Black Victorians: Hidden in History by Keshia N. Abraham & John Woolf

Black Victorians: Hidden in History by Keshia N. Abraham & John Woolf

First, let me begin this review by stating: I WANT A COPY OF THIS BOOK. Please, Somebody, get me this for Whatever-the-Next-Gifting-Holiday-is! I also fervently hope that Duckworth Books will have this available (at a reasonable price!) through an American imprint so it can be adopted for college courses in the United States. This is the perfect book for a decolonizing history curriculum whether the course is focused on Modern Europe, Black History, History of Racism, Modern World — or, in my case — Roots of Contemporary Issues.

The reasons: First, the book is broken down into assignable, digestible thematic sections and chapters which focus on a single individual and their historical significance. Part One is “Context and Concealment” and it provides an overview of the state of black history in Europe and in Victorian Era historiography. Here, the point is made that the act of existing is resistance itself, it is a decolonizing act to just be. Bringing these histories to the forefront is a necessary and powerful step towards decolonizing history as it is popularly understood, historical narrative, and the academy. The following sections: “Struggle and Survival”, “Church and State”, “Cultural VIPs”, and “Fighting for Freedom” offer well-researched deep dives into specific individuals across all classes, genders, and social positions. Working class black Britons, criminals, socialites, intellectuals, clergy, activists and freedom fighters are given a moment of spotlight and discussed as part of a larger colored and white fabric of Victorian society. This is a fantastic prosopography. And it could easily be partitioned to assign one or a few chapters per week to undergraduate students.

The second reason this book is ideal for an undergraduate seminar or an introductory survey course is because the readability of this book is amazing. Abraham’s and Woolf’s prose is smooth, the language requires little effort, their arguments are explicit, allowing for an easy transition from archival data to analysis to discussion. Indeed, the shift from storytelling to analysis is so seamless that many students are likely to be fooled into reading the entirety of any chapter assigned! Bonus: I bet the kids will really enjoy it. I am told over and over by students that they love seeing the “real people” in history.

The third reason is that while its accessibility makes it the perfect addition to any library, for any level of reader, it is also perfect for the more advanced historian, including those well versed in historiography and professional history production. Simply put, our own training is steeped in colonial and orientalist standards that have obscured the presence of color and ethnicity. We need to read this. I could not help but feel joy at reading this, though I am not black I am a scholar of color and from a former colony to boot! Black Victorians: Hidden in History is not the first or only of its kind, but is part of a larger movement towards decolonizing European history, which has been and remains largely as white history. Black Victorians joins Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History (2021) and Miranda Kaufman’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story (2018) and others which are highlighting the transnational presence of Black people in other eras. The “Untold” theme across these recent histories is telling and a clue to the point being made: Black People never were confined to the so-called Dark Continent, that notion was a myth promulgated by a eurocentric academy, a eurocentric world — and Here! Here is proof!

Therefore, and perhaps most significantly, Black Victorians is bound to hit with younger readers, a generation for which representation matters and matters a lot! This is for the next generation for whom the symbols and the exhibition of blackness can have an immense impact on their decisions now and in the future. Our students of color need to see themselves in their classrooms, on the big screen (by which I mean the white board and projector screen in the front of the classroom).

All this said, merely bringing black Victorians to the forefront is not the endgame. It is not the last word on this. This is only the beginning; the conclusion emphasizes not only existence of black victorians, but points out that black victorians — black people — have played significant roles in shaping their moment as well as the present, thus their historical existence was not static, sealed in a vacuum, but interactive and dynamically integrated with white victorian society. This is the more powerful message, one which the book manifests.

Again, please, someone, gift me a copy of this book! I will be looking for it to assign in a future course!

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