Many Happy Returns? Reading the November 1964 birth of University of Sussex Library through a (de)colonial lens

58 years ago, on 13 November 1964, University of Sussex Library was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.

An image of the library visitor book page inscribed with the calligraphic words "The Visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Second 13 November 1964" and signed Elizabeth R. Next to this are two black and white photographs of Queen Elizabeth II - one of her signing the visitor's books surrounded by security, students and staff, and the other of her unveiling the library opening plaque near the entrance to the building.
Queen Elizabeth II signs the University of Sussex Library visitor book and unveils the opening plaque. (1964, University of Sussex Collection)

At this point in time, Sussex was in the first term of its third academic year of life as a new university of the post-war, postcolonial British era. Other British historical events of note in 1964 included (in roughly chronological order):

  • power disputes between the government and trade unions with threats of large-scale industrial action
  • the retirement of Winston Churchill from the House of Commons (aged 89)
  • the election of a new Labour Government led by Harold Wilson
  • the enactment of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act
  • the opening of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies
  • Zambia became an Independent Republic, thus ending 73 years’ of British Rule of Northern Rhodesia
  • the House of Commons voted to abolish the death penalty for murder in Britain
  • Reverend Martin Luther King delivered a scholarly sermon on race relations to a 3,000-strong congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was on his way from the US to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the civil rights movement.

Although the University of Sussex and its library were designed and established at a time of epochal change, which showed signs of more egalitarian social progress and the decline and dismantling of the British Empire, this does not mean that imperial legacies are not present in its architectural and epistemic structures.

Prior to the opening of the grand new Modernist Library building in 1964, the library collections (many of which were acquired through donations from aristocrats and retired professors from traditional redbrick universities) had been stored in the nearby Stanmer House in rooms which had originally housed the private library of the Earls of Chichester, with teaching materials made available via temporary accommodation in Brighton. The Manor House of Stanmer has history entangled with that of colonialism. It was originally owned by English Whig politician (of Dutch descent) Peter Gott (1653-1712), Sheriff of Sussex and Lewes, who later became Director of the East India Company and the Bank of England.

The new university library set atop Falmer Hill was designed by Sir Basil Spence (1907 – 1976), who was born and spent his childhood in Bombay, British India, before moving to Edinburgh and London where he trained as an architect. His formative professional experience as a young man included a year working as Sir Edwin Lutyens’ London office designing the then Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. The imperialist architectural vision of Lutyens is widely reported to have had a profound influence on Spence.  

Four black and white archival images. Top left: the University of Sussex Library newly built; Top Right: Queen Elizabeth II being shown around the Library by Librarian Dennis Cox, with architect Basil Spence behind her; Bottom left: a painting of Stanmer House in its rural landscape from the eighteenth century; Bottom Right, a photograph of the former Viceroy's House in British India's New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens with Basil Spence.
Top left: the University of Sussex Library newly built with the construction company Longley logo on the exterior (1964, University of Sussex Ron Mitchell Collection); Top Right: Queen Elizabeth II being shown around the Library by Librarian Dennis Cox, with architect Basil Spence behind her (1964, University of Sussex Collection); Bottom left: a painting of Stanmer House in its rural landscape (1826, University of Sussex Collection); Bottom Right, a photograph of the former Viceroy’s House in British India’s New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens with Basil Spence (date unknown, sourced from The Victorian Web) .

The central importance of the Library in the new university geographic and epistemic vision was clearly articulated by Spence in his “Building a New University” chapter in David Daiches’ 1964 edited book The Idea of a New University (p. 207):

The Library should be sited centrally since its function as a storehouse of knowledge is common to all faculties. This important fact determined the position of the broad masses of Arts and Library on one side and the Sciences on the other.

A hand-drawn architectural plan of University of Sussex campus with modernist-style blocks
University College of Sussex Layout Plan, early campus design by Basil Spence (University of Sussex Collection)

Sussex founding Librarian Dennis Cox begins his chapter “The Library of a New University” in Daiches’ 1964 book (p. 153) with this opening paragraph:

It is impossible to imagine a university without books. Upon them its work largely depends. They are essential to teaching and research in every subject. ‘The character and efficacy of a university may be gauged by its treatment of its central organ – the library. We regard the fullest provision for library maintenance as the primary and most vital need in the equipment of a university. An adequate library is not only the basis of all teaching and study; it is the essential condition of research, without which additions cannot be made to the sum of human knowledge’ – thus wrote the University Grants Committee in its first Report in 1921. It cannot unfortunately be said that for a long time much heed was paid to its words. The ambitions and needs of all learned libraries remain yet unsatisfied.

Cox goes on to comment on the staggering demands placed on university libraries in an era when student numbers and academic publishing outputs were expanding exponentially, hence the mid-century modern period of academic research library history was significantly outpacing the slow growth of the great European libraries of antiquity. Despite the increased knowledge production pressures associated with keeping up with the increased bibliographic and study space demand and supply, Cox reflects on the communitarian rewards of this work on both local and global scales (1964, pp. 156; 167):

“The library, with the union, is in most universities the place to which all students come, and come moreover on equal terms. […] A university library does not serve its own institution alone but the world of scholarship in general.”

A black and white photograph of the University of Sussex Library taken from the outside, with a figurative sculpture in the foreground and students sitting on the lawn and walking down the steps in the background.
Outside the Library, 1964 (University of Sussex Collection)

In a University of Sussex pamphlet about Sussex’s Modernist architecture (2014), Dr Alistair Davies describes how Spence’s campus design reflected his deep “preoccupation with the link between the present and the past”, in particular European antiquity, which is apparent in the leitmotif of concrete arches repeated across several buildings referencing the Roman Colosseum, and Library Square echoing an Athenian agora (p. 10). Davies connects these classical architectural references with the vision of Sussex founding Dean of European Studies and Professor of History between 1962-1972 Martin Wight, who argued in the Daiches 1964 book (pp. 102-103):

The great civilizations demand a different academic treatment from regions of derivative or primitive culture. […] The more important the literature, the more it demands to be taken into account. […] Europe is the seat of our own civilization: it is ourselves. The social scientists in a School of European Studies are anxious to join the Common Market; the students of literature, historians and philosophers have never left it. Ideally, perhaps, a School of European Studies might be a School of European and American (including Latin American Studies), or of Western Studies, to cover not only Europe but all her brawny and obstreperous children as well. But life is short, and degree courses are still shorter, and no academic organization reflects adequately the unity of knowledge. Antiquam exquirite matrem. The concern of European Studies is the root and stock of our culture.

What does this mean for my research into (de)colonial maps of learning at Sussex? How is the university library and archive connected with “the root and stock of our culture”? And whose culture is it anyway?

What does this mean for my research into (de)colonial maps of learning at Sussex? How is the university library and archive connected with “the root and stock of our culture”? And whose culture is it anyway?

My analysis of under-represented organisational and cultural history records and lived experiences will enable a rethinking of library collections and lead to a more expansive understanding of the university. As Sussex Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies Gurminder Bhambra (2020) argues, “a failure to recognise contestations in the past contributes to the politics of selective memory that is reproduced every time we evade our past instead of confronting it directly and truthfully”. My project is aligned with Bhambra’s, which she defines in her 2014 book Connected Sociologies as part of the need to defend the public university against the increasing parochialisation of academic disciplines and privatisation and dismantling of higher education, in which “the very processes of knowledge production are at stake” (p. x). This is in part what has driven recent global student movements to decolonise the university (about which Bhambra has written in her co-edited 2018 volume), which has its own local legacy here at Sussex.

