Laura Sterry, January 13th 2011
On reflecting on my experiences as a volunteer for the Brighton and Hove Black history project in August 2010, I went back to the statement that I produced as part of the application process, to consider what my expectations of the project had been, and to what extent they had been met, or not. As a student, but also as a feminist activist, my primary interest in being a part of the CUPP project was to feed a growing interest in the relationship between activism and academia. Studying at University has fostered a passion for activism, and I have always tried to bring that level of consciousness to the work that I have done since, including voluntary and paid employment. This project presented an opportunity to explore this relationship, in the context of a group with its own set of aims and objectives. In this respect my expectation of the placement was to be given an opportunity to consider this relationship, and the extent to which it is viable, if at all. It is in this dialogue that I think community projects and the academy can work productively together.
During the interview for the placement the group and I had a discussion about the meaning of hidden histories and their resonance for this project. This had struck me as the very valuable and challenging contribution to the public history of Brighton that the Brighton Black History group was able to make. What was important to this project was the effort to uncover and present an aspect of history that most people in Brighton would not have considered, and how this is fact challenges dominant perceptions about the history of Brighton, and its relationship with the black and ethnic minority population. Most friends and family that I spoke to about the project were interested to hear that Brighton has very tangible history with India, other than that implied by the Orientalist architecture and interior of the Pavilion buildings. For me this resonated with academic discourses about hidden and silent histories, about public history, and also with political issues concerning not only the representation of the black and minority ethnic community in history, but the potential to challenge and resist dominant ideologies that re-presenting these histories might have.
From my reflective notes made during the process of research, it is clear that I was struck by the diverse possible narratives of this history, that there were a number of different ways in which this history might be represented to the public. What interested me in this research was in the interpretation and analysis of the sources, and the potential of that work to spark dialogue about the representation of the history of the Indian soldiers in Brighton. At times this work was limited by the lack of access to particular sources, such as the British library collections, and this was reflected back to the group. I was also aware of not covering elements of research already done by the group, although for my own research interests it was important that I covered as much background and context to the period as possible, as my existing knowledge was limited. This work was encouraged by Bert and Beth from the Black History group. I wanted to be as focused and interpretative as possible in my work and was encouraged to follow whatever research leads arose. I did feel however that a more focussed outline for the aims of the research and clarification from the start of the placement about my role would have been beneficial. At times it felt as though there was no purpose to the research that I was carrying out, that it was replicating research already done by the group, or that it would not necessarily be used. There also seemed to be a lack of communication between the Black History group members and myself and Elizabeth about what, if anything, we would be producing for the Black History Legacy Day in October. Whilst I enjoyed completing the research anyway, particularly as archival research is not an area I am particularly familiar or confident with, I think I could have been more focussed and rigorous in my approach and this would have been facilitated by clearer guidelines from the outset.
Brighton and Hove Black History group were very keen to present the Indian soldiers story as an example of the accommodation shown by the people of Brighton to Indians, during a period that we associate with all the Imperialism and Nationalism of the Empire. I think from my perspective, I was aware of this appearing an incomplete presentation, yet I was unsure and unconfident about how to articulate this concern. It certainly made me question the usefulness of the type of interpretation that I do as a student, if it is inconsolable with a project that is actually trying to represent histories in communities. There were questions raised about how in fact to present history to the public. In Universities, the practice of history seemed to me to be concerned with uncovering multiple narratives and interlocking histories that come to represent an event in the past; yet, to what extent is it possible to represent this visually to a wide audience, who may know very little, if not nothing about that particular subject. In community history projects, there seems to be something quite valuable about presenting history in and of itself, perhaps lacking engagement in anything more radical or alternative. I think that this was a challenge to the Black History group as much as it was for me. I would have been interested in being involved at this level of decision making and dialogue, where the group were deciding how and why to present the history of the Indian soldiers in Brighton, and the ways in which this would be shown to the public. My feeling was that this had happened prior to our involvement and as such I felt disconnected from the actual end product.
