October 22, 2015, by Michael Jennings

Going global: restoring agency to black history

This post is contributed by Joe Merton, Lecturer in Twentieth Century History, Faculty of Arts. His main area of expertise is the social and political history of the twentieth century United States.

It is a great privilege to teach black history at university. Few fields of history offer such lively and provocative source material; such breadth; such incredible richness and diversity of experience. Most importantly, however, teaching black history at university also provides an opportunity to restore agency.

In my own experience of studying history, and in discussing similar experiences with my students, people of colour are often presented as unfortunate, impoverished victims, almost helpless in their attempts to confront the discriminatory structures and institutions which framed their lives and experiences. Only the interventions of enlightened (a problematic term in itself), often elite individuals delivered them from racial oppression. This narrative can have very negative consequences: simplifying black history and diluting its significance; blinding us to the complexity and deeply entrenched nature of racial injustice; emotionally detaching us from the history we are studying.

Members of the ÔColoured Peoples Progressive AssociationÕ display their placards in Whitehall (opposite) after the murder of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill by supporters of Oswald Mosley.  The previous year race riots had flared in Notting Hill for several days, after Teddy Boys, fired up by right-wing racist groups, began attacking black people indiscriminately.

Members of the Coloured Peoples Progressive Association display their placards in Whitehall (opposite) after the murder of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill by supporters of Oswald Mosley. The previous year race riots had flared in Notting Hill for several days, after Teddy Boys, fired up by right-wing racist groups, began attacking black people indiscriminately.

In my own teaching, I choose to challenge this vision by internationalising contemporary black history. Familiar topics, from US civil rights and post-Windrush immigration to anti-colonial liberation, are taken out of their local and national settings and placed in a global context. Through this global lens, we can see people of colour not as victims, but as historical actors of incredible agency, awareness and power. They are oppressed by apartheid but also active agents in its demise, using new methods of protest and political-economic pressure to develop a truly global movement and dismantle the apartheid state. They are civil rights protesters but also architects of Cold War foreign policy, using their struggle – and new global media – to influence US-Soviet relations and insert race into the discourse of Cold War diplomacy. They are global citizens, at ease with their ‘double-consciousness’, travelling – but often simply observing – the world as they forged alliances and shared experiences and strategies for change. These men and women, cognisant of the links between Smethwick and Johannesburg, Addis Ababa and Detroit, represent a global network of activism, adeptly navigating an increasingly interconnected world as they challenged a global system of racial discrimination.

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In internationalising black history, then, we might offer a number of contributions. We might acknowledge the explicitly global – not national or sectional – nature of racial injustice, and thus the enormity of both the task facing these actors and their achievements in confronting it. We might recognise that, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, ‘the problem of the twentieth century [was] the problem of the color line’, and thus glimpse the true significance of race and black history to the contemporary world. And we might restore agency to the millions of people of colour who did much, in an increasingly global setting, to remake that world and to change the course of history.

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