Black History Month: Celebration Through the Lens of a Zimbabwean Female Liberation Fighter, by Shingi Hopkins

Maggie Caroline Katsande, former liberation fighter

Black History Month is a celebration of outstanding excellence from the black community. In the spirit of celebration, this blog explores the feeling of jubilation amongst female liberation fighters of the Second Chimurenga of 1965-79. The Second Chimurenga resulted in a ceasefire which liberated Zimbabwe from the white British minority government of Ian Smith. Thus, there were two critical moments of celebration for those involved in the liberation struggle: first, the end of the war marked by the ceasefire as a result of signing the Lancaster Agreement 1979 and, second, 18 April, the official date of when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe after the British-supervised independence election of 1980, which resulted in Robert Mugabe becoming the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. 

I asked a former fighter what celebration means to her when she remembers these two events. Maggie Caroline Katsande, who joined the movement at 15, stated the following about what these dates represented:

‘When the ceasefire was called, we were not pleased. We thought it was a trap. There were rumours that when we arrived at the camp, we were all going to be killed point-blank. So it wasn’t a happy day’.

The imagery of the ceasefire in Zimbabwe’s collective memories is that it was filled with song and dance. The triumph and strength of those who were responsible for the country’s liberation is vividly represented in videos, pictures and books on the liberation struggle. In reality, after years of living in the terra incognita of Mozambique working as a political commissar, trust was not easy, and celebration was not immediate.  

In contrast, her memory of the 18 April celebrations (when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe) was filled with the hope of a new dawn for the nation she for which she fought. Finally, there was a purpose to the journey she had embarked on several years before. Maggie continues: 

‘We were happy, but we were still vigilant because we were taught to be always vigilant. Although we were on edge because we were commanders in a group, there was a sense of security, so we celebrated in full. Our hearts were full of happiness about what we had achieved. We cried tears of joy, but we were still ready to fight if anything happened’. 

Looking at the current Zimbabwe Maggie states: 

‘When thinking of Zimbabwe today, we celebrate because we managed to see a free nation. At the same time  sad because my fellow Zimbabweans who fought with us did not manage to see Zimbabwe today. They never made it out of the war and are not here to see it. Therefore, celebrating is bitter-sweet’. 

Celebration during Black History Month brings up a complex mix of emotions. We celebrate the accomplishments of the movement of equality for black and ethnic minorities, but do not forget that for us to celebrate today others had to suffer. As questions continue about the long-term impact of the changes professed during the second wave of Black Lives Matter and meaningful representations of diversity & inclusion in practice, we can see parallels with the complex, mixed emotions Maggie felt as she celebrated liberation in our experiences of celebration during this Black History Month.

Shingi Hopkins is a Phd student in African History at the University of Reading. She specialises in Zimbabwean history during and after colonialism with a keen focus on the feminist movements and ideals throughout that time.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, and a Challenge to White Fragility, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Reposted from University of Reading History Blogs

NPR, the US American public radio station, was broadcasting some critical reporting on the day of the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, 7 October. The journalists were discussing that, while the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o had been nominated many times, surely again the Nobel Committee would name not an accomplished and celebrated author from the global south, let alone a black writer, but to what many would be an obscure artist or eccentric choice of usually a white male from the west. Then the news broke that Zanzibari born Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Prize, the only second black African author, after Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986, among a list of white writers from the region spread across 1957 to 2008. This set news agencies scrambling to find information on Gurnah and his work.

Much can be noted about this, not least considering that in addition to older forms of oral literature such as epics, Africa’s rich literary output since the mid-20th century in the genre of the novel has not merely added to or enriched the literary corpus. A British colleague pointed out to me a few years ago that literature is what was written by British authors up to 1900 and another colleague added that of course in English lessons at school one reads authors whose first language is English. The range of views on what that corpus encompasses still includes a significant articulation of ignorance, white privilege, and indeed what Robin DiAngelo coined ‘white fragility’, here the fear that ‘the other’, i.e. in this case non British English writers, the global south, black authors, has produced art that does not just rival but that stands shoulder to shoulder with works from the west.

Abdulrazak Gurnah (*1948)
By PalFest – originally posted to Flickr as Abulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, CC BY 2.0

When fellow Zanzibari born and British based artist Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, annually awarded to a British Artist (based or born), she was the first black woman to achieve this prestigious honour since its inauguration in 1984. Himid emphasises how much her positionality as a black woman informs her art and chosen role as a cultural activist. In whatever manner Abdulrazak Gurnah wishes to identify – black, Zanzibari, diasporic, after having lived the majority of his life in Britain – his art must be foregrounded in this critical discourse of the asymmetry of power in cultural, economic, and global relations between the west and the global south.

The Nobel Prize committee issued the Literature Prize announcement and press release with this explanation: Gurnah won ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’[1] This author cannot claim to have read all of Gurnah’s literary output. But there are two aspects that as an Africanist and gender historian one may take some issue with. The verb ‘penetration’ is an unfortunate choice for various reasons not least because it has been shown that it represents an androcentric and sexualised view of power and forcefulness that was part of the colonial and imperial discourse.[2] More importantly, one particularly celebrated work by Gurnah is his tremendous novel Paradise (1994) which is a beautiful, troubling, and wonderfully complicated exploration as a coming of age story of a boy, Yusuf. It is set in the early colonial period in what today is Tanzania, consisting of the mainland, first colonised by Germany as German East Africa from the late nineteenth century – and then after World War I handed over by the League of Nations to Britain as mandated territory when it was renamed Tanganyika – and the islands of Zanzibar which were under British rule. Both gained independence in the early 1960s and after a revolution in Zanzibar chose to join as the Republic of Tanzania in 1962. Gurnah carefully situates the novel indicating that German rule had arrived without engaging the theme of colonialism at all. Instead of, to paraphrase the Nobel announcement, ‘penetrating the effects of colonialism’ what Gurnah does brilliantly in this novel that made him globally famous is to look into the complexities of Swahili society and the lived experience of a boy pawned by his parents from a Swahili town in the interior to the coast.

Hamish Hamilton: London, 1994

The complex negotiations that characterised identities of the western Indian Ocean became even more pronounced in the nineteenth century. The volume and geographic reach of the East African slave trade increased after abolition in the Atlantic, and the Sultan of Oman moved his capital city to Africa, anointing himself the Sultan of Zanzibar, as it was here where the emirate was generating its wealth and where direct control of the merchant activities was important, with the main palaces facing the harbour, with the warehouses at their feet. The exceptional choice of composing this coming of age story of a boy before abolition of slavery on the islands of Zanzibar in 1897 and on the mainland in 1922 was, when first published, and is to this day mesmerising and astonishing. Who could one be in this world? With the boy Yusuf experiencing both bondage and accompanying a slave trading caravan into the interior, first love across ethnic boundaries with the complicated articulations of slave, Swahili (free or unfree), Indian, and Arab as some of the identities, in a predominantly Muslim world where Islam having arrived a thousand years before, the reader is literally and metaphorically taken on a moving exploration of self. One of the uncomfortable identity markers is the African and Arab othering of non-Muslims as washenzi (Kiswahili: barbarians, uncultured people) in contrast to Muslims as ustaarabu (Kiswahili: civilised). In the understanding of the time washenzi could be enslaved.

