The University’s Annual Black History Month Lecture was given on 31 October by Dr Christienna Fryar, its title ‘Ann Pratt, Mary Seacole, and questioning British History.’
As the original convenor of Britain’s first conventional taught Masters degree dedicated to Black British History, at Goldsmiths, University of London, she wrote in 2021, ‘We’re still struggling to understand as a nation the idea that Black history is fully connected to British history.’
The same sentiment informed her 2023 lecture at Oxford, delivered in the Mathematical Institute.
She spoke about Ann Pratt, born presumed enslaved in 1830 in Jamaica, the victim of a sexual assault in 1859 and then wrongly sent to a lunatic asylum for challenging one of her assailants. On the back of that experience she co-authored a pamphlet detailing the constant violent abuse of inmates, and it briefly led to a reform of imperial policy.
Mary Seacole, b. 1805, is much better known than Ann Pratt, and her biography included going to the Crimean War to tend to soldiers. Born Creole, she identified as both Creole and British, and legally she was British. But racially it was more complex, noted Dr Fryar. In some ways her narrative had been shaped over the years to make British people ‘feel better about what was going on in this period of history.’
The lecture turned to the omnipresent theme of violence within black history.
One reason for this is because in the records of slavery and emancipation, people of African descent often only appear in the records when they were the victims or witnesses of extreme violence.
Dr Fryar cited Saidiya Hartman’s classic work Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. In this work, which was re-published in 2022 to celebrate 25 years since the first edition, there was a concerted effort to argue that the emancipation of the slaves was not the end of slavery, it just sent it off into alternative expressions of repression and violence whether in the form of indentured labour, Jim Crow laws in America or pronounced levels of racist prejudice that continue to this day.
Dr Fryar also shared Hartman’s consideration of the ‘exorbitant circumstances’ of so many black narratives, and the fact that too often violence is instrumentalised within historical retelling to engage readers in a perverse sort of entertainment.
‘It feels like a trap,’ she added. She queried whether the historical re-telling should allow greater dignity for the subjects, even privacy. She spoke eloquently about the need to treat each and every person as precious, as human, even indeed in the face of fierce academic pressure to publish quickly and in such a way as to be commercially popular – the now familiar academic trade of publishing and being seen to be successful at it.
Bringing this historiographical critique right forwards to Black Lives Matter, she noted the apparent need of society, both in the US and in Europe, for a ‘spectacular death’ to ignite sympathy, citing the very public, very humiliating beating of Rodney King and death of George Floyd in 1991 and 2021 respectively.
One of the conspicuous features of both events was that they were largely caught on film and played obsessively on TV newscasts.
In a broader questioning, Dr Fryar noted during her lecture that she had left academia earlier this year in a bid, among other reasons, to make the necessary time available for the ‘slow’ research required by very difficult archival research involving interdisciplinary approaches, too little of which was possible for numerous British academics working in 2023.
Later on during a question session with the audience, Dr Fryar spoke of her ‘sadness’ at the ‘lack of bandwidth for black history in British institutions.
This was a summary of an earlier theme she tackled, concerning what she refers to as a ‘geographical sleight of hand.’
Caribbean islands colonised by Britain were considered to be British, yet in historical treatments slavery is routinely judged as having been American, she noted.
Slavery tends invariably to be treated as a function of trade and the economy, where British history is concerned, and then dominated otherwise by abolitionist narratives that confirm Britain as morally superior.
In US narratives of slavery there has instead been a far greater degree of attention to individual stories.
One reason for this, argued Dr Fryar, is that when social history emerged as a major sub-discipline in the 1970s, an emerging generation of mostly US scholars used it to glean new insights into the experiences of enslaved people.
In the UK instead it was preoccupied with socialism and class, the great works remembered in volumes such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. To this day there are insufficient black scholars, although that might be slowly changing now.
Historiographically, contended Dr Fryar, our inherited categories for studying black British history remain ‘wholly insufficient’, a stark reminder that Britain remains essentially complacent on this subject.
Echoing the reported experience of many other black speakers, Dr Fryar affirmed towards the end of audience questions that there has crept in a tendency among some institutions to ‘turn off the lights’ at midnight on 31 October, safe in knowledge that nothing more need be done on black history before 1 October the following year.
Such an exceptionalist approach to BHM is unwelcome, argued Dr Fryar.
Nonetheless, she confirmed that the power of BHM resides in turning our focus towards black history, which as a subject continues, she argued, to be much neglected by British academic institutions.