The Forgotten Medici

The Medici were one of the most infamous families in Italian and Renaissance history, a family of bankers who rose to rule Florence. They became patrons of the arts, backing the likes of Da Vinci and Galileo and produced four popes and two queens of France.

However, there is one member of the family who has been erased from history and has only recently been more widely spoken about in historical and media circles.

Alessandro de’ Medici was the only recognised illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici. It is believed that his mother was a servant in the Medici household. Her name was Simonetta da Collevecchio, who was believed to be of African descent by multiple historians such as Christopher Hibbert and John Brackett.

For the most part, he was disliked less for his skin colour than his mother’s status as a freed slave. He was seen as ‘false royalty’ throughout his life due his mother’s low birth.

He was given the nickname Il Moro, ‘The Moor’ by others, due to his dark skin and curly hair.

His half-sister, Catherine, Lorenzo’s only legitimate child would go on to be Queen consort to Henry II of France after their father’s death in 1519.

They were both raised under the guidance of the Medici pope Leo X (until his death in 1512) and cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici (later made Pope Clement VII). In 1522, he was given the title Duke of Penne from his uncle. Clement apparently favoured Alessandro, often taking his side in disputes he had with his cousin, Ippolito. This favour also fuelled rumours over who Alessandro’s father was or if Giuliano may have been his father.

According to one historian, Alessandro was morose, passionate and could be cruel. His manners were marked by ‘vulgarity and abruptness,’ something that was unexpected of a man of his class and upbringing. This attitude translated into his political life, making him many enemies.

Political Life

After the siege of Florence ended in 1530, he was made Duke of Florence, after an agreement between the Pope and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1531. He was also later made Hereditary Duke in 1532, ending the Florentine republic, and making him the first Medici to rule Florence, starting a monarchy that would last just over 200 years.

Alessandro was married to Charles V’s illegitimate daughter, Margherita. His noble birth, being a direct descendent of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ‘Magnificent’, was an attractive feature and helped establish him as a genuine noble.

Descriptions of his rule vary. Positively, he was seen as a champion of the poor and helpless. He was also, like many in his family before him, a patron of the arts, commissioning pieces from notable artists at the time such as Ponto Moro. Duke Alessandro acted with the advice of elected councils and took their advice whilst ruling.

Florence’s vocal exile community judged his rule as harsh, depraved, and incompetent. In 1535, the exiles asked his cousin Ippolito to meet with Charles V to denounce Alessandro’s rule. They described him as a tyrant and accused him of every crime imaginable, but Charles ignored these, particularly after hearing from one of Alessandro’s advisors, who told a more favourable story of his rule.

Ippolito then died in questionable circumstances, which some believe Alessandro arranged. This helped prove to some of his contemporaries that he was a tyrant.

Alessandro was assassinated in 1537 by his distant cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici. This was an attempt to bring back the Florentine Republic. Power was passed on to Cosimo I de’ Medici from the junior line of the Medici family, marking the end of the senior family’s line and their rule in Florence.

Opacity via Flickr

Afterlife

Images of Alessandro vary amongst his contemporaries and historians.

No one was more determined to establish the worthiness of Alessandro as a good leader than his successor Cosimo I, who went on to be successful in his rule of Florence. Cosimo assumed responsibility for raising Alessandro’s two illegitimate children and avenged his death by assassinating Lorenzino.

For his contemporaries, as previously mentioned, his blackness was not why they hated him. To them, he was an arrogant tyrant, murderer and above all, a Medici. His race was perhaps the last objection they would have had about him.

His image as a tyrant however did prevail over time presenting him as the prince who started Florence’s ruin.

Historians, trying to take a more impartial view have argued back and forth as to what sort of man he really was with some concluding that he was a much better ruler than his detractors have claimed, pointing to his kindness to the poor and helpless.

Until recently, he has mostly been ignored within historian circles and mainstream representations of the Medici family or representations of Renaissance Italy. This is odd, considering his short and extraordinary life seems the kind of story one should tell in a period drama: from his womanising to his rule as the first Prince of Florence and the last of the original Medici line.

The story of Alessandro de’ Medici is part of a wider conversation around the erasure of Afro-Europeans from history books and the role they played in shaping Europe’s political history.

It is important for historical integrity and diversity to tell such stories and recognise the impact men and women like Alessandro had.