The novel Paradise challenges western stereotypes of Africa as a continent of tribes, as Africa predominantly shaped by the black Atlantic, as Africa south of the Sahara a Christian world region threatened by recent Islamicist extremism. It takes the reader on an at times uneasy path, accompanying Yusuf growing up as he negotiates manliness and masculinity and tries to find a place in the world he inhabits, something that existentially all humans do as a rite de passage through puberty. For many westerners, and especially those with white privilege, that lived experience appears safe, achievable, and certainly well-deserved. What maybe is most astonishing about Gurnah’s literary achievements is that he weaves narrative without pointing an educational finger. His art invites the reader to travel and explore the human experience that we all share, takes us to raw and even painful places but also the magically beautiful and secluded garden where Yusuf experiences the longing of first love.


Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2021/press-release/, 7 October 2021.

[2] Much has been published since. For an early treatment, see H. I. Schmidt, ‘”Penetrating” Foreign Lands: Contestations over African Landscape. A Case Study from Eastern Zimbabwe’ Environment and History 1, no. 3 (1995), 351-376.

Celebrating Black History Month: Citizenship, Belonging and the Political Imagination of Women in Rhodesia, by Shepherd Mutswiri

I was struck by the imposing Irish symbols and their historical meaning. The Irish Defence Forces marched on stage holding the Irish flag which had been chosen as the national flag during the Irish War of Independence in 1919.  As I sat there, I heard the national anthem and I looked up with a great sense of belonging and pride. Then we all stood up and pledged our fidelity to the Irish State. The Army Band under the command of Captain Carroll provided the music that day. The carefully choreographed ceremony was celebratory, and the mood was jovial, but it was the simple but poignant display of patriotism that was immensely moving. It left an indelible impression on me. Since then, my identity and belonging were intricately interwoven with the past and future of the Irish State, while being immensely proud to be Zimbabwean. When I look back at this internalization of symbols and images on the day of my Irish citizenship ceremony, I realise that identity is not static.

I had been a bit fraught wondering how long my application would take, but it turned out not to be an arduous wait. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice (2011-2014) cleared a backlog of over 20,000 citizenship applications and in 2011 introduced the first-ever citizenship ceremonies in Ireland. Shatter was born to a Jewish family in Dublin. He remarked on the day of my citizenship ceremony how immigrants had contributed positively to Irish society.  Sadly, his reputation went up in flames in 2014 after a report by a barrister raised concerns about whether Minister Shatter had properly investigated complaints by a whistle-blower concerning Garda (national police force) misconduct. He would later write in his book that, ‘After my resignation from government all of the allegations that led to my political downfall would be discredited and established to be entirely untrue by two different independent statutory Judicial Commissions of Investigation’. He observed that ‘truth and justice matter but they do not inevitably win out’.[1]

Often tied to the idea of citizenship is the question: what underlies a sense of community and how is it constructed? Anderson (2006) suggested that communities are imagined through print culture.[2] Allman (2013) suggested that it is time to go beyond imagined communities that were formed through a shared print culture and explore how community was constructed through forms of culture such as song and dance to excavate claims of nationalism in performance.[3] This idea tests the limits of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

Belonging is an ongoing process that involves membership in, or exclusion from a community. In this regard, when people negotiate identities, it is done so with other people’s consent.  Newcomers to a community may not be imagined to be part of that community and shared identity might not necessarily be extended to them. Furthermore, others may choose not to seek belonging or reciprocal obligations that come with certain social identities. The concept of belonging is central to our understanding of how people ascribe meaning to their lives. The ascription of ethnic identities is a common subject in African studies. Ethnic naming and how people were categorised into distinct groups during the colonial period is also essential in researching belonging. Worby (1994) observed that the power to name others, and the authority to create maps and boundaries to categorise ethnic identities and culture formed an important part of colonisation.[4] These divisions had the potential to undermine or marginalise certain groups. A similar concern with the interaction between inventions and imaginings has been central in Terence Ranger’s writing on Zimbabwean history. His early work situated this dialectic in the form of contestation between collaboration and primary forms of resistance to modern political nationalism.[5] His complementary perspective on resistance and imaginings provided a more dynamic counterpoint in the face of any repression and oppression.

I would like to go back to the point Alan Shatter made about truth and justice. It resonates with what Cornel West, a scholar of African American studies perceives to be important in any discussion about gender, race, or equality. He states that ‘The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’.[6] In analysing the transition from the imperial system to nation-states, some voices have been misrepresented or ignored. Oppressed peoples have often used religion and culture to express their freedom. In the 1940s and 1950s, Africans were driven off their land by the colonial state and put into Reserves which led to crippling overcrowding in Makoni, Manyikaland in Zimbabwe. In 1965, the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to decolonize Southern Rhodesia and bring majority rule, but the Rhodesian Front (RF) led by Ian Smith’s minority government resisted the ‘winds of change’. To avoid majority rule, RF illegally declared independence from Britain. Although Britain was still legally responsible for Southern Rhodesia, it had great difficulty asserting power to end Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from 1965-1979. In the 1950s and 1960s, people in Makoni were desperate to align with anyone who would help them fight land alienation as a result of RF’s policies. Unfortunately, the revolutionary nationalists did not have it easy either. Nationalist parties were banned, and their revolutionary leaders were put into detention in 1964 and for 8 years there was no formal organisation of African opposition in Makoni. The banned political parties formed African National Council (ANC) and pinned their hopes on a Bishop of the American Methodist Church, Abel Muzorewa to lead the party in their absence.[7]

Women’s agency has previously been marginalised in political discourse and they were often regarded as passive observers in nationalist discourse. However, in Makoni, Ranger argued that the ANC nationalist party acquired most of its energy from the political participation of Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai (RRW), a women’s self-help group within the American Methodist Church.[8] The RRW women played a huge role in nationalist activities by taking part in pro-Muzorewa political protests. This mobilisation added to the fight against the colonial state, engendered by an idea of citizenship and belonging. In 1979, for the first time in the country’s history, citizenship was expanded to incorporate black Africans after Ian Smith conceded to ‘one man one vote’ to Rhodesia’s 6.5 million blacks and 268,000 whites.

