This summer the community of Americanists at Oxford considered how we could help UK undergraduates understand the historical context of the ongoing public reckoning with racial injustice brought to the fore by the police murder of George Floyd. Dr Sonia Tycko, Kinder Junior Research Fellow in Atlantic History, explains the process of creating the bibliography.
One of the projects we took on was building a bibliography of accessible, excellent scholarship on the history of racism in early America and the United States. I agreed to direct this project, and the Rothermere American Institute funded and supported a research internship position, which has been admirably filled by my colleague and recent Oxford History BA graduate, Amelia Hart.
From the beginning of the project in September, Amelia and I took seriously the criticism that ‘diverse’ university reading lists can be used to signal progress while papering over structural problems in academia. In the course of the project, my colleagues and students drew on decades of learning from decolonization movements and student activism to recognize five urgent changes that we need to see in universities. These are: recruiting and retaining top-flight scholars from minority-ethnic backgrounds as lecturers; fixing the leaky pipeline of students of non-European heritage into British academia with dedicated funding and mentorship; reversing the trend towards precarious academic employment which has disproportionately affected women and minority-ethnic staff; giving reparations to the nations and peoples who have been historically exploited by the British state in collusion with its universities; and reforming curricula at the school and university levels to provide UK students with access to knowledge and a critical vocabulary for thinking about how imperialism and racism shape all of our lives. The America and Race project, while much more modest and indeed moderate in scope, has fed national conversations on all of these issues, particularly the curriculum question.
Amelia and I began the project by trying to get a general sense of the materials that historians of America based in the UK are currently using to teach their students about racism. From there, we aimed to curate a bibliography of the best titles. Amelia first collated reading lists from current or recent US history modules taught at five universities. We found a predominance of older works by mostly white male historians limited to social and political history. The titles about race on these lists focused on anti-Black racism and Black freedom struggles, with occasional nods to Indigenous history, and virtually nothing on other minority groups. Few lists made connections between US national and regional histories, and relevant transnational, international, or imperial histories.
We proceeded by surveying more than fifty UK-based historians, asking them: What readings are most effective for teaching UK history undergraduates about race in America? Here we asked respondents to focus on more recent scholarship, and to be mindful to include the many important but often overlooked works by historians from marginalized groups. The results were overwhelming: we now had a list of more than one thousand titles to digest.
On October 12th the Oxford American History Graduate Seminar reviewed an early draft of the bibliography, with a comment from Kariann Yokota. Professor Yokota explained her guiding principle in course design: understanding the historical construction of racism is essential to understanding American history. The postgrads found Yokota’s comment inspiring as they begin to teach their own students. This approach offers undeniable analytical benefits but is not yet the norm.
On October 22nd I moderated an external review panel discussion with historians Uta Balbier, Yasmin Dualeh, Rachel Herrmann, Lydia Plath, Barbara Savage, and Emily West. Amelia kickstarted the discussion with a comment on her own experience studying history as an undergraduate. Like many British students, she had specialized in the US history track because it included the history of racism in a way that the British history track did not. We were joined online by ninety scholars, mostly early career researchers, from around the UK, who contributed to a lively Q&A.
Faced with this enormous bibliography, attendees and contributors to our project felt both encouraged and incited to further critical engagement with the field. The more items we added, the more we realized what was missing in our thematic coverage, and who was missing in our author profiles. We were surprised to find the burgeoning literature from ethnic studies largely absent from the first wave of suggested titles. Similarly, despite the fact that women historians have been in the vanguard of scholarship on race for decades, the majority of titles recommended by respondents were written by men. We addressed these issues in subsequent revision, but they remain apparent in the final edition and signal a direction for future work.
Throughout the process of curation, colleagues near and far gave generously of their time and expertise. The resulting bibliography is now available here in a highlights edition of one hundred titles in twenty-five categories, each introduced with blurbs to help guide undergraduates in their reading, and an extended edition of more than one thousand titles, which should be useful to module designers. Bodleian LibGuides also features a version of the highlights edition. I hope the bibliography will be beneficial to students throughout the country, and that it will aid lecturers’ efforts to bring curricula in line with current scholarship.
Dr Sonia Tycko
Kinder Junior Research Fellow in Atlantic History
Rothermere American Institute