History as 'Meanwhile'

History as 'Meanwhile'
2020-09-30

Banner that reads ' University of Aberdeen celebrates Black History month'

Dr Samantha May is a lecturer in the department of Politics and International Relations.  She completed her AHRC funded doctorate at the University of Aberdeen in 2011 on Islamist ideologies and practices. Dr May has also been awarded multiple awards in the annual Principal's Excellence Awards, including Best Undergraduate Supervisor.

photograph of Dr Samantha May

‘History is one bloody thing after another’ wrote Alan Bennet. It is a great play line but also wrong. History is not one thing after another but a multiple of experiences that occur simultaneously. Every historical victory for some is a battle lost for others. A triumph for one is another’s downfall. One gain is a loss for others. There are always multiple sides to history but the history that preserves and dominates is always that of the winner. Those in power have the ability to shape and control how history is remembered, what is neglected and silenced, and crucially what history is taught to future generations. How we understand history influences our view of the present. History is never truly in the past as it continues to shape and guide our future.

For those of you uncertain of how to approach Black History perhaps it would be helpful to think of Black History in terms of ‘meanwhile’. That is, when you read the dominate white Western history think about what else was happening ‘meanwhile’. As said, history is not one thing after another but a multiple of overlapping simultaneous events and experiences. Each history told is always partial and incomplete so always think of what else was happening ‘meanwhile’ to gain a more complete and accurate account of human history.

Thinking of history in terms of ‘meanwhile’ allows us to explore Black history beyond that of slavery, colonialism, segregation, and inequality in the Western world. These histories are absolutely crucial in understanding the inequalities and racial injustices in our contemporary times but actually tells us very little of Black history per se. Slavery, colonialization and segregation were all the consequences of white (mostly male) history which black people were forced to bear. It was not their history as such, but a history endured rather than created.

In many ways post-colonial theory has yet to succeed in shedding light on forgotten and silenced histories. Students are certainly taught about imperialism and colonialism but mostly that of Western European imperialism (historically there were many others, but these are relegated to interesting but irrelevant historical anomalies). Students are often taught that Western colonialism disrupted and destroyed previous indigenous communities and social organisations. What students are rarely taught is what these systems were. Without being taught the histories that Black people created for themselves students are left with an empty space in their minds too easily filled with the notion that Western imperialism ‘gave’ Black people law, structure, and economics. If Black people are not viewed as architects of history, they become imagined as merely products of history always inferior to the creators. It becomes impossible to imagine different economic systems, different family structures, different political assemblages if an individual is not given the tools to imagine with.

As students (and increasingly ‘consumers’) your task it to demand to know what the blank and forgotten histories are. Do not be satisfied with statements such as ‘Western colonialism destroyed the existing social structures of colonised countries’. Demand to know what those social structures were. This is not just an intellectual exercise. The past affects the present. I may be that within the neglected and silenced histories there are aspects that can be borrowed or amended to construct a better future for us all. For instance, indigenous practices of ‘Native American’s’ have proved incredibly successful in modern mitigation courts in certain states of the USA. Likewise, indigenous justice systems were effectively employed in post-conflict Rwanda in the 1990s and 2000s. Black history is therefore not just an ‘interesting’ exploration into the past, it is also a way of constructing a better future.

But do not stop here. Black history (like women’s history, LBGT history, etc.) is pervasive. It is everywhere albeit neglected and marginalised. Whatever your interests are, there is a Black, coloured, gendered, and queer alternative. If your ‘thing’ is black and white American cowboy movies find out about the Black cowboys written out of Hollywood. If your ‘thing’ is art or music, go find out the black historical alternatives (and the close connection between the Blues and American Country folk music). Whatever your interest, whether it be physics, science, medicine, or the arts there are Black histories equally as important as white. Where would modern western medicine be for instance without indigenous plant knowledge?

None of this can be accomplished in a month. Demand to know about Black history all year round. Demand to know the silenced and forgotten events that occurred ‘meanwhile’ alongside white Western (masculine) history. In doing so, you will not only get a more complete view of human history and what we have gained from our interactions with ‘others’, you will also gain the opportunity for constructing a better, more functional, and just future.

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