Frederick Cooper has challenged historians to investigate the dynamics of citizenship in colonial Africa. Citizenship was not just about rights, but about belonging to a political unit that could make demands on its citizenry.[9] Social movements could also operate within the imperial system and make demands on the colonial state. More importantly, the political imaginations of workers, peasants or women did not always fit neatly into the nationalist framework.[10] We must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting these deeply interwoven narratives. To accommodate various imaginativeness that existed in Rhodesia, we must recapture the political imagination of RRW women through the appropriation of Christian theology and culturally idiosyncratic agency. This will require going beyond Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism’s explanation of imagined communities to looking at how political imagination was performed and articulated.

Recently scholars have looked at music and dance as forms of culture that not only construct but reflect claims of nationalism in performance. The performative art of song and dance had meaning in the lives of RRW women. Perhaps now we can begin to ask questions about how a sense of community can be constructed through songs and dance. This will allow us to get a clearer picture of the important roles played by women in mobilising and performing nationalism.

Shepherd Mutswiri is a PhD Student of History, specialising in nationalism and religion in Zimbabwe between 1960 to 1980.

[1]Alan Shatter, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, (Dublin, 2019), pp.7-9.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006), pp. 9-37.

[3] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization’ in: John Parker and Richard Reid (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Eric Worby, ‘Maps, Names, and Ethnic Games: The Epistemology and Iconography of Colonial Power in Northwestern Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, no. 3 (1994), pp. 371-92.

[5] Terence Ranger, ‘Connections between “Primary” Resistance Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa’, Journal of African History, 9, 3 and 4 (1968); ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’ in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

[6] Cornel West, There Is Joy in Struggle, Harvard Divinity School. (2019).

[7] Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015). p.214.

[8] Terence Ranger, Religion and Rural Protests: Makoni District, Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1980′, in J. Bak and G. Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, papers presented to the Fourth Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Studies, (British Columbia, 1982). p. 329.

[9] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (New York, 1996). pp.266-268.

[10] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History, p.10.

 

Great Expectations in Zimbabwe: (White?) Femininity and Womanhood, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Summer in Zimbabwe is a time of expectation. As the days become warmer, eventually the nights lose their biting cold, and the breath is no longer visible in the morning. It is a time of waiting for the rain. With only one rainy season to bring the sustenance that ancestors, god, and climate – despite its change – provide in nurturing the nation, the waiting can turn into joy or eventually to desperation if the rains fail and drought leads to famine. Meanwhile rural landscapes are transformed, announcing impending summer, as msasa trees sprout new leaves, red before changing into magnificent fresh green. With the relentlessly bluest late winter skies, free of clouds, the shade of msasa trees creates hues of red and pink, and beautiful views stun as the spectacular.

Msasa Tree, Nyanga, © Heike I. Schmidt

One legacy of white settler rule that lasted until 1980 in Zimbabwe is that urban planning included the creation of colour schemes for each city through the planting of at times exotic trees, seasonally turning entire streets and even boroughs violet, yellow, read, or orange. During summer, descending the mountain pass into Mutare, it looks as if the city is on fire, dowsed in the red blossoms of the flamboyant trees.

Flamboyant Tree, The Avenues, Harare 1975, © Wikicommons

                       

Cassia Tree, Mount Pleasant, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

Most resonant with the theme of summer love are the jacaranda trees that line the Avenues in Harare, originally a middle-class neighbourhood reserved for white residency, just north of the capital city’s centre. Their effect is quite similar to lilac, evoking the senses and enticing desire. But experiencing jacaranda trees in Zimbabwe is also decidedly different from early summer lilac in Europe.  Jacaranda begins to blossom as winter vanes and the rising temperatures and the expectation of rain settles into one’s body, noticing the first clouds arriving, walking along the Avenues under the canopy of light purple blossoms, the scent caressing one’s senses. When wind, and eventually the rains, strike the trees, the petals tumble to the ground in a shower of violet scent that in darkness resembles snow.

Jacaranda trees, Avondale, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

From the perspective of white lives, Zimbabwean summer as a time of love, passion, and self-recognition, has maybe been best expressed by Doris Lessing. Already in her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (London, 1950) did Lessing capture the colonial encounter between white and black lives in the colony magnificently, by directly addressing gender in juxtaposing her main characters, the white madam and the African worker on a run down farm. The novel shows the necessary and tragic failure of the primacy of white privilege, here in the guise of a poor white farming couple. The crackling of the tin roof of the farmhouse under the stifling summer heat, as these white lives become undone, remains a palpable reminder with the reader long after setting the novel aside.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013), © Wikicommons

Born to British parents in Iran and having spent most of her childhood and formative years in what then was Southern Rhodesia, Lessing published a series five fictionalised memoirs, Children of Violence (1952-1969), four of which are based on her life in Zimbabwe until she left for London, thirty years old, in 1949. In the second volume, A Proper Marriage (London 1954), her protagonist Martha lives in Harare during World War II. Pregnant with their first child, her husband occupied with his own concerns, Martha feels overwhelmed, lost, and recognises that having become a colonial wife did not bring her the freedom and self recognition for which she is yearning. She struggles with her life, doubts her decisions, and finds herself reduced to her heavily pregnant body that makes her uncomfortable and restless as she is expected to be out of sight, proper and respectable, in a small flat in the Avenues. The summer heat and the pounding rain make her feel isolated, lonely, and undone, until one day, when her friend Alice visits, also expecting, they decide to go for a drive. Lessing observes that even before they leave the flat the decision and getting up to act upon it recovers the women’s self respect. It is that moment of no longer seeking validation from their husbands and society, of recognising that they connect with the world they live in themselves, that the curtain of rain is not a prison wall, in and of itself is an act of self-recognition. Lessing then has the women move beyond the confines of marital and maternal respectability by driving through Harare with Martha’s friend Alice heading for the maternity clinic. They move with hardly any visibility, themselves invisible in the summer rain. After stopping, Lessing first lets an African man, a ‘worker’, walk by, with Martha assuming all he is thinking of is shelter from the rain. This is a significant pause in the narrative, a reminder that these women inhabit a white world, driven by white privilege. There are no African characters that appear, only African workers and servants at the margins, expected to be loyal, subservient, and unnoticed. Seeing this man, his wet clothing stuck to his skin, rain water running down his chest and splashing up his feet, is a potent reminder of this artificially created world of white privilege and at the same time the reality of a lived experience that entails more than one masculinity, more than white manliness as the guiding light into femininity and womanhood.

