Mary Seacole and the Politics of Writing Black History in 1980s BritainRoundup
tags: racism, British history, Black History, womens history, medical history
Margo Williams is an MPhil student in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge. She works on the histories of health advocacy movements, modern healthcare systems, and medical racism.
Mary Seacole, the nineteenth-century Jamaican-Scottish nurse known to many as the “Black Florence Nightingale,” has a complicated history in British public memory. After essentially disappearing for a century after her death, Seacole was “revived” with the republication of her 1857 autobiography by editors Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee at the feminist Falling Water press in 1984. Since then, Seacole has achieved posthumous celebrity status as a symbol of national pride and multicultural inclusion in the United Kingdom. Across children’s books, musical television specials, literary scholarship, and political movements, Seacole has been commemorated as an alternative figurehead in nursing, a demonstration of silenced Black British histories, and as an icon of “Black and minority ethnic” representation in the modern NHS.
Seacole’s rediscovery in the early 1980s corresponded with the apex of Britain’s Black radical movement, which was fighting to assert the longevity and resilience of Black Britons throughout history. As Seacole became a crucial touchstone for the writing of Black British history, the Black radical movement acted as a cultural and political crucible for Seacole’s evolution as a public figure.
From the 1960s to 1980s, the Black radical movement in Britain comprised an expansive network of activists and intellectuals rooted in anticolonial and civil rights traditions, as well as socialist and feminist thought. Inspired by the Black Panther Party in the US, the British Black Panthers (BBP), as explained by core member Neil Kenlock, aimed to educate and empower Black communities to speak out against injustice and discrimination. The BBP was especially focused on Black history as an empowering force for change.
British historian Paul Gilroy has theorized that racism persists and mutates over time because of its capacity to evacuate “historical dimension” from Black lives, stripping them of historical value and agency. The peak of Black radical writing in the 1980s responded to a heightened sense that Black lives in Britain, both past and present, were under siege. Tensions were high in discussions of race and immigration following the British Nationality Act of 1981, the first of many successively more restrictive immigration and nationality laws, and the New Cross Massacre of thirteen Black teenagers the same year.
Simultaneously, Black British histories were threatened by the “heritage boom” occurring in Britain during the 1980s, which centered white-dominated historical narratives and equated whiteness with “Britishness.” Black radical historians and thinkers pushed back, reviving neglected Black histories in ways that reflected the still-fraught realities of Black British life – underscoring that “a properly Black Black history” was one of suffering and, crucially, of resistance. Projects documenting and commemorating Black British history, including the founding of the Black Cultural Archives in 1981, emerged across Britain as a new form of heritage activism.
Mary Seacole became a crucial example of nonwhite experiences and contributions long silenced in British history when she was “rediscovered.” In the preface to their 1982 biography of Seacole, Alexander and Dewjee argued that in Britain’s “multi-racial society and in view of the critical contribution of Black medical staff in the modern Health Service,” it was high time Britain officially acknowledged Mary Seacole’s work.
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