A triptych of images: on the left the cover of AFRAS Review 4 (1979) depciting Black and Asian liberation protestors with their fists in the air; in the centre a group of students sitting in University of Falmer House Common Room next to a Decolonise Sussex Banner (2017), and on the right the cover of the SARA (Sussex Anti Racist Action) Manifesto featuring a black raised fist (2021)
AFRAS Review 4 (1979), Decolonise Sussex (2017), SARA Manifesto, 2021
Excerpt from the University of Sussex Bulletin (24 November1964)

In November 1964 the School of African and Asian Studies was opened, which “set out to challenge existing conceptions of race, ethnicity, identity, culture and economy in the postcolonial world” by combining diverse disciplinary areas across the humanities and social sciences, including academics recruited from both colonial universities and those with recently obtained independence (Sussex Africa Centre, AFRAS History booklet). In the same year, the lesser-known Centre for Multi-Racial Studies (CMRS) was established at Sussex, based within the School of Social Studies and which by 1967 had established a sister site in Barbados, in partnership with the University of the West Indies[1].

From the late 1960s onwards, with significant momentum driven by the interventions of home and international students and scholar-activists in AFRAS, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and CMRS, Sussex became known for its anti-apartheid, anti-imperial, anti-war, and socialist scholar-activist projects. The institutional archival records, library special collections and alumni communities that embody this legacy are the primary sources for my present research project.

My analysis is informed by Bhambra’s decolonial approach to developing connected sociologies of knowledge, as well the associated theory of ‘sociology of absences’, developed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, which Bhambra (2014, pp. 101-102) summarises as referring “both to the general silences around particular experiences and the way in which these silences are actively created through particular processes”. These local and global social processes are complex and manifold, but I argue that with regard to the erasure or marginalisation of racialised or subaltern voices in Eurocentric academic knowledge production, these processes necessarily include the hidden infrastructures and practices of library and archival collections and operations. Attention to these particular processes is all too often missed in decolonial scholars’ work on epistemic injustices. This is one of the central gaps my project seeks to bridge. In solidarity with Santos’ manifesto of Another Knowledge is Possible, I argue that building such alternative, reparative and redistribute maps of learning has to involve librarians and archivists as much as it does academic faculty, scholars, and students.

Forthcoming blog posts charting this anti-colonial library research journey will highlight my adventures and deviations in the archive and via conversations with research participants and contributors.

[1] I’m still researching the archival records on the Centres for Multi-Racial Studies in Brighton and Barbados and will write more about this in due course. From what I can tell so far, the CRMS did not survive beyond the end of 1960s due to a lack of continued funding. A short article about the Barbados Centre written by its resident Warden Jill Sheppard is available in the 1967 first issue of the ninth volume of Race (Journal of the Institute of Race Relations).


Bhambra, G.K. (2014) Connected Sociologies. London New Delhi New York Sydney: Bloomsbury

Bhambra, G.K., Gebrial, D. and Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Bhambra, G.K. (2020) ‘Learning about our past and how it affects the present’, University World News, 13 June.

Daiches, D. (1964) The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex. London: André Deutsch.

Santos, B. de S. (2001) ‘Nuestra America’, Theory, Culture & Society, 18(2–3), pp. 185–217.

Santos, B. de S. (2008) Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso.

Sheppard, J. (1967) ‘The Barbados Centre for Multi-Racial Studies’, Race, 9(1), pp. 107–108.

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Posted in Library Legacies

Archiving and administering the Library and AFRAS at Sussex: guest blog post

By Alice Corble and Rhiann Tester

This overdue blog post features a guest contributor, Rhiann Tester, Assistant Library Administrator at Sussex. I’ll briefly introduce the context of our collaboration before handing over to Rhiann. Future blog posts will build on Rhiann’s reflections via the content unearthed in the records they helped to preserve.

Back in August and September when I was approaching the end of my AHRC-RLUK Professional Practice Fellowship, I was glad to benefit from the assistance of Rhiann in listing some uncatalogued archival records relating to the early administrative history of both the Library and the School of African and Asian Studies (AFRAS) at Sussex. The historic library files had serendipitously surfaced as the Library management and administration teams were undergoing an office move (part of the current Library refurbishment plans), and old filing cabinets in the PA to the Librarian’s office were being cleared out. With a keen eye for detail, Rhiann had identified their relevance to my research project. These records were largely minutes of meetings from the Library Committee, a central committee of librarians and faculty established to develop the research, teaching and learning agenda and resources for the university. This later became re-structured and re-named as The Library Consultative Group, still in operation today.  

Around the same time last summer, I’d been in dialogue with Professor JoAnn McGregor about the history of AFRAS, as she had until recently been the director of the Sussex Africa Centre, which along with the Sussex Asia Centre and Middle East and North Africa Centre had sought to re-cultivate interdisciplinary regional research clusters within a global imaginary. AFRAS had closed in the early 2000s as part of a major restructure, but the founding of the current School of Global Studies around a decade later provided a new framework for regional centres. Sadly the Sussex Africa Centre has also recently closed after Black faculty and PhD students involved with the Centre left Sussex, and the MA Africa and Development was suspended. JoAnn had for many years been safeguarding one of the AFRAS administrative archival files which were found in one of the school offices.

Knowing of my embedded research project at the Library, JoAnn passed these files on to me to be accessioned in the University of Sussex Collection at The Keep. These records were largely minutes of various AFRAS committee meetings and associated reports, many of which included librarian input. They demonstrate the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the Library and AFRAS, which must have been the case for the other interdisciplinary schools. But AFRAS required quite particular liaison with librarians to develop the teaching and research collections in line with emerging fields of knowledge and culture in African and Asian countries undergoing decolonisation and seeking to transform and develop institutions after independence.

AFRAS required quite particular liaison with librarians to develop the teaching and research collections in line with emerging fields of knowledge and culture in African and Asian countries undergoing decolonisation and seeking to transform and develop institutions after independence.

Librarians listed in the AFRAS school meeting minutes include Mike Rogers (who later went on to become IDS librarian) and Tehmtan Framroze, who migrated from revolutionary Zanzibar in the mid-1960s to train as a librarian at UCL and took up his first professional role at University of Sussex where he stayed for several decades (and later became Mayor of Brighton – more on him in future posts).

University of Sussex governance chart 1964-65. Annotations show that although the Library and AFRAS are not formally connected in this hierarchy, their archives show that their operations had considerable overlap.

The first stage of any archival accessioning before it can be formally catalogued is to make a comprehensive list of the basic details of each item being deposited and checking for duplicates in the existing collection. This is a time-consuming task and it was a great help to both the Sussex Archivist Karen Watson and myself to have Rhiann’s assistance in this, whose administrative skills and attuned historical sensibility were an asset to this teamwork.  And as Rhiann identifies in their reflections on this experience below, the opportunity offered them an interesting window on different but intersecting aspects of library and intellectual history and administrative operations. The Library and AFRAS archival records were in separate offices and only coincidentally came to light at a similar moment this summer, yet elements of their contents speak directly to each other and demonstrate the centrality of the library to academic development.

