By Chamion Caballero, Goldsmiths, University of London
In a two part series, Dr Chamion Caballero discusses both the importance of having aspects of black British history recognised more widely as intrinsic parts of British history rather than as ‘add ons’, as well as the challenges facing scholars involved in this work. In this second article, she reflects on how efforts to share the body of research she conducted with Dr Peter Aspinall on the history of racial mixing and mixedness in Britain has benefited as much from investing in creative methods and ‘shadows work’ as from more traditional academic routes, even though the former are less valued by the wider academy.
As highlighted in the previous article, one of the key issues we have wrestled with in our research is how to find and access material on the lived experiences of groups – such as those mixing and of mixed race - whose histories are not always considered important enough to record and archive correctly (if at all). Following on from this, there is also the question of when this material is found, how do we preserve and share it, so that findings on black British and minority ethnic histories are understood as British history rather than being considered an ‘add on’? The usual routes – academic publishing, media articles, interviews or adaptations of work, museum exhibits, conference presentations – of course have their part to play but there are also limitations in terms of their cost, accessibility, and transience. The issue of transience is one we have been particularly concerned with when thinking about the outputs of our recent research, specifically how we can work to avoid the vicious cycle that seems to beset the telling of black and minority ethnic history in Britain. Repeatedly, evidence is painstakingly found by scholars, shared with a relatively small academic audience or, if fortunate enough, fleetingly reaches an interested public audience via the media, before disappearing from the public sphere until the next round. As such, although numerous great histories of the history of the black presence in Britain have been written since Peter Fryer’s ground-breaking Staying Power, with some even being broadcast on television and radio – the latest being David Olusoga’s excellent Black and British book and series – how is it there yet still remains a sense amongst a significant proportion of the public that the inclusion of a black presence in pre-Windrush history is ‘political correctness gone mad’?
The relatively recent initial furious backlash to the inclusion of a black soldier character in the gaming phenomenon Battlefield 1, a first person shooter game set in World War 1, as an example of the representation of actual black history being seen as a perfidious ‘PC agenda’ clearly illustrates this frustrating tendency. The decision not only to include but to use a black soldier as the face of the game caused a significant online backlash from those who had always perceived World War 1 to be a war fought solely by white men. Yet although the character ‘brought out the racists’, as one web magazine put it, it also motivated many others amongst the 19 million who have played the game to contest the ‘PC gone mad’ perspective by sharing facts about the ethnic diversity of World War 1 troops, in many cases acquired by newly conducted online research. For the most part, however, it would seem fair to say that research shared was not links to thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed academic books, journals or conference proceedings but other more speedy and accessible sources that could be found after a few Google searches: YouTube clips, Wikipedia entries and brief web articles, including those from uncredited and verified sources.
Such casual research-user tendencies or habits are further food for thought for those of us seeking to enhance the sharing of our research with a more general public so that facts and evidence – in our particular case around minority ethnic histories – become more accessible and embedded in public thought. One response to this that we are pursuing is the use of digital technologies not only to share our knowledge but to preserve it. In the tradition of community archives and their role in sharing and preserving histories that might otherwise be lost or mistold, The Mix-d Museum – the digital archive we set up with the help of the Arts and Humanities Council in 2012 – seeks to make accessible the history we have gathered over the last decade on racial mixing and mixedness in 20th century Britain to the general public. In time, we also aim to allow users to offer their family history material to be deposited for the use of future scholars and audiences. Certainly, if there is one thing our current research has taught us, is that the histories and experiences of ordinary families – often captured by their intimate testimonies, photographs and diaries – are so quickly lost from one generation to the next. The Museum allows us to make available to all the decade of research which would otherwise sit behind the paywalls of journals and the price wall of our academic monograph.
The benefits of the more readily accessible model will take time to see fully but already there are encouraging signs of its entries being shared by non-academics, as well as creatives such as screenwriters, playwrights and novelists finding it useful as a fact-checking or inspirational source. We are also thinking about innovative digital methods that lend themselves to ‘adaptive learning’ so that those visiting the Museum can explore our material according to their own preferences and styles, just as visitors do in offline museums.
