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The everyday spaces of Black history and historical geography

In the sixth of our everyday geographies series, Caroline Bressey explores everyday spaces of Black history, and makes a case for the value of historical geography in the school curriculum

For over 20 years I have been researching the lives of Black people in 19th century Britain, particularly those who lived in London through the final decades of the Victorian era.‘The Victorians’ was a subject I studied at school, but there was no mention of Black Britons in my school history or geography classes.Still, I came to this work through a common aspect of the geography field class - walking.I walked through the streets of London, exploring its’ urban landscapes in search of representations of Black women who had been born and lived in the city before me.I looked for the record of their lives on statues and memorials, on plaques and stones, but I found nothing.There was no mention, for example, of Mary Seacole at the Crimea Memorial in Waterloo Place. The Black women I did find were not real, but were instead mythical representations of ‘Africa’ who sat at the bottom of statues to empire, their graceful poses belying the violence of imperial exploitation and its toxic racisms.

There were Black women who had come before me, but I had to search through the archives to show they had been erased, that their absence in the landscape was a deliberate form of forgetting.The task of surfacing their lives and having them recognised proved harder than I imagined.When I completed my PhD on the forgotten geographies of Black women in Victorian and Edwardian London, I believed that Black History would come to have a strong presence in historical scholarship in Britain, our museums and school curricula, but now close to 20 years later it has remained in the margins.There have been improvements.There are some teachers in history and geography who work hard to address the absences of Black History and broader ethnic diversity in the curriculum.There is also now a statue to Mary Seacole, a representation of a confident Black woman full of purpose on the grounds of Guy’s Hospital in central London. The criticism the erection of that statue faced was a foreshadowing of the current moment, where we find ourselves amidst a ‘History War’.

The downing of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020 will surely mark one of the key events of this ‘History War’.Responses to the downing were swift, with people both celebrating and condemning the event.For some, the intervention the downing made upon discourses of public history was shocking, and represented for them a rewriting of history that could be neither understood nor reasonably engaged with.To me, their dismissals and misrepresentations of those who pulled the statue down echoed criticisms of those who opposed British imperial expansion at the end of the 19th century; barely known antiracist activists like Britain’s first Black editor Celestine Edwards and the White Quaker editor-activist Catherine Impey.There are no statues to them.The everyday also includes absences, the politics of what is not allowed to be remembered.

In the lead up to the bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade in 2007, a campaign was launched to erect a memorial to the enslaved who fought for abolition through uprisings, political campaigns and everyday forms of resistance throughout its history.In 2005, Memorial 2007 was formed to realise the idea of a permanent memorial to remember the enslaved and their descendants.They launched a competition for the design and secured planning permission for a site in Hyde Park. Nearly 20 years later, that memorial is still to be built.It is a project kept alive by community activists as it has continually been denied funding from the British government.Why is this the case? One possible answer is the refusal to place difficult and uncomfortable histories of Britain in the landscape.This refusal to be confronted with difficult histories in the everyday reflects other denials: the denial that slavery (and the fight for its abolition) was a significant part of British economic, political, cultural and social life; a denial that British colonies in the Americas established and maintained places that oversaw some of the most degrading treatment of human beings in recorded history; a denial that the people who oversaw the management of these spaces were British; a denial that the British government sided not with the enslaved but with slave owners at the moment of abolition.

It was not the enslaved men, women and children but the slave owners who in 1838 were awarded compensation at a cost of £20million to the British state, the equivalent of 40% of the government’s budget that year. There is an ongoing denial that the infusion of this blood money permeated all forms of British life and is in the foundation stones, walls and roads of many towns and cities across the country, and there is a denial that this matters.As more research utilising the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database is undertaken it should make these positions harder to maintain, but for now there is still a disavowal that slave compensation money that created and maintained political elites in the 19th century can be traced to MPs who sat in the House of Commons in the 21st; a denial that the unjust treatment of the Windrush generation throughout their lives, not just during the most recent inhumane denial of their citizenship, has its legacies in the histories of slavery and the refusal to acknowledge the institutionalised racism these histories established; a denial that the legacies of slavery are engrained into the treatment of many Black communities today.

The expansion of when, where and how debates on British history should be framed into a broader ‘culture war’ means they cannot be shrugged off as raising questions of concern only to historians, history teachers and their students.The past is embedded in our contemporary geographies of prisons and healthcare to citizenship rights and our access to landscapes. How the past is represented should be a key question for all geographers.Though my own research is primarily based in the paper archives of 19th century institutions from asylums and prisons to census data and antiracist periodicals, I have always studied and worked within geography departments.I took both history and geography at GCSE and A-level. Given how many students now have to choose between these subjects it seems there is a strong case to be made for historical geography to become a key part of school geography or for history and geography to be taught together as a deliberate act, not as a timetabling accident.This is not only because it is hard to see how students can begin to ‘decolonise’ their subject if they have little knowledge of both the histories and geographies of colonisation, but also because their own everyday geographies are but the most recent layer of a historical geography.The past is the foundation of the street we navigate on our way to school, to work, to meet friends, to join a protest or a party.Geographies of the past matter every day.

Caroline Bressey is Reader in HIstorical and Cultural Geography at UCL,and author of the book Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste.

This article is the sixth in our series of reflections on 'everyday geographies', intended to contribute to the 2022 annual conference of the Geographical Association on this theme. You can read the first, by Gavin Brown on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, here. The second, by Luke de Noronha on everyday racism and the violence of borders, is here. The third, by Lola Olufemi on 'everyday atrocity' can be read here. The fourth, by Remi Joseph-Salisbury on everyday experiences of racism in English secondary schools is here. The fifth, by Sarah Marie Hall on everyday geographies of austerity can be read here.

The image used at the head of this piece is of Mary Seacole, painted by Alan Charles Challen in 1869 and viewable here.