#BHM ‘A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease; dread.’ by Lottie Jacob and Jeremy Burchardt

The countryside has long been a place intrinsic to the British national identity, from the Romantic movement through to the present day. And yet, it has remained largely inaccessible to people of colour, both literally in rural landscapes – for example, walking – and in the representation of the countryside. The title of this post comes from artist Ingrid Pollard’s 1988 series ‘Pastoral Interlude’ and demonstrates the crucial need to understand the structures and processes that create and replicate both the underrepresentation of people of colour, and the barriers that prevent their access.

Wild in the City – a London-based non-profit supporting the well-being of people of colour through widening their relationship with nature – highlight some of the key barriers facing people of colour to the countryside, largely stemming from intergenerational trauma due to historic racism, and feeling out of place due to the lack of other people of colour. Fearing racism in the countryside is, unfortunately, not unfounded: Jay Rayner found that, in 2001, the proportion of people of colour who had been the victim of a racist crime was significantly heightened in rural areas, where the populations remained majority white. With the threat of hostility and the alien landscape, for many the countryside shrinks further away from reach.

This raises the challenging and complicated issues of what it means to ‘belong’, alongside what heritage and localism means. The myth of the English rural idyll, the celebrated notion of a peaceful and ‘natural’ countryside, is problematic; it obscures the realities of rural England to create the false image as a place of prosperity and having a lack of conflict, which is particularly troubling when related to the experiences of people of colour. In failing to recognise the hostility faced, and by perpetuating a false image of rural England, the landscape of the countryside is further closed to people of colour.

Landscape should be equally open to all, whether or not they identify with the historic residents and landowners of that area.  But how can this be done in practice? Do we need to free landscape from the ‘dead hand of the past’, so that we can open it up and democratize it for the present and the future?   And how can this be done without jettisoning the many layerings of the past and of memories that do so much to endow landscape with meaning?

So, what is being done? With the vital work of organisations such as Wild in the City and the Sheffield Environment Movement people of colour are guided to explore local green space, learning about wildlife identification and natural history, to become more immersed in the landscape. At an institutional level, the recent release of the ‘Interim Report’ on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties’ by the National Trust, exploring the links between their properties and colonialism, has sparked massive discussion regarding the heritage of England and how it often fails people of colour. The ongoing collaboration of the Colonial Countryside Project between the National Trust, the University of Leicester, Peepal Tree press, and local schools to explore country houses’ Caribbean and East India Company connections works towards incorporating the youth and people of colour in exploring the colonial past of Britain, so often overlooked in the curriculum.

Here at Reading, we have various initiatives working towards a more inclusive understanding of the countryside. The AHRC Network Changing landscapes, changing lives utilises a biographical and narrative approach to improve landscape decision making, which greatly increases the scope of voices able to contribute to the understanding of landscape. A particular focus in the context of the UK is the ways in which landscapes, especially rural landscapes, can be constructed as ‘white spaces’ that exclude ethnic minorities [1], an issue recently highlighted by MK Gallery’s ‘The Lie of the Land’ exhibition and ongoingly by the Wild in the City initiative.  The second symposium, ‘Whose Landscapes?’ – postponed due to COVID-19 – will also explore conflicting landscape identities [2] and the synergies and divergences between personal, local and national landscape identities [3].  In conjunction with the symposium, an exhibition of photographs by Ingrid Pollard, whose work interrogates race and rurality, will be held at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), connecting to MERL’s major initiative attempting to decolonise its collections.

This work merely scratches the surface of the colossal project necessary to opening up the English countryside to a more diverse range of people. Not only must we continue to challenge the myth of the rural idyll and research and educate ourselves to the historic role of people of colour in the countryside, it is also essential to offer our support – whether financial, expertise or time –  to local organisations working to widen participation in the countryside. After all, it can only truly be a Green and Pleasant land when it becomes an equal one.

