Celebrating the Past, Promoting the Present, Building for the Future

As we reach the end of October and the end of Black History Month for another year I am struck by Kadian’s choice of theme for the Month, Celebrating the Past, Promoting the Present, Building for the Future. As Paul reminds us in his blog Bring it Back Home it always seems something of an anomaly to focus on Black History for just one month. Shouldn’t we make every month Black History Month, or more significantly, shouldn’t we be reflecting on, and celebrating Black History whenever we contemplate our history, our present or our future? What I hope this blog has shown, among other things, is that Black History (in all the many ways that that can be defined and developed) is something that many different scholars at the University of Birmingham are doing all the time, as part of their day to day activities. It might take the designation of a specific month to highlight, and to celebrate this, but in the practice of many of our professors, lecturers and students it is an ongoing part of their everyday life, truly something that celebrates the past, promotes the present and builds to the future.

The other thing that particularly strikes me looking back over the many different contributions to the blog is the wide diversity of approaches that are part of our work here in Birmingham. Geographically we have had blogs focussing on the States, West and North Africa and the Caribbean as well as on the UK and more locally on issues of direct relevance to our own city of Birmingham. We have seen approaches from historians, literature, law, education, social policy, music and a number of other important disciplines. I am also very pleased to see the contribution of postgraduate and undergraduate students to the blog as that, if nothing else, gives us hope for the future. Most importantly, however, from my own point of view, is to see the variety in stance and political engagement.

Black History Month began as a campaigning tool, to combat widespread racism and to highlight the invisibility of black communities in the UK and elsewhere. That battle has not been won and it is important to see a number of our colleagues at the forefront of campaigns in law, in education and elsewhere who have integrated this campaigning spirit and their continuing sense of outrage into their blogs. That, I think, offers a wider challenge to us at the University to ask what we are doing and what steps we are taking to raise the profile and support for BME staff, student and visitors to the campus, especially now that Black History Month has passed.

I have to thank, publically, all those who have contributed to the blog over the last month. It has been a joy to read the texts as they have come in and to learn more about the creative, challenging and stimulating work on Black History that is going on around campus. The blogs will remain archived and will continue to available to those who find them, or are directed to them by our readers. The link will remain open and available to all.

Finally can I draw the attention of those who have followed the blog to our next enterprise? From the 22nd November through to 20th December the University will have a Focus on Disability, with a full programme of events and activities similar to Black History Month. As part of that Focus we will continue the blog, but change our focus to Scholarship on Disability, so do please look out for that and if you would like to contribute do please get in touch at m.d.stringer@bham.ac.uk .

Martin Stringer

Reflecting on Black History Month 2013


(l to r: Joy Warmington, Akhil  Henry, and Izzy Mohammed at “What’s the Future of Black History Month?” event)

The third annual celebration of Black History Month (BHM) at Birmingham University has been pretty special. We have celebrated 21 events in 31 days, and published 20 scholarly essays over the last month on this blog. Whew. It has been a whirlwind of history, culture and art. Though no stranger to organising events for large institutions, curating possibilities for BHM presented me with a challenge. I had never been that involved in pulling together a BHM event in my own country, the United States, let alone trying to tackle the politics of  ‘blackness’ in the British context. I had only lived in Britain for just under four years. Where to begin?

I began by asking questions. What is Black History Month? What is it supposed to mean? Who does it include, or exclude? Is it about celebration or advocating for change? How has the meaning and celebration of this month changed over time? Those are just some of the questions with which I started . Conversations with academic peers and community members, research into past BHM offerings and my own interests  helped define the contours of the month. The theme would become: Celebrating the Past, Promoting the Present, Building for the Future.  It would be a time for us as a campus to reflect on the ways in which the history, art, culture and science of the African Diaspora have shaped the fabric of British society. Moreover, BHM  would present a focused opportunity in which to engage Birmingham’s diverse communities with the University’s resources.

We began with an event that asked a basic question that had complicated answers:  “What’s the Future of Black History Month?”  Attended by over 60 people from across the campus and the Birmingham community, the event mushroomed into a spirited two-way discussion between the audience and our intergenerational panel of six.  Perhaps the biggest takeaway was that history is written by the victors, and in order to make ourselves and our histories as Black people victorious, we must keep writing and disseminating our stories in as many mediums as possible. It was a coup for us to get renowned surgeon, Dr. Julius Garvey—son of civil rights leader, Marcus Garvey—to the campus. Addressing a rapt audience of about 90 people comprised of students, community members and media,  Dr. Garvey spoke about the legacy of Garveyism, education and globalisation.  As a fitting follow-up, the Birmingham Ethnic Minority Association (BEMA) on campus held a hugely popular event with Black Panther members on the topic s of mass imprisonment, racism and the need for international solidarity.

