This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, 1941. From left to right: Solomon Linda, Gilbert Madondo, Boy Sibiya, Gideon Mkhize, Samuel Mlangeni and Owen Sikhakhane.

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

From the pastor as pugilist to another side of W. E. B. Du Bois, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Pastor as Pugilist: Nigel Biggar and the Imperial History Wars

Dane Kennedy

“This house would restore the British Empire.” King’s College London’s Conservative Association proposed this debate topic for a “Port and Policy” event earlier this year. Leading Brexiteers were saying much the same thing a few years ago, using euphemisms like the Anglosphere, CANZUK, and Global Britain to gin up enthusiasm for the glory days of empire. But with Britain demonstrably poorer, weaker, and more divided than it was before Brexit, and with Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and the campaign to decolonize museums and curricula exposing the empire’s ugly underbelly, one has to wonder whether these young King’s College Tories’ policy prescription is derived from too much port.

Still, others share their fondness for empire. Nigel Biggar, Oxford University’s Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology and Director of the McDonald Centre (funded by an American religious foundation), has made it his mission in recent years to restore Britons’ pride in their imperial past. He first drew public attention as a leading critic of the campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from its Oriel College niche. Soon thereafter he announced that the McDonald Centre would launch a six-year “Ethics and Empire” project, designed to develop a Christian ethic of empire. He revealed his intent in a Times op-ed: Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history. Now, with the McDonald project coming to a close, Biggar has published a manifesto on the subject, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. [continue reading]

The Lion Sleeps Tonight: one song’s journey from 1930s South Africa to Disney money-spinner

Lior Phillips

South African music is a confluence of paths; a plethora of hands, feet and voices crossing and moving ever forward, yet still interconnected. For that reason, attempting to unravel those strands and arrive at some singular core is a dizzying prospect, but the word “mbube” was at the heart of that inextricable weave during the earliest days of the country’s popular recorded music. Today, mbube describes a specific variety of South African choral music composed of multipart a cappella harmonies, usually sung by men, and usually in Zulu. The genre’s name is taken from the most famous song of the style.

Sung by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, Mbube was released in 1939 by South Africa’s oldest independent label, Gallo Record Company, for whom Linda worked as a packer in the pressing plant. As the story goes, Gallo’s talent scout, Griffith Motsieloa, discovered Linda’s vocal prowess on the job and invited his group into the studio, where the Evening Birds delivered what would become one of the most important records in South African history. In the recording, the group intricately balances the three-part bass harmonies of Gideon Mkhize, Samuel Mlangeni, and Owen Sikhakhane, as Boy Sibiya and Gilbert Madondo deliver honeyed middle tones and Linda himself soars over the top with an unmatched soprano. Their voices work together to call out to an mbube, the Zulu word for lion. [continue reading]

The Radical Harry Belafonte

Trish Meehan

arry Belafonte, the pioneering singer, songwriter, and actor who began his career singing calypso before turning to political activism, has died at the age of ninety-six. Beyond his groundbreaking contribution to the arts, Belafonte was a committed activist in the fight against imperialism, worker oppression, and racial discrimination, using the platform his artistic talents afforded to him to oppose injustice in all forms. “I have to be part of the rebellion that tries to change all this,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “Anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.”

Born in Manhattan, New York, Belafonte spent his early childhood in his parent’s native Jamaica. After returning to America, he volunteered with the US Navy to fight fascism in World War II. His artistic ambition was sparked after working as a cleaner in a New York theater in the late 1940s, eventually training under the iconic German communist director Erwin Piscator. [continue reading]

Ideology in US Foreign Policy

James M. Lindsay, Christopher McKnight Nichols, Emily Conroy-Krutz, and Jay Sexton
President’s Inbox

Christopher Nichols, professor of history and Wayne Woodrow Hayes chair in National Security Studies at The Ohio State University, Emily Conroy-Krutz, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, and Jay Sexton, professor of history and Rich and Nancy Kinder Chair of Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how ideology has historically influenced and shaped U.S. foreign policy. [listen here]

Another Side of W.E.B. Du Bois

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Adom Getachew, and Jennifer Pitts

ne of the most significant American political thinkers of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois is perhaps best known for his books The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). The former is considered a classic sociological study of the Black experience in the United States, while the latter is a landmark history of the Reconstruction era. Du Bois was also one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. As all this suggests, Du Bois is principally known for his domestic activism and his works addressing racial inequality in the United States. But his criticism of racial inequality at home was always rooted in the international realities of European and US economic imperialism.

Indeed, a recent collection of Du Bois’s writings, edited by Adom Getachew and Jennifer Pitts, shows him to be an essential thinker of international relations. W.E.B. Du Bois: International Thought consists of 24 of his essays and speeches on international themes, spanning the years from 1900 to 1956. In them, readers will encounter Du Bois’s unique perspective on the relationship between empire and democracy, the development of his anti-imperial thought, and his vision for transnational solidarity. To further understand this side of Du Bois’s thinking, I interviewed Getachew and Pitts about their new book. This exchange has been edited for length and clarity. [continue reading]