[1] Sarah Neal and Julian Agyeman (eds), The New Countryside? Ethnicity, nation and exclusion in Contemporary Rural Britain (Bristol, 2006).

[2] Loupa Ramos, 2016

[3] Paul Readman, Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity (Cambridge, 2018). 

Lottie Jacob is an MA student at the university of Reading. Find about more about Dr Jeremey Burchardt and his research here

Find out more on ‘Changing Landscapes, Changing Lives: How can Narrative and Biographical Perspectives Improve Landscape Decision Making’ at the University of Reading Changing Landscapes Network here

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#BHM ‘She hits massa with de hoe:’ The Weaponization of Plantation Labour Equipment by Enslaved Women in the Antebellum American South, by Erin Shearer

Three women and one man hoeing in field, (1899), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91785649/]

This photograph, titled Three women and one man hoeing in a field, depicts the agricultural labour of unidentified African Americans in the late nineteenth century. The image not only offers a glimpse into the lives of Black Southerners before the turn of the century, but also provides an insight into the labour performed by enslaved people during the antebellum era (1815-1861) and the height of ‘King Cotton.’ 

The hoe served as a crucial tool of agricultural development on Southern slaveholding sites during the antebellum era.  Enslaved men and women often hoed crops alongside each other in back breaking conditions from ‘sun-up to sun-down’, cultivating the land of the elite and thus lining the pockets of their enslavers.[1] Consequently, for many African Americans, the hoe not only served as a tool of oppression but also stood as a symbol of their enslavement. 

Paradoxically, enslaved women often utilised tools of slavery such as the hoe as an object of resistance. Enslaved women created various violent strategies to resist victimisation, affirm agency and identity, and to protest against the legalised rape and abuse of their bodies in creative and subversive violent ways. The utilisation of plantation labour equipment ironically provided strategies for survival and allowed women to protest and resist white mechanisms of control. 

Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted in the 1930s reveal a clear and distinct theme of enslaved women’s violence and illuminate how agricultural implements, such as the hoe, were utilised as an object of women’s resistance. When interviewed in the state of Texas, one formerly enslaved man described how an enslaved woman, Clarinda, violently resisted her slaveholder’s sexual advances, or attempts to ‘[inter]‘fere with her,’  by physically assaulting him with the hoe she was operating in the plantation field: 

‘De worst whippin’ I seed was give to Clarinda. She hits massa with de hoe ‘cause he try ‘fere with her and she try stop him.’[2]

Additionally, a respondent named Richard Crump described how his mother would stand inside her cabin equipped with a hoe and would challenge the residing overseer to enter and beat her. Afraid of trespassing into the armed enslaved woman’s cabin, the overseer let her be.[3] Lucindy Allison reported to a WPA interviewer how her mother, while labouring in the field, violently threatened to ‘chop up’ the plantation overseer ‘into pieces’ with her hoe if he attempted to whip her pregnant daughter. Unwilling to take the risk of potentially combatting two armed women, the overseer relented.[4] These examples demonstrate that women converted agricultural equipment into deadly weapons which could be utilised against slaveholders and overseers at any time to subvert authority. Bondswomen used plantation equipment as their own form of personal protection which extended to their children as women attempted to curb the generational cycle of abuse which operated on slaveholding sites. 

Slaveholders expected women who laboured as field hands to perform the same heavy work as men and little distinction was made between the two sexes, as highlighted by Anne Clark, who informed her interviewer that she ‘ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man did, I was strong.’[5] The enforced labour implemented upon enslaved women inadvertently gave them the skills and experience needed to be able to transition the hoe from an innocent farm implement into a deadly weapon within seconds. 

The weaponization of the agricultural hoe specifically had many practical advantages. The hoe easily transitioned from an everyday farming tool to offensive weapon due to its light weight, long reach and sharp metal blade. Swinging the lightweight hoe required minimal strength and the metal blade edge could easily damage skin or crack bones of the intended target. Additionally, its long reach allowed the user to attack the intended victim and kept them from any immediate short-range counterattacks. Overall, converting equipment into weapons bolstered bondswomen’s violence, provided extra protection for themselves and others, and allowed them to overcome any possible physiological shortcomings due to the practical advantages of the weapon.  Therefore, it is not surprising that enslaved people, most notably women, converted this tool of enslavement into an object of resistance.

