To lie about History – Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gabriel Burne, an MA History of Art student, discusses the legacy of the historical figures whose statues have been removed and how the current debates around these monuments should encourage deeper discussion about Britain’s violent and racist past. 

“The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe.” Allegedly this was said during the trial of Shanley v. Harvey, a case where a British man, Shanley, was attempting to recoup a substantial sum of money given to Harvey by Shanley’s niece on her death bed. The basis of the claim was that Shanley had bought Harvey as a child slave to England some 12 years earlier and given him to his now deceased niece. I heard it quoted during my undergraduate degree in History in a debate about the role that slavery played in the UK economy. Even though many slaves were bought, sold and owned on the British Isles, the quote was employed as evidence of Britain’s relationship to slavery being distinct from that of the United States. Whilst the quote was likely never uttered, and the sentiment it reflected false, its popularisation reflects this Island’s complex and unresolved relationship to its violent and racist past. Much of Britain’s history of racial violence is hidden, existing only as ghosts haunting the otherwise heroic narrative of Britain and its heroes. When I embarked on a Master’s degree at Birkbeck in History of Art, it was these ghosts I wanted to know more about, in an effort to reinsert the lives and horrors which these spectres recall back into popular British history.

For many of us in Britain, our understanding of racism is taught from the perspective of the United States. The civil rights movement – Martin Luther King, the KKK, Malcolm X and segregation – are all things many in the UK have an understanding of. They are core aspects of our national curriculum and whilst they teach us important lessons on white supremacy, they create a sense of separation from the problems that exist here in Britain. To learn more about how we honour and adulate those who created this system of white supremacy in the UK, I took a module called “Slavery and its Cultural Legacies.” My reading for the course took me to some of the black theorists writing in the US currently – particularly Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. Whilst their writing was specifically speaking to an American experience, I felt there was a lot to be learned from their ideas here in the UK. Sharpe and Hartman speak of “the wake” and “the afterlife” of slavery respectively. Slavery’s violence lives on in white supremacy, a condition which is constitutive of contemporary Britain. The Research Project that I am currently writing examines the British monuments that often honour and/or neglect to acknowledge racial violence as part of the individual championed legacy.

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

In February this year, I went to the London Docklands Museum organised as part of the module. We were taken through the museum’s exhibition on slavery – London, Sugar & Slavery. The exhibition itself speaks of the ubiquity and brutality of the slave trade in the UK and is situated in the very building that was a hub for receiving the imported goods from Britain’s slave plantations. Whilst the museum takes steps to foreground black voices and highlight some of these hidden histories, a walk onto the docks outside the entrance reveals some stark reminders of this unconfronted violence. A cocktail bar serves “plantation punch” as a drink on the menu. And towering just in front of that sits a statue honouring prominent British slave trader Robert Milligan, who by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

I stared up at the dead metal eyes of Milligan looking out across the docks, posed as if smiling upon an arriving ship, bountiful with the fruits of his murderous plantations. The plinth on which the statue stands illustrates his achievements with a relief that depicts Britannia seated on her tame-looking British lion, whilst the female figure of commerce offers her riches and at her feet three cherubs help carry the bounty. The mast of an approaching ship is visible in the background, the very ships whose docking in Greenwich Milligan would have cheered.

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue.

In romanticising the wealth men like Milligan brought lady Britannia, statues such as this obscure how this wealth originated in racial violence – the lucrative cargo carried aboard these ships, and which both Milligan and Britain celebrate, were produced by the enslaved. The continued existence of these statues’ silences new voices and alternative histories under the weight of the historical indulgence upon which Britain’s current power structures relies, that of a grotesque imperial and racially violent past located elsewhere, in far-off lands.

