In Black and British, I was most captivated by the narrative about the “Beachy Head Lady.” Amidst 300 sets of unidentified bones, historians settled on hers in order to learn more about the region. They established that she would have been living in that same town around 125-240 AD. With the forensic recreation of her, they settled into her history as a sub-Saharan African and the first Black Brit. I was furthermore interested in the conversation about the prejudices of the Romans at that time and how race was not one of them. Considering the remainder of racial history, this was highly shocking.
Britain remembers black history through documentaries like this and programs launching into historical efforts to understand the life and memory of Britain’s black population. The plaque ceremonies displayed by the Black and British series show one of the modes of incorporating more black history into sites throughout Britain. Works like this transform approaches to British history because it frames the realities of black history in Britain and how it often existed long before many are quick to think. It places a lens on history that beckons historians to dive deeper into minority roles and to think deeper and more critically about how they built the history of the country. In this way, I believe that Americans would benefit from devoting not only more work into understanding black history and contributions, but also Native American history and contributions — identifying and empowering the history of those who occupied the country long before European settlers.
Toward the end of Ward’s book, he explores why and how Martin Luther King Jr.’s historically all-important visit slipped out of public memory. Ward explains that the celebrations and recognitions of King’s prominence in Newcastle ebbed and flowed with changes in leadership in the city and universities, but ultimately, the forgetfulness “was less a matter of wilful neglect than of happenstance, but it provides a revealing insight into how public memory — and amnesia — can work” (Ward 222). Ward goes on to list the ways that history can remain at the forefront of historical memory:
Scholars of social memory and cultural heritage recognise that things like plaques and other ‘sites of memory’ help to nurture and sustain popular interest in the events, movements and actors of the past. Statues, monuments, named rooms, named buildings, named streets, named bridges, named parks, named ships, along with films, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and countless other kinds of physical objects and events can keep popular memories of the past alive in particular places and for particular audiences; they also shape the nature of those memories. Repetition helps, too. Regularly staged events to honour individuals, organisations, movements, or other historical themes and moments can help to cement them into popular consciousness. (Ward 223)
Ward’s detailed list of concrete methods to promote memory points directly at the efforts of Black and British. With the plaque ceremonies in different cities and historical sites, crowds gathered to learn about the significance of the space they occupied. Attendees are seen taking pictures and talking with the different historians and public figures present. In this way, Ward’s brand of memory is exceedingly obvious. A narrative to consider, however, is that the plaque dedicated to King at Newcastle University was, at one point, taken down for renovations and not only never replaced, but physically lost to the university. In that way, Black and British takes on public memory from two aspects: physical modes of remembrance — plaques and ceremonies — and creative modes of remembrance — the documentary series itself. Rememory, as a Morrisonian concept, encompasses how the only way that history can be collectively remembered is through story-telling, record-keeping, and speaking one’s histories and truths into the ether to be heard. In an ever-changing world of technology and increasingly less attention to history, entertainment and creative story-telling as a means of memory are highly effective.
In his book “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack,” Paul Gilroy navigates the implications and intersections of race and nationalism. Gilroy notes the willful ignorance of not linking nationalism and contemporary racism and depicts two problems with this omission:
The first depicts the nation as a homogeneous and cohesive formation in which an even and consensual cultural field provides the context for hegemonic struggle. The second is attached to the idea that this country is, and must continue to be, a major world power. Patriotism, even in its combative proto-socialist form, is empty without a filling of national pride. (Gilroy 53)
In reference to the research and social studies performed in Black and British, I pondered the connections of this passage with the documentary’s notion of small towns and villages failing to remember long-standing multicultural history. The presence of Afro-Romans and others in British towns comprises the basis of military grandeur and history in these parts of the country, but that is quickly forgotten in modern racial conversations. Here, Gilroy exposes the issue of claiming Britain as an ever “homogeneous and cohesive formation” — an inaccurate label for a country built with the hands of non-white individuals.
Public history has a responsibility to convey to its constituents the reality of the space they occupy, including the vast histories of civilizations and people excluded from textbooks and popular culture. There are pieces of history that need to come to the forefront of public knowledge, calling for a level of scrutiny and intensity in pioneering research into historical moments left out of accessible records. In order to infiltrate the brain space of people who believe there is no more history to be added, the representations of new findings in public history must be rich with artifacts, oral history, and other aspects that make memory concrete. As discussed by Ward, history demands some forms of physical representation in order to be acknowledged by the public. In the grand scheme of human and civil rights, these efforts to dive into public history and memory is the primary manner by which marginalized groups in modernity and in history can be empowered by the forces that so long suppressed them.
Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Ward, Brian. Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2017.
“The Beachy Head Lighthouse Postcard dated 1907” by Rob Wassell licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0