Excerpt from documentation relating to the establishment of the University of Sussex Library Committee, 1963.
Excerpt from the minutes of the eighteenth AFRAS School Committee meeting, 7 June 1967.
Excerpt from the minutes of the thirtieth AFRAS School Committee Meeting, 18 February 1970

I invited Rhiann to share their reflections on doing this piece of collaborative work, and how it might have influenced possible directions in their own library professional development. Over to Rhiann.

Guest post by Rhiann Tester

I’m very interested in two things: history and systems. And what is an organization but a very large, often unwieldy system? I’ve worked for two very large institutions now, the University and East Sussex County Council (and worked in two very 60s buildings!) and it fascinates me how institutional memory develops and changes.

I’ve been fascinated by Alice’s decolonislation project since I found out about it and so when the Librarian’s PA showed me the documents that had been stored in her office I just knew who to tell about them, especially once I saw a piece of paper with the handwritten note “it was suggested that there be a AFRAS representative at the Library Committee”.

I was very excited when I was asked to help catalogue the files. It ended up being not too different from my day-to-day work, in that as an admin at least half of my work boils down to taking information, sorting through it, and putting it into a more useable or searchable format. It’s just normally overtime forms instead of meeting minutes from the 1970s.

It was interesting to see the connections form between the AFRAS papers, the Library papers and beyond. The first time I saw the Centre for Multi Racial Studies mentioned was a particularly exciting moment.  The lists of book donations in the Library Committee group papers was perhaps my favourite series of documents. As a user of the Library, I’d noticed that many editions we hold are sometimes significantly older than the Library itself, meaning that the books must have had a past life. Many academics donated books and journals, including Professor Fernando Henriques. A number of Local Authorities also donated books, as did institutions. Two which stood out to me were SOAS and the Rhodes House Library. Many books also came to us through the connections of Lady Reading, who was an early supporter of the University. Therefore, before the Library even existed we have the biases and perspectives of other institutions and individuals as an integral part of our collections.

As a user of the Library, I’d noticed that many editions we hold are sometimes significantly older than the Library itself, meaning that the books must have had a past life. Many academics donated books and journals, including Professor Fernando Henriques. A number of Local Authorities also donated books, as did institutions. Two which stood out to me were SOAS and the Rhodes House Library. Many books also came to us through the connections of Lady Reading, who was an early supporter of the University. Therefore, before the Library even existed we have the biases and perspectives of other institutions and individuals as an integral part of our collections.

I found learning about the discussions that were being held, especially at the beginning of the Library’s history very interesting. Some of them we’re still having, like the heating of the building and reclassification, and some are very much problems of the past. I also felt I gained a greater understanding of the history of Britain in general. No matter how many times my mum’s told me about the difficulties of the 1970s and ’80s, seeing the cuts that were made to library services through that period, and the reasons why, helped me think about it in a way that was more real. Maybe that’s because I can directly relate it to the Library as it stands today?

I think I have definitely benefited from working at the Keep and getting to interact, even a little bit, with the day-to-day work of Special Collections and the other teams based there. Even just sitting in the kitchen and talking to various people about the work they were doing helped me understand more about their roles. It’s definitely reinforced to me how important archives and proper record keeping and archival process are. One of the things that struck me was that the AFRAS papers that we have are what remains of a larger archive that was lost around the time the school was closed.

I don’t know if I’d like to work in an archive but I know that could be a path for me now. Some things can seem very closed off when you come from a background where no-one in your family has worked in this kind of field before. Simply knowing the possibilities, that the work I was doing is actually part of someone’s job, helps with that.

Posted in 1960s Librarianship, AFRAS, Library Legacies

Re-collecting Ranajit Guha through a counter-archival lens

A few weeks ago I received an email requesting an interview with me from two post-graduate students at Presidency University, Kolkata, Sohini Sengupta and Sourav Chattopadhyay, who convene Bhabuk Sabha (roughly translated to The Thinker’s Club). They wanted to engage with me on the University of Sussex archival memory of globally-renowned historian and founder of Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha, who was a lecturer at Sussex between 1962-1981. They had come across my work via references to my archival research in an obituary for Guha written by Vinita Damodaran, Professor of South Asian History at Sussex, which she wrote after Guha’s death in April this year, shortly before he would have turned one hundred years old. As Damodaran and others have noted, myself included, Guha’s passing went unacknowledged by the university leadership at Sussex until Damodaran’s obituary was released, yet his death was widely covered by educational and cultural institutions and media around the world. Despite this global attention, little is known about Guha’s two decades at Sussex. This was remedied at a Remembering Guha event I recently co-convened with Professor Gurminder Bhambra, Professor Vinita Damodaran, and Professor Ben Rogaly, colleagues in my new institutional home of Global Studies at Sussex. A joint publication on this event will be forthcoming in Discover Society.

Sohini Sengupta and Sourav Chattopadhyay convene an academic forum at Presidency University called Bhabuk Sabha (roughly translatable to ‘The Thinkers’ Club’) and are co-editing a publication that anthologises the proceedings of a December 2022 conference dedicated to the centenary of Ranajit Guha’s birth, along with some previously un-collected essays and letters by Guha, as well as contributions by scholars who discuss lesser-known aspects of Guha’s life and career. The resulting volume, which will be largely written in Bengali will be published later this autumn by Alochana Chakra. Their request for a written interview with me was to glean archival insights on Guha from his University of Sussex years, to help to shed critically reflective light on this formative period of his academic life. It also brought back memories from a chapter in my own research journey a decade ago, when I spent time in the libraries and archives of Kolkata during an AHRC international fellowship as a doctoral student, which you can read about here.

The images illustrating the interview below are taken from my presentation at the 20th October Remembering Guha event at Sussex.

Interview with Alice Corble on Ranajit Guha’s archival memory at Sussex

Interview taken on 26th October 2023 by Sohini Sengupta (Convenor, Bhabuk Sabha, Presidency University), to be translated and published in the Ranajit Guha Commemoration Volume by Alochana Chakra, edited by Sourav Chattopadhyay (forthcoming).

Question 1: Ranajit Guha joined the University of Sussex in 1962. For Guha, this was the first occasion of staying and working at a foreign university: an experience that, he later stated, expanded his view of the world and also made him aware of its various injustices (especially racism). How do the University of Sussex archives remember Prof. Guha? Could you tell us about the documents connected to Guha that you have found here?

The recorded memory of Guha in the Sussex’s institutional archive is very small. There are only two documents written by him in the archive, and one school pamphlet which lists him as a member of the AFRAS (Sussex School of African and Asian Studies) faculty. There are almost 700 archival boxes in the University of Sussex (UoS) Collection[1] so these two documents are like two little stars in a very large galaxy. In this sense, we might call this archival legacy an instance of what Guha himself dubbed a ‘small voice of history’[2], which is ironic given the power and legacy of his voice and the ways in which his work has impacted so many people across the world and shaped an entire field of Subaltern Studies scholarship and historiography.

Although archival traces of Guha’s time at Sussex in its institutional archive may be scant, the records that do exist speak volumes about both Guha as a teacher and about what we might now call a scholar-activist[3] (an identity I aspire to myself). Detailed below are the three documents I found. 

  • UoS Archival item #1: School of African and Asian Studies annual report from 1966-67 which describes the ethos and development of the school which was established two years prior in 1964.

