This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From African Americans and the fate of Haiti to how Bridgerton erased Haiti, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

African Americans, Black Internationalism, and the Fate of Haiti

Christina Davidson
Black Perspectives

From the outside looking in, there has always been at least two meanings of Haiti. During the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), white people across the world clung to the racist belief that Africans and their descendants were inherently inferior to people of European descent. Thus, they rejected the idea that enslaved Africans could successfully revolt against slave owners. Then, the “impossible” happened. The Black insurgents emerged victorious in their revolution against France, and established the first independent black republic, Haiti. In response, western nations denied Haiti the rights, privileges, and respect granted to other modern nation states. White prejudice against Black Haiti predominated because the very existence of Haiti proved whites’ greatest fear: that their wealth and privilege were built upon a lie, the myth of white supremacy. This was one idea of Haiti prevalent among non-Haitian outsiders, but there was another. Enslaved and free Black people throughout the Atlantic world did not accept the lie of their supposed innate inferiority. Slavery required intense violence and relentless policing to maintain the status quo. Black people across the Atlantic world learned of the Haitian Revolution and rejoiced. In the Haitian Revolution and the idea of Haiti, the Black republic, they found proof for what they had known all along–that they were indeed human and equal to their white oppressors. To them, Haiti was hope. Haiti was freedom. Haiti was a symbol of Black humanity.

In The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (2019), Brandon Byrd provides alternative perspectives of Haiti through the eyes of African Americans who saw Haiti as a symbol of Black freedom and equality. Whereas other scholars have analyzed the meaning of Haiti to black people during the early republic period, Byrd focuses readers’ attention on the decades after the U.S. Civil War when race relations in the United States shifted drastically. [continue reading]

Race in South Africa: ‘We haven’t learnt we are human beings first’

BBC News

The charge of fraud made three months ago against teacher Glen Snyman for ticking the “African” box on his application form when applying for a head teacher job in 2017 has highlighted the country’s ongoing problem with racial classification. Mr Snyman, who was defined as coloured (mixed racial heritage) by the apartheid government, subsequently had the charge dropped by the local authority but the issue the case raised has not gone away.

The Population Registration Act was the cornerstone of the apartheid policy that legalised discrimination. It was introduced in 1950 and divided South Africans into four broad groups – white, African, coloured and Indian – to enforce the minority government’s policy of racial segregation. It was repealed in 1991 as the country moved towards democratic governance in 1994 but racial classification is still very much part of the conversation in the country. [continue reading]

Russian museum director who exposed Soviets to hidden masterpieces dies at 98

Andrew Roth

A longtime museum director dubbed the grande dame of the Russian art world has died at 98, prompting an outpouring of grief and admiration for the woman who brought the Mona Lisa to Moscow and returned masterpieces hidden for decades from the Soviet public to her museum’s exhibition halls. Irina Antonova, whose work at the Pushkin Museum began under Joseph Stalin and ended under Vladimir Putin, died on Monday evening of complications from the coronavirus. Her death was confirmed by the press service of the museum, where she served as director for 52 years from 1961 to 2013.

Antonova, who joined the museum at the end of the second world war, often prided herself on a 1974 exhibition of paintings that saw great works of cubism and impressionism long banished as products of bourgeoisie European culture rehung alongside Russia’s master impressionists. “Opening the exhibition, I was preparing to be fired,” she said in a recent interview, describing a heated meeting with the Soviet cultural officials. “I knew that I was in danger of that. But I understood that it was impossible to keep Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Van Gogh, Gaugin in the vaults any longer.” [continue reading]

Remembering the New Cross Massacre

Aaron Andrews
History Workshop

In the early morning on Sunday 18 January 1981, a fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road in the London Borough of Lewisham. The house had been full the night before, with revellers celebrating the sixteenth birthday of Yvonne Ruddock and the eighteenth birthday of her friend Angela Jackson. Thirteen young Black Britons, including Yvonne and her brother Paul, lost their lives as a result of the fire. Two-and-a-half years later, Anthony Berbeck took his own life, becoming the fourteenth victim of the massacre. Forty years on, it is vital that we continue to remember the story of the New Cross Massacre.

For four decades, the cause of the fire has remained a source of serious contention. Police officers at the scene of the fire initially blamed the neo-fascist National Front. This theory was corroborated by eyewitnesses who reported having seen a white man drive away from the house in a light-coloured Austin Princess moments after the fire had started. Moreover, local far-right extremism and the longer history of racist arson attacks in the area suggested that the fire was a deliberate attack. Despite this, it wasn’t long before the police began to blame the victims. [continue reading]

Why Did Bridgerton Erase Haiti?

Marlene L. Daut
London Review of Books

Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels are mostly populated with white people like the regency-era England where they take place. The London of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton tv series for Netflix, in contrast, is a multicultural mecca, sprinkled with Black characters of various skin hues, as well as a smattering of east and south Asians walking around silently in the background. There is even a Black queen and a Black duke.

In the world of fiction—whether on the page, stage, or screen—such ahistoricity does not necessarily have to be an issue. We should not evaluate a work of art by how well it matches reality, or how faithful it is to history. But a work of art can and should be judged by the inspiration behind its creator’s vision. And this is where Bridgerton has a Caribbean problem. [continue reading]