Gloriously, forcefully, with the reader invited to feel passion, relief, joy, to read on smiling, taking deep breaths and being breathless simultaneously, Lessing has Alice park the car opposite the clinic, next to a stretch of veldt, an open area of uncultivated and unused land one can find to this day in inner city areas. As soon as the African man is out of sight, the women undress and run screaming through the grass, relishing even the cuts on their skin, embracing every sensation. It is the touch of rain, of water on the ground, of the grass, the mud under their feed, not a man’s touch – in this strictly heteronormative account – that gives pleasure and sets the women free. Martha, seeing a water hole in the ground glides in and shares her euphoric experience with a frog and a snake. She transforms the desperation of loneliness into the joy of solitude. Martha is whole – without her husband, without society. As the rain eases and the sky lightens Martha lets the rain wash the mud off her body and runs back to the car where she and Alice get dressed just in time before being discovered. Back in her flat she takes a bath to cleanse herself of the experience, albeit reconciled with the corporeality of her pregnancy.

At a time when body shaming and mental health are prominent in the (social) media and impact all genders and all ages it may just provide a moment of reprieve to read Lessing’s account of a young woman empowering herself by reclaiming her body, and here embracing the sensual pleasures of summer. For Martha, love does not require a romantic partner or societal approval. What is transformative is a mindful moment as she allows herself to lose her bearings in the summer rain and experiences finding herself in doing so.

Much can be added, such as the choices of young African girls, climbing hills and mountains in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe in 1918/19, praying, seeking authority from the Holy Spirit to stay out all night, unsupervised, with some emerging as prophetesses. The sheer joy in the faces of postmenopausal women claiming authority as they are the only members of local communities safe to enter the spiritual forests of the highlands, stripped down, bared breasts, to gather food when the rains do not arrive and for ritual purposes, while all others are prohibited. The rural female sphere of riverbed gardens, where males have to ask permission to even transverse and are not permitted to join, a place of banter, speech, and exchanges. Married women joking about a soldier who ‘lost his penis’ as he was lured by a juzu (Shona: female water spirit) and was then punished for his sexual appetite aroused by what appeared to be a young beautiful woman. An elderly female chief enjoying that men who suffer from old age impotence have to wear something red to signal this malady to the world.[1] It is easy to forget such sheer joy of femininity and womanhood and Doris Lessing reminds us magnificently that sometimes letting go of our boundaries, of the norms we embrace or wrestle, may allow us to find ourselves – or indeed just to practice at times the sheer childlike delight of a daring nude splash. The dramatic tension built up with the coming of the rains, the sensuality of the red leafed Msasa trees, and the seductive embrace by Jacaranda’s scent, colour, and touch are one path one can follow to such an experience of empowerment in a summer of love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Heike Schmidt, Colonialism and Violence in Zimbabwe: A History of Suffering, (Oxford & Harare, 2013), chapters 3 and 6 and ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule,’ in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

Love is an action word: Reconciling academia and activism, by Chessie Baldwin

Tigray Youth Network, 25 April 2021

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
– 
Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986)

Over the past ten months, I have used my academic research to speak about the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, specifically the weaponization of gender-based and sexual violence. As deliberate communication blackouts continue across the region, the federal government has benefitted from the ambiguity allowed through the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the war, the crimes, and the perpetrators. In response, academics, journalists, humanitarian workers and community leaders have stepped up to their intellectual responsibility to combat harmful manipulation of history and politics as tools of the conflict. I suppose I am one of them.

There are those who don’t think academics should engage in activism at all, claiming it compromises the objectivity of academic research.[1] The two are indeed not always natural companions; scholars, after all, trade in complexity and depth while activism requires snaps and facts. Nonetheless, many historians and philosophers have engaged in activism quite openly and successfully, from Voltaire, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Benedict Anderson. The rise of public history and public historians since the 18th century has certainly made this more mainstream, with organisations like History Workshop and Subaltern Studies Group forming explicitly activist agendas in their research orientation.[2] Alongside these movements has been the quite phenomenal historical work by non-academic activists, whose efforts to uncover, explain and ‘do’ history should not be underestimated.

Challenging dominant scholarly perceptions of knowledge production, Aziz Choudry suggests, requires recentring understandings of activist scholarship that are not tied to higher-education models and practices.[3] LGBT+ history, anti-racist work, intersectional feminism, indigenous knowledge system preservation and anti-war theorising (amongst others) are negotiated and enacted in public spaces. The resulting interventions in human rights and social justice both inform and are informed by intellectual frameworks, resources, and contributions.[4] In other words, academia and activism exist in a mutually dependent relationship. They enhance each other and, most importantly, they exist together, whether they want to or not.

There are four ways in which academia works explicitly as a site for activism:[5]

  • As a means to produce knowledge to inform progressive social change. In this category, academic research can help disrupt systems of oppression or injustice and direct action, in policy, law, and public debates.
  • As a means for conducting research which itself involves social change. This might be called ‘action research’, where activism is academic work in that it holds intellectual value for its own sake.
  • As a site for progressive strategies of teaching and learning. Pedagogy can be a means for mobilisation, organisation, learning and un-leaning as a form of activism. As undergraduates spend a great deal of time revising the myths of history taught in schools and public discourse, the classroom is a space to critique which voices have been privileged in collective historical narratives, and why.
  • As an institution whose power relations themselves may be challenged and reconstructed. As structures which can perpetuate elitism through hierarchies of class, age, gender, and race, higher education institutes can themselves challenge dominant power relations in their decisions and practices.

The process of historical research and writing (or, perhaps more accurately, rewriting) takes this further still. Despite claims of objectivity and neutrality in pursuit of a reasonable representation of ‘truth’, the epistemic is political and it is personal. The past is always framed through the lens of the present, and of the individual context of the researcher. Choices about which voices to include, which voices to exclude, which scholars to engage (and not engage), what language to use, which methods, mediums of public engagement, and more, are all decisions imbued with reflections of the person. Even those most committed to their rationality cannot escape such choices. Howard Zinn contested that archivists (deciding what to preserve, where, and how) are not neutral actors as they tend ‘to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about [their] ordinary business’.[6]

Historians who sincerely consider, analyse and critique their interpretations are themselves engaging in a form of activism. They ask difficult questions and face difficult answers, like: ‘Who am I to speak about this?’, ‘Does my position uphold systems of injustice?’, and, when history becomes a question of national security, ‘What space should I take up in this discourse?’.

Engaging in activism as a historian, and engaging in history as an activist, compels the researcher to explicitly address their positionality, focus, relevance, and which voices they centre in their work. It complements and improves accountability, representation, and integrity in the research. More than this, however, the act of ‘doing’ history is inextricably about change. Change in re-evaluating narratives, re-interpreting sources, revising theories and reviving debates; change in the way we remember the world as it was and how we see the world as it is. Perhaps then, it is not that historians can be activists, nor that they should, but simply that they are.