Throughout  the month, we explored the contributions and struggles  of the African Diaspora in art, including music and literature. One of my favorite events, and the very first BHM event booked for the month,  featured National Gallery Art Historian, Leslie Primo, discussing representations of blackness in European art between the 13th and 19th centuries as portrayed in the collection of the Barber Institute. That was followed by a writing workshop where students created works in the voice of the Black figures featured in paintings Leslie Primo spoke of earlier in the week.

No university celebration of Black History Month should be complete without highlighting the work of its academics. This blog, Scholarship of Blackness was one of the early ideas to come out of planning Black History Month. Serving as a depository of intersectionality, this blog will live on even as the BHM celebrations draw to a close. The thought-provoking work published here by scholars embraces the very notion of  Celebrating the Past, Promoting the Present, Building for the Future.

Kadian Pow, Curator, Black History Month Programme, University of Birmingham

Bring It Back Home! Black British Intellectuals and BHM

One thing can be guaranteed about Black History Month. Each year BHM will end with a call to ‘make every month Black History Month’. It’s a plea from the heart and one that captures our annual dilemma. In short, most of us will admit that, at the end of BHM, after having celebrated Claudia Jones or CLR James or the Indian Workers Association, there is a sense of academic life returning to business as usual. By business as usual I mean an academic world in which it’s taken as read that white intellectuals do the thinking and writing and people of colour feature, if at all, as bit players, as objects of sociological scrutiny.

For instance, a year or so ago, I attended a seminar given by graduating BME social science students. Reflecting on her intellectual experiences as an undergraduate, one speaker sighed, ‘It was Foucault, Foucault and more Foucault!’ Now we all love bald French transgressives but where in our students’ reading lists were Aimé Césaire, Manning Marable or Patricia Hill Collins? More to the point, beyond the grandees of the black Atlantic, how often do our reading lists and seminars engage with black British thinkers? Ask most moderately interested British academics to name a black intellectual and chances are the response will be an American or, just maybe, an African name. By contrast, black British thinkers are routinely marginalised. Yet the UK has its own robust and cantankerous tradition of black intellectual creation, rooted in dialogues with Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, post-colonialism and critical pedagogy. Towering figures include George Padmore, Una Marson, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy.  In my own field of educational studies there is the work of John La Rose, Bernard Coard, Gus John, Maureen Stone, Heidi Safia Mirza and many other thinkers and activists. 

Too often it is assumed that black histories and communities are problems to be theorized only by white intellectuals. And Britain as a whole pays the cost of that neglect. In the 1980s and 1990s I spent a lot of time working with black publishers, bookshops and community educators. For me, it was a second university and it provided me with a seemingly boundless library. At that time there was a powerful momentum in reclaiming black British history and making available the work of its great teachers. Reading and re-reading the diverse work produced by black British thinkers is a key to moving beyond the problem-victim lens through which people of colour in Britain are still too often understood, and instead towards appreciating black communities as agents of social change. If there is a responsibility Britain’s universities have in relation to BHM it is to insist upon well-read understandings of black life. This means that if, as educators and researchers, we are willing routinely to use Gramsci, we must also be willing to draw on Fanon; if we routinely cite Bourdieu we should also use bell hooks. However, we must go beyond these touchstones and engage also with black thinkers who have wrestled with the particularities of Britain’s post-war context, both within and beyond academia: among them Ann Phoenix (psychology), David Dabydeen (literature), Kobena Mercer (cultural studies) and Gita Sahgal (women’s studies). I am not the first to point this out but, like BHM itself, it bears repeating.    

Dr Paul Warmington, School of Education, University of Birmingham UK.

French imperialism and race relations in the Sahara

Over the centuries, the Sahara has been a meeting point of various religions, cultures and races. Far from being as empty as early modern European geographers believed, it was a territory where intense trade and human relations developed over the centuries, bringing into contact Sub-Saharan and North Africa. The colonization of the territory by the Europeans (especially the French) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries further complicated an already complex web of race relations within nomadic and sedentary populations sharing the same space but with different perspectives and objectives.

My current research project, which looks at the history and legacy of French fortresses in the Sahara, offers insights into the dynamics of race relations in a desertic environment in the nineteenth century: these instruments of conquest and vehicles of imperial power in remote corners of the Sahara frequently changed local allegiances or customs. Each of these fortresses was a microcosm in which soldiers belonging to various ethnic groups learnt how to coexist. But it was also interacting with, and having an influence on, a macrocosm, often over a radius of several hundred miles: the most important of these centres of power had wide-ranging administrative duties, and the camel-mounted patrols which radiated from them tried to implement the colonizing power’s decision to the best of their ability (which was not all-powerful, however).

