In late November a friend at my gym forwarded me a short essay by historian Sadiah Qureshi, published in the London Book Review. The text was a response to the Royal Historical Society’s report Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History, to which Qureshi was a contributor. After summarising the current state of play, calling out the decided Eurocentricity expressed by some academics in England, and highlighting how marginal and diverse histories are often relegated to the sidelines of ‘specialities’, Qureshi challenges the history community:
What if British historians learned Gaelic, Yoruba and Urdu, instead of, say, German and French? Academics ask students to read Tacitus, Herodotus, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida and, more rarely, Judith Butler. But how many are also required to read Audre Lorde, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, Jasbir Puar, Sara Ahmed, Kim TallBear or Kimberlé Crenshaw? What if these writers were required reading for everyone? Present curricula assume that white men write about universal truths, while people of colour are only expert in a narrow field – usually to do with questions of their identity and heritage. This distinction ought to end.
In my own career – when I’m not being an art historian – I occasionally write LGBT history texts or speak at the Australian Homosexual Histories Conferences. While the topics I delve into cast light upon forgotten or obscured histories, an ongoing challenge for me is to present this information in a way that is neither sectional nor isolated. For LGBT history – or any socially or culturally diverse history for that matter – to be fully understood, appreciated and embraced by the community, proactive effort needs to be made to engage with these histories in a manner that is respectful, balanced, and neither over- nor understated.
As Qureshi clarifies, one way that historians can make better histories is by widening our sources, and scratching deeper beneath the surface of existing histories to find enriching substrata. I was fortunate after reading the London Book Review text to stumble across Samia Khatun’s article Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia, a precursor to her recently-published book of the same title. In this article, Khatun outlines her research, departing from a Kasasol Ambia incorrectly identified as a Quran to reveal new knowledge about the West and Central Asian presence in colonial and early twentieth century Australia. Khatun writes:
…the problem isn’t as simple as the monolingualism of Australian historians. The deeper problem is that researchers systematically approach books like the Kasasol Ambia as dead objects—artefacts whose stories belong in the past and have no place in an imagined future. This is a method of seeing that arrived to both South Asia and Australia with British colonisers. English language historians played a key role in instilling this quintessentially modern attitude in not just in Britons, but in South Asians, by relegating colonised peoples’ history books to the realm of myth, fairytales and dreaming.
Professional Historians are in a critical position to push into this realm of new history. Our skills and our ethics will not simply result in revisionism, but rather a complete overhaul of what histories are valid to us, what sources are appropriate to support our storytelling, and what methods we employ to sensitively share our research and respectfully engage with others. So, in 2019, let’s take baby steps in a new direction. Consult a source that we otherwise would have overlooked, follow a lead that we may not usually, or talk to someone about a subject otherwise foreign to you. The results may be surprising, and our histories of the future will be all the better for it.
Tim Roberts – PHA Qld President