When I embarked on researching the Milligan statue, along with the statues of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, George Floyd was still alive. The protests catalysed by his murder at the hands of three police officers have since led to each either being removed or torn down by activists. This totally unforeseeable set of events taking place as I research these statues has left my project at an incredible crossroads that changes from day-to-day. The removal of the Colston statue in Bristol by activists, followed by its symbolically poignant casting into the harbour, prompted the Milligan statue to be removed by the local council days later. It has just been announced that the Cecil Rhodes statue that sat on Oriel College and has for years been the subject of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, will likewise be removed. Commenting on these events, the Prime Minister stated that to remove these statues is to “lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come.” This statement is reminiscent of the same mental gymnastics performed by the relief that sits below the Milligan statue. Rather than being moved by watching the monuments to these men fall and cheering what is, at best, a small step toward confronting this violent past, Johnson continues the exercise of obfuscation. Not once does he mention precisely what he thinks this history is, yet he claims it to be the “truth”. To engage in the actual process of discussing this history is to highlight what these statues hide: that of a British slave-trading and imperial past not confronted, and the “afterlives” of the British slave in which non-white people in this country must live.

At the time of an anti-racist uprising alongside offering solidarity to America, we must also reflect on the constitutive role slavery and white supremacy have played in British history. As the actions of many demonstrators have movingly and powerfully shown, it is imperative to reflect on what voices are hidden when men like Colston, Milligan and Rhodes are celebrated. We must remind ourselves that the enslaved also breathed the UK’s air “too pure.”

Further reading:

On the British abolitionist movement and the Haitian revolution 

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Random HouseNew York, 1989)

US Black studies theorists and the afterlives of slavery 

Saidiya V Hartman Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007)

Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016)

Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

For British involvement in the slave trade

Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Verso, London, New York, 1993)

Catherine Hall Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016)

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A guide to mentoring PhD students

What constitutes a good PhD mentor and mentee? In this blog, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication shares his thoughts on how to navigate PhD supervision for both students and supervisors.

Two women chatting

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on the supervision of doctoral students and one the delicate management of the supervisor–supervisee relationship from the first contact to the post-graduation goodbye (Dewaele, 2020).  Having led 26 Birkbeck students to their PhD as first supervisor allowed me to reflect on the uniqueness of each relationship and on the commonalities.  I realise that my perceptions might help current PhD students in handling their relationship with their supervisor(s) and their fellow students.

The most crucial aspect is the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual respect, where constructive criticism is appreciated, where the scientific creativity and independence of the student is encouraged and where the student’s expectations are handled appropriately.

As in any relationship, there may be moments of strain and crisis and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to deal with this in a professional manner. Good supervisors are close to their students but not too close and the distance can change over time. In their book about the supervision of MA students, Harwood and Petrić (2017) explain that “different supervisees need supervisors to occupy different roles at different times” (p. 9).

I realise that as a PhD supervisor I am typically more directive at the beginning of the research project and allow more freedom and flexibility later on.  It is not unlike relationships parents have with their children, allowing them gradually more independence until they reach adulthood.

Metaphors are particularly useful in grasping abstract concepts. In the satire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759), Voltaire famously wrote in the conclusion “il faut cultiver son jardin”, meaning “that we must take care of our garden”, away from the hustle and bustle. It is good to visualise a PhD research project as a private garden, to which the student can retreat to tend it, to plant flowers, to prune the trees lovingly, and to wonder where to install that water feature or statue. Spending some time in the garden is good for the garden and for the gardener’s soul, though digging can cause blisters to appear.  Conversations with fellow students allows a useful comparison of gardens. It helps understand that bigger is not necessarily better and that gardens can come in all colors, shapes and sizes.

I have had some interesting exchanges with students about the PhD being a transformative experience because it forces one to do a lot of thinking.  And because it is so long and so intense it can -and should- trigger cognitive and emotional restructuring. Students come out of this as more resilient, independent and confident (and sometimes also humbler) people.

It is also crucial to understand that comparisons with other (former or current) students can only be superficial and that having more or less of this can only refer to a very small part of a much bigger hidden picture.  My colleagues and myself love all our PhD students who work hard.  They are all bright and the fact that one can jump higher, or run faster, or cook better should be of no concern to the others.  Being unique individuals means they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.  They all face unique challenges that may sometimes stop them from reaching their full potential (like long-standing family or work issues, or a momentary problem like a numbing migraine at the viva).  And that is OK too, because each student gives it their all – professional, family and health situation permitting.

