Doing Black History in the West Midlands

Black History in the Midlands and Beyond: Connections and Context, event report

On 25 October, the School of History and Cultures and the interdisciplinary Centre for American and Canadian Studies hosted a roundtable on ‘Black History in the Midlands and Beyond: Connections and Context’, as part of the University’s Black History Month. The event was part supported with money from the BRIHC fund. It was an interdisciplinary discussion, featuring contributions from academics in a range of fields, including human geography, sociology and education, which joined to debate black studies in the Midlands and beyond. Importantly, the roundtable questioned how scholars can contribute to enable academic and social change, and create histories inclusive of black people.

An initial point to emerge from the discussion was how delving into the history of Birmingham can be a highly valuable starting point to explore global histories. Dr Patricia Noxolo, Lecturer in Human Geography at Birmingham, explained the importance of investigating not only the everyday experience of place, but from here expanding to the national and trans-national histories that exist within regions of Birmingham. She proposed exploring not just who lived in the Midlands, but its specific areas and their global connections – both their internal and external geographies. Through this approach, we can avoid creating separate histories, and instead demonstrate the co-construction of regions and their diverse populations. Thus, allowing for exploration of the on-going processes of colonisation, decolonisation, and re-colonisation within the city.   

Picture from the Black History Month Roundtable

Issues surrounding the challenges and opportunities presented when doing Black history were raised throughout the session and an emphasis on doing everyday histories emerged, particularly starting local and scaling up to find wider connections and context. Dr Lisa Palmer, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Birmingham City University, exemplified how previously hidden histories can be unearthed to challenge the dominant Eurocentric discourse of Birmingham, framed by white men and industrial heritage. Specifically, she discussed the photography of Vanley Burke, whose notable 1983 project Handsworth from the Inside showed an alternative narrative to the deprived and riotous ‘black Handsworth’, instead documenting ordinary life. Projects like this can – and should – be used to challenge the established history of Birmingham that’s simply dominated by manufacturing and industry.

In a moment when discussions are being held nationally about how we can create more representative and inclusive curriculums (for example, the ‘Decolonising Cambridge’ campaign and UCL’s ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’), the debate closed by stressing this topical issue. PhD student Erika Melek Delgado spoke of her experience teaching the history of Britain and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, noting shock that students’ previous knowledge typically amounted to a narrative of ‘how brilliant Britain was in abolishing the slave trade’. Further investigation led her to consult the primary and secondary school curriculums, and uncover the topic is non-statutory. She went on to explain that even until recently in Brazil, where she previously taught - and where the history of the slave trade cannot be denied as part of their national history - the Europeans remained protagonists, and the enslaved peoples were presented only as such, and never agents in their own history. 

How then, can we actively challenge some of the established notions of modernity, empire and race that underlie our curriculums, and the concept that, as Dr Noxolo put it “the only course of civilisation is white: beginning in Rome and Greece, and reaching its pinnacle today.” Panel members discussed how throughout their university life, the curriculum was whitewashed, with mention of black scholars and philosophers omitted. This consequently created the sense that black people do not contribute to the academic production of knowledge. PhD student April-Louise Pennant discussed her research on black British females in the education system, and spoke of the cultural shock experienced when joining institutions and exclusionary curriculums – often exacerbated by intersections of gender and social class. Importantly therefore, the roundtable concluded with an emphasis on how we can continue challenging and decolonising the structures that limit black studies. In particular, through encouraging interdisciplinary conversations and collaborative campaigning, in attempts to create broader and more inclusive ways of studying black history.

by Rose Parkinson, MA Global History student. Her studies are supported by BRIHC.