Thursday, September 17, 2015

Kevin Myers's "Struggles for a Past"

Kevin Myers is Senior Lecturer in Social History and Education at the University of Birmingham.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Struggles for a Past: Irish and Afro-Caribbean Histories in England, 1951-2000, and reported the following:
Immigrants are often blamed for social ills. Unemployment, crime and a sense of social fragmentation are attributed to immigrants and their children. The siren voices ring out; there are too many immigrants; they’re too different; they don’t belong and they’re not prepared to integrate to the national traditions of host societies.

None of this is new. Exactly the same was said about the immigrants who fill the pages of my book, Struggles for a Past. They too were told they didn’t belong, were blamed for social problems, associated with terrorism and subject to extensive official and popular hostility. But these immigrants, and their children, built a place in British society.

One of the ways they did so was by turning to the past. In a wide range of cultural and educational projects, they researched, taught and celebrated histories that turned some cherished national mythologies on their head. For first and second generation immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Ireland the story of British civilisation was not freedom and liberty but enslavement, famine and genocide. The legacies of imperialism were the prejudice and racism that blighted their lives in Britain.

But how does a society confront a troubled and divisive history? Page 99 explores one attempt to discuss and to teach the history of the British Empire as ‘the saddest and most terrible theme in history’. Organised by the British Council of Churches in 1975, and strongly influenced by the programmes of race awareness training devised by US psychologist Judith Katz, the Zebra Project encouraged white Christians to revisit the past and own ‘a history of economic exploitation, colonisation and trade in human beings’. The Zebra Project was certainly ambitious and typical of the dynamism of educators acting as a force for good in the world.

But the title of my book, Struggles for a Past, hints at the profound difficulties of acknowledging the legacies of the past in contemporary British society. In a world that has grown used to accepting ‘racial difference’ as a cause of social problems and, in doing so, to accept an essential assumption of racism itself, the work of developing a critical historical consciousness continues.
Learn more about Struggles for a Past at the Manchester University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue