Why decolonise ‘glocal’ history?

History and Diversity Panel discussion.
January 23, 2019

How is Warwickshire global, and why do we need to decolonise (g)local history?


Warwickshire is well-known as Shakespeare’s county and the cultural heart of England. What many do not know is that it was also the industrial and ideological heart of the Empire. Surprisingly for some, then, our quintessentially English county has deep historical and contemporary connections with the struggle against colonialism in the Caribbean, and the wider Empire.


Up to now, this history of local freedom struggles has been hidden, leading to an ambiguous sense of belonging among young people racialised as black in the heart of Brexit Britain. By empowering local descendants of the Windrush Generation with critical tools and academic methodologies of historical research, we aim to build a confident and, crucially, a sustainable sense of belonging in our local community.


Grounded in the conviction that “We are here, because you were there”, we will recruit local descendants of the Windrush Generation to act as “Decolonial Detectives”, digging deeper into inter-related hidden histories. The geographic focus is “glocal”: situating global networks of migration, money and power in local contexts.


Empowering Histories


What is disempowering about our local history is that we do not get to control how it’s told, and our contributions are crowded out of its content. We see this in the histories of Warwickshire published from William Dugdale (1656) to Terry Slater (1997), and in the bicentenary celebrations of Joseph Priestley (2004), Matthew Boulton (2009), and James Watt (2019).


By contrast, the work that has led to “Three Continents, One History: Birmingham and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”, to “Connecting Histories”, and to “History Detectives: Black people in the West Midlands 1650-1918” can be drawn from and built upon to empower Black communities to investigate local histories through the generations. These histories go far further back than HMS Windrush, and encompass a global network spanning thousands of miles, numerous unrecorded family tales, and the ongoing contributions and struggles of Black people in the imperial heartland for hundreds of years.


“Three Continents” was written from an anti-colonial perspective by an individual Black scholar, but failed to get a foothold in mainstream retellings of Warwickshire’s history remaining on the fringe.


“Connecting Histories” has become firmly entrenched in local public memorialisation, but was a project led by professors at the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick whose selection and interpretation of stories shows a whitewashing of local history.


“History Detectives” was the work of a collective of local people interested in local history who had been on a crash course in historical research led by the Sparkbrook Caribbean & African Women’s Development Initiative. However, SCAWDI focused on Black presence, rather than anti-colonial resistance.


We aim to build on SCAWDI’s model—sustainably.


First, we will train participants in the skills and technologies required for eliciting and recording oral history, enabling participants to get practical experience of this in conversations with local elders of the Windrush Generation.


Second, in a series of workshops over a six-month period we will train participants in methodologies for archival and critical cultural research and we will support them to put these into practice in their local community institutions (e.g. universities, libraries and museums). In this way, we will facilitate the recovering and cataloguing of undocumented forms of oppression and of those tools of resistance in our own communities use, and have long used, to survive, in hostile environments.


Peace and Reconciliation in the Midlands


Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. But this idea that we, the descendants of communities that Britain colonised, today enjoy Wealth in Common needs to be criticised in an historically-informed way. Coventry is City of Culture 2021, a regional award which is fast creating opportunities for urban renewal and regeneration. It is also a City of Peace and Reconciliation, a national hub for providing sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. It is crucial that the opportunities offered by City of Culture connect to communities who have made the city their home, often after difficult and dangerous journeys, and in traumatic circumstances.


Wider afield, we aim to foster positive inter-community relations in dense and transforming urban areas. In the context of recent injustice of and harms resulting from the mistreatment of Commonwealth Windrush migrants, as well as the alarming treatment of EU citizens in the face of Brexit, the project is focussed on healing rifts through rehabilitating forgotten histories. It is also urgent to share Windrush heritage for the sake of building community cohesion in a time of increasing racist conflict.


We hope that this project will set the foundations for continued community-engaged research in and about local black and migrant communities, and build on existing archives of local Black and Global Majority histories. By recasting Warwickshire as a key location in Britain’s imperial past, and a hub for Commonwealth migration after World War II, WINDRUSH STRIKES BACK seeks to empower the local community and activate enthusiasm for exhuming, exhibiting, and communicating these shared pasts. We believe that once the local histories of our communities are more readily accessible, more community members will engage with this material and there will be more interest in further recovering the contributions that the Global Majority have made to Warwickshire’s history.


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