The descriptions of these women speak to a celebration and appreciation of the efficacy of women’s violence. They demonstrate how enslaved women rejected contemporary narratives of both white supremacy and inevitable masculine dominance through a resistance tactic still largely unexplored by historians of slavery. The weaponization of equipment by enslaved women forces historians to expand our understandings of those behaviours and actions we constitute as gendered. The testimony provided by the formerly enslaved clearly reveals that violence was not solely a male phenomenon, and it challenges contemporary and historical ideas around resistance, activism and identities forged in slavery. It asks us to reconceptualise the gendered boundaries we have drawn around strategies for survival. 

[1] Henry D. Jenkins, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3

[2] Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2

[3] Richard Crump, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[4] Lucindy Allison, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[5] Anne Clark, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1

Erin Shearer is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @erinshearer05

First posted on the Reading Gender History Research Cluster blog here

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Welcome to Black History Month in the Department of History by Professor David Stack #BHM

2020 marks the 33rd anniversary of Black History Month (BHM)  in the UK, and it has never seemed more relevant.

One outstanding feature of the wave of protests, conversations, and questioning that has followed the murder of George Floyd has been the centrality of history. Statues, institutions, language, and curricula have all been scrutinised with an eye to understanding who we are as a nation and, most importantly for historians, how we got here.

For our profession this is an intriguing and hopeful development, but also an implicit rebuke.  The widespread interest in questions of race and black history in the general public is still not well represented in UK higher education. As the 2018 Royal Historical Society report on Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History showed, we are an unrepresentative profession, and have done far too little to attract BME undergraduates to study history. Some of the reasons for this, and possible first steps towards solutions, were discussed in a previous blog.

At the start of BHM it is worth restating that we have a duty to address this failing, both for reasons of social justice and because a more inclusive history will be a better history.

Over the next four weeks we will be highlighting some of the work going on in the department that is making our small contribution to building that better history.

Each Tuesday we will retweeting links to relevant recent blogs by our graduate students; and each Friday we will be publishing a new blog by a member of staff which highlights the connections between their individual research and an aspect of black British history.

We will also be using BHM as an opportunity, in consultation with our students, to reflect upon ways in which we might develop and deepen our curriculum.

Our Department, of course, shares many of the more general failings of the sector highlighted in the RHS report, so, as well as enjoying our contributions, interested readers will also want to use the next month as an opportunity to engage with the wider literature on black history and the black British experience.

As a starting point, here are ten (very arbitrary) recommendations.

For a general survey, David Olusoga’s Black and British: a forgotten history (2016) has become the standard text. Also still worth reading is the book which inspired a young Olusoga, Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: the history of black people in Britain (1984).

Sometimes the voices of the disenfranchised can be  better represented in fiction than they are in standard histories, and Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, has been justly praised for representing a diverse range of black British women’s experiences divided by class, generation, and sexuality.

For a more concentrated novel about the life of a young black woman, Queenie (2019) by Candice Carty-Williams is a light read which illustrates some of the deep inequalities in society.

General histories and novels, however, can only get us so far. Those seeking a more theoretical understanding of issues of race – and its intersections with questions of class, gender, and sexuality – will enjoy two classic works by leading US feminists: Audre Lorde’s short essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House and Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race & Class (1981).

More recently, two books by black British authors that have attracted much attention are Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) and Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018). Natives, in particular, will appeal to historians, as Akala explores his own experiences through a deep understanding of history and historical legacies.

One of those legacies, of course, is racism, and Angela Saini’s Superior: the return of race science (2019) is a very readable account of the rise of the concept of race, and the insidious and destructive role played by race science.

