Creating a Visual Historiography

Secondary literature has played an important role in shaping the Mapping Black London project. As of the 20 April 2020, eighty different secondary sources, be they monographs, edited volumes or academic articles have been consulted for the project and 70% of points found on the Map of Black London in World War II come from this secondary literature. Mapping Black London, in other words, is a project that simply could not exist were it not for the extensive work of other historians. This is a central feature of the project,  limiting it in some regards whilst simultaneously offering exciting avenues for further study. The most exciting of these avenues lies in the ability of the map to showcase the locations that have been covered in the historiography, which leads to the question: why the focus on these locations and not on others?

Before we can answer this question- indeed, before we can discuss which locations the historiography covers- we should at first examine the different types of historical works which have examined black London in the mid-twentieth century. Historians have approached the topic and period with different intentions in mind. In his The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women, 1939-45, author Stephen Bourne set out to track the military contributions of black Britons. In comparison, in her article “The Comintern, the CPGB, Colonies and Black Britons,” Marika Sherwood examines the black presence in the far-left milieu in Britain. There is no connection between the two works other than the geography and time they examine but both, nonetheless, contribute points to the map. 

As a result of their differing foci, the secondary literature we have read describe different types of location. On one level, this is self-explanatory; military histories focus on army bases and social clubs, political histories list numerous halls and offices where protests were planned, etc. There is a more notable point to be made however- some types of historical works record more spatial data, and with greater detail, than others. Biographies and intellectual histories closely follow their subject, plotting their course as the latter weaves their way through the London streets. For example, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artists’ Journey, 1898-1939, written by the actor’s son, provides detailed records of particular locations visited by Robeson during his time in London. 

In comparison, and to once again take just one example, Laura Tabili’s monograph “We Ask for British Justice”: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain, provides us with few precise locations to use. This is not due to any deficit in the quality of the book – We Ask for British Justice is a fantastic piece, and moreover, unlike Paul Robeson Jr’s work, is written for an academic audience. However, as a work of social and labour history, it is interested less in precise locations and individuals as it is in wider processes. These processes are impossible to record in a database which demands precise geographic data. Thus, Tabili’s work contributes fewer points to our map than Robeson Jr’s.

With this in mind, we can now return to our original question; which locations have been highlighted in the historiography and – more significantly – why? The focus of the secondary literature has without question been Soho and Westminster, with the locus laying on Charing Cross. The focus on Westminster is the easier of the two phenomena to explain: as the seat of power for the British Empire, 1930s Westminster has attracted the attention of many historians seeking to better understand the direct challenges black people offered to the imperial system. For example, visits to Parliament by black activists, such as Dr. Harold Moody, are well documented in the literature. 

To an extent, the focus on Soho can be explained by works of intellectual history, with historians noting the importance of sites such as the International Afro Restaurant. However, there is another phenomenon at work here: the plethora of micro-historical works covering the jazz and theatre scenes of the 1930s. Both jazz and theatre attract dedicated researchers, including many amateur historians, whose personal interest in the topic lead to very detailed descriptions of small jazz clubs and performances.

Undoubtedly the West End played a very important role in the networks of black London during the Second World War. Many musicians in London were black, and the clubs in which they played often attracted only a few diehard white jazz enthusiasts, the audience itself being mostly black. That said, Soho was just one of the concentrations of black activity in London, on a par with the docks of the East End where black seamen took shore leave or even residential clusters in West Hampstead or Fulham. That it burns so much brighter on our map is a result of the attention of previous historians. 

The only way to rectify this situation and produce a more complete picture of black London in the Second World War is to include a plethora of primary data, which we have done by, for example, examining the 1939 Register. However, there is something to be said for keeping copies of the map with just the secondary literature plotted. In this way we can create a visual historiography, mapping out the patterns of historical works in a way that helps us to note the foci and exclusions of differing forms of historical endeavour.