Teaching Black and South Asian British Histories

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Race, Ethnicity and Equality, Teaching Portal, Teaching Portal: Innovative Modules | 0 comments

In the current political juncture, we are witnessing wide-ranging calls to decolonise the curriculum. Many are now campaigning to ensure that history teaching within the UK incorporates histories of British imperialism and, more specifically, Black British History. These histories have long been neglected within early history teaching. Within universities the coverage has varied but, Black British history has been particularly neglected.

In this article, Dr Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, offers guidance on introducing these histories into teaching and curriculum based on her experience of teaching a new survey course for undergraduates.


In over a decade of teaching, I’ve witnessed a significant shift in how race and empire are regarded by students. They have always been interested in such themes, but they are increasingly likely to demand the inclusion of such histories in efforts to decolonize their own learning. I hope my account of teaching a survey course on the Black and South Asian presences helps provide a starting point for anyone seeking to teach these histories.


Surveying a Long History

My course on Black and South Asian British histories spans over four centuries. Covering such a broad chronology in one term requires brevity, but it is an important means of challenging broader erasure in the writing and teaching of British history. In both the broader historiography and current curricula, one of the most significant problems is the tendency to ignore the Black and South Asian presences in Britain before the Second World War. If students encounter such histories at all, current curricula tend to focus on the abolition of Britain’s trade in enslaved peoples in 1807 (rather than the abolition of enslavement in the British Empire more broadly in the 1830s) or histories of migration after the Empire Windrush docked in 1948.

“In both the broader historiography and current curricula, one of the most significant problems is the tendency to ignore the Black and South Asian presences in Britain before the Second World War.”

In-depth courses specialising in shorter periods are an essential element of undergraduate teaching, but are most suited to final year undergraduates. Teaching a survey early on allows students to study such histories even if they choose not to specialise and potentially creates confidence in pursuing related dissertation topics. The best overall surveys I’ve found include Peter Fryer’s classic Staying Power, complemented by David Olusoga’s Black and British and, finally, Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain. In combination, they help students navigate a broad range of unfamiliar territory.


Using Case Studies

My course uses specific case studies to help make the broad chronology manageable. I begin with early presences, such as Black soldiers in Roman Britain and Black Tudors. Students are fascinated by these early stories histories precisely because so many study the Tudors but never encounter figures such as John Blanke. The work of Imtiaz Habib, including Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible and Onyeka Nubia’s England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society are less well known but just as important as Miranda Kauffman’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story. I then consider emerging communities in the eighteenth century, from literary celebrities and activists, such as Olaudah Equiano, to travelling ayahs (nannies) and lascars (sailors) from India. From a large literature, some of my favourites include Gretchen Gerzina’s, David Dabydeen’s, and Rozina Visram’s early work.

We then explore connections with the British empire in more depth. We move from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, by covering the transitions from enslavement, to abolition and indenture. Building on earlier discussions of Black abolitionists and political campaigning, I acknowledge the importance of 1807, but focus on the long-term impact of enslavement using the pioneering research of Eric Williams and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project. Introducing students to the open access database of the compensation records is an excellent practical exercise. Most students have never come across, let alone studied, histories of indenture. Ashutosh Kumar and Gaiutra Bahadur provide excellent overviews of the millions of South Asians involved in this global migration. In addition, we explore how modern cities, such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, were intimately tied to broader histories of empire. Using my own research and Caroline Bressey’s impressive archival recovery, we consider both ephemeral visits and long-term settlement. I’m particularly excited about Bressey’s forthcoming book. Once published, this will be essential reading.

The second half of the course is a thematic survey of the twentieth century through to the present-day. Exploring the First and Second World Wars together provides ideal opportunities to discuss Commonwealth involvement and shifting attitudes towards race more broadly. Both Olusoga and Visram provide lengthy accounts. Additional important themes across the twentieth century include the arrival and experiences of the Windrush Generation, changes in immigration law and its lasting impact in creating the Windrush scandal by redefining Britishness, and the introduction of the Race Relations Acts. These threads are essential in understanding the shifting racialization of British citizenship. Kathleen Paul and Camilla Schofield provide important introductions. My favourite survey of these themes is Kennetta Hammond Perry’s London is the Place for Me. Whilst much of the literature provides important accounts of the racism experienced by Commonwealth citizens migrating to Britain, Perry’s beautifully nuanced account explores the demands made by citizens and migrants of the state. It is essential reading for anyone interested in British history.


Showcasing Activism and Politics

Showcasing the activism and intellectual contributions of Black and South Asian Britons is an important way of challenging a broader tendency to focus on trauma. Early anticolonial activism, Pan-Africanism, Indian suffragettes, Grunwick strikers and labour organising through the Indian Workers Association, the British Black Power movement, Black feminist groups such as OWAAD (Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent) and the legacy of Cultural Studies all offer important avenues of showcasing forms of protest and intellectual transformation. Highlights from the literature include the pathbreaking writings of Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. Further works include Hakim Adi, Sumita Mukherjee, and Rob Waters.

“Showcasing the activism and intellectual contributions of Black and South Asian Britons is an important way of challenging a broader tendency to focus on trauma.”

Finally, I am keen that students reflect upon the broader politics of the discipline and recent demands to decolonise British history. This is especially vital following the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and numerous others across the world within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Starting points include the important work of Olivette Otele on memories of enslavement and Caroline Bressey’s excellent exploration of exclusion in English Heritage sites. Asking students to read extracts from the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 report on Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK, or activist writing from the Rhodes Must Fall collective is an excellent way of encouraging students to reflect on important questions about racial inequalities in both history curricula and academia broadly.


Equipping Students to Think and Speak About Race

Teaching these histories has drawn on my longstanding interest in racial inequality in academia and is my personal highlight of the academic year. Seeing positive feedback from students is immensely fulfilling. Even so, there are difficulties for which it is worth being prepared. In my experience, students are not necessarily well-equipped to discuss race. Sometimes, they have difficulties in choosing appropriate language, thinking structurally or just lack confidence. In designing any course, it is essential that students are introduced to suitable language and conduct to establish the class as a safe place to discuss these difficult histories. It is also essential that teachers reflect on their own positionality. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s magnificent book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, is the perfect place to start. Finally, most academics I know are supportive, but some are not. One of the most difficult personal experiences involved listening to a white colleague confidently insist that ‘They don’t want to study Black British history’. This is untrue. My classes are full of students who are highly aware of the selective nature of their history education and keen to remedy the situation. It is imperative that we help them.


Select Bibliography:


Websites and Online Resources:

  • Box of Broadcasts has many relevant documentaries and many institutions provide access.
  • Our Migration Story has a range of relevant articles on migration and empire.
  • Legacies of British Slave Ownership is an open access database detailing the £20 million paid in compensation to enslavers with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833).
  • Asians in Britain is a collection of items from the British Library detailing the South Asian presences. Has individual articles on themes of empire and a fascinating collection of items from the library’s collections.
  • Bangla Stories is an online archive detailing the Bengal Disapora, with oral histories and historical context.
  • Black in the Day is a crowd-sourced archive of Black British life and history.
  • Black Europeans is an online gallery taking the history of the Black presences beyond Britain.
  • The Global Social Theorists website includes many important and relevant theorists.


Sadiah Qureshi is historian of racism, science and empire. Her first book, Peoples on Parade (2011), explored the importance of displayed peoples for the emergence of anthropology. She is currently researching histories of extinction and has co-chaired the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group, which produced a landmark report on racial inequalities in 2018. She can be followed on Twitter at @SadiahQureshi.



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