Though officers were reluctant to undertake an all-out modernizing effort which could easily generate a widespread uprising, the disruption caused by this alien interference was widely felt across the Sahara. As was customary at the time, formal submission was requested, and new taxes were levied to cover administrative expenses. Troops of various indigenous origins were moved around, coming into contact with populations they had never met before, or suddenly in a position of power towards people who used to be their masters. Some groups benefitted from the change (especially those who could earn a better living in the colonial troops), but others resented it dearly. Thus the French conquest was opposed by local slave owners who were reluctant to lose the free labour force which they had traditionally used to tend their gardens and palm groves, and to sustain their lifestyle in general. Well aware of the anti-slavery stance of Gallic authorities in Algeria since the abolition of slavery (1848 in France), many local leaders resisted what they saw as an unacceptable encroachment upon their traditions and interests, arguing that these changes threatened centuries-old hierarchies. By putting an end to slavery in the territories under their colonial control, the French therefore re-engineered race relations on an unprecedented scale. Whilst they freed significant sections of the population of the oasis, they also disrupted the social fabric of the territories where they sought to impose their new rules. This would have some long-term consequences, especially in the post-colonial period.

The study of fortresses offers a fascinating spyhole through which the influence of colonial rule on race relations in the Sahara can be appraised. The picture this project provides is also enriched by a comparative perspective with Russian fortresses in the Steppe (in what is modern-day Kazakhstan) in the early nineteenth century. Undertaken in partnership with Dr Alexander Morrison, a specialist of Russian imperial history, the project also throws light upon the social and racial consequences of imperial strategies in arid environments. As such, it contributes to a better understanding not only of past dynamics, but also of present problems: the roots of many of the issues witnessed today in the Sahel region (not least through the recent near break-up of the Republic of Mali) lie somewhere near a ‘Fort Zinderneuf’. When Percival Wren wrote mostly about psychological relations between Europeans in this imaginary desert fort, he did not realise that he was missing the most important point: the influence this ‘little mud oven of a fort’ had on those it was meant to control.

Berny Sèbe is a Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in the School of Language, Culture, Art History and Music

More information on www.birmingham.ac.uk/forts

Belonging in Birmingham

“Places form a reservoir of meanings which people can draw upon to tell stories about and thereby define them”

Nigel Thrift

I met Naheed on a cold Friday morning in January. He was my first interviewee and was taking me around his neighbourhood, the area he told me meant more to him than any other in the city. He lived in Witton, near Aston in the heart of Birmingham, a stone’s throw away from Villa Park. The bitingly cold weather was in stark contrast to the warm and cheerful demeanour he greeted me with. Keen to show me his emotional, at times intense feelings of attachment towards his neighbourhood, he walked me around the narrow terraced streets. It was as he started speaking that the shroud of the city started to peel away. It’s easy to look upon the street of a technically ‘deprived’ neighbourhood and be distracted by the physical nature of the material landscape, without appreciating the richness of experience underneath.

What started as an interview with Naheed became a series of encounters with people and spaces that started to tell the story of his life. The house in which he was born to an English mother and a Pakistani father; a local shop-owner who had become a good friend; the derelict space behind a series of houses where he played cricket as a boy; the former pub converted to a mosque which he used to frequent; his life’s story being told through the recalling of memories. Naheed sensed this and reflected:

“I walked this road for many years…so it’s a case of these roads (being) special to me. Every road I look at I’ve seen them develop. I’ve seen them change. It’s part of my personal history …in some areas people live as a bit of a stop-gap…but here people have built their lives here, so they are comfortable here.”

 The connection between Naheed’s identity and his neighbourhood was captured more eloquently and directly than I anticipated. But the second part of his reflection also tells us about something that is crucial to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel at home: constancy. Although Naheed’s father like most of his neighbours’ families only came to the UK less than 40 years ago, the strong sense of belonging to Witton was built upon a sense of permanence.

But Birmingham has never been associated with permanence – quite the opposite in fact. From the Irish immigrants coming to the city in the mid to late nineteenth century to Yemeni traders forming early Muslim communities in the 1940s - from the large scale immigration of West-Indians, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the post-war period, to more recent arrivals from Somalia, Eastern Europe and students from The Far East. Our increasingly globalised world is helping to rebuild and reshape our cities and neighbourhoods. What does this mean for our feelings of belonging in Birmingham? Can we marry twin desires for constancy with an appreciation of the benefits of change?

Change is unavoidable and written into the DNA of a city like Birmingham. But our need to identify some sense of constancy, some space that we call home is more important than ever. Migrants who arrived to the UK have made their lives here - and their attachment to the city manifests itself in the neighbourhoods of the city imbued with particular cultural characteristics – from Chinatown to the Balti Triangle. As Naheed’s experiences demonstrate aptly, attachments and feelings of home are also important to the sense of well-being for many of us. What they teach us is that places are still important in the modern world. What they reiterate is that investment in neighbourhoods and local spaces, socially and economically, is not wasted but a way to ensure that the spaces that are intimately intertwined with our identities are also ones we can be proud of and passionate about.

Dr Arshad Isakjee, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK

Decolonising the Mind


In today’s blog three undergraduate English students, Aqib, Najmin and Juweyria, discuss the importance for them of exploring their identity through literature and study. These students, along with others from the School of English Drama, American and Canadian Studies, are piloting a student ambassador project aimed at supporting black and minority ethnic student success at the University of Birmingham.

