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"Teaching Black European History" Panel at the Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – 6th Biennial Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6-8 July 2017
By Jeff Bowersox
Early on Friday morning we gathered for a lively discussion of the importance and the difficulty of troubling deep-seated perceptions of European history as “white” history.
In her opening paper on the intersection of scholarship and activism, anthropologist and historian Chandra D. Bhimull (Colby College) posed two seemingly unrelated questions: How can courses that are about and in Black European History be spaces of and for radical imagination within the current neoliberal orders of the academy? What, if anything, is the difference between an imagination that is political and a political imagination? Drawing on and historicizing her experiences as a black woman who teaches courses about the African diaspora, at a liberal arts college in Maine, she introduced and discussed what she calls “unimagination" as one answer to both questions.
Bhimull was followed by Lydia Lindsey (North Carolina Central University), whose broad-ranging talk explored how European history can be reconceptualized by placing it within an African Diaspora paradigm. Lindsey surveyed historical waves of migration from Africa and traced important moments in contact between the continents as well as the ways in which their histories are intertwined. Lindsey’s frame provided a helpful corrective both to visions of European history as “white” and to visions of the African Diaspora as defined primarily through discourses of victimhood and slavery.
With filmmaker Helle Stenum (House of Memory Production / Roskilde University), the panel moved out of the classroom and into public engagement. She discussed the concept behind her documentary We Carry It within Us (http://wecarryitwithinus.com/home/index.html) and screened clips. The film examines the links between Denmark and its former colonial holding, the U.S. Virgin Islands, following the Virgin Islands student Chenoa Lee. Lee explores representations (or the lack thereof) of Danish colonial history in Danish museums and archives, and the film draws on the insights of other scholars to contextualise the workings of postcolonial amnesia and the maintenance of inequality. Particularly striking in this regard was her discussion of a troubling “educational” video game on the slave trade.
In the final talk, Jeff Bowersox (University College London) introduced an international, collaborative project for teaching Black German history. He made the case for surveying the history of the Black presence in the German lands over the last millennium. Looking, for example, at Black members of early modern courts makes it possible to highlight how ideas of human difference and social organization have changed over time and thereby confront students’ perceptions of race as a monolithic, stable, unchanging structure. He also discussed the value of getting his students into conversations with students being taught the same material at the Universities of Missouri and Michigan—having students in very different local situations discuss the local meanings of race is another tool for troubling their easy assumptions. Finally, Bowersox introduced a new teaching and research resource, Black Central Europe (http://blackcentraleurope.com). This website offers an unparalleled and growing collection of historical sources on the Black presence in the German lands (eventually in German and English), and it will be expanded in the future with sample teaching modules to make it easier for instructors to incorporate the materials into their classes.
There was time for some brief discussion after the talks, and this discussion largely focused on the practical challenges of teaching students. Themes that emerged were the racialized dynamics within classrooms that could hinder students’ willingness or ability to engage with the material, the challenge of exploring national histories that require a familiarity with foreign languages, and the need to produce resources to make it easier for students (and the public) to develop a familiarity with experiences across the European continent.