Michaela Makusha, History in Politics Writer

“It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” Whiteness’ politicised grip on Iconography explored around Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary.

16 December 1999. New York City. With his hands as his weapon of choice, Dennis Heiner waltzes into the Brooklyn museum with vengeance, walking purposefully to the corner of the Sensation exhibit in which his victim awaits. Dipped in white paint smuggled inside in a hand sanitizer bottle, Heiner’s hand meets its target, the “blasphemous’ depiction of the Virgin Mary painted by British artist Chris Ofili two years earlier. Failing to prevent the attack, guards protecting the painting reportedly state “it’s not the virgin Mary. It’s a painting”.

Iconographic imagery proliferates in Western art history. Whether in the form of paintings or sculptures, from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to Duccio’s Madonna and Child, one theme is consistent throughout the canon: the whiteness of its figures. Ofili’s Black Virgin Mary embodies an attempt to broaden the canon in line with non-western expressions of religiosity, and Heiner’s vandalism embodies the Western canon’s resistance to change. Supposedly incensed to violence by Ofili’s use of pornographic cut-outs surrounding the Madonna, why then did Heiner smother her face rather than her surroundings with white paint? This was nothing short of a political, defensive and violent display of whiteness. Ultimately, Heiner’s smearing of white paint on the figure of the Black Madonna symbolises the whiteness which has historically been imposed onto Western understandings of Christianity and continues to mark both art-political and theological discourse, as is explored here.

The Ofili piece being vandalised. (Credit: Philip Jones Griffiths, Magnum Photos, accessed here)

Upon a yellow-gold background which harks back to medieval iconographic trends, Ofili’s Madonna features a breast moulded from elephant faeces and a beautiful blue outfit interwoven with the contours of her body. Inspired by his time in Zimbabwe and appreciation of artistic technique in the region, Ofili’s work mixes European and African tradition with an expert experimentalist hand. However, its beauty has often been overlooked. 

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) (Credit: MoMA

The controversy surrounding the painting was not limited to the violence of Heiner on that December afternoon. Upon its showcase in galleries lawsuits abounded, including from the Mayor’s office of New York in which Ofili’s use of pornographic clippings and elephant faeces was labelled ‘disgusting’ and ‘sick’. In  a seeming attempt to find a middle ground, some commentators have described the piece as a ‘juxatposition between the sacred and the profane’, but this is a misguided conclusion which reinforces the hegemony of whiteness’ grip on Iconography. Within Africa the piece was interpreted very differently. Nigerian Art historian Moyosore B. Okediji wrote that elephant dung was a material used in both art and architecture in Yorubaland, also commenting that in artistic depictions of indigenous deities called Orisha, the nude female form was commonplace. In specific relation to Western reactions to the piece, he exclaimed “the learned West always fails to understand Africa”.

Ultimately, the use of elephant dung was not an act of defamation but a display of Christian identity based in African tradition. Born in Britain and of Nigerian heritage, a country which now has a Christian population of around 102 million people, Ofili’s aim with this project  was to display anAfrican form of Christianity, rather than mount an anti-Christian attack. Whilst some commentators have described the sacred intentions of Ofili’s painting as ‘ironic’ in relation to the reaction it garnered, we must acknowledge that his use of images of the body and earthly materials is not objectively irreligious. In fact, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about a painting espousing a form of Afro-centric religiosity. Rather than conveying Ofili’s intentions, the label of ‘irony’ imposed onto his combination of African tradition and Christian ideas instead displays the extent to which whiteness has been defensively protected in Western Christian expression.

Therefore, it is vital that we acknowledge that the lawsuits and physical assaults inflicted on Ofili’s depiction of ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ are innately political and are the product of centuries of European Christian history in which whiteness was not just centred but expected when speaking of divinity. The piece being deemed ‘blasphemous’ by a plethora of white Americans, art commentators and religious leaders at the turn of the twenty-first century shows how Christianity’s global reach remains overlooked in favour of centring whiteness. Ultimately, it must be said that the security guards tasked with her protection stating “It’s not the Virgin Mary, it’s a painting” embodies a reluctance to associate holiness with anything other than white skin. 

By way of a conclusion, Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary is nothing short of an emblematic display of Afro-centric Christian theology. The reaction shown to the piece both within and without the art and theological worlds reveals the seemingly inextricable link between whiteness and holiness in Western thought. As Black theologians both in the west and throughout the world challenge these ideas and artists such as Ofili display the debate in the public eye, the politics of race and theology will no doubt continue to be a much-needed region of inquiry.

George R. Evans, History in Politics’ Summer Writer

South Africa and Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy

Apartheid, literally defined as ‘apartness’ or ‘separateness’ in Afrikaans, refers to the policy of enforced racial segregation that defines the history of modern South Africa. Spanning from 1948 to 1994, when the National Party was in power and put into practice the culture of ‘baasskap’ or white supremacy, the national programme of apartheid forced black and white citizens apart for nearly fifty years. The first law, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, served as the forerunner for later legislation which sought to prevent interracial relationships and remove the political rights of black citizens. All public facilities, including hospitals and transportation vehicles were segregated; however, the effects of apartheid split up families and displaced them from their homes.

A sign enforcing racial segregation in a bayside area, South Africa, 1970s. (Credit: Keystone via Getty Images)

However, whilst the political doctrine of apartheid and its segregationist ideology ended in 1994, culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela as the President of South Africa, its socio-economic legacy extends into the present day. The apartheid economy was tailored to appeal to, and overwhelmingly benefit white citizens, and as a nation of significant inequality, the after-effects of enforced segregation still pervade twenty-first century discourses. This economic legacy of apartheid is still palpable within modern South Africa, which continues to be defined by the segregationist policies of the late twentieth century. Today, black citizens, compared to their white counterparts, arguably remain somewhat disadvantaged in the national economy and the opportunities afforded to them. As the Economic Freedom Fighters, a South African left-wing political party emphasised in 2013, ‘political freedom without economic emancipation is meaningless.’ Statistical evidence supports the party’s observation, citing that in 2011, 54% of Africans compared to less than one percent of white citizens lived in poverty, attesting to the wider culture of division which had served as the central bastion of political authority. 

Even in the realm of education – particularly pertinent given the notable involvement of students within the anti-apartheid movement – the effect of segregation is demonstrable in the twenty-first century. Under the National Party, the funding of white schools was greater than that of black schools by tenfold, meaning that historical inequalities have become so deeply embedded in the framework of South Africa’s education system, that they are perpetuated nearly thirty years after the dissolution of apartheid. From 2015 to 2019, the school funding in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, one of the lowest-income communities in the nation, fell by a further 15%. What this evidence highlights is that whilst the official dogma of segregation is no longer directly involved in the fabric of the nation, the ghost of apartheid remains a ubiquitous element of life in South Africa, carving out an enduring and reprehensible modern socio-economic legacy. 

Maximus McCabe-Abel, President, History in Politics

The Future Unlocked? 

What a strange year. April might seem like an even stranger time to reflect, one month after the anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown, but it also seems astute as the easing of lockdown starts to open up our futures. With pubs starting to open, vaccines being delivered, and being officially allowed back to university, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Yet, while we’ve been locked up in our houses, a few things have happened. For one, History in Politics has done two terms as a university society – but you probably don’t care much about that. More significant are the huge events seen through the prism of a new post pandemic world. Britain has finally properly left the EU, Boris Johnson lost his most infamous advisor, thousands marched for BLM, and thousands have protested policing in the wake of Sarah Everard: ‘why are you protecting statues of racists over actual women?’, one sign read. 

During the pandemic, Britain has been reflecting. We might look back upon our relationship with Europe. We might look at the history of race-relations in the UK, or our colonial legacy. In fact, with books such as Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain being released in January by Sathnam Sanghera, it is clear that many have been reflecting on such themes. In doing so, it is hoped that, by having a clear idea of where we’ve come from, we might have a better idea of what we’re meant to do in the future.

Luckily for me, although perhaps less so for my career prospects, I’ve had the privilege of studying such history. I’ve spent a lifetime learning about the British Empire, race-relations, civil rights, and Britain’s relationship with Europe (although, aged 21, a lifetime is quite a melodramatic way of putting it). I have even had time to study the Tudors, which many complain took the place of ‘more relevant’ history. Despite all this history I am still to get the magic key to predicting our future – perhaps that will come tomorrow, or once I’m back in a Durham pub. 