The University itself was founded in 1961, the first of Britain’s ‘new universities’, designed to “draw a new map of learning” [4] in the post-war, post-imperial era. The introduction to the AFRAS pamphlet states:

“From the beginning, those concerned with the foundations of the University have had a keen interest in African and Asian affairs. Lord Monckton, the first Chancellor, had many Indian connections, and in 1960 was Chairman of the Advisory Commission on the Review of the Constitution in Central Africa. The Vice-Chancellor, Lord Fulton, is at present Chairman of the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas. It was always understood that at a very early stage in the University’s development a School of African and Asian Studies would become an intimate part of it, and this has now been accomplished. It is the only one of the new British Universities to have made this commitment.”

I have found no records in the University archives that document Guha’s appointment to Sussex in 1962, and the Alumni Office do not keep personnel records from this period. We know anecdotally that Guha was invited to take up the position at Sussex by Asa Briggs after meeting him during British Council visit to is in the late 1950s, when plans to establish Britan’s first new university were underway. As a founding father of Sussex (Professor of History, Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Social Studies) who coined its “new map of learning” vision to develop unprecedented interdisciplinary schools of study[5], Briggs was no doubt impressed by Guha’s deep intellect and unconventional approaches to social and cultural history. I wonder how his decision to employ the leftfield candidate of Guha, who was grounded in anti-imperialist and communist politics and had not yet completed a PhD nor published a book, was approved by the more conservative elite leaders of the university Lord Fulton and Lord Monckton. It is possible that there is a link here with the wider geopolitical context of national concerns about communist developments in the newly independent former colonies, which the then head of the British Civil Service Lord Bridges argued needed countering or containing by the new universities, in particular Sussex[6].

The full faculty list of AFRAS in 1966 is included in the AFRAS pamphlet, and Guha is listed on page 6 as follows:

R. Guha, M.A. (Calcutta). Lecturer in History. Formerly Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. (Modern Indian political, social and economic history.)

I had not realised before reading this entry that Guha had undertaken this visiting professorship at Cornell, and discovered via the Cornell University Center for International Studies Second Annual Report (available online) he was Acting Associate Professor of History at their Center for International Studies, which demonstrates how far his global reach and interests stretched during this formative time in his career. As far the archival records and conversations with Sussex scholars who knew him indicate, Guha was never promoted beyond the entry level role of Lecturer during his time at this university.

Guha is not mentioned elsewhere in the 1966 AFRAS pamphlet but one detail on page 13 that stood out to me whilst reflecting on his time there is the section headed ‘Facilities Available’ which lists the Library and archival resources available to faculty and students in the school, through inter-institutional cooperative relationships between Sussex and “the Librarian of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the India Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the Royal Geographical Society, all of them in London, which is only an hour’s train journey away. Many of the catalogues, moreover, are available in the University Library.” I can imagine Guha must have spent a considerable amount of time with these catalogues and collections to research the vast bodies of knowledge he imbibed to feed into his teaching and research.

  • UoS Archival item #2: copy of a syllabus of one of Guha’s teaching modules, titled ‘History Special Subject: IMPERIALISM, 1879-1914.

This fifteen-page typescript document is signed R. Guha and dated March 1969. It is divided into three parts:

(A) a one-page course outline split into the following eight weekly subject areas: Concepts and theories; Interests and Rivalries; Continental Imperialisms; Expansion and Consolidation: Collaboration and Resistance; Instruments of Expansion; Pioneers and Promoters; Parties and Politics: For and Against Imperialism; Propagation of the Imperial Idea. Each of these sections have numbered subsections that detail the countries, figures and projects that detail each of these subject areas.

(B) A twelve-page bibliography which totals 298 references spanning an incredibly diverse range of cross-disciplinary sources.

(C)A two-page alpha-numerical instructional list to guide students in how to match the extensive bibliography to the sections and subsections of the curriculum topic outline.

As Rudrangshu Mukherjee reflects, “Guha taught his students and his readers to read texts against their grain to gouge out answers that were not apparently visible.”[7] Sussex humanities undergraduate degree programmes still today include a ‘special subject’ module in the third year, but having worked in the Library reading list team over the past few years, I can assure you that there are no reading lists anywhere near as extensive and complex as this! Students of Guha’s must have had to dedicate a lot of time to succeed in this course, which I imagine was complemented by their teacher’s critical pedagogy in the tutorial system that was in place during Guha’s tenure at Sussex. This small-scale tutorial teaching is long gone in today’s neoliberal academic teaching machine which crams large numbers of students (many of whom must work multiple jobs alongside their studies to pay high university fees and accommodation rent) into lecture halls and seminar rooms for more transactional modes of education.

It would appear Guha’s time at Sussex was spent somewhat in the shadows, confining himself to reading and teaching. As Partha Chatterjee recalls, “during this time he did not publish any academic article or books, he would even largely avoid going to conferences. Basically, he was in a self-imposed exile from the professional community of historians” [8]. University of Sussex Emeritus Professor of Geography Tony Binns corroborates this, sharing the following personal reflections in an email to me (24 October 2023):

“During my first 5 years or so (1975-1980) I had an office on level 2 in AFRAS (Arts C) opposite Ranajit Guha. I remember him being a quiet and unassuming person who spent most of his time in his office and the library and was rarely seen socialising in the school common room. I guess he must have been in his fifties then? I arrived just after David Pocock (Anthropology) stepped down as Dean and Ieuan Griffiths (Geography) took over. There was clearly some tension between Guha and Pocock, and I remember Griffiths saying he had difficulty dealing with him. I think Ranajit Guha was probably a rather marginalised figure in AFRAS and I don’t recollect him being promoted or being a member of key committees. But he was always pleasant to me when we met in the corridor. I was rather shocked (and greatly impressed) in later life to discover that Guha was such a leading light and key thinker in the Subaltern Studies group.”

Tony Binns
  • UoS Archival item #3: a typescript letter by Guha with the following heading: TO ALL AFRAS FACULTY: COPY OF A NOTE (JUNE 18, 1973) ADDRESSED TO DAVID F. POCOCK (DEAN, AFRAS) IN REPLY TO THE LATTER’S MEMORANDOM (JUNE 13, 1973) CONCERNING THE HUNTINGDON AFFAIR. 

This quite remarkable two-page letter testifies to Guha’s moral and intellectual integrity and acerbic fearlessness to speak truth to power in matters of conscience. It regards the furore that broke out on the Sussex campus when in Summer 1973 a group of student union activists from the Indo-China Solidarity Committee prevented American political scientist Samuel P. Huntingdon, visiting from the US, from giving his guest lecture, on the grounds of his imperialist ideology and complicity with state violence via his work with the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. The students had been refused the right to publicly challenge him at the lecture so decided to use peaceful direct action tactics instead and the lecture was cancelled[9]. The protests hit the national headlines, with newspapers and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum criticising Sussex for threatening academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Inevitably, the students and staff on both sides of the debate were predominately from White Western backgrounds. Guha’s letter responds to having been unwillingly dragged into this affair by Dean Pocock apparent insistence that all AFRAS faculty should implicitly rally together on the side of freedom of speech to appease the establishment. I will share a few choice sentences from Guha’s polemical rejoinder here.