This reminds me of karate where it is also crucial not to compare oneself too much with fellow karate-ka.  Some are great at kumite (fighting), others are great at kata (choreographed patterns of 20 to 70 moves, with stepping and turning, that have to be executed while attempting to maintain perfect form), others might not excel at either but have great resilience, attitude and humility.  The standard for the black belt varies slightly according to age and health.  Being 18 or 70 makes a difference, and yet both are able to get the black belt if they can show that they have mastered the techniques and the spirit of karate, and that they are as fit as they can be and can take a solid kick in the stomach.

It is the same for getting a PhD. Supervisors make sure that students reach the threshold but how far they go above it is not really crucial. If they can, of course, they should.  That’s also why I’m so happy that no grade is awarded for a British PhD.  It either Pass or not Pass, like a driving test. If former students later end up winning prizes for their work, everybody will be proud of them, but if they don’t, they won’t be loved any less!

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2020). Supervising doctoral students and managing the supervisor-supervisee relationship. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early-career faculty. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 153-163.  https://doi.org/10.1075/z.229.11dew

Harwood, N., & Petrić, B. (2017). Experiencing Master’s supervision. Perspectives of international students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

“Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys.”

Last month, we bought three current part-time Birkbeck students who are also parents together to talk about how they made the step into studying and how they’re managing studying while looking after their children under lockdown.

In this blog, We’ll hear what Liliana (Accounting and Management FDA), Fentezia (Film and Media BA) and Mohamed (Applied Psychology CertHE) have to say about how they’re managing juggling studying and childcare in this challenging time.

If you’re a parent thinking about studying, email us at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk for information and advice about starting a university course. Now, over to Liliana, Fentezia and Mohamed!

Mother and daughter home schooling

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with us about studying while parenting. We know it must be a busy time! So, tell us a little bit about why you decided to come to Birkbeck and what you enjoy about your course?

Fentezia: I decided to come to Birkbeck due to the great reputation it had, and flexibility of learning in the evenings. I enjoy my course because a lot of the lecturers are already established in the film and media industry and you get a lot of insight in it through them. The students are also mature and most are returning to education and some have families so you have a lot in common with them.

Liliana: I first heard about Birkbeck at a family event in a university, I thought it was what I was looking for and the part-time option made it easier to make the decision to study for a degree as I thought to myself ‘How can I juggle having two children a part-time job and studying!’

Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys. Learning together and being able to find the answers to topics have made me more confident as a parent when helping my children with homework.

Mohamed: Studying Applied Psychology has really given me an insight into why people do the things they do. I enjoy the course because I get to learn more about people. This was really important to me coming from Sierra Leone, it helped me understand the conflict in my own country and why people act the way they do. I’ve also enjoyed the child development parts of my course where I’ve learnt more about how children grow and learn.

How do you normally juggle childcare and studying when you’re attending on campus lectures?

Fentezia: Luckily, I have family that can help and being part-time, I only study two nights a week. While my children are in school, I also take the time to do assignments.

Mohamed: Usually it’s no problem at all. As the classes are in the evening, I can look after the baby during the day (my son is only 19 months old) and swap with his mum in the evening. Sometimes it’s a challenge to do the academic work before class, but I manage to fit it around my other commitments.

Lilliana: I am very lucky because I have supportive parents that help look after my children in the evenings when I have classes. My dad is at home when my children get home from school and stays with them until I get home, he even cooks meals for us! When I study at home, I try to do it when they are at school or I will dedicate a Sunday morning to studying, I think it’s important for them to see my studying.

How are you finding parenting and studying during lockdown?