Ironically, such historical reflections can be found throughout history. When Edward Colston’s statue was raised in Bristol in 1895, for instance, it was already over a century and a half after his death. Those who toppled his statue over a hundred years later, certainly wouldn’t think that the Victorian reflections or remembrance of Colston was a positive one. Although some might suggest it was representative of the future for Victorians, a future of racial inequality. 

The plinth of the now removed statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, England. (Credit: James Beck for The New York Times)

One thing which we cannot change, regardless of how we might reflect upon it, is what has passed. This might sound obvious, but it is important to hold in mind such ‘objective truths’. They’re the reason people look back, hoping the past truths will unlock future truths. It is in search of the ‘truth’ that we talk, read, and reflect on our past – from empire to race. Last summer, as statues were ripped up and the media exploded into debate, I asked how we might have that conversation in a civil manner. Yet, the ‘culture war’ has continued – regardless of these ‘truths’. 

Perhaps it is less talking and more listening which needs to happen. Over lockdown I had the pleasure of listening to Natalie Mears (associate professor in early modern British history) discuss some of these topics. Finally, I could put Tudor history to some use, and the comparisons with our present ‘culture war’ were stark. From powerful political advisors (it is the 500th anniversary of William Cecil’s birth; and a year since ‘that’ trip to Barnard Castle) to our relationship with Europe, some things seemingly haven’t changed. As we reflect upon the past year (and a bit) of COVID-19, one lesson from Elizabethan England sticks out the strongest: that reflections and memories of the past have always been political. At least that is one door to the future which is unlocked. The future is undoubtedly political.

Join Durham University’s History in Politics Society for their term’s theme of ‘Reflections’ and find series two of Dead Current, the History in Politics Podcast, on Spotify. The first episode of series two is President Emily Glynn and Event’s Manager Ed Selwyn Sharpe’s interview with Natalie Mears. 

Ed Selwyn Sharpe

Seeing like Cassandra: a New Role for Literature in Political Risk Analysis?

Political conflicts and situations of crises in a multitude of forms continue to mark our present. Indeed, early crisis prevention is a question so pertinent to our times that it has prompted researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany to explore an unusual  method of conflict prediction: studying fictional literature of specific regions prone to crises  to examine if it is possible to identify potential future threats through literary texts. The project is entitled “Projekt Cassandra”, alluding to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, who was famously able to predict the future, although cursed so that nobody would believe her prophecies. 

The study led by Tübingen  appears to have demonstrated potential  as an alternative method of strategic analysis  and is being partially being funded by the German Ministry of Defence. The “Projekt Cassandra” has so far investigated three centres of conflict for model analyses, notably the Serbo-Kosovan conflict (1998-1999), the Nigerian terror epidemic caused by the group Boko Haram, and the tensions in Algeria preceding the election in 2019. While the study is still underway, it poses an essential question: can literature truly function as a tool for the early detection of crises?

Tens of thousands of Algerians protesting Algeria’s presidential vote, Algiers, December 12, 2019. (Credit: Ramzi Boudina, via Reuters)

Conflict and crisis prediction are an essential part in the field of risk analysis. With regard to the hypothesis of “Projekt Cassandra”, we can draw parallels with the idea that “history repeats itself”. While the extent to which the past really “repeats” itself is debatable, this argument  rests on the assumption that history provides us with patterns which allow for a certain degree of “prediction”. A similar concept could be applied in the case of literature through the ages, where the identification of patterns relating to past crises could help identify future potential conflicts. 

In considering concrete examples, the picture becomes more complex. By association, we might immediately consider literature as actively imagining the future, such as the famous 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian classic from 1949 is set in a distorted future of censorship and surveillance, which could be interpreted as a prediction of certain elements that we now  find in our present. However, it must be noted that  science fiction and dystopian literature often provides less a prediction of the future,  than a reflection of respective historical circumstances. 1984 for instance stems from the context of the beginning Cold War, in which surveillance and espionage were considered primary threats. This however does not mean that there is a necessary correlation between the content of a novel like 1984 and the  realities of the future. 

The ‘Projekt Cassandra’ logo. (Credit: Project Cassandra, via Twitter)

 So how can early crisis detection through literature function? Predicting crises is a lot about the identification of patterns. This is why it also matters what type of crisis is being investigated. For instance, a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic can hardly be said to have been predicted by Camus, merely because his novel The Plague (1947) describes a situation that is eerily similar to current events. 

