Thought for the Week – Retelling Stories & Revising Histories

This week, as part of Black History Month, Lucy tells us why she is re-reading the classic history book ‘Black England’.

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Church Window Mask
Lucy Winkett

The novelist Zadie Smith has, this year, written a new foreword for the updated and revised edition of the classic history book ‘Black England’, first published in 1995. The author Gretchen Gerzina tells the story of her motivation for writing this history of Black Georgians in England. Now holding a chair in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Professor Gerzina visited a bookshop in London to find what she describes as the ‘magisterial history of black people in Britain’: ‘Staying Power’ by Peter Fryer. The salesperson there assured her that there were no Black people in Britain before 1945. This encounter, which Gerzina generously describes as ‘unfortunate’ was the galvanising factor that led her to spend years doing intensive research crafting a book that ‘felt new’.  The stories in this book are, as Zadie Smith says, ‘bracing’. And it is now a classic, deservedly being reprinted and updated and according to the author is ‘more relevant today than it was a quarter of a century ago’.

One of the reasons I am re-reading it for Black History Month is that it mentions our parish of St James’s, Piccadilly and the residents and society of this area. And taking my cue from the novelist Hilary Mantel who died recently, I’ve been pondering her assertion that ‘History is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past’.  I believe history matters not least because a society ignorant of its history is in some respects like an individual without a memory: often confused, unable to function well, and in the case of a society, damagingly, able to live with a series of fantasies in the present about who we were, who we are now and what to do next.

As Mariama mentioned at her book launch recently, the teaching of history in schools is crucial. Any curriculum must answer the question, whose history is being taught and whose story is being told. I was fortunate, studying modern history at university, that I was able to choose courses that taught me about, for example, Chinese, Indian, American history as well as the English 17th century and its civil wars, republic and restoration.  But back in the 1980s the curriculum was still clearly Euro-centric and so a book like ‘Black England’ is truly, for white students like me and, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah has said, for him, ‘groundbreaking’.

What Gerzina recounts is a London that for its Black residents was a heady mixture of constriction and freedom, suffering and joy, a confused and multi-layered society in which, for example, the Black composer and writer Charles Ignatius Sancho wrote and published music, and corresponded with other writers of the time. His diaries and letters describe his London life: frequent trips to the theatre, a holiday in Scotland, and in August 1777 a trip to Vauxhall with his three daughters: ‘Heaven and Earth! – how happy, how delighted were the girls’. But he adds,  ‘we went by water – had a coach home – were gazed at, followed – but not much abused’. (Black England p 73).

None of these stories of, as Zadie Smith describes them, agency and heroism, are to mask or underplay the catastrophe and suffering of the transatlantic slave trade. But the history that I was taught at school can’t be taught to current generations, and, crucially, must be re-shaped for those of us who were taught it back then or before. This revising and learning has to be lifelong. The stories of Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Dinah Black, Mary Prince, Frances Coker and a thousand others deserve to be told with as much complexity, nuance and detail as is accessible in their own words. And it’s stating the obvious to say that Black history is important to read and learn, because current historical interpretations still overwhelmingly persist in Eurocentric form, strongly on display for example, over the time of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

In re-telling stories and revising histories, a constant task, Zadie Smith challenges us to think about why we do it. ‘My high regard is not what the dead need or require. They are dead. What I need from the dead, by contrast, is to try to comprehend how they lived and why, in the hope it might bring some insight into how we live and why.’  (Black England p xviii). It’s what happens now that matters.

The writing of good history complexifies the story, brings the past alive and stimulates debate in the present. ‘Black England’ is a brilliant book that does just that, won’t allow easy soundbites or lazy conclusions, exposes ignorance and prejudice at the same time as inviting every reader to consider, in the light of the past, what should happen now.

Black England first published in Great Britain 1995.

Olaudah Equiano frontispiece and title from his 1789 memoir

Olaudah Equiano frontispiece and title from his 1789 memoir