Liliana: In lockdown my time management skills have been put to the test, I’m working from home and have a collaborate session (a live workshop with other students and the lecturer) on a Tuesday evening, but I make sure I have a long break before I sit down to study. I try to study while they are getting on with schoolwork as I find this is the time when we are all studying which helps us focus. I don’t try to do a full school day with them, rather we are task-orientated and decide how long each task should take and allocate times – however, we also allow room for flexibility.

I give them at least three tasks on most days and it could be anything from getting a piece of homework done to vacuuming their room, this gives them a sense of accomplishment for the day. I have focused on teaching them essential skills like cooking and looking after themselves, I like to think I am preparing them for university life in the future. I also find time to go out for walks – this could be on my own or with my boys, it gives you clarity and a break from staying at home.

Fentezia: It has been challenging as I have taken on the role as governess without the patience of Mary Poppins! However, it has been nice to spend time with my children and see their progress. Sometimes I study while they do their learning, but it’s usually at night when they have gone to bed.

Parenting is harder because we have to do the domestic chores as well as home school and answer a million questions from our children, whilst also being followed around the house.

Mohamed: Staying at home has been good because it means I’ve got to spend more time with my son, but it has been hard because I can only really work when he is sleeping. Even when his mum is there, it’s difficult because there are lots of distractions.

Do you have any tips for other students who are also trying to juggle studying and parenting at the moment?

Fentezia: I would recommend PE with Joe Wicks he is now like a TV family member; the sports sessions help the kids burn excess energy. Home learning should be done in the morning when their minds are fresh and get them to read in the afternoon to give you a bit of (quiet) time to do some work.

Don’t forget to rest and eat well so that you have the energy to do your own work at night. Try not to get too stressed, stick to a good routine and set a bedtime for the kids.

I’m also Birkbeck’s Student Parents & Carers Officer, so if you are a student who is also a parent, email studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk to find out more.

Liliana: Take breaks and do activities together such as cooking and playing board games, it’s also important to do sports with your children; this could be a bike ride around London or just around the park.

Take time for yourself and do something you enjoy like reading a book or watching your favourite series. It’s okay to ask for help – email your teachers.

Mohamed: It’s important to find space to be alone and to have some quiet. Make arrangements with your partner to have that space.

Make sure that you reach out to get support, for example, charities or services at the university. Try your best, look for support, go to school but it can be a challenge sometimes!

Further information: 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , , ,

(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.

 

Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

 

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , ,

What are the origins of the Pride March?

Although this year’s Pride March has been cancelled, we wish to highlight and celebrate the history of the annual celebration. In this blog, Rebekah Bonaparte, Communications Officer at Birkbeck, explores the radical roots of the annual Pride March.

June usually marks Pride Month. The streets of London and many UK towns and cities are adorned with the infamous Pride rainbow, as thousands would usually turn out in celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Many will now be familiar with the rainbow flag that has become increasingly visible throughout the month of June. The Pride logo can be seen on the websites of corporations and organisations as the internationally recognised event has become increasingly mainstream. But what are the origins of the Pride march?

The Stonewall Inn

Although there had been groups campaigning for the rights of the LGBTQ community to be recognised before the 1960s, the Stonewall Uprising is thought of as an important moment in the fight for gay rights in the US and beyond.

The uprising began when New York police officers raided the Stonewall Inn bar on 28 June 1969. Police raids of gay and lesbian bars were commonplace at this time and this instance proved to be the catalyst for an outpouring of fury amongst the LGBTQ+ community who were continually targeted by the police. A lesbian woman, Stormé DeLarverie, who is thought to be one of the first to fight back at Stonewall insisted that the often labelled ‘riots’ was “a rebellion.”

Six days of protests followed the raid on the Stonewall Inn and figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera emerged as leaders of the revitalised movement.

The following year, Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee held its first march, initially called ‘The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee’ to commemorate the Stonewall uprisings and promote cohesion amongst the LGBTQ community. Today, the Stonewall Inn is considered a national landmark and the LGTBQ+ Pride March is held across the world in June.