‘The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mandkind’ Adam Smith wrote in 1776: ‘what benefits, or misfortunes to mandkind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can forsee’.

Having grown up in 21st century Britain, I have been labeled a ‘moderate Muslim’ a ‘Pakistani’ a ‘Briton’ an ‘Asian’ and a whole host of other catch all terms. The effect of this symposium of alternate identities wrestling within the conscious of an impressionable teenager is the thin acknowledgement of all aspects of my character, and the appreciation of none. In short, I had an identity crisis. The two books I could relate to were Tamim Ansary’s lucidly written Destiny Disrupted and Noam Chomsky’s Year 501. Tamim Ansary traces through the rise and fall of 1400 years of Islamic civilization, from the cradle of civilization from the 9th to 12th centuries to the Pax-Ottomana of the 15th and 16th. Year 501 contextualized the world I currently inhabit within the narrative of a Post-Columbian world, leading me through events which ultimately led to the strange occurrence of a South Asian boy of Kashmiri descent being raised in North Western Europe in inner-city Birmingham, namely the colonization of the entire world. Both books helped to decolonize my mind from a Euro-centric upbringing (American films, European history) and rooted my identity within the fold which was whole, as opposed to the mosaic I was before, the grandchild of a Pakistani immigrant fleeing the effects of colonization, awakening his dormant Muslim and South Asian cultural heritage with a link to all other post-colonised people’s around the world. I can now see the benefits and misfortunes to mandkind Columbus wrought, and how much of an effect they have had, even on me 500 years later, and for that, and for decolonizing my mind, I am indebted to Tamim Ansary and Noam Chomsky.

                                                                                                Aqib Khan

Studying History at A-Level was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only was it intellectually stimulating, the vast range of things we were taught explained so much about my own identity, especially the British India module. Prior to this, the boundaries between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had been clearly integrated into my mind; there was a huge difference between the countries including geography, culture and language. Studying the British India module completely rearranged my mind frame, making me realize that I’m not just Bengali – my maternal grandfather was born Indian, and my parents East Pakistani. 

Rather than having an identity crisis, I was more grounded than ever – it seemed that my already rich cultural heritage was bigger than I could have imagined. I have my place in society, internationally and otherwise. And I can trace hundreds of year of my history by reading history books. But more importantly than that, I get to hear the stories about civil wars first hand. How they hid during village raids and their reactions to finding out they have been labeled a new country. It seems that my history lessons are far from over. 

                                                                                         Najmin Begum

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a re-writing of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Victorian fiction: Jane Eyre. After reading Jane Eyre at a young age, Rhys’s shock at the portrayal of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason; a creole ‘mad woman’ locked in the attic is what inspired her to produce an entire novel telling her story. She gives this marginalised character a voice of her own and a very insightful one at that whilst exploring modern and post modern narrative styles. What’s interesting however, is Rhys’s underlying motives or even messages behind producing a re-write of this nature, she is initially telling readers to challenge these great classics and question the ideologies that they may perhaps advocate. Wide Sargasso Sea can also be considered as a feminist-re write and an exploration of patriarchy whilst adopting romantic notions associated with nature and exotic settings. Ultimately it is the Novel’s ability to re-tell an un-told story and urge others to re-consider the way they approach one of the English language’s greatest novels which is most striking.

As a BME student, what appeals to me in particular is the voice granted to an otherwise marginalised creole character trapped inside an English classic.  Rhys in essence liberates this character and also readers by enlightening them and narrating to them a side to a story which they would otherwise never have heard.

                                                                                           Juweyria Ali

Capturing the Individual

'My photographic work has been done with the intention of securing records for my scientific investigations, and not merely for the pleasure of the photography in itself. I look upon photography as being a most valuable aid to education because pictorial illustration is by far the easiest mode and pleasant manner of obtaining instruction. Photographs are the most reliable, the most correct recording means.'

The Birmingham MP and amateur photographer Sir Benjamin Stone spoke these words in 1898. Stone had systematically collected images recording people and places since the 1860s, but actively pursued photography as an interest in the 1880s. Seven years after his death in 1914, the trustees of his estate presented a collection of 22,000 photographs, 600 stereographs, 2,500 lantern slides, 14,000 glass negatives, and 50 albums of collected prints to Birmingham Central Library. The size of this collection reflects Stone’s era and the Victorian desire to capture and catalogue ‘all’ knowledge. In this desire to record knowledge pictorially Stone photographed and collected images during his travels in the West Indies and in Southern Africa. The images from these travels are of unnamed sitters, selected and posed by Stone. These images visualised the Empire. Stone also traded in images and amongst the collection of photographic albums are ‘Types and Races of Mankind’ which include captions by Stone: ‘The Negress of the West Indies’, ‘Trinidad Coolie’, ‘Trinidad Hindoo from Madras’. Stone’s concern here was with documenting ‘race’ typologies and we know very little about any of the people captured by the camera lens.

