The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Article excerpt

The Oxford Companion to Black British History; edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones. Oxford: OUP, 2007. xxiv, 562 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-280439-6. £30.00. Online (subscription required) at www.oxfordreference.com.

Aimed at academics, researchers, and students from ?-level onwards, the Oxford Companion to Black British History claims to answer the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's call in December 2005 for greater recognition of the black presence in British history. This is a formidable claim, and one that is only partially achieved by the text.

The OCBBH aims to address the invisibility from which many black Britons have suffered by providing comprehensive biographical and personal details for as many prominent individuals as possible. In some cases, as the editors frankly admit, lack of documentation has impeded them. Church records of the 17th and 18th centuries provide brief references to several hundred black people in Britain, but in most cases only their Christian names are given and no further details have yet been discovered.

Such anonymity indicates an ambiguous cultural presence, simultaneously within society but outside (written) history. One of the most successful aspects of the Companion is the bringing to light of individuals about whom little is known, such as William Darby, a black circus owner who performed under the soubriquet Pablo Fanque and is thus immortalised on the Sgt. Pepper album. Other entries emphasise the depersonalisation that can result from fame or notoriety associated with skin colour. The entry for Sarah Baartman runs to more than a page and a half, yet, as its author notes, "Of Sarah Baartman as a human being we have only a few scattered hints" (p.36).

Both Darby and Baartman are referenced in the entry "Exhibits, black people as", which also cites the 18th century black fencing master George Turner. While Baartman's tragedy was precisely that she was reduced to the status of an exhibit, the same could surely not be appUed to Darby or Turner, nor to the "African Prince" who performed as a fire-eater and contortionist in London in 1751-2. While the entry notes that these were performers on their own account - entrepreneurs rather than exhibits - no separate entry exists for Performance, and the conflation of the two concepts under the heading of Exhibits is an uncomfortable one. …