“What is at issue here is clearly a matter politics. If war, as Clausewitz said, is an instrument of politics, then the American war in Vietnam must be regarded as a continuation of American politics by other means. […]

Let me make this quite clear to you. You may be the Dean or God Almighty Himself. But you cannot decide for me on which side of the American war in Vietnam I should take my stand. As one who belongs to the Third World I feel I have had enough of academics who would not condemn the rape of our continents, the defoliation of our forests, the pollution of our waters and skies, the destruction of our villages and the contamination of embryos in the wombs of our women by U.S. napalm-bombing, germ-bombing, defoliation-bombing, nuclear bombing, and yet come out with a load of sophistries about an American warmonger’s freedom of speech on the campus.  […]

And in case this note tempts you to ‘classify’ me as an extremist of some alien brand, let me tell you that in stating my position as above I feel rooted in a great British academic tradition. It is the tradition that inspired undergraduates from British universities to volunteer to fight against Franco and the perpetrators of Guernica. It is this tradition that makes me despise the intellectual allies of the perpetration of My Lai. There is, of course, the other academic tradition, too: that of Appeasement as represented by the Munich men of pre-war All Souls, Oxford, where, appropriately enough, Huntingdon has been offered asylum during his current visit. I have chosen the academic tradition that suits my conscience. Rupert Wilkinson has chosen the tradition that suits his. If you want to side with him, feel free to do so, but for God’s sake, Don’t presume to speak for me at least. And if you want to introduce a debate in the School on this matter, do so by all means. Only don’t try to sell us this initiative of yours as a blow in defence of some abstract and ideal Freedom of Speech. Call it by its real name – that is, Politics of a Particular Kind.” – Signed by hand, Ranajit Guha.

I was moved and impressed to read the strength of Guha’s voice here, which brought the quiet clinical atmosphere of the archival reading room to life with its fiery message. Guha’s letter asserts a strong lesson for those both above and adjacent to him in the academic hierarchy, and I imagine gave inspiration to any students who may have happened to see it. It certainly holds a lot of powerful and timely resonance for today’s neo-colonial wars, both in terms of culture wars manufactured by right-wing political and media elites both in Britain and in many global contexts, as well as of course in the present catastrophic genocidal attacks in Palestine and international state violence and censorship that is escalating at a devastating scale by the day.

Question 2: Ranajit Guha’s approach to history has in several ways involved railing against the domination of top-down approaches to history, and suggesting alternatives to the often violent, unjust and monolithic statist narratives of the past. As a scholar interested in radical history, how do you perceive Guha’s contribution to the Social Sciences education in Sussex, as may be read from the university archives? What new readings or methodologies did Guha introduce?

I think I have already partially answered this question with my analysis of Guha’s course syllabus above. If I had the chance to be a student on Guha’s Imperialism Special Subject course today I would embrace it, as I am sure it would help me deepen and broaden my knowledge of how Empire is at the root of everything I try to understand and challenge in my work.

I am not a trained historian myself, having completed a BA in Literature and Philosophy, an MA in Cultural Studies, and a PhD in Sociology; however there has been a strong historical focus threaded throughout my interdisciplinary research and professional work in libraries and archives over the past two decades. This has led to commencing my current position as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Global Studies (Department of International Development), which takes a historical anthropological approach to exploring the question of what ‘decolonising the university’ means through the prism of the library, archival memory, oral histories and transnational legacy relationships between Sussex and academic bodies of knowledge and resistance in Britain’s former colonies.[10] I strive to take a grounded, ‘bottom-up’ and epistemically disobedient[11] approach to this work in collaboration with scholars, activist, librarians and archivists working against the colonial grain of knowledge production.   

I think we can infer from both Guha’s Imperialism syllabus and his letter to Pocock that his contributions to developing radical history in the interdisciplinary social studies programmes at Sussex were ways of working through what he later defined in his book A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (published in 1982 the year he left Sussex), as the “epistemological paradox”: the ways in which bourgeois and statist forms of knowledge are hell-bent on structurally transforming and maintaining master-slave relations between Imperial rulers and their semi-feudal subject. So the idea of ‘permanent settlement’ here pertains not only to land and property, but also to what constitutes legitimate bodies of knowledge and ways of life and forms of economic and social reproduction[12].  In this sense, I’d like to suggest that what Guha was contributing to Sussex through his teaching and research was a rigorous decolonial unsettling of the British episteme, or ‘map of learning’ if you will, as an insider-outsider disrupting these terrains from within. Today, Sussex’s corporate strategy includes the phrase “dare to disrupt”, but from what I have observed here, very few faculty actually dare or are able to do this in the ways that Guha seemed to have been able to.

As Rudrangshu Mukherjee argues in his eulogy:

“Integral to almost everything that Guha wrote was the idea of a critique – radical doubt regarding all forms of received wisdom. His critique of colonial and elite dominance led him to ask the question: could there be an Indian history of India? A mode of history writing that would be free from the disciplinary boundaries fashioned by western historiography, especially colonialist historiography. Such questions took him to the study of literature and texts.”[13]

One of Guha’s first students at Sussex was Richard Price, who recalls the pedagogical impact of the way in which his teacher:

“treated history as something that could be thought about conceptually, as a process, and not as just a narrative progression.  His undergraduate course on  European Imperialism, for example, was not the usual course that began with the age of explorations.  It began instead with the theorists of empire and then went on to study the British, French and German cases within that context.  Ranajit was the first person to teach me that the problems of history could be conceptual, rather than being a problem of events.” [14]

The archived course syllabus lists the eighth and final topic of the curriculum as ‘The Propagation of the Imperial Idea’, broken into four parts: (8.1) The Thinkers: Seely, Froude, Dilke; Mary Kingsley; (8.2) The Writers: Kipling; Austin; Henly; Henty; Haggard; (8.3) Indoctrination of the Youth: Clubs and Brigades, Associations; (8.4) The Press. The Music Hall The Patriotic Crowd.

The way in which this course is structured and concludes goes way beyond any traditional academic approaches to teaching history, expanding into the realms of what would later become the field of Cultural Studies, pioneered by the likes of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall in the British context.  The inclusion of literary authors and cultural texts on the reading list also testifies to Guha’s intellectual formation at the intersections of history, philosophy, and literature, on which he reflects in his later writings, notably History at the Limit of World-History (2002). In the Epilogue of this book, titled ‘The poverty of Historiography – a Poet’s Reproach’, Guha offers a deep engagement with the critique of the norms of the discipline of history via his muse Rabindranath Tagore. He concludes with the wish that historiographers would have heeded Tagore’s critical and creative literary approach to distilling the everyday realities of historicity, lamenting however that that in the sixty years since, the “statist blinkers” of the majority of historians remain firmly in place.[15]

Question 3: At the age of 94, in one of his last writings (left in the care of Prof. Partha Chatterjee), Guha described some of the teaching notes that he prepared for his teaching in AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies), University of Sussex. He wrote that as a teacher in AFRAS, he extensively taught nationalism in South-East Asia, and was driven to think about liberalism, Gandhian philosophy, and most significantly, the “peasant farmer’s” appearance at both national and international levels. How far does Guha’s declaration about his teaching notes resonate with the materials uncovered in the Sussex archives?

This final reflective text of Guha’s is a fascinating archival window on his time at Sussex, which sheds remarkable retrospective light on how this shaped the subsequent half-century of his intellectual development.