My research culminated in a piece of writing to supplement a walking tour of the Pavilion, and a final research summary. I had attempted to present the history of the period 1914-16 when the Pavilion was a military hospital to Indian Soldiers, from the perspective of their reception in Brighton, based on primary source material found in the Brighton History centre. I was keen to interlock this history with an understanding of the complicated historical and political situation. If I had had more time I would have liked to have focused my research on the memorial itself and considered its production and reception in the light of this complex history. At the time I was disappointed not to have contributed something that felt more substantial, such as the leaflet we were encouraged to research for at the beginning of September, or in fact to have got much further with my research into the memorial gate. I was able to get involved with the events taking place on Black History Legacy day, including some filming for the event that Elizabeth had coordinated and some interviews with participants and volunteers. I think my involvement in the Legacy day celebrations brought a really useful context to the work that I had been doing. It was clearly a huge project for everyone involved in the group, and I suppose it enabled me to see the wider context of the research that I had done, that in isolation felt limited, but ultimately seemed to be part of something that was a lot bigger than my individual contribution. I had the opportunity to take part in a tour of the Pavilion with a group of Ethiopian families, organised by Bert Williams. I feel that this tour made a really valuable contribution, and reflected for me the aim of the project which was to engage the community in a history that they were not aware of. I was aware during this process that actually it had been very difficult for Brighton Black History to secure a tour of the Pavilion, perhaps primarily because they were challenging the way that the Pavilion represents its history. There was something quite important and powerful for me about this which went some way towards contextualising the work that I had done, but also my expectations of the project.
Following the Legacy Day in October I organised an event in November with a feminist group that I have been a part of for a few years now. It was the first event that we had put on of this scale, and the aim of it was to encourage people who were not necessarily feminist or who had negative experiences of the word feminist to engage with some feminist ideas. I think during the organisation of this event some of the concerns and reflections that I had about the Black History placement and the Legacy day began to formulate in a really constructive way. I began to think more dynamically and with renewed focus about the relationships between individuals in a group which is essentially made up of volunteers with other commitments. Trying to incorporate the more theoretical or academic concerns that may have driven a project like this, with the necessity to get as many people as possible interested in it is a problematic dynamic. This is not a question of dumbing down content in order to engage with a wider audience, but an opportunity to ask some very real questions about why you are doing it, why it is important to make these histories and politics visible.
Quite asides from the practical concerns of putting on an event of any size, and working with people who are volunteering their time, putting on a community event of my own made me reconsider the value of creating a space in the community which suggests an alternative way of considering that community. For community groups there is so much work to do in defending why its very existence is valuable and imperative. For much of the time that I spent advertising the feminist event in November I was asked to defend feminism as something that continues to be relevant. It is this constant articulation and dialogue that community groups are involved in that is so important, and so essentially political, but also quite frustrating and something that tests your motivation. In one of the interviews conducted on the Black History Legacy day, one of the Black History volunteers commented that what was vital about the day had been the transformation of the New Road area into a cultural space that is rarely seen outside of London. For me this seems radical and political in itself, and a spirit that I hope I was able to bring to my own event.
The space for discussion of radical history and politics necessarily exists in academia, and it is certainly that space which has continued to give me a passion for activism and political discussion at the grassroots. There is perhaps an assumption that this does not exist in community projects because it is difficult to create a space for a wide audience to engage with such debates. I think it is maybe unfair to consider community history as an arena where history has to be dumbed down for a broad audience; there is so much that is valuable in the struggle to articulate any history as public history for marginalised communities. I do not think however that we should celebrate community history totally without criticism. By engaging with this debate we necessarily keep the practices of both the academy and community history reflexive, challenging and relevant. For me the placement has been such a useful experience in finding the ways that history and politics can engage and captivate people. This process is ongoing and informed by the challenge to be critical and interpretive with that history.