Chessie Baldwin is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Reading, specialising in women’s narratives of conflict in Tigray. You can watch Chessie speak about the ongoing war on Tghat Forum, or visit Tigray Youth Network to learn more.

[1] Thomas Wells, ‘Academics Should Not Be Activists’, 3 Quarks Daily (2018).

[2] Yuliya Yurchuck, ‘Historians as Activists: History Writing in Times of War: The Case of Ukraine in 2014-2018’, Cambridge University Press, 29, 4 (2020).If this is an article then reference incomplete.

[3] Aziz Choudry, ‘Reflections on academia, activism, and the politics of knowledge and learning’, International Journal of Human Rights, 24, 1 (2020).

[4] Choudry (2020).

[5] Michael Flood, Brain Martin & Tanja Dreher, ‘Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools’, Australian Universities’ Review, 55, 1 (2013).

[6] Howard Zinn, ‘Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest’, The Midwestern Archivist, 2, 2 (1977).

Gender identity and Sexuality: A Fiery Relationship, by Amy Austin

While researching the history of gender identity I have come across numerous debates over a variety of issues. Appropriate terminology, categorisation, the genesis of gender fluidity are all hotly contested issues and let’s face it, as historians we love a good debate. One of the most contentious issues is the relationship – or lack thereof – between gender history and the history of sexualities. Scholars such as Jay Prosser have expressed the legitimate concern that combining studies of historical sexuality and gender identity leads to the silencing of gender fluid individuals who become amalgamated into narratives of same-sex attraction or economic necessity. This silencing is particularly prevalent in cases of individuals who presented as male before the advent of sex reassignment surgery. Billy Tipton and James Barry are among the historical figures who have been ‘reclaimed’ by women’s history as ‘passing women’ who adopted male identities to follow their chosen careers and pursue female same-sex relationships.

This antagonism between gender and sexuality is not only an academic concern. A cursory look at LGBT+ activism reveals the frequent marginalisation of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conformity within the movement as a whole. Equally, the countless cases of sexual and physical violence against transwomen speaks to the degree to which the conflation of gender and sexuality can have devastating results. Gwen Araujo’s murder in 2002 by four cisgender men, two of whom she had previously had physical relationships with is a case in point.[1] Their use of the ‘panic’ defence allowed the defendants to misgender Araujo as male, thereby portraying her as a man who ‘deceived’ them into homosexuality.

Gwen Araujo

Araujo’s gender identity was reduced to her genitals by her murderers. Historical gender non-conforming figures often suffer the same fate. Bernice Hausman has argued that transgenderism – or ‘transsexualism’ to use Hausman’s term – cannot exist before the development of sex reassignment surgery.[2] The reconstruction of the genitals is what makes a person transgendered. It is true that the individuals considered in my own research would not have recognised the term transgender or identified with it. However, their personal testimonies mirror modern autobiographical accounts from transgender individuals and their experiences are evidence of gender fluidity that predated surgery and modern terminology. The category of transgender may be a modern construct, but it seems very misguided to assume that a label creates an identity. Hausman’s argument not only ignores the numerous individuals who identify as trans who do not physically transition, but it also returns us to the preoccupation with genitals in determining gender. This begs the question, has the merging of gender and sexuality led to the dominance of genitals in LGBT+ studies?

Despite the array of potential sexual activities, the focus often rests on penetrative heterosexual intercourse which excludes a myriad of experiences. In terms of gender identity, the focus on genitals is even more reductive. As a cis gender woman, the idea that my female gender is solely dependent on my biology is diminishing and misguided; how much more insulting for individuals who are misgendered due to their bodies?

All of the points above suggest that a complete separation between gender history and the history of sexualities is needed. At the start of my research, I was certainly passionate about stressing the difference between gender non-conformity and sexualities, partly due to the constant assumption that transgender history was an offshoot of queer sexualities rather than gender identities. However, I have quickly discovered how frequently the two areas not only overlap but impact on each other. The lives of Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon, the first trans woman and trans man respectively to undergo sex reassignment surgery are prime examples.

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon identified as male from childhood. Dillon acknowledged his female physicality and in his early years was compelled to live as a woman, but his gender identity was always unequivocally male. For Dillon, his transition merely enabled him to live more easily as a man without being questioned by outsiders as to his gender. It did not originate his male gender. Dillon’s physical transition also did not influence his sexual preference for women. On the other hand, his inability to father a child led Dillon to avoid any romantic relationships throughout his life with the exception of Cowell who ultimately rejected him. Dillon believed that ‘[o]ne must not lead a girl on if one could not give her children’,[3] and when the only woman whom Dillon felt would understand his experiences refused to marry him he remained celibate.

Roberta Cowell

In contrast, Roberta Cowell’s sexual orientation was inextricably linked to her gender identity. Vehemently homophobic, Cowell stressed her heterosexual attraction to women prior to transition when presenting as Robert, marrying and fathering two children. Following her surgery, Roberta was again heterosexually attracted to men while during the transition Cowell identified as asexual.[4] Clearly then, in certain cases gender and sexuality cannot be completely segregated without losing the nuances of individual narratives.

Dillon and Cowell also demonstrate the importance of a more individualised case study approach to queer histories. As historians the obligation to impose our own interpretations on individuals is often inescapable, particularly where no concrete information remains. The reclaiming of figures as either homosexual or gender variant leads to the construction of rigid categorisations which do not account for the rich variety of identities and sexualities that exist both historically and in the present. The best approach then would seem to be that of any good relationship, where both parties – in this case gender identity and sexuality – are considered in tandem as complimenting one another in the light they can reciprocally shine while maintaining their status as distinct facets of identity.

Amy Austin is a PhD Candidate in History, specialising in transgender history of modern Britain. You can also catch Amy on the podcast Surprisingly Brilliant, discussing transgender identities in 1800s Britain with Susan Stryker and Laurie Metcalf.

[1] Anon., The Murder of Gwen Araujo and the “Panic” Defense, [website], (N.D.), https://www.queersiliconvalley.org/the-panic-defense, (accessed 21 July 2021).

[2] Bernice L. Hausman, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender (North Carolina, 1995).

[3] Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York, 2017), 125.

[4] Roberta Cowell, Roberta Cowell’s Story (New York, 1954).

The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Colonial History, by Dr Joseph O’Mahoney

At first, we were surprised.  My co-author Enze Han and I had started looking into how many countries around the world it was illegal to be gay in.  We found that 72 states formally criminalized some homosexual conduct (today it is 67 UN member states).  Penalties ranged from fines, through prison terms of 10 years or life, up to the death penalty.  Our next question was why?  Why, given that some countries were moving to legalize same-sex marriage and protect other LGBT rights, were others so repressive?  Why was there this variation?

To begin with, we correlated these laws with other factors, like wealth, economic development, religion, etc.  But when we included a variable called ‘legal origin’, that’s when we were really surprised.  The effect size was so large that it explained almost all of the variation we see in the world today.  ‘Legal origin’ means where a state got its legal system from.  And from a lot of countries, this meant colonialism.  British colonies got a common law system, French colonies got a civil law system, and so on.  And it turns out that if you had to know one thing about a country to have a good chance of guessing whether it criminalizes homosexuality, that one thing is whether it used to be a British colony.

The relationship can be starkly illustrated with an example.

There are three Guianas.  British Guiana was a British colony, and is now called Guyana.  Dutch Guiana is now called Suriname.  French Guiana was a French colony and is now a French department (and part of the EU).  These three colonies were very similar in lots of ways, except for the big difference of which Europeans controlled them. And, also, the legal status of homosexuality.  French Guiana decriminalized in 1817, Suriname decriminalized in 1869, and Guyana… Actually, homosexual conduct (“buggery”) is still illegal in Guyana and has been since the colonial period.

Is this correlation between the three Guianas’s colonial heritage and sexuality laws a causal relationship?  And does this generalize to the rest of the world?  We next wanted to go beyond this high level quantitative analysis and look into the actual historical pathways whereby states acquired laws criminalizing homosexuality.

We looked at legal history and got hold of the texts of colonial penal codes and criminal codes to compare them.  There are some complexities and some false positives, which shows the value of detailed qualitative historical research. But the general pattern is borne out.  For many countries around the world that criminalize homosexual conduct, they do so because these laws were imposed on them during the colonial period by the British Empire.

If you want to read more detail about this, Enze and I published a book with Routledge about it.  In this blog post, though, I wanted to reflect briefly on part of my experience doing the research. I had to really engage with the complexity of historical reality.  Political science tends towards aggregated concepts and seeks causes that travel across many cases.  I think this is a worthwhile quest, but there is a danger that you can miss important specificities.  Historical work brings you face-to-face with the multifaceted nature of human social reality. This is perhaps especially the case when dealing with the British Empire, which not only covered a wide variety of local conditions around the world, but also seemed to delight in ad hocery and exceptions to the rule.  That is, if there even was a rule in the first place.

This complexity manifested in several ways.  One interesting way was that we commonly use the word ‘colonies’ to describe the UK’s relationship with polities and communities, but the politico-administrative arrangements were often very different in different places.  They also often changed over the decades.  For example, the current West African states of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria were previously made up of five colonies, four protectorates, and two League of Nations mandates and later trust territories.

In addition, there were several criminal codes circulating, with different implications for homosexual conduct.  Seemingly accidental judgments and choices by colonial administrators could have repercussions over a hundred years later.  For example, the colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, got a criminal code in 1892.  The colonial administrator modeled this on a code that differentiated between nonconsensual “unnatural carnal knowledge”, deemed a felony, and consensual acts, deemed a misdemeanor and ‘only’ punishable by 2 years imprisonment.  Other colonies’ codes had different model codes that did not make this distinction and had much longer sentences.  Today, in 2021, Ghana retains this distinction in its criminal code, and has a sentence of 3 years, compared with the 7, 10, 14 years or life imprisonment in other ex-British colonies in Africa.

For me, one of the takeaways from this research is that combining the empirical detail of historical research with the conceptual and causal abstractions of political science can lead to more accurate, richer, and more useful knowledge.

Dr Joseph O’Mahoney is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, specialising in how norms and rules about war affect state behaviour. Alongside co-author Enze Han, his research has explored the role of colonial heritage in the criminalisation of homosexuality. 

Verdant Coloured Glasses: Rural Studies through a Gendered Lens, by Tamisan Latherow

Gender history permeates every field of study where women are concerned and since women account for 49.5 per cent of the global population (some 3.908 billion persons)[1], that’s a lot of fields. I’m researching the Homefront during the Second World War and the women left behind to keep the home fires burning and the war machines running by focusing on the women who toiled in the fields to grow and process the food needed to keep Britain alive and fighting, or what I’m calling rural studies through a gendered lens. It’s ended up being much more than I anticipated.

From 1920 until 1960, agriculture in England and Wales changed drastically and nowhere was the arrival of ‘modern’ machinery more pronounced than on the farms and in the factories. While the Industrial Revolution saw the first use of mechanized equipment, the 1920s-60s saw a conglomeration of technology and swift improvements in chemical and biological understanding. It was not unusual to see women reapers with sickles working alongside coal powered threshing machines in one field while internal combustion engine driven Fordson tractors ploughed up the neighbouring field, all while under the constant threat of bombardment. Yet for the mostly young, urban women who took up the mantle of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and became the Land Girls or the Timber Corp’s Lumber Jills, their new set of skills often came with a steep learning curve.

Most of these women received very little training. Some were lucky and went to a WLA hostel and training center before being sent on to farms, while others were called up and dropped off in the same breath, and for a seventeen-year-old hairdresser from London or thirty-year-old secretary from Manchester, suddenly being left on the roadside and trekking across a field only to find a small cottage with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing must have been daunting. Thank goodness for the Women’s Institutes and the County Advisory Staffs!

Begun in 1915, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) were formed to address the concerns and issues of the everyday woman and by 1925 had established firm ties with both the Boards of Agriculture and Education and held as one of it’s primary tenets the goal of filling the gap of countrywomen’s education through short courses, lectures and demonstrations in what came to be known as courses in Rural Domestic Economy (RDE). Meeting minutes from the WI and county sub-committees on Agriculture and Agricultural Instruction show thousands of participants from the first RDE course in Berkshire in 1932 until the end of the research period in 1960. In 1943 alone 2,259 individuals participated in RDE courses which covered everything from war-time cookery to domestic poultry keeping. For comparison, the total WLA numbers for that same year in Berkshire was less than 1,400, showing that most of the participants were normal countrywomen.[2]

Additionally, cooperative cheese schools and fruit and vegetable preservation centres dotted the countryside under the watchful eyes of Instructresses like Miss Matthews, the Dairy Instructress for Berkshire County. The minutes show a steady increase in both her salary as a full-time county advisor and her participation as a member of the county sub-committee on Rural Domestic Economy under the auspices of the WI. She travelled throughout the county and even abroad on behalf of both, learning new techniques to bring home and show her fellow countrywomen in town halls and the WI’s travelling lecture van.