Jump a hundred years and we find a generation of Black and Asian photographers  - Vanley Burke, Tarik Chawdry,  Pogus Caesar Ingrid Pollard, David A. Bailey, Maxine Walker, Claudette Holmes and Zarina Bimji – beginning to use photography as a tool to document their lives and to explore issues around ‘race’ and identity. These photographers were all witnesses and advocates for the times in which they lived. Sitting, both in time and style, between Stone and these Black and Asian documentary photographers, are the studio portraits of new migrants to urban centres produced in studios such as that run by Ernest and Malcolm Dyche in Moseley, Birmingham, between the 1950s and the 1970s. These were portraits taken to send home, to celebrate settlement and to show success in the ‘Mother Country’.

The photographs of Stone, Dyche, Burke and Holmes are among the two million images which form Birmingham Central Library’s national collection of photography. The collection also includes documentary images of inner city Black life [Birmingham, Wolverhampton] and politics produced by the collective of freelance photographers who published the magazine Ten 8.  In 1993 Claudette Holmes brought some of these collections together in an exhibition From Negative Stereotype to Positive Image which as the title suggests juxtaposed images to illustrate very different photographic practices.

There are also other images that are rarely found in any public archive, the thousands of ‘snaps’ housed in boxes and albums which capture personal moments and family histories. These images, together with those held in archives, are an historical resource for Black British History, they are open to research and interpretation, offering as they do evidence of changing representations of Black identities past and present. They are also powerful triggers for remembering forgotten moments, as Leela Taheer commented in an article in the Independent newspaper on seeing an exhibition in 1996 of photographs from the Dyche studio: ‘It’s very exciting. Its part of my history that I had almost forgotten’.

 My interest in all of these images is linked to a current AHRC project on ‘Cultural Intermediation and the Creative Economy’. The idea of cultural intermediation as a process has its origins in Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural taste and practice in 1960s France and the emergence of a new group of professionals involved in mass media and cultural production who acted as mediators between high and popular culture.  Today cultural intermediation is understood as a process which connects different kinds of communities into the creative economy and wider society. One part of the project is concerned with documenting through a study of Birmingham and Manchester the historic development of cultural intermediation so as to understand the nature of current practice and possibilities for its development in the future. The research in Birmingham archives has shown how community focused photography offered the possibility of creating, archiving and distributing an iconography of self-representation which counteracted the dominant media representations of Black and Asian communities in post war Britain.

Ian Grosvenor, Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Cultural Engagement, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK.

Walker’s Appeal and the rise of racism: a forgotten masterpiece

Walker’s Appeal, 1829 second edition frontispiece

Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, first published in 1829/1830, appeals, as it states, to “the colored citizens of the world,” though its main address, “very expressly,” is to the colored citizens of the United States:

I promise … to demonstrate … that we (coloured people of these United States of America) are the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and that the white Americans having reduced us to the wretched state of slavery, treat us in that condition … cruelly.

The Appeal intentionally engages a wide audience, and its aim is to show how the USA, by continuing to countenance slavery, is poisoning human relations worldwide.

…the Americans of the United States … have hitherto passed … for the most enlightened, humane, charitable, and merciful people upon earth, when at the same time they treat us, the (coloured people) secretly more cruel and unmerciful than any other nation upon earth.

African Americans could not fail to adopt such a global perspective, not least because African colonization (that is to say, the idea that free African Americans should ‘return’ to Africa) was gaining prominence at this time. Round about the middle of the 1820s this idea reached maximum prominence. Yet, as the 1820s ended, colonization fell into disrepute, not least because of the racist sentiments voiced by colonization’s white American sponsors, and the way they insisted on controlling the African Colonization Society (the ACS). As a consequence, white supporters of abolition, such as William Lloyd Garrison, the famous campaigner for the abolition of slavery, became anxious about continuing to supporting the ACS: “the more scrupulously I examine its pretensions, the stronger is my conviction of its sinfulness.” Many leaders of African Americans had been for a while drawn to the idea, but most also quickly recoiled.

For Walker, a free black born in the South but moving North in 1825, colonization was anathema, because it would prevent free blacks, who were usually better educated than slaves, helping them (almost all slaves were deliberately kept in ignorance and illiteracy to keep them docile). His desire to defeat it led him to join the first black journal, becoming Boston Agent for John Wusswurm’s and Samuel Cornish’s Freedom’s Journal, in 1827.

Relatedly, Walker also became a leading member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, founded in 1828. The MGCA offered a unique platform for public commitment to slavery’s abolition. An address by Walker to the MGCA in 1828 declared it was African Americans’ “duty” as “to hasten our emancipation,” foreshadowing his Appeal’s radicalism.

