Hanley on Lester’s Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars (2022)

Alan Lester. Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars. London: SunRise Publishing, 2022. ISBN 978-1-9144891-4-3. Softcover. 203pp. £7.99.

Reviewed by Ryan Hanley (University of Exeter)

I was cornered at a party recently by someone who had overheard that I was an historian of slavery and the British Empire. People like me, they had been warned, were teaching students about how uniquely evil the British were, how we should all be ashamed of our history. They were no cheerleader for Empire, but they also had no patience for the ‘woke’ activists rampaging across the country tearing down statues, cancelling people they didn’t agree with, and generally trying to erase the bits of the past they didn’t like. Above all, they wanted to impress upon me the importance of balance in historical analyses of Empire. Slavery was obviously A Bad Thing, but had I considered that we were the ones who abolished it, and also (here they hesitated for a moment, but pressed on), why don’t we ever hear about the African side of the slave trade? Perhaps I should teach that in my ‘course’. As I tried to respond to some of these points, wearily reproducing rebuttals that are by now so familiar to me that I’m never sure if I’ve already said them in any given conversation, the dialogue pivoted without me. Now we were talking about Hong Kong. Surely even I would admit that British imperialism in Hong Kong was largely benign? That’s the Empire, isn’t it? Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Why can’t people handle complexity nowadays?

Perhaps I am attending the wrong parties. But to be fair to my cross-examiner, they could hardly be blamed for their alarm. As Alan Lester skilfully vivisects in this forthright, illuminating, and hugely readable primer, a culture war over Empire is being assiduously propagated by a small but tenacious group of British politicians, academics, and journalists. Billed as ‘boldly confront[ing] apologists for the British Empire (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretaries)’, Deny and Disavow tackles the deliberate misrepresentations of recent calls for recognition and reform made by Black Lives Matter and other campaigning organisations, as well as the clear majority of historians working in the field. Lester intersperses an admirably dispassionate anatomy of the culture warriors’ various strategies to distance Britain from its own history with punchy ‘snapshot’ accounts of some of the key events and figures that are now, apparently, controversial.

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New Books on Black British History

Ryan Hanley
University of Exeter

October marks Black History Month in the UK, providing the perfect excuse to delve into some of the best new history writing in this dynamic and rapidly-expanding field. Since my first monograph, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, c.1770-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), was published last October, the field of black British history seems to have been completely transformed. The past twelve months have seen several (I counted six) new permanent academic posts in the UK and a new MA programme, all dedicated more or less specifically to black British history. And January 2020 sees the launch of a new seminar series in London supported by the Institute for Historical Research, showcasing some of the best new work in the field from within and beyond the university – hope to see some of you there!

Some of this will have to do with the publication in October 2018 of the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report, which highlighted the chronic underrepresentation and overwork of ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ academic staff in British history departments. But the sudden heightened visibility of black British history in UK academia is not purely down to newfound resolutions to build stronger, better history departments, nor solely to the ongoing work to ‘decolonise’ history curricula, though both are important factors. The simple fact is that we have had an incredible year of high-quality scholarly research publications, accounting for some of the most innovative, dynamic, and vital work on British history as a whole.

Don’t call it a ‘turn’ – but there is more and more great work out there that, taken together, is changing the way we think about Britain’s past and its relationship to global and imperial history. Some of you, especially if you don’t work on topics obviously related to black British history, might be curious about how this impacts on your research interests. So, to celebrate and spread the word about this new wave of black British history scholarship, here are my top picks from the past twelve months. Continue reading “New Books on Black British History”