His bullet-pointed list of teaching notes (much like his detailed Imperialism Special Subject syllabus) indicates a complex interweaving of a diverse range of transdisciplinary and transnational sources and concepts that informed his teaching.  “These philosophical and anthropological involvements with their historical and sociological considerations”, he notes, “had quite an appropriate complement in a set of judicial and administrative laws and regulations”, in this case the series of numbered box files on his bookshelves containing Sadr Diwani Adalat Papers (SDAP), the archives of the native administrative governors of the Supreme Court of Revenue British India in the provinces.  Guha reflects on how such archival evidence of “the official mind” were part of a trend in historiography and area studies in the 1960s, in both Britain and India (Derridean Archive Fever springs to mind[16]), yet these approaches were still, he suggests, reproducing a statist historiographic methodology.

What Guha was doing by critically interweaving the Western European canon with sources like the SDAP archives was of an “altogether different attitude – that is, the Gandhian ideal of sharing he fate of the village poor and distancing oneself as far as possible from the loyalist elite in one’s way of life”, with the tutorial system at Sussex offering an opportune vehicle for the application of moral and academic integrity and anti-imperialism in his teaching.

Relating this to the third UoS archival source detailed in my answer to your first question, namely the polemical missive to his AFRAS boss David Pocock, we can begin to see how the personal, the professional and the political – as well as the national and the international – were holistically intertwined and rooted in Guha’s academic practice at Sussex. The majority of his colleagues here were from the Oxbridge elite, and hence significantly rattled by the threat to their privileged ‘academic freedom’ by the new generation of student activists railing against American Imperialism on campus[17]. Guha’s retort to Pocock addressed to the whole AFRAS faculty demonstrates how he refused to be constrained by false binaries of being either for or against ‘freedom’, whether it be of the academic or public discourse variety, since this framing disavows the question of the political and colonial biases inherent in such elitist constructions of freedom, which he bluntly reveals as simply “Politics of a Particular Kind”.

The text you have shared with me from Guha’s personal archive (care of Partha Chatterjee), can I think be read itself as a counter-archival metanarrative of the dialectical approach that he embodied in his praxis. The content of this reflective text was formed dialogically with the imperial state archives that were key sources for his early research. Hence the text can be understood as a composite form of archival-ethnographic memory, or in other words, a re-collecting of intellectual development and political consciousness, and how and why he transmitted those lessons to those he taught and thought with. 

Question 4: Finally, a more general question: as someone engaged with library sciences and archival handling, what do you think about institutional memory? How far does it memorialise the constituents of an institution? Are there structures of prioritisation involved in the making and preservation of institutional archives? What do archival absences have to tell us, in these contexts?

This is a big and important question that is central to my work yet which I am still quite early in my journey of addressing. Archival institutions and their contents are not neutral, and part of that non-neutrality lies in what they do not contain (silences, absences) as well as what they do. Additionally, as Valerie Johnson warns, drawing on Vern Harris’s archival practice with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, archives can be populated with “false voices” misinformation produced by the state[18].  As Michel-Rolph Troulliot warns, the commonplace “storage model of memory-history” as a form of recollection of important past experiences or evidence (a model that archival institutions tend to embody both literally and figuratively, for example the large warehouse-like building of the University of Sussex archival repository is called The Keep), as this model rests upon an antiquated scientific Eurocentric paradigm replete with unreliable narrators.[19] Troulliot’s methodology is rather to focus on the ways in which history reveals itself through how power is produced and reproduced through particular narrative processes of intelligibility. In an institutional archival setting, these processes are not only produced by the work of historians, but by the traditions and practices of archivists themselves, which are built into the infrastructures of archival storage, cataloguing and retrieval via mediating hierarchies that are rooted in colonial systems of managing information and knowledge.

I have begun to write about this on my research blog with references to Sussex’s institutional archive, which I argue is structured and conditioned by enduring colonial mechanisms of ordering and instituting cultural memory and information in an academic context. Imperialism continues to structure and fracture our institutions, records and cultural heritage, thereby silencing subaltern voices and whitewashing the indigenous histories of the global majority. I am particularly inspired by the Caribbean archivist and cultural theorist Stanley H. Griffin, argues that decolonising archives should necessarily be a noisy activity, disrupting Eurocentric and colonial epistemic silences and violences. Griffin likens institutional archives to the lifeblood of an institution, and in the many institutional contexts wherein much blood has been spilled through the violence of colonialism, we need to listen to how this blood beats through the rhythms of the records: “the repressed and silenced in the archival records will agitate and haunt until full recognition and acknowledgement of its informational and enduring values are secured. These noises demand the attention of both archivist and researcher alike.”[20] In my work this attention involves tuning out (like a radio) what I call white noise in the archive: the dissonant interference of the whiteness of institutional machinery and memory in constructing what and how we re-collect and recover diverse knowledges.[21] For archivists and scholars collaborating on this work, we need to tune in to reparative and liberatory archival description[22] to make catalogue access points more inclusive, nuanced, and representative, as well as pro-active collecting policies that imaginatively attend to unequal frequencies, channels, mediums and platforms of subaltern voices.


Akoleowo, Victoria Openif’Oluwa, ‘Critical Pedagogy, Scholar Activism and Epistemic Decolonisation’, South African Journal of Philosophy, 40.4 (2021), 436–51 <>

Briggs, Asa, ‘Maps of Learning’, New Statesman (1957), 61 (1961), 338-

Caswell, Michelle, Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work, Routledge Studies in Archives (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021) <>

Corble, Alice, ‘Storying the Postcolonial Library’, Iniva, 2013 <>

———, ‘“Libraries of Racial Discovery”: Transatlantic Hidden Histories and the Politics of Memory’, Decolonial Maps of Library Learning, 2023 <>

———, ‘New Leverhulme ECR Fellowship: Evolving Maps of Decolonial Learning at Sussex and Beyond’, Decolonial Maps of Library Learning, 2023 <>

Cragoe, Matthew, ‘Sussex: Cold War Campus’, in Utopian Universities: A Global History of the New Campuses of The 1960s, ed. by Miles Taylor and Jill Pellew (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020), pp. 56–71.

Daiches, David, The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964)

Damodaran, Vinita, ‘Obituary: Professor Ranajit Guha’, The University of Sussex, 2023 <>

Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago Press, 1996)

Edgley, Roy, ‘Thought and Action in the Huntingdon Affair: Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’, Radical Philosophy, 010.Spring (1975) <> [accessed 25 October 2023]

Fuh, Divine, ‘Disobedient Knowledge and Respect for Our African Humanity’, University of Cape Town News, 2022 <> [accessed 15 August 2023]

Griffin, Stanley H., ‘Noises in the Archives: Acknowledging the Present yet Silenced Presence in Caribbean Archival Memory’, in Archival Silences, ed. by Michael Moss and David Thomas (London: Routledge, 2021)

Guha, Ranajit, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (Orient Blackswan, 1982)

———, History at the Limit of World-History (New York ; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2003)

———, The Small Voice Of History (Ranikhet: Orient BlackSwan, 2010)

Mukherjee, Rudrangshu, ‘Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): The Bengali Vessel Lies Emptied of Its History and Learning’, The Telegraph India Online, 1 May 2023 <>

Mukherjee, Somak, ‘Ranajit Guha, India’s Oldest Living Historian’, Frontier, June 2022 <>

Price, Richard, ‘90th Birthday Tributes to Ranajit Guha’, Permanent Black, 2013 <>

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘Grey Eminence’, NLR/Sidecar, 16:02:07 UTC <>

Shetty, Sandhya, and Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, ‘Postcolonialism’s Archive Fever’, Diacritics, 30.1 (2000), 25–48 <>

Sutherland, Tonia, and Alyssa Purcell, ‘A Weapon and a Tool: Decolonizing Description and Embracing Redescription as Liberatory Archival Praxis’, The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion (IJIDI), 5.1 (2021), 60–78 <>

Thomas, David, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson, The Silence of the Archive, Principles and Practice in Records Management and Archives Series (London: Facet Publishing, 2017)

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass: Beacon, 1997)

University of Sussex, ‘University of Sussex Collection’, The Keep. <>

[1] University of Sussex, ‘University of Sussex Collection’ [GB181_SxUOS1], The Keep.

