In an age in which historians have long since abandoned the ‘great men’ theory of history, how do we define - should we even use – the term ‘world historical figure’? Our discipline now rightly prefers to complicate our vision of the past, to emphasise the complex interaction of long- and short-term causes, of cultural, social and political factors, and see the course of history as beyond the control of any given individual. It’s important that we demonstrate this – it enables us to depict and discover the past in a way which opens it out and democratises our vision of a shared history.
But the death of a figure such as Nelson Mandela reminds us that one of the factors which must be considered when analysing events is precisely the role of the individual: we privilege the systemic at our peril. Mandela, born in 1918, defined, focused and energised the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Not just as the first black president of that country, he was one of the most significant political and cultural figures of the twentieth century. His decades of imprisonment, his long struggle against the injustice of white rule in South Africa, and his emphasis upon reconciliation elevated him to a status far beyond mere statesman. It was once illegal even to own an image of Mandela in South Africa, yet he helped change not just the history of his own country, and indeed not just of the world; he had profound and lasting impacts upon how people thought, how they reacted to and interacted with their world.
These kinds of shifts in mentality can be as historically important as the fall of an empire or the birth of a religion. They are often the consequence of difficult and bewildering confluences of forces. They are also often focused upon and by individuals at all levels of society. Nelson Mandela was one such figure, and whatever the details and consequences of his remarkable career – from Sharpeville to Robben Island to presidential office – his impact in this regard is impossible to deny.
World historical figures, great men and women, exist; Nelson Mandela was one of them.
There was a very interesting documentary on BBC4 last night on Big Bill Broonzy. I’ve mentioned his song ‘Black, Brown and White’ a few times in class, particularly given its critique of racial discrimination in America in the immediate post-war years. I am very happy to see that Broonzy is being given attention in popular media, not only because of his musicianship and creativity, but because he did play such an important role in bringing African American music to Britain and Europe in the 1950s. He is also a fascinating character because he flies in the face of the predominant stereotype of the blues musicians were Southern rural rebels that sold their souls to the devil. While Broonzy ticks some of these boxes, he did so knowing full well that the stereotype was what white audiences wanted, and he therefore cultivated his own image as the last of the Mississippi blues players, at a time when the urban sounds of Chicago were exciting younger black audiences more than the ‘downhome’ rural sounds. Given the documentary’s title, it would have been good to hear more about Broonzy’s friendships with prominent English blues figures such as Alexis Korner and Paul Oliver. His British audiences loved him so much that they tried to raise money for him when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1958 (this is not mentioned in the documentary). Nonetheless, it is an interesting story of how an ordinary African American born into a Southern sharecropping family at the turn of the 20th century became very popular with people such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.
African American History and Shakespeare? A strange mixture, but one that British director Mark Rylance brought together in the recent production of Much Ado about Nothing starring Vanessa Redgrave and the American actor, James Earl Jones at the Old Vic in London. Because he set the play in wartime England in a country house next to an American airfield with an African American squadron, I was asked to contribute programme notes on “Military Matters”. Of course, I made clear before hand and in the notes, that no African American airmen were based in Britain (the famous Tuskegee airmen flew from North Africa and Italy), but nonetheless … artistic license, etc., etc! So I went to see the play with some trepidation on November 14th. Sadly Ms Redgrave was” indisposed”, but I doubt it made much difference. My misgivings were more than justified – hearing black airmen address one another as “count”, “senor”, “my lord”, with southern accents was one thing; to see the “older” lovers, Benedick and Beatrice played by people in their eighties and seventies didn’t work very well either. Shakespeare is often hard for uninitiated to follow – this was incomprehensible and sadly my party left at the interval. The programme notes, however, are excellent.
My theatre experience improved considerably the next day as I managed to get tickets to see Kander & Ebbs’s (Chicago, Cabaret) musical the Scottsboro Boys this time in the Young Vic. Again, the premise seemed unlikely – a musical about nine black youths charged with rape in the state of Alabama in 1931. Convicted and sentenced to death, their case, an international case célèbre, dragged on into the 1950s. The “boys” aged 13 to 21 were spared the death penalty, five were freed after a series of re-trials and the rest died in prison or shortly after their eventual release. My misgivings were misplaced in this case – a brilliant production in the form of a minstrel show with brilliant acting and singing turned this into an experience both informative and uplifting. Derek Jacobi, sitting in front of me (!!) led the standing ovation as he (and I) wiped a tear from his eye. A must see. The Guardian reported on 22nd November that the Alabama parole board had finally granted posthumous pardons to the last three of the Scottboro boys. Finally some justice was done.
This play brings a tragic piece of history alive and reminds us of the power of theatre at its best. This week it will be back to the cinema to see The Butler ….
This Friday 22nd of November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. This anniversary has been marked by numerous newspapers articles, television documentaries, radio discussions and even a new film, Parkland, directed by Peter Landsman, and starring none other than teen heartthrobs Zac Efron and Tom Welling alongside Billy Bob Thornton. For those interested in the subject of Kennedy’s assassination and his brief presidency, it has been almost impossible to keep up with the media attention that has marked this anniversary. This is not to mention the scores of books, films and documentaries that have gone before: biopics, home movies, conspiracy theories, reconstructions of that day in Dallas, and nostalgic recollections of the nation’s greatest ever president. It automatically begs the question – why?
This question is all the more intriguing when one considers Kennedy’s presidency in its historical context: his questionable record on Civil Rights, the failure to directly address the plight of the poor Americans, not to mention the fact that his approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. The opinions of historians on Kennedy vary from narratives of failure on these important issues, while others are more sympathetic to the fact Kennedy had little room for manoeuvre in Congress, and was assassinated before he could affect any real change. Nonetheless, Kennedy receives much more attention than any of the other three assassinated American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. Many Americans cling to a very sentimental and nostalgic memory of the young president, and the fierce attachment to this memory was never more evident when the 2010 mini-TV series The Kennedys was released. The series, starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes, was heavily criticised for its unflattering representation of JFK and his family, highlighting their drug dependencies, infidelity, and corruption. Again, why this reaction? Why are the Kennedys still so revered and loved by many Americans? Would Kennedy have been as loved had he not been assassinated?
I believe that it is the job of historians to try and answer these questions. Would anyone like to start??
The London Review of Books is proud of Alan Bennett’s contention that it is “the most radical literary magazine we have”. Its reputation for radicalism is part of what makes Linda Colley’s most recent essay for the magazine so interesting. Colley, who is perhaps best known for her work on nations and nationalism, tackles in a review of a new volume entitled The French Revolution in Global Perspective the thorny issue of ‘global history’. The full article isn’t available to non-subscribers, unfortunately, but a few extracts give a flavour:
As to ‘global history’, the first book in English to incorporate that phrase in its title seems to have been Hans Kohn’s The Age of Nationalism: The First Era of Global History. Published in 1962, it formed part of a multi-volume series called World Perspectives, designed to address ‘our growing global age’. ‘Globalisation’, though, is a more recent coinage. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it noticeably infiltrated media and political chatter. Since then, the global turn in history writing has moved faster, made more noise, and spun in quite different directions.
The evolving effects of decolonisation and their intellectual repercussions have been one reason for this. On the one hand, postcolonial scholarship has tended to sweep aside earlier attempts at universal history, dismissing them as little more than celebrations of the modernising impact of the West. On the other, a dramatic rise in new research into Asian, South Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories has worked to challenge and modify interpretations of some of the set-pieces of the past. Thus accounts of the ‘first industrial revolution’ are now likely to address not merely Britain’s European competitors, but also the input of its slave plantations in the Caribbean, the role of textile technologies learned from India, and the degree to which all 17th and early 18th-century European powers lagged behind China economically. These trends in recent history writing – a deliberate and much greater stress on how major changes in the West in past centuries were triggered or moulded by developments elsewhere – have piggy-backed on and been reinforced by shifts in the postwar global order: Europe’s continuing decline, the resurgence of the great Asian powers, and the rise of new powers in Africa and Latin America.