Walker’s open advocacy of abolition alarmed Southern white supporters of slavery. The Appeal so disturbed the Mayor of Savannah and the Governors of Virginia and Georgia they wrote to the Mayor of Boston in 1830 seeking to persuade him to suppress the pamphlet. Savannah’s Mayor claimed that Walker’s Appeal held “dangerous consequences to the peace and even the lives of the people of the South.” He could not have been reassured by the mayor of Boston’s reply, which detailed how Walker was intent upon “circulat[ing] his pamphlets by mail at his own expense.” Southern proslavery advocates also viewed Walker’s expectation that his words would be read out loud with consternation. Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina became sufficiently alarmed to pass laws preventing African Americans becoming literate or gaining access to antislavery literature.

Such extreme anxiety stems in part from the fervid legacy of Denmark Vesey’s 1822 conspiracy to rebel. Walker had probably been familiar with and perhaps involved in Vesey’s Charleston plotting before he left the South. His departure just after Vesey’s 1822 trial suggests he was a co-conspirator. Walker’s explanation for his departure suggests he saw himself in considerable danger: “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long.” Walker’s contemporary statement of militant objectives aligns him with Vesey: “As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrow which my people have suffered.”

In all this, what stands out is Walker’s radicalism. Symptomatically, the Quaker Benjamin Lundy, even though he was a prominent opponent of slavery, was highly alarmed by Walker’s Appeal: “A more bold, daring, inflammatory publication perhaps never issued from the press, in any country. I can do no less than set the broadest seal of condemnation upon it” wrote Lundy in 1830.

Anti-Slavery Token. “Am I Not A Man And A Brother,” c. 1795. Lettered Edge. Copper. English.

Clearly a reason for this was its instruction that blacks get off their knees. Where the widely-reproduced 1787 seal of the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, “Am I Not a Man and Brother” (see illustration above), depicts a chained slave, kneeling, as if begging for his freedom, Walker did not offer such submissiveness: the frontispiece to Walker’s second edition shows a colored person stepping up to a mountain-top, reaching upwards (see illustration at top of page). Walker urged colored people to rise up.

As a consequence of such radicalism, Walker’s Appeal proved inspirational. As one African American, the Reverend Amos Beman observed, he and his companions would gather “to read and re-read until Walker’s words were stamped in letters of fire upon our soul.” Walker wanted these “letters of fire” to be heard widely. A letter Walker wrote in 1829 urges that if people cannot afford his pamphlet it should be given away: “if there are any who, cannot pay … give them Books for nothing”  Oral delivery was essential to the Appeal’s dissemination strategy. Walker wanted his pamphlet not only to be read but also to be read out loud, and not just in the United States, but across the globe: “It is expected that all coloured men, women and children, of every nation, language and tongue, will try to procure a copy of this Appeal and read it, or get some one to read it to them, for it is designed more particularly for them”. The pamphlet carefully marks out how it should be read:

“I am awfully afraid that pride, prejudice, avarice and blood, will, before long prove the final ruin of this … land of liberty!!!! … Oh Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord … to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!”.

Notice how these words are aimed at white Americans (Walker commonly refers to white Americans as “Americans”), creating even more Southern alarm concerning black militancy, already widespread because of recent slave rebellions and conspiracies, like Vesey’s.

Such alarm probably even led pro-slavery whites to plot Walker’s death. Indeed, Walker forecast this: “I do not only expect to be held up to the public as … disturber of the public peace … [but also to be] put in prison or to death”. Soon after he wrote these words he was indeed dead.  Whilst he may have died of consumption, assassination cannot be ruled out: supporting this suggestion is the allegation in The Liberator of 22 January 1831 that $3000 had been offered for his death.

Why all this alarm and panic?

The Appeal’s central burden is that “coloured citizens of the world” should rise up and take whatever steps were needed to abolish slavery and oppose white racism. In doing this, it interlaces prophetic warnings of divine apocalypse with militant political calls for direct action. This was the source of Walker’s threat to whites: he was an openly militant abolitionist. He argues that if whites were not prepared to emancipate blacks, then the latter should secure their own release. He urges African Americans to regard liberty as a God-given right to be seized.

He also  urges violent resistance to white oppression: “As true as the sun ever shone … my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth … one good black man can put to death six white men … kill or be killed” (III:30). Walker’s Appeal, as it calls for such action, is also prophetic to its very core. It stresses God’s call for justice and righteousness and His concern for enslaved blacks and their plight. These running themes are shaped by the rhetorical arguments of the Old Testament prophets. The millenarian tone of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and Malachi are formative on how Walker pitches his argument.

Amos 4:12-24: “For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins; … they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right … But let judgment run down, as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”.

Malachi 3: 9-10: “ye have not kept my ways, but been partial in the law./ … hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother …?”

Walker’s debts to such prophetic rhetoric invokes a sense of God’s displeasure with slavery, seen by Walker as an abomination before the Lord. He promises a black resurrection—this being, precisely, the source of white fears. In this way, many passages in the Appeal stand as a prediction of racial violence: “Oh Americans, let me tell you, in the name of the Lord, it will be good for you, if you listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost, but if you do not, you are ruined”.