For rural women, as well as the Land Girls, these instructresses became a key factor in learning their new roles milking cattle, culling chickens and harvesting eggs, fruits and vegetables for the greengrocer and butcher. A civilian organization, the training certifications the Land Girls undertook, often given by these instructresses, became key selling points when they applied for positions at farms. The instructresses also worked closely with local schools, young farmer’s clubs and farm institutes, and pushed for government and county grants to promote the education of women and girls in the new university degree programs and trainings at RDE centres.

The blueprints found in the Berkshire Records Office shows a building featuring large handicrafts and lecture rooms and three kitchens for preservation, demonstration and preparation, as well as various storerooms, including a bacon curing and storage room to go along with the courses offered showing the newest technologies in food preservation. The Marcham Society’s Denman College collection gives us a unique look inside the demonstration kitchen in a series of photographs. Here one can see an electric chest freezer and range along one wall while the traditional paraffin range sits on the back wall; a combination of old and new technology common during the 1940s and 1950s as the electrification of villages increased.

Figure 1: Inside the Rural Domestic Economy Centre, Marcham, 1950s.

Female farmers were also not unheard of for the period. The popular bi-weekly newspaper Farmer and Stockbreeder promoted Successful Women Farmers throughout the country in 1935. One such was Mrs. Taylor of Oare Farm in Hermitage, Berkshire. The article concludes by stating:

“Mrs. Taylor manages this big farm entirely by herself, she has no bailiff or foreman, and superintends all the work. It is difficult to see how she can find time for outside work, but last year she was chairman of Newbury F. U. [(Farmer’s Union)] (the first woman to be elected to such an office), and is now a member of the Berkshire County Milk Committee and of other agricultural bodies[1].”

Such multi-tasking was common for women, many of the members of the Berkshire WI appeared in various sub-committees and ran events, attended trainings and managed their own families and businesses.

Figure 2: Successful Women Farmers, Farmer and Stockbreeder, 1935 (MERL)

These types of archival items combined with diaries, meeting minutes and census reports, paint a picture of a tireless group of women striving to make the most out of what they had available to them while breaking barriers in both gender and ethnicity, such as the first black Land Girl, Amelia King. And as government policies changed and women were allowed to attend universities and sit for examinations, more female scientists such as Dr. Elfreida Mattick broke historic barriers to participation. Dr. Mattick researched calcium chloride’s use to alleviate the symptoms of milk fever and was also the first woman to receive a Board of Education Agricultural Scholarship from the Ministry of Agriculture and received her PhD from the University of Bristol in 1923.[1]

By reviewing the archival records found in museums and historical societies, doing ethnographic interviews and biographical information on scientists, nutritionists and farmers, we find the women behind the curtain. The forgotten and often overlooked voices from the past that have made a future where we have female scientists making lab-grown food, female MPs and a female president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)[2]. Gender history isn’t just about the politics, it’s about the people-both male and female-that tells a story from multiple angles and through multiple lenses. As one of my interviews said, “without those girls, we all would have starved. They won the war and it’s a damn shame they haven’t been given the respect they deserve.”[3] While I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since 1945, we still have farther to go, and yet, every voice raised is one step closer to when Gender History will just be called History.

Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences. To read more about Amelia King, go to the Museum of English Rural Life’s blog. https://merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2020/08/breaking-the-colour-bar/

@SeshatofMars

[1] Sussman, M. Society for Applied Microbiology: a short history. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006.

[2] The largest farmer’s union in the UK at over 55,000 members.

[3] Interview with farmer, Roy Barwick (2020).

[1] Farmer and Stockbreeder, April 1, 1935, pg. 753.

[1] https://countrymeters.info/en/World as of 24 May 2021.

[2] WLA participant numbers taken from the monthly WLA’s The Land Girl newsletter and RDE numbers from the various meeting minute notes.

An Interdisciplinary Approach: Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1200 CE, by Arica Roberts

There are a total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. which cover three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. My questions about how gender was constructed and manipulated by high-status men in Wales through the surviving evidence of stone monuments relies on an interdisciplinary study that includes their archaeological, historical, and art-historical context.

Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and includes the filiation, frequently using filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’. The stones also contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion. The imagery on the stone monuments includes human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. There are also identifiable secular masculine warrior figures.

The Pillar of Eliseg is one such exceptional stone monument in Wales that I employ interdisciplinary methods. This stone was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys. The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance. The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas(http://www.castlewales.com/eliseg.html)

The separate elements of the inscription as well as its landscape context and function can be pulled together to present a clearer picture of elite masculine constructions of identity. What does the evidence reveal? Firstly, that the Pillar of Eliseg had commemorative functions, both political and religious.

The masculine names and filiation demonstrate patrilineal kinship and seek to commemorate Eliseg, the great-grandfather of the 9th century ruler, Concenn. It praises Eliseg for defending Powys from the Anglo-Saxons, using the words in gladio suo parta in igne “with his sword and with fire” demonstrating the importance of a forceful warrior masculinity amongst Welsh rulers. The inscription asks that those who read the stone give a blessing to the soul of Eliseg, “det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg,” an example of the “pro anima” commemorative Christian formulae. The inscription ends by Conocenn legitimizing his rule by explaining his Roman lingeage through “Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans” and asks for a blessing of the Lord upon Conocenn, his household, and the entire kingdom of Powys. The entirety of the inscription and its phrasing demonstrates a masculine construction of power and legitimacy through secular patrilineal kinship, links to the distant past via Roman rule, as well as Christianity.

The Pillar of Eliseg is only one example, but it clearly shows how men constructed their own intersecting identities of gender, status, religion, and ethnicity using an earlier Roman and pre-Christian past to assert the legitimacy and power of warrior-kings. It also reveals how high-status men also constructed their identities via patrilineal kinship, ethnic names, and patriarchal Christianity. These men engaged with gendered symbols of power and legitimacy across a variety of different cultures and the acceptance of a plurality of models of masculinity served political ends in helping to promote order and coherence for hegemonic masculinity in early medieval Wales.

Arica Roberts is an international student from the United States and a PhD Candidate in Archaeology  specializing in gender of early medieval Wales.

References:

Edwards, Nancy. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II: South-West Wales, University of Wales Press, 2009.

 

——— A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales, University of Wales Press, 2013.

 

——— ‘Rethinking the Pillar of Eliseg’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 89, September 2009, pp. 143-177.

 

Redknap, Mark and John M. Lewis. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume 1 Southeast Wales and the English Border. University of   Wales Press, 2007.

On ‘Education’, by Dr Katherine Harloe

Watching Steve McQueen’s Education (Small Axe, BBC 1, 13 December 2020) put me in mind of my mum. She was always there for me during my education. As assertive as she is diminutive, she came to the UK from Trinidad aged 11 in 1961, following her mother who had arrived in 1953 in search of a new start and a better life for herself and her children. I know that life in London was a shock for mum after Port-of-Spain, and schooling in England perhaps – apart from the weather – the biggest shock of all. She went from the (I think) relatively genteel setting of St Joseph’s Convent, an all-girls’ school run by Irish nuns, to Priory Grove Secondary School in Stockwell.

