Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, used his skill in a ritual ballgame to build a kingdom in Central America. A field of history that was once limited to Europe with the odd excursion into the Middle East is now increasingly globalized, and increasingly critical of its own narrow origins.
Like all branches of history, medieval studies has become a battleground between not only academic factions but also political ones. The rise of the so-called alt-right, the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and horrific mass murders like the Christchurch mosque shooting have all involved neo-medieval invocations of a white supremacist past. Within medieval studies, attempts to point out white supremacist framings have led to conflict between academic factions. Most of the traditionalist academics, however, argue for the neutrality of the medieval era in contemporary politics, rather than explicitly advancing it as a tool for pushing ideological aims. [continue reading]