10 Questions with Dr Robin Bunce

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Photo: Robin Bunce
Photo: Robin Bunce
Photo: Robin Bunce

Features editor Emma Freer sits down with Cambridge professor, political historian and invited lecturer for Black History Month, Dr Robin Bunce.

Dr Bunce will be delivering lectures on the Black Power movement in Britain during the ’60s and ’70s.

In your professional opinion, why is it important to recognize, celebrate, and participate in Black History Month every October?

Black History Month is problematic for the simple reason that black history should be central to any narrative of British History. In that sense, every month should be black history month. That said, we have a long way to go, as black history is still marginal to most popular narratives of British history and to school curricula. Therefore, Black History Month is important because it keeps the need for a full account of British history on the agenda.

Do you think students (of all ages) in Britain learn about Black History effectively? What changes, if any, do you think could be made in this part of the curriculum?

Students learn about black history in a variety of contexts. At A Level, for example, there are several good courses on the American Civil Rights movement. And there’s a lot of very good material on Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the struggle against segregation in the southern states. However, Malcolm X, Black Nationalism, and Black Power are not nearly as well supported or explored with the curriculum. A lot of the material that I have come across in this context, by no means all, simply doesn’t present a detailed view of the thought or activities of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, or Stokely Carmichael. There’s even less on the Black Power movement in Britain. That said, we should be thankful that Michael Gove’s plans to expunge Mary Seacole from GCSE curriculum were thwarted.

What do you think is the most important issue today regarding race relations in the U.K.?

“Race relations” is a bit of an out-dated term, but I’ll say this: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what racism means in Britain today. Specifically, public discourse seems to equate racism with segregation or separation. Moreover, equality tends to be identified with inclusion, which in turn is conflated with assimilation. Significantly, there are ways of including people in society that are demeaning. The mainstream of the British Black Power movement sought ‘integration on our terms’, rather than integration as second-class citizens. I think that’s the key thing. We have yet to ensure that people can participate in all aspects of British society if they choose to and on their own terms.

Police racism was a big problem during the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially in response to the advent of the Black Power Movement. Since then, do you think there have been any significant advancements in stopping this problem? Or do you feel that it is still a problem?

There have been significant advances in terms of the justice system since the Mangrove trial.

One of the key achievements of the Mangrove trial was to force the first official acknowledgement that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred’ in the Metropolitan police. From that point on the Met could no longer issue blanket denials. However, throughout the ‘70s and the ‘80s the Met routinely claimed that a few racist officers were giving the whole force a bad name. The Macpherson Enquiry, following Stephen Lawrence’s murder, concluded that the Met was institutionally racist. Nonetheless, the killing of Mark Duggan and subsequent misinformation from the police shows that there is still some way to go.

What were the biggest results of the Black Power movement in Britain? How did it most change race relations in the U.K.?

The Black Power movement achieved a whole series of things. First, they changed the language, the word ‘coloured’, for example, has largely dropped out of the language. Equally, the term ‘institutional racism’ has its origins in the late 1960s Black Power movement. A term that started its life in black radical circles is now informing the legal system and government police. More generally, the Black Power movement foregrounded the notion that minority communities should organise themselves, formulate their own demands and strategy and play the

leading role in their own liberation. In one way or another that idea has permeated contemporary culture.

How did the British Black Power movement differ from its American counterpart? How were its motivations and consequences uniquely British?

Actually, there are significant similarities between the Black Power movement in America and in the UK. The most obvious is that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the British movement borrowed quite heavily from the iconography of Black Power pioneered in the US. At a deeper level, the two movements were similar in that women often played a leading role in the movement. The second generation of leaders of the Black Panthers in the US and Britain were women. Althea Jones-Lecointe led the Panthers through their most successful and influential period in the UK. Olive Morris, another prominent Panther, founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group and played an important part in the south London squatters’ movement. Barbara Beese was one of the Mangrove Nine, who played a key role in the creation and execution of the group’s defensive strategy. And Leila Hassan, a member of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, played a crucial role in the foundation of the Race Today Collective.

In the UK today, the label BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) seems to suggest that racial minority status and ethnic minority status are conflated. Does racism affect non-black British residents differently? And how might Black History Month recognise their experience, if at all?

Sorry, as a historian the present isn’t really my period!

Dr Bunce’s lecture will take place Thursday 30 October in the Medical Science Building (Seminar Room 1) at 7 pm.

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