The Oxford Companion to Black British History

The Oxford Companion to Black British History


Written by: Rosie Wild

This new book aims to provide schoolchildren and the public with a handy reference guide to Black British history.

Black British history is a much-overlooked subject, not least in schools, where even the government’s own survey of the national curriculum noted that ‘little attention is given to the black and multi-ethnic aspects of British history’. The idea of a one-stop reference book covering the black presence in Britain from the time of the Romans onwards is, therefore, both appealing and admirable. Billed as ‘the first-ever reference book to explore the full history of black people in the British Isles’, and aimed at educationalists and their charges, as well as the wider public, The Oxford Companion to Black British History does not, however, live up to its lofty ideals.

In the main an encyclopaedia-style list of alphabetical entries, the book starts with a helpful thematic contents list and finishes with a handy historical timeline. A very brief introduction sets out the book’s goals but does not investigate its terms of reference, which in an area as contested as Black history is a serious omission. The lack of even the most cursory definition of what constitutes ‘Black British history’ leaves the reader in a muddle. It is not clear who the authors consider Black people to be – although the fact that the three editors all come from a Caribbean Studies background gives a clue; what they mean by British – as the book contains entries on the domestic events of several other countries as well; or even where the cut-off point between history and current affairs lies.

So, we find that America’s Black Panther Party is included, but Britain’s Black Panther Movement is omitted; there is no mention of the British Asian Youth Movements of the 1970s, but there is a lengthy entry on Mohandas Gandhi; and the entry on the Institute of Race Relations tails off in 1974, although the organisation still exists and other, later events in which it was involved – for example Macpherson Inquiry – are included. Overall, the selection criteria for the entries are unexplained and confusing.

Any book that attempts to cover 2,000 years of history in 562 pages is bound to be superficial, and The Oxford Companion cannot be faulted for this, but it can for the disorganised way in which some of the information has been included. For starters, the chronology does not appear to have been cross-referenced with the main entries. Whoever compiled the chronology, for example, clearly thought the publication of Bernard Coard’s groundbreaking 1971 book How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal was important enough to include, but neither Coard nor his publication merit an entry in the main body of the Companion, nor a listing in the education section of the thematic contents. More seriously, the chronology lists the murder of ‘Kelso Cochran’ as occurring in the year 1958, when, as the main entry correctly states, Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death in Notting Hill on 17 May 1959.

There are other, petty, inaccuracies, for example, the reference to the ‘some 450 immigrants’ who arrived on the Windrush in 1948, when the actual figure was 492 and therefore more accurately represented by the phrase ‘some 500’. And those looking for information on British Black Power will only stumble on it if they read the entry on the American Black Panther Party – with which no British group was affiliated. Advisory editor Professor Harry Goulbourne has written about the British Black Power movement elsewhere – that he did not contribute an entry on it in this book is a shame.

The Companion betrays a bias towards discourse, culture and literature over political history, both in the choice of topics and the people who have been asked to cover them. It seems a little odd, for example, that roughly the same amount of space is given to a discussion of Edward Said’s Orientalism as to the entry on ‘Racism’. Even more odd is the fact that none of Britain’s Race Relations Acts are deemed worthy of an entry. And why someone whose primary research interests are listed as South African and Zimbabwean literature was asked to write the entry on the American Black Panther Party is puzzling.

The idea behind the Oxford Companion to Black British History is laudable and no doubt most of the entries written by the 112 contributors, five advisory editors and three editors are accurate, enlightening and enriching. Without being underpinned by a convincing definition of Black British history, however, the premise of the book is left open to question, and for that reason it is hard to see this preliminary edition as more than a first faltering step towards its stated aim of giving greater recognition to the subject.

Related links

Buy the Oxford Companion to Black British History

The Oxford Companion to Black British History, edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones. Oxford University Press, £30.  

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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