We do however find a poignant example favouring this hypothesis relating to military conflict in British literature. Starting in the 1870s, literature imagining a new European war, at various instances between Britain and France or Britain and Germany, was increasingly popularized, so much so that “invasion literature” became an entirely new genre in British literature. The most famous example is the novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which propagated Germanophobia in Britain, through its imagined German invasion of Britain.  This can in hindsight, be considered a near-prescient account of elements of the First World War. Invasion literature even influenced politics:popularised concerns  of a new European conflict accelerated the arms race of the 1900s,which ultimately played  a role in the eruption of the First World War. 

Literature, it must be reiterated, is not an accurate tool of strategic prediction. It does however frequently capture underlying social currents that can later become problematic, such as ethnic tensions or larger societal unrest. These currents are often subtle, yet can function as inspiration for authors. To the extent that these societal undercurrents can effectively alert us to the potential of future crises and conflict, only Cassandra knows.

Cristina Coellen

Will Britain’s History Ever Transcend Empire?

In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past? 

A propaganda poster for the British Empire, centred around George VI. (CreditL Snowgoose, via Pinterest.)

The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.

The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain. 

So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide. 

One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website. 

So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.

Sarah Matthews

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – The Continual Impact of Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

With the ongoing global protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is now more important than ever to look back at the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements. When we look at these movements, the work and contributions of women are often overlooked, although current protests take far more inspiration from historical female activists than is often recognised. The impact of women, such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, in the black freedom struggle can be seen clearly. Many of the global demands being made at this time concern the police and prisons; however, it can only be helpful to take a closer look at the successes of women and attempt to learn from them as best we can.

The most well-known leading female figure of the black liberation struggle, and arguably the most influential in the current protests is, without a doubt, Angela Davis. An active and continuing campaigner for the black liberation struggle for over 5 decades, she has an exceedingly large body of experience to examine. The influence of her commitment to police and prison abolition and her lasting criticisms of the prison-industrial complex can be seen throughout many of the demands currently being made in protests. Furthermore, her internationalist, intersectional outlook should undoubtedly be the standard against which organisations attempting to foment radical change should be measured. There is much that has already been said about Angela Davis, but her ubiquity should not serve to diminish her influence. We should not focus simply on her work, but also the work of other contemporaries and past figures. The most important, yet overlooked, is Ella Baker.

Angela Davis speaking at Columbia University. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP, via Flickr)

It is hard to overstate the monumental impact that Ella Baker had on the civil rights movement. However, compared to many of her contemporaries, her contributions remain largely unrecognised. During her lifetime she was an active member of organisations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and even helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was deeply critical of organisations driven by a single, usually male, charismatic leader and feared that such organisations would distance themselves from the very people they were intending to help. Ella Baker fundamentally believed that people should always be prioritised over organisations, and her approach to activism remains forward-thinking and progressive by modern standards. By prioritising grassroots appeal and more horizontal, technocratic forms of organisational hierarchy, she showed commitment to her belief that every individual has the capacity to engage with, and fight against oppression. 

The nature of the current protests exemplifies these womens’ lasting influence. We see now movements driven not by a single, messianic leader, but by a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and cultivate solutions. We are beginning to see forms of group-centered leadership with individuals accountable to each other. Never before have calls for police defunding or prison abolition been so loud and so widespread; more people than ever are attempting to fight and dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and violence. However, none of this means that the current protest demands and organisational forms are beyond reproach, and it is important that we look back and learn from the actions and demands of women such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, as well as unmentioned figures such as Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Ramona Africa and many, many others. Looking reflectively at the past, and the pioneering work of these women is critical to ensuring the current movements can be as effective as possible, and provide the best chance of inducing real change.

Freddy Fossey-Warren

Decolonising the Curriculum

Whilst the #RhodesMustFall protests began over 5 years ago in South Africa and in the United Kingdom, misunderstanding has continued over movements to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. To ‘decolonise the curriculum’ means to question well established biases and gaps within teaching that limit our understanding of the world around us. Thus, the movement campaigns to give a fuller version of British history to reflect injustice and celebrate the histories of British POC.  

If our curriculum remains entirely static in its distorted presentation of knowledge, it will become stale, risk entrenching racial thinking, and inadvertently devalue POC. As students, if we do not challenge what we are learning (and how we are learning it), entire perspectives and realms of knowledge can go unheard, which can become enormously damaging over time. For our BME peers, our current focus on the great (white) man theory can suggest that BME identity is inferior, as British course contents do not attempt to teach any aspect of their history.