My final recommendation is a work of poetry, Jay Bernard’s quite remarkable Surge (2019). Surge excavates and explores the New Cross Fire of 1981, and connects it to the more recent injustice of Grenfell. Although not strictly speaking a work of history, Bernard’s collection, by taking an often forgotten historical event and linking it to the urgent need to address contemporary inequality, perfectly embodies the positive spirit of Black History Month.

These are my recommendations. Tell us yours.

Find our more about Professor Stack and his research at the University of Reading here

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Merlin by Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers #HistorialDesertIslandDiscs

As we head towards the last bank holiday of the summer and the start of a new academic year, the History Department at the University of Reading ‘Historical Desert Island Discs’ series comes to magical end with our Professor of all things Magical, and Astrological, Anne Mathers-Lawrence and her choices of music for Merlin… 


Merlin ended his career by being imprisoned inside a cave (or tree) forever.  That might make him a hero for the self-isolating, or even a consoling figure, since isolation caused by the coronavirus is not likely to last so long.  These suggestions start in the period during which he became famous and move on to more modern evocations of magic.  The idea with all of them is that they can evoke other worlds.

Music by a prophetess of the 12th century, contemporary with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s revelations about Merlin:

An early musical homage to Merlin –  by Purcell and Dryden, from ‘King Arthur’, this is the ‘Cold Song’ and is about the magical summoning of the Spirit of Winter:

The ‘Witch’s Aria’ by Rob Lane, from the BBC TV series Merlin, is successfully scary:


cameron photoJulia Margaret Cameron, Vivien and Merlin (1874)


This lament by Guillaume de Machaut might suit those dealing with misfortunes:

More recent evocations of magic and magicians include, this one by Buffy Sainte Marie from the 1960s.  It’s called ‘God Is Alive and Magic Is Afoot’:

To cheer things up, there is Queen’s ‘A Kind of Magic’:

And Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’:

Finally, I’d have to finish with ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane (I like this version particularly, but am open to suggestions):


Despite being unable to escape from imprisonment Merlin retained his visionary and prophetic powers, so would have no need of a crystal ball.  However, he would presumably miss being able to see the sky and read the stars, so this ‘book of astrology’ might cover both book and luxury item:

BL book


You can find out more about Professor Lawrence, her research and teaching here.

Professor Lawrence’s The True History of Merlin the Magician is coming out in paperback April 2020.


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1986 Teenage Girl by Amy Gower #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

We are delighted that our penultimate #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs is by Amy Gower. This fictional account inspired by her PhD research into teenage girls’ experiences of secondary school between 1970 and 2000 (see end of page). 

We’ve had the Desert Island Discs from some of the most famous people throughout history, including MPs, Presidents, dictators. But what might a teenager in 1986 have chosen as some of their top picks…?

Amy J17 header (2) (1)

It’s 1986, and here are my Desert Island Discs, starting with one of the most popular songs of the year:

  1. The Bangles – Manic Monday (on TOTP, 1986) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7c9fFMgQTYk

Seeing as I’m a teenager, I spend most of my time in school. School is mostly interesting and I work hard, but this doesn’t always help after school when you have to find a job. My older sister left school two years ago with a few O-levels and couldn’t find a job, so she had to go on the dole until she got a place on the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). I worry I won’t be able to get a job after school, but the careers teacher said if I work hard, I can stay at school for sixth form and do my A-levels, although that still doesn’t help me work out what to do afterwards… I was only 10 when Ghost Town came out, and my sister was still at school, but she always says that the song reflects her experience of boredom.

  1. The Specials – Ghost Town https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ2oXzrnti4

Apart from going to school, I see my friends, go to the cinema and youth club. I watch a lot of tv with Mum, like Dallas and Eastenders. We always watch the Wogan Show, which is when I first saw Grace Jones last year. She performed Slave to the Rhythm entirely under a black and white striped mask and cape, until she took them off right at the end and had the most amazing purple eyeshadow.

