Last month was Black History Month, and this year fascinating debates were raised after a group of students from the University of Cambridge made complaints that they could study their whole English Literature degree without ever once reading a non-white writer.
This is not the case for English students at NTU, where there has always been a strong tradition of teaching postcolonial and global writers in both compulsory and optional modules. Here, students are introduced to black writers from the USA and the Caribbean in their first year modules, and each year up to 100 students take the optional module Black Writing in Britain in year 2.
There has been a diverse and abundant tradition of black writing in Britain, particularly since a group of established writers including Samuel Selvon and George Lamming migrated from the Caribbean in the Windrush generation from 1948 onwards. Despite this, most students begin the module with little or no knowledge of British black writers or the history of colonialism and migration. To develop knowledge of this body of literature it is important to understand the breadth of the writing, rather than to focus on becoming familiar with texts written by a handful of well known contemporary writers who have won significant literary prizes. With the dual aim of supporting students’ expansive knowledge of the field, and enabling students to contribute to a resource to support readers worldwide to become familiar with Black Writing in Britain, I decided to develop a database introducing texts by black writers in Britain.
Black Writing in Britain: A Literary Database
The database includes details about literature written in or about Britain by writers of black African or Caribbean origin or heritage from 1948 to the present day. In 2017, a number of students opted to take part in the pilot project – from 2018 onwards, each module cohort will contribute to the database as a formal part of their module learning, which may contribute towards their preparation for their end-of-module assessment. Students select a text and input bibliographical data (dates, names, genre, publishing details) and biographical information about the author, as well as key words and themes, and they select a quotation from the text which they judge to be particularly meaningful and discuss this in conjunction with some secondary reading.
As well as gathering information, students (as well as the wider public) need to be able to use the data, so in order to make the material searchable, I sought the help and advice of the Arts and Humanities Learning and Teaching Technology team. Phil Pierce experimented with various tools and developed a database that could be searched by keyword, date, author name, and genre (novel, poetry, film, life-writing, short story, short film, play). The resulting database entry conveys practical information and critical ideas, and can be used by students on the module to search for texts which tackle similar themes, or to locate texts published within a particular time frame, so that they can identify texts that suit their assignment. Similarly, readers from the general public can locate texts they would like to read. For instance, the database can reveal all the poetry published between 2000 and 2010 with a theme of carnival, or all the novels published between 1950 and 1980 with a theme of education, or all the texts in the database with the theme of food. As more texts are added to the database each year, the search results will be lengthier and the themes more diverse.
It is particularly important that the database is accessible and has a purpose beyond the module, as is clear from recent debates about the need to ‘decolonise’ university curricula – the same can be said of school curricula and of publishers’ lists, and the publishing industry is starting to respond to charges that its book publishing and marketing strategies lack diversity. If readers are better able to locate writing by black writers, the demand for this important and varied body of literature will grow.
Audiences and Impact
The audience for the project database is expected to include students on modern and contemporary literature modules at other UK universities; students worldwide studying postcolonial or world literature who would like to develop their knowledge of Black Writing in Britain; undergraduate and postgraduate students seeking information for research essays and projects; academics and researchers; school teachers; the general public; and news media researchers or bloggers seeking information about and knowledge of literature in the field.
The database will be made accessible to the public and advertised to staff and students worldwide as a research tool, and to the general public as a tool for locating new writing.
Black Writers database project team:
Jenni Ramone: Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies, English, Culture and Media, School of Arts and Humanities;
Phil Pierce: Learning Technologist, Learning and Teaching Support Unit, School of Arts and Humanities;
Head of the Learning and Teaching Support Unit
MAE011(Clifton) DICe S04 (City)