On a personal level, as a white History undergraduate, I am glad to see petitions being submitted to my previous school which call for widened GCSE and A-level History curricula. Despite having both a GCSE and an A-level in History, my learning has been entirely Euro-centric, limited to the Tudors, the World Wars, the Cold War and the Stuart Century. Shamefully, it is only recently that I began to question why my curriculum focussed exclusively on white, western intellectual traditions and histories. To young and impressionable teenagers, this undoubtedly promotes the notion that European history and culture is both universal and superior.  

The movement to decolonise the curriculum is multidimensional and therefore its application, in practical terms, must also be. Firstly, our curriculum should widen its scope to include more internationally diverse thought. Undergraduate reading lists, for example, should encompass a greater inclusion of authors outside of Europe. Further, course contents, from the age of 16, must become more international, and give a fuller version of British colonial history.  

Students at Oxford University calling for the removal of Cecil Rhose’s state in March 2016. (Credit: David Hartly/Rex, via Shutterstock)

In terms of having a genuinely positive impact on POC, providing an accurate and full portrayal of history will help to address the prominent racial attainment gap within academia. Where only 50% of black students are awarded first-class or upper-second class honours, 78.8% of white students are. Many believe this can be partly explained by BME students’ inability to engage with an exclusively white-focused curriculum in the way that their white peers do. We must also fundamentally reconsider who is teaching and how they are teaching. In 2016, only 25 black women were working as professors compared to 14,000 white men – outnumbering black women professors at a rate of 560 to 1. Promoting a more inclusive and diverse teaching body within higher education will help to broaden our perspectives by examining biases within our course content.  

See our podcast with Dr David Andersen for his academic view on the importance of a decolonised curriculum, as well as wider discussion about the impact of the Black Lives’ Matter movement on the Obama and Trump presidencies, alongside many other fascinating topics. Listen to it on Spotify here.

Amelia Crick

George Floyd

History does not look kindly on bystanders but we must not allow our fear of this to determine our reaction to injustice.

The killing of George Floyd has emblazoned social media with messages of protest in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Unlike those who came before us, we are able to broadcast our views to the world, but eagerness to not be remembered as onlookers in an atrocity should not determine the action we take. Soundbite political culture and social media allows statements to be publicly broadcast, but we must be careful that this does not supplant real meaningful political engagement. When the hashtags have stopped we must continue to act against injustice.

Posting on social media is not a replacement for real life critical engagement with our political and social climate. Public statements that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are virtue signalling if we don’t look at the flaws within our communities, families and ourselves. Racial injustice does not just occur in times like this when we see an African American man being murdered by a police officer in the US. In the UK, racism is prevalent, institutional and historically entrenched. If we are to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, they must matter always, not just when it is the done thing to post a slogan supporting justice on social media.

Unless they are backed up by action, words are dispassionate at best and dishonest at worst.

I fear that statement-led politics can be used to absolve white peoples’ guilt. Expressions of sympathy can be used as a statement that ‘I am not racist’, ‘I am not one of them’. White people are in a position of inherent privilege as their skin colour is not a basis for oppression. Does this political culture on social media make it easier to avoid conversations about race as people appoint themselves immune from being part of the problem? We must consider the use of social media in a productive way and solely expressing sympathy or solidarity is not enough to be part of the solution. White people must acknowledge their racial privilege and actively challenge racism even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. If our behaviours or attitudes are challenged we should listen to the experiences of others and not assume that our Black Lives Matter post can make us immune from making mistakes.

Our generation’s power to engage with and combat global injustice is unparalleled and this is largely due to our connections with each other through social media. Our anger should not be used for social approval and our anger does not absolve people from wrongdoing. Our anger needs to be supported by action for radical change and active anti-racism. Social media can raise awareness, but if we don’t support these words with action, we are no better than those who stand by and watch.

I am writing this as a white person and am not exempt myself from what I have argued. I am going to do better and put more effort into being aware, listening and learning about racism and my own privilege. To find out how to help go to https://blacklivesmatter.carrd.co, this includes informational resources and links to the places where your donations and signature can be the most effective. For causes to contribute to in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/…/black-lives-matter-charity-….