Pride in London

In 1970 two British activists, Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor, founded the Gay Liberation Front in a basement of the London School of Economics. Walter and Mellor were said to have been inspired by the Black Panthers as that year they attended the Black Panther’s Revolutionary Peoples’ Convention, but also the various liberation movements that were taking place all over the world. At the time in the UK homosexuality had been partially decriminalised and homophobia was largely accepted.

The Gay Liberation Front in London held its first Pride rally in 1972 on 2 July (the closest Saturday to the Stonewall anniversary) and continued to host annual rallies until it became more of a carnival event in the 1990s. In 1996 it was renamed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride. The march was thought of as a display of solidarity and self-acceptance, but also a vehicle to drive social change and challenge injustice.

The Pride March has been held in London and across the UK since. It is characterised by its carnival spirit, and a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community to assert their identities and achievements. In recent years it has become increasingly mainstream, with corporations and organisations capitalising on the annual celebration and some believe it is has become far removed from its radical roots.

#YouMeUsWe

The organisation Pride in London was set up in 2004, and has been arranging the march since. Unfortunately, this month’s Pride event had to be cancelled but the organisation has announced its virtual campaign, #YouMeUsWe which calls on members of the community to practice allyship and challenge instances of discrimination and marginalisation.

Pride remains a visual reminder for the continued struggle for LGBTQ+ rights across the world, a source of hope and jubilation for many.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , , ,

Making Monuments Matter

As the debate about the removal of historical statues rages on, Professor Annie E Coombes reflects on the significance of statues in the discussion and commemoration of history. 

Sethembile Msezane performs 'Chapungu - The Day Rhodes Fell', April 2015.

Sethembile Msezane performs ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’, April 2015.

Since the 2015 call to arms of the #Rhodes Must Fall and #Fees Must Fall campaigns started on South African University campuses in a drive to get universities to finally address the legacy of racial inequalities produced by colonialism and apartheid, the baton has been taken up by other students worldwide. They have demanded that educational institutions address colonial amnesia and actively decolonize the curriculum. Birkbeck and other colleges of the University of London have slowly begun to put some energy behind addressing these demands closer to home, although some of us have always had this at the heart of our research and teaching agendas. The recent protests initiated by Black Lives Matter have reignited awareness of the deep structural legacy of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. The ripple effect around the globe has strengthened the long-repeated calls for legislated action to ensure equal rights and their implementation.

Here in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has lent support to the voices of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and David Lammy MP in their insistence on the necessity of implementing, rather than ignoring (again) the recommendations made in the numerous reports and reviews on racial inequality in Britain (including the 1997 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, Lammy’s own 2017 review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the justice system and Wendy Williams’ review into the lessons learnt from the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation (2018 & 2020).

Municipal statuary has often been the visual centrepiece of these protests. For the past twenty years, I have been fascinated by monuments and their afterlives. The love, hate and ridicule they inspire, and the ways in which even those originally standing for the very worst aspects of human endeavour can become reanimated to generate a rallying cry for the most progressive solidarity. The recent toppling of the much-maligned statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest is a case in point. That activism and energy were able to accomplish in one fell swoop, something that campaigners and academics in Bristol had been working towards for many years – a greater recognition of the ways in which the history of slavery has shaped the city of Bristol and the removal of celebratory monuments (including Colston’s) to the glory of that hideous trade.

Those who criticise the action as the erasure of history, fail to understand that the gesture has actually reignited an awareness of the importance of an understanding of how history shapes our experience of city spaces and either reinforces or excludes a sense of belonging in swathes of the population. In Bristol it has foregrounded the work of Madge Dresser, David Olusoga and others who have produced deep research on the often hidden histories of slavery and colonialism lurking in street names and municipal landmarks. (Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of an English Provincial Port c. 1698 – 1833, 2001) Perhaps iconoclasm and the deeper histories it draws attention to, can also enable a greater public recognition of the lives and deeds of men and women from BAME and other underrepresented communities. Or as Jared Brock says, writing on the hidden history of the ‘real’ Uncle Tom of the eponymous book – Joseph Henson, an unsung champion of the Underground Railway – “As monuments topple around the globe they leave space for worthier replacements’.

Research I conducted in Kenya at a moment when a new national history was being written in the wake of the unbanning in 2003 of the guerrilla organisation (Mau Mau) that had fought for the creation of an independent Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s, reinforced the potential power of monuments, but also their complicated valencies. In a quest for representativeness and a bid for national unity, following a wave of post-election violence that had rocked the country, local constituencies nationwide were asked to nominate heroes and heroines for national commemoration. While having many beneficial outcomes for some disenfranchised Kenyans, the nationwide competitiveness occasioned by the government ‘Taskforce for National Heroes and Heroines’. ended up reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the perceived and historic ethnic differences that had led to some of the worst post-election violence in Kenya’s history in 2009. ( Coombes, “Monumental Histories: Commemorating Mau Mau with the Statue of Dedan Kimathi”, 2011) But it is also true that the inauguration of these monuments (for example, to the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi in the heart of downtown Nairobi) provided the occasion for one of the few acknowledgements by the State, of the role of Mau Mau veterans in the creation of an independent Kenya.

On the other hand, perhaps it is worth considering that sometimes ‘disinterest’, can be as powerful a means of countering the hegemonic presumptions of any monument.  In 1994, in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa, I began research on the ways in which histories were being re-thought and re-written in the public sphere in relation to different kinds of visual commemorative practice (monuments, memorials and museums). I took a photograph, later used on the cover of my book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003). It shows the gigantesque bust of J.G. Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 -58 and member of the white supremacist wing of the ruling National Party which established formal apartheid.

At the time the picture was important to me because it showed Black South Africans walking through the square, oblivious to its original significance, to the extent of using the space as an expansion of the entrepreneurial informal economy and setting up market stalls in the shade of Strijdom’s bust. It seemed to encapsulate a complete lack of interest in the overbearing sculpture commemorating a brutal figure in the apartheid regime. I wondered if the act of ignoring the violent history embodied in the monument and the square’s name, could be seen as constituting in and of itself, a form of resistance. In a neat and entirely appropriate twist to this tale, the monument (the head and the surrounding arch) subsequently collapsed, apparently of its own accord ! It has now been renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square after a member of the multi-ethnic crowd of 20,000 women activists, who marched on J.G. Strijdom in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to present petitions against the extension of the hated Pass Laws to black women in August 1956 – which finally in 2000, gained its own monument commemorating the bravery of the womens’ action, “The Monument to the Women of South Africa”.

Looking back at a moment twenty years ago when monuments were similarly the visual flashpoints at the centre of protest in the UK, what struck me then seems as pertinent in the current statue debate: “… monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance and … performances or rituals focused around a monument are conjunctural. The visibility of a monument is in fact entirely contingent upon the debates concerning the reinterpretation of history that take place at moments of social and political transition. Their significance is consequently constantly being reinvented but always and necessarily in dialogue with their past”. (History After Apartheid, p.12) Thus the knowledge provided by the historian and art historian is absolutely crucial to a more complex understanding of that past and the lived experiences that contribute to its various and often competing interpretations in the present.

If living in Covid times has taught us anything, it is the value of social connectedness, of ‘community’ sought and found in unusual places, of the street as a valuable locus of social interaction. With this in mind, monuments and public memorials could play a critical role in reclaiming those streets and making many who have been disenfranchised and dislocated from British society feel more ‘at home’.

Annie Coombes is Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the Department of Art History and Founding Director of the Peltz Gallery. In Summer term 2021, she will be teaching the MA seminar option ‘Curating Difficult Histories’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dear White People

In the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matters protests Jessica Brooke, Social Media Officer at Birkbeck, offers a view on how White people can begin being anti-racist. 

In light of the recent murder of George Floyd by federal police in Minneapolis and subsequent rioting across the globe, you might find that you are asking yourself some new questions. If you’re White like me, here are some things that we can consider.

Firstly, racism is everywhere and that is a fact. Some of the most harmful racism is the most transparent. I use the word transparent because although it might not be directly visible, (particularly to a White person), such as a murder filmed on video camera, it is always there. And it is there deep in the bones of the structures and institutions within our society.

Here are some statistics that illuminate how racism is functioning in British society today:

  • Job applications in British cities from people with White-sounding names were 74% more likely to receive a positive response than applications from people with an ethnic minority name.1
  • Black British women are five times more likely to die in childbirth compared to White women.2
  • In January 2020, exclusions for racism in primary schools were up by more than 40%.3

These British statistics show areas of British life that are affected daily by racism, and that restrict and disempower Black people from living the same quality of life as White people.

This is why claiming to ‘not see colour’ is racist. To not acknowledge a person’s identity, their history, and the ways in which they are treated in society means not acknowledging that person at all. The first step to overcoming racism is to fully acknowledge and identify it within the structures around us and especially within ourselves.

None of us will get it right every time, and overcoming racism is continuous work. We have to constantly check ourselves and others around us to ensure we’re considering our race and the race of others, and the impact that has on situations. Sometimes, our racism is unconscious. But applying ourselves to make these considerations is the first thing we can do to working towards eliminating it.

And this means acknowledging our privilege as White people. I’m going to say this again because I feel this often gets misconstrued:

Being White is being privileged.

This does not mean that being White means we’re richer, healthier, more supported or successful than every Black person.

What it does mean is that we are free to exist peacefully with no negative consequence of the colour of our skin. We do not fear unemployment, arrest, or deprivation of access to basic needs because of the colour of our skin.

To expand:

  • We do not need to change our names to be invited to a job interview.
  • We are not demanded an explanation of our nationality, our ethnicity, or our religion, due to the colour of our skin.
  • When we go on holiday or move to a new house, we do not need to check whether certain areas are racist towards people of our skin colour.
  • Throughout our lives, we have opened books and turned on the television and always seen people that look like us.
  • When we look to those in power, we will see people with the same colour skin as us.
  • We are able to recognise our identity as accepted and celebrated around us.

If you’re Black, you often do not have these privileges.

If you’ve never had to question whether you’ve been held back by the colour of your skin, then you are privileged.

The first thing we can do as White people is educate ourselves on the privilege that we enjoy, and the struggles of those Black members of our society. To do this, we must reach to existing resources. Black people have struggled physically, mentally and emotionally for long enough. It is now time for us, as White people, to understand this struggle without burdening them even more with the task of educating us.

Here is a list of resources that I have found helpful:

Books:

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge: this book was the first book I read about race, and it blew my mind. Includes a great chapter about Black Feminism which I thought was useful in ways we think about ‘intersectionality’, as well as a brief but informative chapter on British history.
  • Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, discusses the cultural relevance of Black hair and how it symbolises the subjugation of Black bodies.
  • I’m Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite discusses being a Black British mother – from the treatment of Black women in healthcare, to knife crime in London, to moving to rural areas of Britain and the experience of that as a Black family. A humorous and fun read that also educates.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a brilliant work of fiction that plunges you into the lives of 12 different Black women and their experiences in Britain all through the 20th and into the 21st Funny too.
  • Black and British by David Olusoga provides more of an insight into Black British history, helping to understand racism in our country.
  • I listened to Becoming by Michelle Obama on audiobook and would highly recommend consuming it in the same way. She speaks calmly, articulately and firmly about her experiences with racism as a child and then as an adult. Aside from the attention she gives to issues around race, she is just an amazing and inspiring human being and I would recommend this book on that basis too.

Articles/Social Media:

TV:

  • 13th: a documentary on the U.S. prison system, looking at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America.
  • When They See Us shows the story of five young men who were unjustifiably charged and sentenced of the crime of assaulting and raping a jogger in Central Park.

References

  1. 2009 research from NatCen Social Research, commissioned by the government.
  2. 2018, MBRRACE-UK, https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/downloads/files/mbrrace-uk/reports/MBRRACE-UK%20Maternal%20Report%202018%20-%20Lay%20Summary%20v1.0.pdf
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50331687
Share
. Read all 4 comments . Category: Uncategorized

The Family Learning Series

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement team and Brittney Chere and Jessica Massonnié from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development, have launched a virtual Family Learning Series for parents and children. The series of videos, ‘The Brain Explained’, are short lessons accompanied by fun activities for impactful family learning.

In February, the Access and Engagement Team along with Jessica Massonnié and Brittney Chere from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development delivered a workshop for children and parents at Stratford library. Over 10 families joined us for an hour of activities which included making your own neurons and building a brain hat.

With more family workshops planned for the Easter holidays and as Covid-19 shut all public venues, we began thinking about how we could bring our family learning programme online – and this is the result!

Below you’ll find four videos led by Brittney Chere focusing on the brain and including activities that you and your child/children can do at home. These activities are best suited for primary school aged children (Year’s 4-6) and we hope that they can play a role in any home schooling you are doing with your children right now.

The Brain, Explained: Part 1

Now you’re ready to get going- watch this video to start learning about the brain!

Activity 1 resource: Trace the Brain (1)

The Brain, Explained: Part 2

 

Activity 2 resource: Brain Hats

The Brain, Explained: Part 3

Activity 3 resource: ChatterBox instructions and activity ChatterBox.

 

The Brain Explained: Part 4

Activity 4 resource: Brain Game Instructions, Brain Game Board, Brain Game Neurons.

Where can I find other learning resources?

If this has sparked your interest as a parent in psychology or the brain, why not take a look at the Centre for the Brain’s virtual coffee mornings where you can hear from researchers about their research. Other Birkbeck events can be found on our events page.

If your child wants to find out more about the brain or how the body works; check out this University of Washington resource which has lots of great activities including these fun experiments you can do at home! This website also has some great science resources.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: College, Science . Tags: , , , , , , ,

The importance of frequent handwashing to tackle transmission of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases

As government’s across the world announce the easing of lockdown measures it is understandable to feel that the threat of COVID-19 has subsided for now. However, it is more important than ever to exercise caution. In this blog, Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry at Birkbeck reiterates and breaks down the importance of hand washing in the prevention of the spread of the virus.

 

We have been consistently reminded to wash our hands several times a day, but do we legitimately understand why? I am here to explain to why the Government is urging us to wash our hands with the intent to intrinsically stop the spread of COVID-19 and other, similar infectious diseases.

The novel infective Coronavirus causes a respiratory illness which implies that it is circulated through the virus-laden air-borne particles from sneezes and coughs, if we fail to catch sneezes/coughs in a tissue and carefully discard of it, the virus consequently ends up on surfaces where they can survive. Generally, we may fail to do this due to inconvenience and our predispositions; however, if somebody else touches that contaminated surface, the virus is able to transfer onto their hand and eventually can cause new infection to a susceptible host.

A recent study indicated that people touch their face 23 times an hour on average, the virus on your hands subsequently infects our eyes, mouth or nose when we touch it. Hence, the significance of washing your hands; not only to decrease the chances of you contracting the virus, but to prevent the spread on a global scale. When we come to talk about preventative measures, to decrease the chances of it spreading further, the public have a huge role to play.

Washing your hands on a regular basis ensures a decreased risk of contaminating surfaces and spreading infection. So, we have the basis of the importance of ‘washing’ your hands, but it is paramount that you wash your hands in an accurate manner for optimal efficiency in controlling the spread. Any Coronavirus is contained within a lipid envelope – essentially, a layer of fat. Soap has the ability to break this fat apart. As a result, the virus is unable to infect you and others. Moreover, using the correct handwashing technique mechanically pries off the germs and rinses them away.

Watch a video demonstrating the best way to wash your hands.

This video courtesy to Sreyashi Basu: While the video is demonstrating a good hand washing protocol, in order to save water, you should consider using taps with auto-off sensor or with elbow levers where available.

References:

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Science . Tags: , , , ,