An Introduction to African and
Afro-Diasporic Peoples and Influences in British Literature and Culture before the Industrial Revolution
Jonathan Elmore and Jenni G Halpin
With funding from Affordable Learning Georgia and support from the Department of English, Languages, and Cultures at Savannah State University
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
Affordable Learning Georgia, an Initiative of the University System of Georgia
Preface for Instructors
Funded by the University System of Georgia’s “Affordable Learning Georgia” initiative, An Introduction to African and Afro-Diasporic Peoples and Influences in British Literature and Culture before the Industrial Revolution corrects, expands, and celebrates the presence of the African Diaspora in the study of British Literature, undoing some of the anti-Black history of British studies.
The easy narrative of British cultural history with which many American students are presented leaps from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Empire. The slave trade led to a volume of racial constructions and revisionist histories that has certainly bled over into the current curriculum of survey-level British literature. The erasure of the history of Black people in the British Isles, like the destruction of disembarkation cards of the Windrush generation, works to perpetuate a silencing and rejection of Black Britons as Britons. As Ian Grosvenor and Lisa Amada Palmer have separately underscored, the work of anti-racism requires one to be “vigilant to the politics of erasure” (Palmer 509). But it is virtually impossible “to build an alternative narrative of the nation that includes […] the history of black political agency” without learning, first, of the presence of Blacks in Britain since before it was Britain (Grosvenor 167). Our goal in this volume is to provide representations that build an understanding of race outside of the trade in enslaved African peoples and beyond its legacy of such a compendium of discriminations. This will not only help students understand the period but also show them how concepts of race have been historically constructed.
Our aim in creating this project is not just another textbook that is more inclusive or somehow more “woke.” Instead we direct this project at a set of problems that have always plagued the study of, and especially the teaching of, pre-Romantic period literature and history of the British Isles: namely the exclusion, erasure, and misrepresentation of the African Diaspora in Britain, especially from the late Medieval period onward.
This supplemental textbook is designed as a companion text to any number of existing anthologies and textual collections commonly used in undergraduate surveys and seminars in British literary studies up to the eighteenth century. It offers additions that genuinely augment and, at times, talk back to existing textbooks and approaches to teaching the literature and culture of this expanse of British history. As a freely available digital text, it is highly adaptable to various pedagogical styles and delivery methods and will be readily accessible to both faculty and students.
Historians and literary scholars have already begun the work of recovering the lives, writings, and influences of Afro-Diasporic peoples in Europe and the British Commonwealth from the Medieval period through the Renaissance, revealing the broad and rich presence of peoples of African descent. While the work of these scholars is woven through our supplemental textbook in many ways, we want to bring not only their work but especially their voices and the sense of urgency that motivates this work to the students working with our volume. By including these interviews, we can not only reframe their scholarship for an undergraduate audience but especially humanize the importance of the work of these historians and literary scholars for students who are likely encountering such work for the first time.
As we prepared to undertake this project, we of course, both read widely in the growing body of scholarship that has been recovering the presences and voices of Afro-Diasporic peoples in Britain. What became almost immediately apparent was that merely reporting this work to an undergraduate audience was not going to be enough: finding histories, biographies, and literature and mentioning it to our students would not serve either our students or the material adequately. We realized that we needed to draw the voices of these scholars organically into this project. We desired strongly not to stand in the way of our students’ direct access to these voices, but instead to let them speak for themselves rather than attempting to translate or explain them as a means of appropriating their scholarship.
In this time of—we hope—significant change, soliciting commentary from leading scholars of Black British history, literature, and culture that is targeted from the beginning to undergraduates who will mostly be operating from a culturally-determined dearth of context for this history, literature, and culture provides an opportunity to increase not only students’ knowledge about Black Britons but also students’ ability to relate this knowledge to the present.
One of the interesting effects of being a white person teaching at an HBCU (as we both are) is that it makes one repeatedly aware of and especially sensitive to the coopting and silencing of Black voices that has gone on for centuries. For years the two of us have constituted the entirety of the British literature faculty at our university. As such, we have traded off the British literature surveys frequently and discussed curriculum endlessly. A recurring theme in these conversations was the glaring whiteness of the first half of the survey and anthologies which often pay lip service to African and Afro-Diasporic peoples through a slight inclusion of exoticizing sixteenth century travel narratives and Shakespeare’s Othello. Both of us experimented with different content, but there simply was not much available, especially not material pitched at a largely first and second year undergraduate audience, most of whom were not English or even humanities majors. After several years of collecting uneven and mismatched resources from disparate sources and experiencing a growing feeling of frustration every time we taught the course, we decided we simply had to make what we could not find.
Our editorial work is, as is all editorial work, problematic. Mindful as we are of the need to center Black people and Black voices, our framing is inevitably produced by our white-centric educations and experiences and by the white-centric traditions of British literary studies against which we are presenting this collection. Introducing The Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing (2020), a critical literary history focused on the last three centuries, editors Susheila Nasta and Mark U. Stein write, such work “is a provocation in its necessarily mediated reconfiguration of the often eclipsed, discontinuous voices of Britain’s black and Asian past, present, and future” (1). The editorial and interpretive framing of any such project will increase the distinction and spacing between various vantages on the works under consideration. Through our work to highlight what can currently be known of Black people in Britain, we break them out of their historical and social contexts as much as we seek to break the monolithic whiteness of the dominant narrative.
The people we center do become exemplars, separated from their peers either by the unusual circumstances of their lives leaving historical traces or by our focus upon their Blackness. It is undeniable that records of Black people in Britain during the Renaissance and earlier are atypical, either in their selves and actions or in the mere fact of those being written down. Equally, it is nearly impossible to present these exceptional individuals without presenting them as strange, though our effort throughout has been to normalize Africans and Afro-Diasporic peoples as significant parts of the population of Britain. Still, this problem, insofar as it is one, is vastly superior to the problem of insufficient attention to these texts and peoples.
Crucially, our collection aids in portraying African and Afro-Diasporic peoples well beyond slavery and the (white-dominated) abolition movement, portrayals which have had the clear effect of reinforcing racist narratives affirming the status of Black people as possessions rather than people. On 23 June 2020, Priyamvada Gopal tweeted “White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives,” a response in part to a particularly public effort to proclaim the mattering of white lives (cited in Rawlinson). The anticolonialist, a reader at Cambridge, received extensive negative response, including efforts to have her removed both from Twitter and from her post, on the purported grounds that her efforts to call attention to and dismantle the ideologies of white privilege and of racist oppression are themselves racist (Rawlinson). On the contrary, part of the work of disassociating whiteness and value is done in emphasizing value-systems that recognize the worth of non-white people and their creations. We insist, therefore, that careful literary-critical analysis contributes to the affirmation of the significance of African and Afro-Diasporic peoples today and over thousands of years of history. From white Britons’ fascination with and othering of African peoples to the direct influences of Afro-Diasporic Britons—whether objectified, employed, or prized—the history of relations among Black and white people in Britain is central to the history and the present culture of Britain. Including, contextualizing, analyzing, and otherwise framing these texts not only affirms but moreover demonstrates that Black British literature is canonical literature.
Usability is an important element of this project. Large documents that resist downloading, disorganized assemblages that impede navigation, and read-only files all work to interfere with student and faculty use. Our text is natively digital, designed to be remixed and reused by faculty, formatted for easy reading on portable screens, structured and bookmarked for effective navigation, and equipped with descriptive captioning and other access design features. In this way we are promoting the voices speaking from our sources rather than allowing our curation of them to tax the students who will be reading.
On an instructional level, our collection of images of artifacts, biographies of historical persons, governmental documents, narratives of the constructions of race in British cultures, and interviews with scholars gives lively voice to a long-ignored facet of Britain. We created this collection to contribute to a transformation of student learning about the literatures of early Britain by highlighting the lived experiences of Black people in Britain and by re-presenting the cultures of British peoples over the course of more than a millennium. Affording faculty resources for cultural context and students clarity on the significance of Black British culture, with appropriate instructional and pedagogical apparatus, which does not assume familiarity with cultures outside of contemporary America, this supplement is suitable for use in 2000-level survey classes as well as upper level undergraduate courses focusing on topics from medieval to early modern literature and history.
This text is designed to supplement the traditional anthologies used in general education, literary survey courses as well as the textbooks used in upper-level undergraduate courses in British literature prior to the Industrial Revolution. Its texts can readily be assigned in a manner similar to the supplemental readings on the historical and cultural context so often provided by anthologies but also so often light or lacking in their treatment of the presence and influence of African and Afro-Diasporic peoples and influences on the trajectory of British history, culture, and literature.
The interviews additionally provide historical and cultural context and also introduce students to scholars currently working in the field. Instructors may use some or all of the questions and the diverse answers provided by the scholars published here as framing questions for in-class discussions of various texts. These interviews also present historical, interpretative, and analytical questions that are addressable to assigned literary texts and may serve as foundation questions for formal and informal writing assignments or group discussions or presentations.
We see the chronological survey of brief biographical notes on Black people in Britain not only as a compendium demonstrating the mattering of Black lives but also as a reference supplementing knowledge and recognition of context for more-commonly assigned readings such as the speeches of Elizabeth I, Walter Ralegh’s The Discoverie of Guiana, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. These short entries can also serve instructors as jumping off points for research assignments and writing activities that involve students in the critical research work of unearthing and recovering the lives, contributions, and influences of Black Britons that is currently underway by historians, anthropologists, and cultural scholars around the world.
Furthermore the bibliographies and suggestions for further reading found throughout this supplemental text offer a substantial survey of the existing scholarship, archives, news media, and digital resources available on the lives of Black Britons and can serve instructors and students alike for various research activities, writing assignments, and discussions.
Boyd, Andy, Matthew Woollard, John Macleod, and Alison Park. “The Destruction of the ‘Windrush’ Disembarkation Cards: A Lost Opportunity and the (Re)Emergence of Data Protection Regulation as a Threat to Longitudinal Research,” Wellcome Open Research 11 Sep 2018. https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.14796.1. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Grosvenor, Ian. “‘What Do They Know of England Who Only England Know’: A Case for an Alternative Narrative of the Ordinary in Twenty-First-Century Britain,” History of Education vol. 42, no. 2 (2018): pp. 148-168. https://doi.org/10.1080/0046760X.2017.1420240. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Nasta, Susheila and Mark U. Stein, editors. The Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing. Introduction. Cambridge UP, 2020. pp.1-21.
Palmer, Lisa Amanda. “Diane Abbott, Misogynoir and the Politics of Black British Feminism’s Anticolonial Imperatives: ‘In Britain too, it’s as if We Don’t Exist.’” The Sociological Review, vol. 68 no.3 (2020): pp. 508-523. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026119892404. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Rawlinson, Kevin. “‘Abolish Whiteness’ Academic Calls for Cambridge Support.” The Guardian, 25 June 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/25/abolish-whiteness-academic-calls-for-cambridge-support Accessed 26 June 2020.