[2] Ranajit Guha, The Small Voice of History: Collected Essays ((Ranikhet: Orient BlackSwan, 2010).

[3] Victoria Openif’Oluwa Akoleowo, ‘Critical Pedagogy, Scholar Activism and Epistemic Decolonisation’, South African Journal of Philosophy, 40.4 (2021), 436–5.

[4] Asa Briggs, ‘Maps of Learning’, New Statesman (1957), 61 (1961), 338-.

[5] David Daiches, The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964).

[6] Matthew Cragoe, ‘Sussex: Cold War Campus’, in Utopian Universities: A Global History of the New Campuses of The 1960s, ed. by Miles Taylor and Jill Pellew (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020), pp. 56–71.

[7] Rudrangshu Mukherjee, ‘Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): The Bengali Vessel Lies Emptied of Its History and Learning’, The Telegraph India Online, 1 May 2023.

[8] cited in Somak Mukherjee, ‘Ranajit Guha, India’s Oldest Living Historian’, Frontier, June 2022.

[9] Roy Edgley, ‘Thought and Action in the Huntingdon Affair: Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’, Radical Philosophy, 010.Spring (1975).

[10] Alice Corble, ‘New Leverhulme ECR Fellowship: Evolving Maps of Decolonial Learning at Sussex and Beyond’, Decolonial Maps of Library Learning, 2023.

[11] Divine Fuh, ‘Disobedient Knowledge and Respect for Our African Humanity’, University of Cape Town News, 2022.

[12] Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (Orient Blackswan, 1982), p. 6.

[13] Rudrangshu Mukherjee.

[14] Richard Price, ‘90th Birthday Tributes to Ranajit Guha’, Permanent Black, 2013.

[15] Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History (New York ; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 94.

[16] Sandhya Shetty and Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, ‘Postcolonialism’s Archive Fever’, Diacritics, 30.1 (2000), 25–48; Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[17] Edgley.

[18] David Thomas, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson, The Silence of the Archive, Principles and Practice in Records Management and Archives Series (London: Facet Publishing, 2017), p. 102.

[19] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass: Beacon, 1997), p. 14.

[20] Stanley H. Griffin, ‘Noises in the Archives: Acknowledging the Present yet Silenced Presence in Caribbean Archival Memory’, in Archival Silences, ed. by Michael Moss and David Thomas (London: Routledge, 2021), p. 85.

[21] Alice Corble, ‘“Libraries of Racial Discovery”: Transatlantic Hidden Histories and the Politics of Memory’, Decolonial Maps of Library Learning, 2023.

[22] Tonia Sutherland and Alyssa Purcell, ‘A Weapon and a Tool: Decolonizing Description and Embracing Redescription as Liberatory Archival Praxis’, The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion (IJIDI), 5.1 (2021), 60–78; Michelle Caswell, Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work, Routledge Studies in Archives (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021).

Posted in Library Legacies

The Power of Poetry and Living Libraries for Decolonial Dialogue

Jenny Mitchell and Erin James in dialogue at University of Sussex Library

As Black History Month draws to a close (yet Black History must continue to be shared) and I adjust to the turn of the season and new positions, I want to reflect today on The Power of Poetry and Living Libraries for Decolonial Dialogue. This was the title of an in-person event at University of Sussex Library that I was proud to host on 28th September last month, to mark the end of my AHRC-RLUK fellowship and four years working for the Library.

Jenny Mitchell, Erin James and Alice Corble at University of Sussex Library. (Photograph by Demet Dinler)

The event centred on the transformational poetic language and insights of two distinguished guests: award winning poets and artists, Jenny Mitchell and Erin James. This year’s Black History Month theme is “Saluting Our Sisters” and the phenomenal work of these talented poets is most certainly worth saluting in this vein.

Jenny Mitchell is an alumna of the University of Sussex who has earned recognition and multiple awards for her contributions to the world of poetry. Notably, she was awarded the Gregory O’Donoghue Prize in 2023 for a single poem. Her second collection, “Map of a Plantation,” received the Poetry Book Awards in 2021 and is now part of the syllabus at Manchester Metropolitan University. Mitchell’s best-selling debut collection, “Her Lost Language,” was featured in Poetry Wales’ list of 44 Poetry Books for 2019. Her latest work, Resurrection of a Black Man, has received widespread acclaim, with three prize-winning poems and a feature on the U.S. podcast Poetry Unbound. Just last week, Jenny was also a winner of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2023.

Erin James is a Brighton-based multi-disciplinary artist, known for merging art and activism in their diverse range of art, including poetry, DJing, photography, zine-making and curation. They were awarded the 2023 Stuart Hall Fellowship at University of Sussex, where they developed the creative research project The Live Archive. Erin’s work focuses on poetry and music as alternative mediums for academic research and archiving. Themes of their work include mental health, activism, the use of joy as an antidote to hate, and the normalisation of ‘stigmatised’ subjects.

For this event featuring Jenny and Erin’s work, we gathered together with a diverse audience of sixty people, a mixture of current and former Sussex students and staff and local community members in the large open plan area of the Library Café (which once upon a time was the University bookshop). The early evening autumnal light and lively energies of starting a new academic year filled the space and formed a fitting setting for the stunning poetic performances and reflections provided by Jenny and Erin.

Jenny Mitchell (photograph by Varun Akaash @shotbybugz)
Erin James (photograph by Varun Akaash @shotbybugz)

Erin and Jenny took it in turns to recite a selection of their phenomenal poems, before entering into a reflexive conversation about the roles that libraries, archives, reading and education have played in their lives, inflected with the entwined themes of race, gender, and legacies of colonialism and British transatlantic enslavement. Some of the issues raised in the dialogue included the power of oral storytelling, and the damage done to those who were, for reasons beyond their control, unable to access mainstream education that still privileges the written word above all else. One of the central and resounding themes was the ways in which poetry can be both liberating and an act of reclamation.

The poems Jenny recited were drawn from all three of her collections, including “Lost Child”, “Song for a Former Slave”, “Black Rapunzel”, “The Seamstress” (dedicated to her grandmother), and “Black Men Should Wear Colour” (dedicated to her brother Mark). Her final poem was one written this year, called “Academia” with reference to her past experiences as a student at Sussex.


by Jenny Mitchell

This is not a campus for the poor. The posh,
in drab designer clothes, labels on the outside –
wealth flapping in the sun. A coddled generation,
prepared to have it all, held up as leaders
of the world, when I hail from a council flat –
the first child in my family to ever sit exams.

The rich must sense I do not know my arse
from elbow – how to cook a bechamel.
Is it the same as a white sauce? Black girl
begins to hide her voice – How now brown cow?
Call me Eliza Doolittle. Who knows about
the rain in Spain? I’ve never been abroad.

