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What We Might Learn From History...

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The many events and discussions that have taken place around the UK during Black History Month, which draws to a close next week, have given us the opportunity not only to celebrate black history, culture and heritage, but also to reflect on and learn from what happened in the past.

Much has been done to celebrate achievements in black culture, both past and present, but perhaps one of the more unusual, and unexpected, examples of black history to be highlighted was a collection of letters written by a privileged American woman named Sarah Hicks Williams.

The 11 letters, loaned from the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, were in an exhibition I organised with the University of East Anglia as part of its Containing Multitudes programme for Black History Month. Sarah was born and raised in New Hartford, New York, during the mid-19th century, in a well-to-do white family active in moral reform and abolition. In September 1853 however, Sarah married Benjamin Williams, a slaveholder from North Carolina. Shortly after their wedding she removed to Clifton Grove, her husband's plantation in Greene County, North Carolina, and became mistress to 37 enslaved men, women and children held there. The letters chart her changing attitudes as she went from being the sister-in-law of an abolitionist, attending Liberty Party Conventions and charity events to help the poor in the North, to the wife of a slaveholder who was heralding the "spirit of 76" for the Confederacy as the sectional crisis erupted into Civil War in 1861.

The story of the letters was covered by a couple of national newspapers and although conscious that in this ever-changing world of higher education, where 'engagement' and 'impact' necessitate academics leaving the sanctity of their institutions and opening themselves and their ideas up to public scrutiny, the comments posted below news of the exhibition were disheartening. One individual posed the question of, "why the f**k" this was being used to mark Black History Month. As they so eloquently pointed out, "it's not exactly inspiring is it?" The point, despite how it was put, was valid. Surely Black History Month should focus on Black heroes and heroines, those who actively resisted oppression and prejudice, the movers and the shakers in the fight for Black people's justice across the globe - right? Agreed, but this kind of attitude completely misses the point about history and the lessons we might learn from it.

Slavery in the Americas was tragic, horrific, and dehumanizing. Yet, it was also a fact for many millions of enslaved men, women, and children and out of this condition, Black champions arose - some you may well have heard of such as Harriet Tubman, W. E. B. Dubois, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Yet others have received no voice, muted in the pages of history books that regale hundreds of "great" men and far fewer women. If we think through the silences of Sarah's letters - what's not said - and by reading between the lines when she refers to a lack of diffidence on the part of enslaved women or the recalcitrant attitude of a particular enslaved man, we can begin to reconstruct the lives of those enslaved peoples, living and working on the Williams' plantation and start to understand how they stepped outside the status of 'slave' to become something more - wife, brother, father, mother, sister, lover, friend.

By excavating deeper and mining the silences, even if written by those who held power and privilege in particular societies, it can lead us in new directions to reflect on the lives of those who seem to have fallen in between the cracks. The letters reveal a deeper meaning than the one simply written on the page and in this media-obsessed world, where everything is so fast-paced and today's front page becomes yesterday's old news, it might do to stand back and question whose voice is not being heard and the reasons why this might be so. So to the naysayers who question the relevance or historical value of the letters and the exhibition's legitimacy on a programme of Black History Month events, remember inspiration can be taken from the smallest of acts and the most seemingly powerless of people. This is what we can really learn from history.