All this, of course, costs money and time, and in thinking about effective and ‘impactful’ ways that scholars can share their research with the wider public, funding bodies would also benefit from considering how they can help embed research in the long-term, via better assistance and support for the provision of long-term hosting of online material. Our AHRC-funding, though so useful in establishing the site, was for a very short and defined period; if it were not for our own off-the-clock interest not to mention the generosity of our previous partner organisation (Mix-d Hair) which kindly hosts and updates the website at their cost, the site would likely by now be one more static and cached end-of-project website. In our own field, it is painful to think how much incredible data has been lost with the disappearance of the Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’, in which members of the community collected the oral histories and photographs of mixed race families in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s that, sadly, appear never to have been archived. Compare this to the plans that were put in place for the entire contents of the three day ‘Mixedness and Mixing’ e-conference that took place in 2007 to be hosted long term after its completion: to date, the majority of the data, including the 44 papers produced by the conference, are still available for the public to view.
The issue of archiving and making material accessible, both in the long and short-term, is however, only one part of a wider conversation on how academic research can be shared so that it better ‘sticks’. Returning to the Battlefield 1 controversy, in conversation with one of the game’s players, he remarked that in an online argument with other players who were denying the involvement and sacrifice of black troops in the First World War there was nothing immediately visible to support his case for this reality on Wikipedia, his and his online debaters first port of call for information. Indeed, a quick glance at the website confirms that on the lengthy main World War 1 page, the only reference to the involvement of any black or minority ethnic troops is a cursory mention of African-American troops and a small paragraph on Indian support for the Allies, with the reference citations for these coming from a non-academic source or awaiting entry. Certainly, it takes much further digging to find anything substantial on black and minority ethnic contributions – including those from black British soldiers – to World War 1 and even then the sources do not reflect the depth and extent of the existing body of academic work in this area. In our own specific field of enquiry, it is also clear to see how information that we now readily have to hand is missing: on Wikipedia, for example, though the marriage of the early twentieth century Chinese-Indonesian socialite Oei Hui Lan (discussed in the previous article) to Wellington Koo (the Chinese Ambassador to France) is relatively detailed, there is scant discussion of her vibrant life in Britain before she became known as Madame Koo. Neither her first marriage to the Englishman Beauchamp Caulfeild-Stoker nor their son Lionel is mentioned, , a lack of knowledge that we are well posed to amend from our recent research.
Amending Oei Hui Lan’s Wikipedia entry – amongst others – is part of our commitment to share our work outside the academy under that umbrella of varied ‘non-traditional’ activities that so many of us engage in: the casual phone calls and meetings that inform the viewpoints of journalists, educators and others; the blog posts and newsletter articles that are widely read and shared; the social media posts and contributions to discussion in online forums that persuade, if not the person being argued with, then some of those that are following the argument. This non-traditional work, which takes considerable time and energy, generally lies in the shadows of what is considered important; certainly, it is not held in the esteem it should be by the REF process, universities or funders who continue to see prestigious publications as the key performance indicator within academia. Yet such ‘shadows work’ plays an important part in the sharing of academic knowledge that is honed through the writing of scholarly publications. Indeed, for all of the flaws of the publication process, its worth should also be recognised; it is here, after all, that we learn to hone the tools of the research trade – our thinking, our analysis, our arguments, our style. So, the point being made is not to dismiss the publishing process outright but to support the view that more room should be allowed and more credit given by the academic system for recognising and encouraging creative, non-traditional methods as a complementary route to the sharing and embedding of knowledge in the public sphere. The worry is that if research dissemination is only thought about – and particularly is under pressure to be thought about purely in terms of a specific type of impact – high-profile, quantifiable, measurable, large-scale – then public engagement bypasses so much of the ‘public’ audience. Yet what value and benefit can be gained from creative means and ‘shadows work’ as this message sent from a user of the Mix-d Museum shows:
This may sound silly, but i never knew we had a history. At school, my history wasn't to be seen. I was taught briefly about slavery, but that was it. I'm discovering all this now, reading the stories (from the mix-d: timeline), and will be teaching this history to my daughters because it is their history.
I don't know about you but it filled my eyes with tears. That is the power of research. It can change lives for the better and can make those who have never felt proud of who they are stand tall. So much so, that they begin to pass on that knowledge to the next generation. For me, that is the aspiration i hold dear.
There was nowhere to put the many other similar messages and feedback about the Museum in my last REF entry but, along with the similar responses received over the years, to me this type of impact holds as much weight as all the publications I have had cited. If only the academy valued it so highly too.
Dr Chamion Caballero, Visiting Senior Fellow, Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of The Mix-d Museum.