The need for historians to continue investigating national and local history while also embracing and advancing what is useful in the global turn poses challenges for all universities, especially at a time of contracting resources. In many American history departments, more jobs have been created in non-Western history by means of reducing the number of appointments allocated to European history. In some universities, indeed, Europe is now increasingly treated as a homogeneous bloc, to be covered by a single historian. Manifestly, some rebalancing is necessary and overdue. Moreover, many American students – and growing numbers of European ones – tend now to prefer transnational and global history to courses devoted to a single country. But unless arrangements can be put in place to ensure that specialised research into particular countries continues in some universities at least, our understanding of the past will be impoverished and distorted. As always, much depends on what we think history should be for, and on what we want it to do.
Colley’s essay mentions much more besides – the role of Massive Open Online Courses in future university provision, the extent to which the French Revolution has been almost uniquely always interpreted in a global context, and the potentially flattening consequences of too strong an emphasis on global trends or a loosening of periodicity. There is often a baby in the bath-water!
The LRB’s reputation for radicalism is enough to underscore the fact that Colley’s counsel isn’t merely reactionary conservatism – but a real attempt simultaneously to open up and protect the discipline of history. That, in fact, is another good reason for students to browse the magazine from time to time – in its accessible intelligence, it will not only open you up to new periods of and ways of doing history … but, for those of you taking our HUMS courses, a solid grounding in complementary issues across a range of interconnected disciplines …
Television history can get a bad press. To be sure, some of it can simplify the work of the historian and – even worse – therefore distort our view of the past. Some TV history is sensationalist; some is just poorly done. But that’s true of some written history, too. The medium is not the message.
That’s why I found the first episode of BBC Two’s Tudor Monastery Farm, broadcast last night, so heartening. At its best, TV history can communicate if not the latest research then at least relatively recent trends – it is as capable as other forms of history of moving away from the great men or constitutional styles of history, and reveal to a mainstream audience something of where current specialised understanding of the past sits.
So, whilst also being accessible and entertaining, Tudor Monastery Farm doesn’t peddle the ‘merrie old England’ myth; it doesn’t depict its peasant farmers as foolish or ignorant; and it doesn’t pretend that all people through history are essentially the same as us, just in different clothes. Instead, this first episode focused very successfully on the mentalities of the past – the different ways of thinking which define how and why people once acted.
Perhaps since Keith Thomas’s famed Religion and the Decline of Magic in the 1970s (which I mention in a lecture this very day, no less!), historians of the Tudor period have come and more to understand with ever-increasing sympathy and considerable subtlety how religion functioned during the late medieval and early modern period: how it knitted together, explained and enhanced people’s lives and experiences. Tudor Monastery Farm was excellent at depicting, in addition to the expected details of seed-sowing and animal husbandry, the early modern mentality with economy and wit: the way in which the table was laid, entertainments performed, or rituals enacted, were all informed by religion – and all had a crucial effect on both individuals and, most importantly given the communal emphasis of the time, society as a whole.
Like the many historians whom I routinely recommend to my students (including Alec Ryrie, Alexandra Walsham, Peter Marshall and many more), I spend my time researching the ways in which the people of the English Reformation (Tudor Monastery Farm, of course, takes place some decades before this period, around 1500) understood their faith and, through it, the world. I’m also interested in the role of food in the period, and the work of (for example) Erica Fudge, Ken Albala and Michael LaCombe also deserves a wider audience. And here’s a TV show which, despite its small-screen character, helps communicate a little of that work to the general audience so often overlooked within the academy.
The first episode is now available on the BBC iPlayer. Watch it, and then tune in next week!
Last Thursday the UoG History team (alongside colleagues from across Humanities and the University) celebrated graduation day 2013! It was a great day and a good opportunity to catch-up with students who finished their exams over the summer (and to dress up!). Special congratulations go to our own Christian O’Connell, who graduated with his doctorate in History, and also to Professor Neil Wynn, for supervising his PhD work. Well done, Dr O’Connell!