Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 1

a white woman with long blonde hair smiles at the camera
Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh

In the first of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh introduces her choices for the display in the York St John library foyer. She is an Associate Professor & Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. Read her second blog post here.

Every year the Library and the Learning services team put on a black history month (BHM) display with a new topic every week. This year, Marcia Sanderson, a former BA English and MA in Contemporary Literature student who works in the library, contacted me to ask if I had any black British and Caribbean book or film suggestions, based on my teaching and research specialisms in these areas. The topics the library and learning services had chosen were: hidden black historical figures, black authors speaking back to literature and film, staff picks – our favourite texts by black authors and black people in cinema and horror films.

This was a great opportunity for me to get involved and to have a say in the choices for the displays. It is perhaps contentious to point out (but I’m going to do so anyway!), that BHM displays and events such as this are often overwhelmingly African-American in focus. Partly this is because African-American figures are better known, their texts more frequently (but not always) in print, their publishers are often (but not always) more mainstream with the benefit of the commercial reach and the publicity machine which comes with the latter. And of course, the American civil rights movement of the mid- twentieth century provides a temporal-spatial focus for a range of figures and writings which are of enduring relevance and which we are still making sense of even now.  A volume of poems published by a small independent black British press or a Caribbean figure whose texts are out of print are much trickier to include (and thus are often overlooked propositions).

So what did I choose?  For hidden black historical figures, I chose a range of black Caribbean historical figures that you may or may not have heard of: C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, George Padmore, John La Rose, Edouard Glissant, Aime Cesaire, Claude McKay, Kamau Brathwaite, Una Marson, Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Nanny of the Maroons, Toussaint l’Ouverture, Cuffy and South African Saarje Baartman (Sarah Bartman) aka the Hottentot Venus.  For black authors speaking back to literature and film British-Caribbean Caryl Phillip’s novel The Lost Child (2015) writes back to the Brontës, and his A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018) references Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and other texts by Dominican writer Jean Rhys. Barbadian-British poet Dorothea Smartt has a wonderfully subversive take on Jane Eyre and all its intertexts in Reader I Married Him and Other Queer Goings On (2014).  At Marcia’s request (as I had taught her some of these texts)  I also included various Caribbean and black British responses to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2015) plus Jean Binta Breeze’s poem ‘The Wife of Bath at Brixton Market’ (2000) and, more recently, Zadie Smith’s play and novel The Wife of Willesden (2021). For staff picks – our favourite texts by black authors, I chose Derek Walcott’s astonishing poetic memoir, Another Life (1973) which traces his journey to become a poet and playwright in St Lucia,  years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988) a coruscating non-fictional text on the politics of tourism and neo-colonialism in the Caribbean and Roger Robinson’s stunning T.S. Eliot Poetry prize-winning collection, A Portable Paradise (2019). 

A green stand with a photograph of a young black woman and a range of texts by Black writers
Black History Month display at York St John University

For black people in cinema, as a starting place I recommended the Small Axe series of films on black British life and history, directed by Caribbean director, Steve McQueen, The Harder They Come (1972) and Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante, based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy officer who was adopted by her relative, Lord Somerset in eighteenth century England. By way of postscript, the BBC have just aired a great documentary on Una Marson which is still available on BBC iPlayer (as are the Small Axe films). Go watch them!