Every year, throughout the year, new black histories are uncovered and shared with the public through books, films, television programmes, and talks. Being a researcher has allowed me to witness and be a part of the unveiling of such stories at conferences and in archives, and ensuring that these stories reach the public is an important responsibility of the academic community.
The past year provided us with numerous brilliant examples of black history reaching the public, most notably the BBC’s Black and British season. Black and British: A Forgotten History showed the nation that Black History was British history. Black Romans were deployed to the region near Hadrian’s Wall, black people served in the court of Henry VIII, and were key figures in the abolitionist movement. Black Midwives highlighted the important contribution of the women who responded to the call of the mother country at the founding of the NHS and have remained a key part of our health service ever since.
(ASUA PhD Student Melissa Bennett filming part of Black and British at the Black Cultural Archives in October 2016)
Outside of our television screens Black History has also been broadcast through museums, galleries, and public spaces. Soul of a Nation has showcased powerful artwork from the Black Power movement to a British audience at a time when the Black Lives Matter campaign is steadily growing. At Portchester Castle in Hampshire, a fascinating exhibition has revealed that the castle housed 2,000 African-Caribbean prisoners of war who were transported from St Lucia in 1796 after fighting for the French, who had freed them from slavery, against the British who hoped to claim the island and its slaves. Such stories complicate traditional narratives about Britain’s status as pioneers of the anti-slavery movement.
(The WIR at the Queen's Jubilee in 1897, including one of their Victoria Cross winners)
This story is complicated further by the fact that between 1795 and 1808 the British government brought an estimated 13,400 slaves to form the West India Regiment, the first official predominantly black unit in the British Army. My own research project on the West India Regiment has unearthed numerous photographs of the black men who fought to maintain and expand Britain’s colonial empire, and discovered the fascinating stories behind them. It forms part of the AHRC funded Africa’s Sons Under Arms project that focuses on numerous aspects of the West India Regiment’s history and this November we too will share our findings with the public through an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.
(A panel event at the Black Cultural Archives, including David Olusoga, S.I. Martin, Angelina Osbourne, Onyeka Nubia, and Patrick Vernon, and ASUA PhD student Melissa Bennett along with Paul Reid, Director of the BCA)
If Black History Month had not provided incentives for bringing these kinds of histories into the public realm for the past thirty years, it is unlikely that such research would receive funding, that exhibitions like the ones mentioned would take place, and that Black History would be brought to our televisions. What started thirty years ago as a movement to ensure this history reached the public for just one month, has slowly evolved to ensure that it is something that touches us all year round. This does not mean that Black History Month has lost its relevance, it increases its importance as a showcase for the kind of work that goes on 365 days a year and the kind of stories that can be found across our country every day in museums and galleries, on our streets, and in our homes. Long may it continue to spark interest and wet appetites!
(ASUA PhD student Melissa Bennett at the Black History Month 30th Anniversary Celebration at the House of Lords, this article was also printed in BHM magazine)
This article originally appeared in Black History Month Magazine
For more information on ASUA's involvement with the BBC's Black and British see this AHRC article.