Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Don't be put off by the textbook format. This is really a collection of punchy, argumentative and thought-provoking essays that would make a perfect bedside book. The entry on British sport, for instance, detects an "animalising trope", which attributes a black athlete's success to natural ability (with sinister "echoes of the race-IQ debate") rather than skill or practice. (It also examines the racist reaction of British football fans to black players in the early 1980s.) The entry on multiculturalism deftly debates the pros and cons, while an entry on Roman Britain reminds us that black British history didn't begin with the arrival of the Empire Windrush. After all, African soldiers defended Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD. Music and the arts are well represented, and literature's big names are neatly skewered, from Jane Austen's imperialist morality to TS Eliot's "King Bolo and his big black Qween". Why is African-American history so much better documented than black British history, the editors wonder. This magnificent volume goes some way to redressing the balance.

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