Mum has not told me much about her time at school, though she did reveal that the kids in her class teased her on account of her accent and that the teacher responded by telling them all that she spoke better English than they did. I suspect that didn’t help with the bullying, but it may explain why she is the family member who has the closest to RP. She has told me about her mother working two jobs in order to save up for the house they eventually managed to buy in Ribblesdale Road in Streatham, about how she and her sister did the cooking and cleaning at home in order to make time for her mother to work, and about her own comical attempts to help by running up the extra pieceworks her mother brought home on her sewing machine (the seams were never straight enough, and my grandmother would have to unpick them all and start again from scratch). She has also talked about the shock, and excitement, of meeting people from other Caribbean islands, especially Jamaicans (whom she says far outnumbered everyone else) and getting to know these people whose language and culture seemed in some ways so different from her own but with whom, now in England, she discovered an affinity. Married with a child at 17, she did not have the opportunities to participate in higher education that she was so keen to secure for me and my siblings. Somewhere during these years, between Stockwell, Streatham, and Norwood, she developed the grit and ferocity that characterised her attitude towards my education.

When my parents left London in 1980 and moved to north Essex it often felt like we were the only Black children in town. Mum watched our education like a hawk. She was always down to the school – much to my mortification – telling the teachers just what she thought of what they were doing. I realise now, and perhaps I always knew, that this embarrassing level of engagement was fuelled by her concern that we would be underestimated and dismissed in the British educational system on account of race. I remember the anger in her voice when she recounted how, even in London, a teacher at my older sister’s primary school suggested to her that ‘Perhaps reading isn’t going to be her thing’. (Shortly afterwards it turned out that my sister was severely short-sighted; glasses solved the literacy issues.) Or her frustration at the decision my brother’s new school took to place him in the bottom group for reading, when he’d been reading since nursery and, before we left London, doing really well in his primary there.

Her vigilance in the case of me, the youngest, was informed by what she had seen happening to my brother and sister, but also by her wider political awareness and her knowledge of the ways in which schools and other authorities were letting down Black Caribbean children. Certainly she knew the work of Bernard Coard, whose pamphlet, ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System’ featured in McQueen’s film. This knowledge also came from her own work, for after we moved to Essex she qualified, and then practised, as a child social worker (she had previously done youth work in London). She found that work stressful and at times traumatic and would later say that she would rather have stayed at home with us. I also suspect that it gave her additional insight into the harms being inflicted on kids by the care system – looking back I have no idea how she managed to deal with all that and come home to her own kids at the end of the day. Frustrated in her own career progression in ways she attributed to racism, she founded a Black social workers’ group and later, when she acted as a placement tutor to social work students, was keen to foster their political and multicultural awareness as well the more immediate practical aspects of the qualification. She found in her social work colleagues of the 1980s some of those same, dismissive attitudes she had seen in teachers of the 1960s and 1970s (see Small Axe Alex Wheatle for this). Nothing angered her more.

‘Small Axe: Education’, Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons (December 2020)

I related to Kingsley’s mum in Education, in the scene where she gave her son a slap for staying up late at night drawing pictures of rockets and told him to go to bed. Not because I have ever smacked a child, nor was I ever smacked. But the frustration and despair of the mother, trying to do well by her kids in a basically hostile society and feeling impotent and resourceless, came across so clearly, as did the way in which, despite parental love, that trauma could be transmitted through the generations. My own education could not have been more different than Kingsley’s: a primary-school headteacher who believed in me, sent me on curriculum extension courses and advised my parents to put me in for the 11-plus, which then got me onto the royal road of the inequitable, two-tier educational system still operational in Essex and eventually to a place at an ancient university. No Supplementary School for me, then, nor really any need for the three Rs since my mum made sure I was reading before I got to school, and when it looked as if I was falling behind in maths around Year 2 or 3 she bought copies of the school textbooks and worked through them with me at home. But my mum did what she could for my Black history education (US-centric as it then was), buying me books on ‘Black history for beginners’ and even J.A. Rogers’ ‘100 Amazing facts about the Negro’.

Most of all, however, I knew she had my back. She would be down the school complaining if she thought there was even a hint of a teacher treating me unfairly or with disrespect. And she also made sure I was offered every opportunity going, if they were being offered to other kids. I remember when, in the first- or second-year juniors at my primary school (Year 3 or 4), those children who had shown talent at music were offered violin lessons. I was terrible at music – but my mum was straight away down the school asking why her child had not been offered this opportunity. When I wanted to take three science GCSEs as well as German and French and my grammar school said it could not accommodate this, my mother found a French teacher (the parent of a friend) who could teach me; she then kept on at the school until they grudgingly agreed to enter me for the examination. And when I got into the sixth form and decided to apply for a Classics degree my parents supported me in applying against the advice of my school, and helped me contact a retired teacher who lived in a nearby village and was willing to teach me Latin on weekend mornings.

All this added up to a hefty dose of educational privilege, fostered by parents who had the financial means to pay for extra opportunities. And I look back on it with mixed feelings. I can see that I benefited from a system designed to promote a minority while others lose out, and the academic focus of my school ultimately fostered some fragile ego formation that I struggled to overcome in graduate days.  But one thing I can also see now is how far my mum had my back, even and perhaps especially against my teachers. And the context for all that care and vigilance was the framework presented in Education: a Black mother’s awareness that she was navigating a path for her kids through a system that might well be stacked against them.

It’s no accident that education emerges as a theme through the Small Axe series as a whole. From Altheia Jones-LeCointe’s activism in Mangrove, to Simeon, the Rastafarian cellmate who lent Alex Wheatle a copy of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, McQueen showed how African-Caribbean (now joined by African) people in Britain placed their hope in education as a means of betterment, even in the face of racism, and developed their own resources to support and provide for the next generation. We see their legacy in this generation in the priorities of young leaders like Stormzy, who has funded educational scholarships. Like Lewis Hamilton, who is working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create routes for Black people in STEM. And like Marcus Rashford, who after feeding the bellies of hungry children in the UK turned to feeding their minds through his book club. In the awful year 2020 it lifted my heart to see these young Black men rising to the top of their fields and then turning to uplifting others.

Professor Katherine Harloe teaches in the Department of Classics. She specialises in the history of classical scholarship and the reception of classics in the context of other humanities disciplines and broader political, cultural and intellectual currents, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present. She’s presently writing a book on the queer love letters of eighteenth-century classical art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann.