“Dethroning historical reputations”: some questions

Last Thursday I read that the Institute for Historical Research was to publish a collection reflecting on the recent controversies over the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston. I discuss these debates with my second-year students in an introductory module on heritage. Because they are relatively recent there is a lack of fully-cited and/or peer-reviewed work on which students can draw if they choose to write assignments on this topic. I was pleased to see that the IHR (publishing via the in-house School of Advanced Studies imprint, SAS Publications) had decided to address this gap.

I flicked through the table of contents. The editors had evidently decided to reach out beyond academia for contributions, and included ‘fundraisers, a sociologist and a museum director’ to (I quote the blurb here) ‘examine these current issues from different perspectives’.

I think it is commendable to include different perspectives on a topic such as this. So does the IHR. In its own diversity statement, it notes

Part of the focus of the IHR is enabling the exchange of ideas: we believe that the more voices that are represented, the richer this exchange will be.

It was therefore disappointing to note that despite this effort to include ‘different perspectives’ all the volume’s contributors were, as far as I could tell, white. (This was based on publicly-available images; if anyone has better information I am happy to correct.) I therefore asked a question:

Black students in both Cape Town and Oxford played central roles in the campaigns around the Rhodes statues: given that the volume claimed to be exploring ‘different perspectives’ it seemed very odd that it had not included theirs.

The IHR responded the following day with this statement:

This does not answer the question of whether it occurred to anybody that the absence of any non-white contributors might be a problem. Moreover:

I’m glad the IHR is welcoming further proposals but that in itself does not address the structural issues here. These are well-illustrated by the fact that the proceedings of this IHR conference have been produced as a book, but the ‘What’s Happening in Black British History?’ conference series (supported by sister SAS member the Institute for Commonwealth Studies), which has an excellent record of involving Black historians, is now seeking papers for its ninth event without a published proceedings of any of the eight previous meetings in sight.

As Patrick Vernon has pointed out, the large majority of Black historians in the UK work outside universities. As a consequence, they are excluded from the salaried research time that enables some people within the academic system to publish widely. A serious initiative to diversify historical scholarship might, as a first step, work out a way to compensate contributors for their time. The IHR, which already gives publication grants, is in a good place to take a lead on that. I hope the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality working group will look further at these issues.

As the recent CLPE report on ethnic diversity in children’s books noted, 32% of pupils of compulsory school age in England were of minority ethnic origins on 2017. Even the most hardened free marketeer of the university sector might note that those are our potential future students. If they think their voices are not of interest to historians, why on earth would they come and study with us?

Photo: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015. Credit: Tony Carr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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