This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Pool photo by Frank Augstein, New York Times.

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

From escaping the Taliban to the Du Bois Doctrine, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

My escape from Afghanistan

Bushra Seddique

The text message came a little before 5 p.m. It was August 26, 2021. Eleven days earlier, the Taliban had overthrown the Afghan government. My friend—a German writer and academic—had been trying to help my family flee the country. Now she told me she had gotten my two younger sisters and me on the list for a flight to Frankfurt, a last-minute evacuation negotiated by the German government and a nonprofit group.

“What about my mom?” I asked. She didn’t reply for a moment. “I was not able to get her on this flight,” she answered. Please, I begged her: “My brothers are gone and my father is living with his second wife. She just has us, no one else, for God’s sake please do something.” [continue reading]

Charles’ succession stirs Caribbean calls for reparations, removal of monarch as head of state

Kate Chappell and Michela Moscufo

The accession of King Charles to the British throne has stirred renewed calls from politicians and activists for former colonies in the Caribbean to remove the monarch as their head of state and for Britain to pay slavery reparations. Charles succeeds his mother, Queen Elizabeth, who ruled for 70 years and died on Thursday afternoon.

The prime minister of Jamaica said his country would mourn Elizabeth, and his counterpart in Antigua and Barbuda ordered flags to half-staff until the day of her burial. But in some quarters there are doubts about the role a distant monarch should play in the 21st century. Earlier this year, some Commonwealth leaders expressed unease at a summit in Kigali, Rwanda, about the passage of leadership of the 56-nation club from Elizabeth to Charles. [continue reading]

‘Hell, Yes, We Are Subversive’

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
New York Review

In 1969 a UCLA student who was also an undercover FBI agent revealed in the campus newspaper that the school’s philosophy department had recently hired a member of the Communist Party. A week later, the San Francisco Examiner reported that that person was a twenty-five-year-old professor named Angela Davis.

The University of California Board of Regents confronted Davis and asked if she was a Communist. Yes, she replied. “While I think this membership requires no justification,” she wrote the board, “I want you to know that as a black woman I feel an urgent need to find radical solutions to the problems of racial and national minorities in white capitalist United States.” The board fired her, putting her into the national spotlight over questions of academic freedom and the lingering effects of cold war anticommunism. [continue reading]

Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire

Maya Jasanoff
New York Times

The end of an era” will become a refrain as commentators assess the record-setting reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Like all monarchs, she was both an individual and an institution. She had a different birthday for each role — the actual anniversary of her birth in April and an official one in June — and, though she retained her personal name as monarch, held different titles depending on where in her domains she stood. She was as devoid of opinions and emotions in public as her ubiquitous handbags were said to be of everyday items like a wallet, keys and phone. Of her inner life we learned little beyond her love of horses and dogs — which gave Helen Mirren, Olivia Colman and Claire Foy rapt audiences for the insights they enacted.

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged. [continue reading]

The Du Bois Doctrine

Zachariah Mampilly
Foreign Affairs

October 1961 was a momentous month for W. E. B. Du Bois. Since the early years of the twentieth century, Du Bois had been a towering figure among Black American intellectuals. A sociologist by training, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. During the Jim Crow era, he became known for an uncompromising stance, demanding equal rights for Black Americans through his journalism and advocacy work while also making seminal contributions to various academic debates. In the years between the two world wars, his attention turned increasingly to international affairs, and his politics veered sharply left; by 1961, Du Bois had applied for membership in the Communist Party. Now, at the age of 93, an ailing Du Bois was embarking on what would be his final journey. At the behest of Ghana’s pan-Africanist president, Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois moved to Ghana with the intention of beginning work on an “Encyclopedia Africana,” which would combat the prevailing perception of Africans and people of African heritage as devoid of civilization. What had once been a dream project for Du Bois, however, had become more of a last resort. Hounded by the U.S. government and marginalized by the academic and policy establishments that once welcomed him, Du Bois was fleeing his homeland. It was a figurative exile that turned literal when the U.S. State Department refused to renew his passport, rendering him functionally stateless. He spent the next two years in Ghana, where local and international activists and thinkers embraced him warmly, but he made little progress. He died in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington.

Today, Du Bois’s home in Accra is notionally a museum that, although scheduled for renovation next year, lies in a state of disrepair. Books, including many apparently owned by Du Bois, sit slowly decomposing in the heat. Photos of disparate Black and African leaders, including Du Bois’s intellectual rival Booker T. Washington and the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, hang haphazardly alongside illustrations of ancient Egyptian queens. Tourists, mostly interested in a crafts market behind the house, wander in and out, posing for selfies. [continue reading]