Book Review: In search of black history with Bonnie Greer by Bonnie Greer

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of eight podcasts with multi-talented Bonnie Greer, who – among many, many accomplishments – was also the first Black American woman to become not just a trustee of the British Museum but also serve as Deputy Chair, is the first of a series of writings I’m working through looking at history through non-white eyes. I started with Simon Jenkins’ ‘A Short History of England’ to ground myself in a sense of white English perspective first so that I could really feel the difference in approach. ‘In Search of Black History’ – which is about discovery as much as anything – seemed an excellent place to begin after that.

I wasn’t wrong. Firstly, Greer is a delight to listen to. She’s lovely, kind, gentle and fiercely intelligent. The love of learning and discovery oozes from her and she’s clearly a remarkable woman. It would take someone remarkable to take on an institution like the British Museum and she does, finding many super experts from non-white backgrounds along the way working in archaeology, history, arts and other disciplines.

There are issues, I feel. Personally, I found what felt to be ‘representative’ traditional ‘African’ music, which recurred frequently in all the episodes, to be irritating and, ironically, perhaps a little stereotyped. There is, after all, no such thing as ‘African music’ as it is a continent of 50+ countries. Similarly, I felt Greer overplays the importance of some of the things she finds – black people in London during the Black Plague and so on – as though these are astonishing facts which have been eradicated from history. They may be a surprise to the general public, but not to anyone with any learning in history. Peter Frankopan’s superlative ‘Silk Roads’ history of the world is a much more astonishingly informative book from this perspective. And finally, I really started to twitch when I realised that Greer was going to repeat the last few words of every single interview conducted in the podcasts as though the words were precious diamonds of ‘wow’ which contained the wisdom of the universe. It was okay for occasional use; but used continuously, the effect was tedious.

Having got all that lot off my chest, I’ll move on because, frankly, these points don’t really matter. I put them on record for those who might need the warning and find similar things (sound bite tunes, repetitive emphatic strategies etc.) irritating. The content of all eight of Greer’s podcasts though is superb. She brings to life parts of history which, while not actually hidden, are certainly not emphasised enough in mainstream historical education. She doesn’t shy away from difficult issues either. African queens who provided slaves for the European slave traders and, indeed, the whole aspect of internal slavery within Africa is dealt with unapologetically. We begin to understand why it happened and how it differed from transatlantic European/British slave-trading. Greer makes us look anew at people like American civil rights activist, Pauli Murray – someone I knew of and was quite sure Greer was wrong to say had been somewhat airbrushed out of the history books because ‘she didn’t fit’ what black activists were supposed to be like. I went to the history books I use with my A level students to check and, sure enough, no mention of her. Greer was right. Of course she was.

I find that when you read (or listen to) the likes of informed, passionate writers like Greer, that you are bound to learn something if you’re prepared to come with an open mind. Even though that message can sometimes be overstated, it is still important. Greer’s work here is honest and challenging – not just to those of us who are white, but Greer challenges herself and other black colleagues working in predominantly white and old institutions like the British Museum. Dealing with thousands of artefacts which can be very legitimately be said to have been stolen from colonised lands and peoples, squaring this circle is not an easy task and Greer et al don’t pretend it is. What is clear is that they have a mission to continue to force their way into such institutions to bring about change and be a part of making a fairer, more honest history for the future.

That mission can only be a good thing. When you have a one-sided view of history, you have no history at all: you have national mythology. And if such mythology is allowed to breathe for too long in a community, then they start to believe it instinctively and unquestionably. For the British, this is an all too present reality and we’re living with those consequences right now.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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