The  Appeal also interlaces such calls with invocations of the natural rights discourse of the western Enlightenment. Walker calls for both people of color and whites to observe key ethical values: justice, righteousness, freedom and dignity. An abysmal failure by whites to observe these human rights legitimizes action by blacks to take control of their lives. Such an argument recurrently occurs. On the frontispiece of second edition, the colored person reaching up stretches for a scroll bearing the words LIBERTAS and JUSTITIA (see illustration). Walker’s appeal to human rights alongside assertions of divine will seeks to counter proslavery whites’ blend of distorted biblical readings (specifically Genesis’ account of the sons of Ham) and quasi-scientific allegations that blacks were “descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs”: “O! My God! I appeal to every man of feeling—is this not insupportable?” exclaims Walker (III:12). Walker’s mention of “Orang-Outangs” is a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia, which infamously suggests that the “Oranootan” possesses a “preference” – and by this Jefferson intimates, obscenely, a sexual preference – for “the black woman over his own species.” Walker’s refutations of Jefferson’s racism constitute the key example of his Appeal’s concern to develop intellectual counter-arguments to slippery white racist arguments. So Walker first identifies Jefferson’s writings as those of a hugely influential opponent, whose words legitimated contemporary white attacks on colored people’s capacities, by endorsing the idea that “Nature” is a root cause of black enslavement: “Nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head.” Wal

Next, and with growing resolve in successive editions, Walker’s Appeal increasingly concentrated on countering Jefferson’s and others’ fast-developing “scientific” racism (racism drawing on a quasi-scientific discourse to support its bigotry). So Walker attacks Jefferson’s offensive suggestion that “different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.” Relatedly, Walker exposes how whites read the Declaration of Independence selectively, ignoring its calls for people to be free and its assertion they have human rights: “Compare your own language … extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murder”

As such, Walker’s Appeal is part of, but also a crucial landmark in, a long tradition of African and colored intellectuals’ challenges to white authority. Necessarily, colored people’s writing is frequently forced on the defensive by pre-emptive white attacks and is compelled to respond to their misrepresentations. From the first, black history has had to be at its very core an attempt to correct the white record.

What is impressive about Walker is his intellectual rigor: he recognizes the risk of race apocalypse. To seek to resist this, Walker constantly stresses common humanity (“man” or “men” occurs over 200 times in his Appeal): “Are we Men!!—I ask you, O my brethren! Are we MEN?” The whole pamphlet on one level stands as a demonstration of African Americans’ humanity, by offering emotions (anger, hate, love) alongside argument and reason. By demonstrating that a colored person both experiences human emotions and exercises reason, Walker establishes that African Americans self-evidently possess them, despitethe rise of scientific racism’s propaganda.

This is one way of accounting for why Walker keeps on anxiously swerving off from his direct calls for revolt: the words “Oh Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord … to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!” are also a transnational warning, displaying a globalized consciousness, noting how the dire American situation impacts on global relations.

Such a repositioning is strategic: Walker wants to highlight the geo-political dimensions of slavery and racism, and the rise of worldwide resistance, as opponents of slavery increasingly came to believe that only total emancipation would suffice.

Walker clearly envisions global consequences if emancipation does not come about:

The whites … will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. They shall have enough of making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us in the manner which they have …though I should like to see the whites repent.

Such white repentance has very far from fully happened, and, globally, we are still faced with racism’s persistence and slavery’s legacies. What seems odd to me is how rarely he is now mentioned. Let us turn back to David Walker, and learn from his still relevant insights and warnings.

Dick Ellis, Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham, UK

When Congregations Sing: Hymnody as Performativity

Although I grew up attending the Moravian Church in Antigua, my primary and secondary schooling was done at Roman Catholic institutions. As a result from Monday to Friday I was fully immersed in a Roman Catholic liturgical environment. That meant attending Mass monthly. Even though I have forgotten some of these, today when I attend the Mass, the one aspect that I can still readily participate in is the singing of the hymns which were done during the Mass.

Though the Roman Catholic influence was inescapable, my Moravian upbringing still had a hold on me that could not be cast aside. The differences between both worlds became all the more blatant in that we had distinct approaches to worship. But most striking to me was how unalike the hymnnic content of what we sang every Sunday within my faith community. The form of my weekly Moravian worship service was nothing like my monthly Catholic Mass. Though we followed the same lectionary biblical readings, it was in our singing that our communities were most distinctive. I was living in two faith communities and trying to negotiate moving from one to the other.

The impact of what a community sings and how that hymnody shapes and defines that faith community became all the more marked when for three years I was enrolled in an ecumenical seminary. As the principal organist for the community of seminarians, it was my task to be intimately familiar with all of the various forms of worship (Anglican, Baptists, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran and of course Moravians). As seminarians we all shared the same major theological, biblical, pastoral counselling and church history texts. But the one text that was distinguishing to each faith community was our hymnal. Could it then be said that it was not so much our theology, Church polity or approach to biblical exegesis and hermeneutic that informed our sense of community? From my stance as the seminary organist, I wondered, could it be that our hymnody was the primary means which informed each community’s uniqueness?

My research therefore seeks to address the question of how faith communities are shaped by what they sing. I’ve sought to answer this question by utilizing a case study methodology in which I explore multiple sites. The first is historical and examines the Fetter Lane Moravian community in the mid-18th century London. The second is a textual analysis of the only Caribbean hymnal that was published and how it would have attempted to reframe the Caribbean ecumenical community. The third is an ethnographic study of the only Assemblies of God Pentecostal congregation in St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands. Through this research I hope to substantiate what Jeremy Begbie, in Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music has postulated, in that “we do not simply make music, to some extent music makes us…creating new forms of life” (46). Holding to the premise that congregational music is a double-sided activity, one can deduce that the hymns which congregations sing are also shaping and forming the congregations’ communal identity in specific ways. 

Mikie Roberts is an ordained minister of the Moravian Church in the Eastern West Indies Province and currently serves as Minister of Music, Associate Pastor and Director of Music for the Moravian Province. He is registered as a split site PhD student (year 6) based in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. His research, in the Department of Theology and Religion, examines the role of hymnody in shaping congregations as communities.

The purposes of Black History

A recent study of emotional and behavioural interventions for secondary school pupils in behavioural support units (BSUs) in a deprived part of a large English city found that teachers consistently sought to explain pupil behaviour in overtly individualistic and emotional terms. Professor Val Gillies of London South Bank University found that teachers attributed troublesome behaviour to inadequate social and emotional skills. Frustration might be taken as a sign of low self-esteem, expressions of anger an indication of absent self-restraint and sadness a sign of depression. Drawing on the language and practices of social and emotional learning, teachers interpreted troublesome behaviour in exclusively psychologised terms. Children were seen as inadequately socialised by parents. Interventions, ranging from circle time and anger management classes, were deemed necessary to correct the failures of home.

It is no coincidence that the majority of the 73 students who participated in the study were from Black Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Conclusive data may be hard to find but all available evidence indicates that BME students are significantly over-represented in behavioural support units across the country. In other words, it is the behaviour of BME students that comes under particular scrutiny when emotions and behaviour are explained within a framework dominated by developmental psychology.

In some respects at least, this is a situation clearly reminiscent of the 1970s. My research has helped to highlight the long and painful battles parents and activists fought against racism in education. They struggled against a vicious and popular racism but also against a field of psychometrics that claimed that black people were genetically inferior to white people in terms of their intelligence. Then, as now, all kinds of psychological constructs were conjured up to explain the unacceptable behaviour of black children in schools. Black children were said to suffer from ‘culture shock’, they had low self-esteem and suffered from pathological self-concepts.

It was precisely against this tendency to psychologise that the Black Parents Movement and the Black Supplementary School Movement struggled. This was always a diverse movement in terms of aims and objectives. Yet one consistent feature stands out. In their campaigning and pedagogy, the BPM and BSSM consistently sought to explain contemporary society in historical terms. Educators and activists, people like Beverley Bryan, Peter Fryer, Len Garrison, John La Rose, Dorothy Kuya, Mike Phillips and hundreds of others, researched and taught history. They did so in supplementary schools, colleges, museums, prisons, in reading groups and writers’ workshops and in sit-ins and teach-ins of all kinds.

History was so important to these individuals and movements because it provided alternative explanations for contemporary behaviours and attitudes. Histories of slavery and British imperialism, long silenced in national histories, could help explain contemporary social structures and the racism that was an integral part of it. This is why, so often in the promotion of black history and black studies in the 1970s, the target audience was white people. It was the national social memory that required discussion and intervention.

Yet it proved too difficult for black history, and perhaps for black history month, to resist a slide into psychologism. It became a truism in educational discourse that low self-esteem in black children could be boosted by the study of black history. A therapeutic ethos, where ethnic histories belonged to ethnic groups, came to dominate over the assertion of a common humanity.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Gillies’ study was that she found a genuine commitment to multicultural credentials and inclusive practice. Black history month was marked. Ethnic music and food were celebrated. But these were understood primarily as resources for boosting self-esteem and managing emotions. Perhaps in this Black History Month it is time to reconsider the value and purposes of historical study in explaining behaviour.

Kevin Myers

Department of Education and Social Justice, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK

Val Gillies (2012) “ ‘Including’ whilst excluding: race, class and behaviour support units ”,
Race, Ethnicity and Education 15 (2): 157-174. 


Kevin Myers, and Ian Grosvenor (2011a) ‘Exploring supplementary education: margins, theories and methods’, History of Education, 40 (4): 501-521.


Kevin Myers and Ian Grosvenor (2011b) ‘Birmingham Stories: local histories of migration and settlement and the practice of history’, Midland History, 36 (2): 140-162.