  1. Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm (live on Wogan show, 1985) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeh-zoP1kVY

Me and my sister get to take over the tv on a Thursday evening and put Top of the Pops on. All singles these days have to be released with some kind of dramatic music video, with special effects or a cool dance routine, like Ultravox or Five Star. And then you have the really weird ones, like the Spitting Image songs, and the Young Ones single with Cliff Richard. Some people are getting really inventive with it now. Peter Gabriel used animation for his Sledgehammer video – the dancing chickens were a bit creepy though!

  1. Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJWJE0x7T4Q

I share a room with my sister, who is three years older than me. We are having a war over the posters on our walls at the moment: she has posters of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet on her side, because she loves Simon Le Bon (yuk), whereas I like George Michael and actors like Jason Donovan from Neighbours. I’ll take Duran Duran – Rio to the island just because it’s her favourite!

  1. Duran Duran – Rio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJL-lCzEXgI

At school everyone is in different groups. You have the clones, they wear all the latest fashions and like mainstream music, and although they customise their clothes with patches and things, they end up looking mostly the same. There are other groups, like the casuals, the goths who listen to The Cure and worship Morrisey, but I don’t really fit into any of these groups. I like The Cure but I also like Toyah and A-ha, and am friends with people in lots of different groups. But I am happy to not be the same; I like being an individual.

  1. Toyah – Don’t Fall in Love (I Said) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTCv_zsP7Yo

My sister went to a Red Wedge gig in the spring. She saw The Style Council and the Communards, I was SO jealous, but really she went to see Billy Bragg. She said the bands were good, but she kept getting bothered by boring old people from the Labour Party. She is going to vote Labour next year anyway (good job too, or our Dad might have disowned her!). I like some of those bands doing the Red Wedge tour, but I think I’d only go to see Everything But The Girl – Tracy Thorn has a lovely voice and I like her spiky hair, although I don’t think my mum would let me have it…

  1. Everything But the Girl – When All’s Well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAtFal50nZ4

I think the 1980s have so far been two extremes. Unemployment has been a big worry for people my age, and school hasn’t been very helpful so far in telling us what to do. But at the moment, I’m having a pretty good time and making the most out of being a carefree teenager. It’s my 16th  birthday soon, and I need to tell the DJ some songs I’d like to play. Madonna is pretty popular across all the social groups, so it’s bound to get people on the dancefloor.

  1. Madonna – Papa Don’t Preach https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G333Is7VPOg


I don’t think I will find the Bible very interesting on the desert island; Mum and Dad still make us go to church at Easter and Christmas, but I mostly switch off and think about the roast waiting for us when we get home! I also would rather not have the Complete Works of Shakespeare. We read Richard the III at school and it was soooo boring, but I did like Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedict were really sharp and funny. When it came to the luxury item, I couldn’t decide! I thought maybe roller skates, but they’d be hard to learn on the sand, and then I thought about one of those new Nintendo Entertainment Systems that has just come out in America, you can play Zelda, Mario, and all sorts of games on there. But I’ve decided to take take one of those new mobile phones so I can talk to my friends whenever I want; talking to my friends is one of the most important things to me, and I’d really miss laughing with them about last night’s Young Ones or gossiping about the teachers.

amy the-bangles-1980s-1 (1)

The Bangles circa 1986


This fictional account drew inspiration from my research for my PhD project into teenage girls’ experiences of secondary school between 1970 and 2000, in particular oral history interviews conducted as part of this project, diaries held by the Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Library, London, and Just Seventeen magazine, especially the 1987 Bitter-sweet Dreams collection of readers creative writing. For more on teenage girls and popular culture, see She-Bop: The Definitive History Of Women In Popular Music by Lucy O’Brien and for more on education, moral panics and girlhood, see Girl Trouble by Carol Dyhouse.


Amy is also part of the University of Reading Research Cluster in Gender History

If you are interested in gender history more broadly, you can find our Gender History Cluster blog here

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