Debt is accrued by lounging in a coffee shop –
scones filled with cream and jam, hot chocolate
poured up to the brim. I’m awed by silver spoons
between thin lips. The upper one is always stiff.
Money sharpens vowels – a cut-glass voice,
words I long to speak trapped down my throat.

(First published by Poetry Wales 59.1 Summer 2023 , and re-published by Culture Matters 16 September 2023.)

I was particularly struck by the image of the ‘béchamel’ or ‘white sauce’ in this poem, which I interpreted as a viscous medium of whiteness that conditions the structures and cultures of the university, too often marginalising or silencing Black voices and student experiences. Jenny’s voice has certainly cut through that medium, however, with power and poise that speaks volumes about social and racial injustices. Recurring leitmotifs of ancestral voices like musical notes sutured in to the hems and seams of resurrected garments reverberated into the library space with a sense of reckoning as Jenny recited her poems. The metaphor of seams and stitching also made me think of the binding and spines of books that fill library stacks, yet the power of the human voice through poetry shared aloud has an unbinding force, liberating the words from the page and from the suffering of its subjects.

Erin’s poetry recitals had a similarly emancipatory force, bringing to life the Library and the Archive in all its interdisciplinary multiplicity and imaginative multidimensionality. They began their set with the amazing methodological poem from their Stuart Hall Fellowship project completed at Sussex earlier this year, The Live Archive, an excerpt of which is reproduced below:

Welcome to The Live Archive
A living breathing poem –
event, idea, method, inquiry, feeling and emotion
I’m Erin: artist / researcher
Reality unearther
Archivist worker
And social-justice-searcher
I make music out of language
Translating words I’ve nurtured

And I’m here to share my research
I’ve been looking at how poetry can be used as research
How art can contribute to more alternative, accessible, decolonial, non-traditional
unimaginably re-positional forms of research
What education can look like I am reimagining,
As well as who it can include and what traditions we are challenging

It’s important to understand this work is not just my own
Here lies a history far bigger than what can easily be known
This is a legacy so deep I am trying to break open
So with each word that is spoken
Please hear not just my voice
Hear everyone and everything that influenced this choice
See all the images not archived, excluded and left out
Taste the blood of papercuts of pages turned and sources found
Feel the grief of every soul with seeds but no soil left to sprout
I have the privilege of being heard in a way that many others have not
So let this research be for every single story that was lost

Read the full poem and listen to an audio recording on Erin’s website here.

Erin went on to share a powerful poem called “The Gender Binary is a Tool of White Supremacy” which explored the beauty and diversity of pre-colonial gender fluidity and how this needs to be reclaimed in current oppressive and reactionary cultural contexts. This was a found poem, a collage-like form which, as Erin highlighted, is a creative way of playing with the politics of citation for restorative ends. Erin’s final poem explored the and diasporic complexity of ancestral and cultural heritage and how to dream and demand a politics of refusal and liberation within and beyond the colonial structures that divide us.

Jenny Mitchell and Erin James in conversation at University of Sussex Library (photograph by Varun Akaash @shotbybugz)

The subsequent dialogue between Erin and Jenny was full of intersectional and inspirational synergy. They each reflected on their experiences of libraries and archives in public and educational settings, with Jenny reflecting on how important public libraries were to her in childhood, as both a safe space away from home and school and as a way of accessing literature beyond the curriculum. The university library was less of a feature in her learning at Sussex, but libraries became very important again post-university life when Jenny engaged in deep research on British transatlantic enslavement, informing her three poetry collections. She has also worked with libraries a lot in her outreach and engagement work as a writer and workshop leader. Erin shared how whilst they have always loved reading, developing this through formal further and higher educational routes was not a pathway that worked for them, but libraries and archives in their most expansive and public sense have been a huge part of their self-education, feeding into a process of ‘reclamation’ of language, history and life. During Erin’s Stuart Hall Fellowship at Sussex, the Library and its archives and special collections became key nodes feeding in to Erin’s re-imagination of what a living archive is and can be.

Jenny reflected with Erin on the power of the oral their work. The way the audible human voice can transcend the confined of the covers of a book was palpable for the audience as we listened to their recitals and subsequent conversation, and influenced some fascinating questions posed by members of the diverse audience, who were encouraged to share their thoughts in a safe and inclusive environment. There was a discussion about the ways in which books can have their own kind of agency through the ways in which readers connect with them, a notion of certain texts finding us or even ‘reading’ us, rather than us reading them, which was particularly intriguing. There was also a question about the importance of multiple modes and formats for ‘reading’ which is very important for neurodivergent library users in particular, with a reminder that readers can exist at the margins of texts and institutions, as well as minoritised authors and subjects of books or collections.

The event closed with a sense of an appetite for further dialogue on all these issues and more. There was much thanks and praise for the power of poetry unleashed by Jenny and Erin, and for the value of opening up the library space for these kinds of inclusive forms of listening, speaking and reclaiming of the words connect us as living and breathing archives.

With many thanks to RLUK for funding this event.

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Posted in Library Legacies

Unboxing and Mapping Black History in Sussex Library Legacy Collections

This summer the Library was blessed to host its first Junior Research Associate (JRA): Myisha Box (History and International Relations BA student, now in her final year). The project was supervised by Gavin Mensah Coker and Anne-Marie Angelo, with a support team in the library provided by Chloe Dobson, Danny Millum and Alice Corble.

The project’s premise was to audit and map the large amounts of documents, newsletters, magazines and journals relating to Black History and Black Studies within the Library Legacy Collection, in order to develop a new Black Studies collection theme. At present these items are distributed amongst the existing eight Legacy Collection themes, and hence are somewhat buried or more difficult to discover through browsing the catalogue. Developing the project outcomes will therefore improve discoverability and visibility of Black History within library collections and provide opportunities to celebrate these collections and improve representation and inclusion for Black students and staff at Sussex and beyond.

The project has been particularly fascinating in terms of its relevance and overlap with my own research focus on uncovering and mapping hidden racialised histories and postcolonial legacies within our library collections and learning landscapes. Myisha identified and listed approximately 300 items for the new Black Studies theme, shared her research insights with Library and Humanities colleagues, and created a brilliant poster for the annual JRA exhibition, which was shortlisted for a prize.

JRA Myisha Box with her poster: Mapping Sussex University Library’s Black History Archives

The project has been extremely successful and has identified a substantial amount of material for the new theme, including documents from organisations such as The Institute of Race Relations, Commission for Racial Equality, Race Equality Unit, Race Today, the Runnymede Trust and Black British grassroots social movements such as the Black Liberation Front, All Faiths for One Race, Counter Information Services (started by Basker Vashee), Grassroots Newspapers, and the Haslemere Committee.

It has also provoked lots of fascinating discussions around decolonisation, terminology and usage, and the appropriate use of different cataloguing standards. This is vital for inclusive professional practice, and sheds important light on the cultural, political, and ethical dimensions of how libraries organise and develop collections for diverse usage in a higher educational context.

‘It has been so rewarding getting to share in Myisha’s research journey as she has explored the often hidden Black histories held in our Library’s archives. It is particularly important that scholars of her generation are exposed to the events, incidents and narratives that many of my generation and those before us lived through – and sometimes assume are common knowledge. Projects such as these, which link students, librarians and academics across different disciplines offer a unique way of learning – and particularly so when about people and communities often marginalised. This project has helped bring those stories to the centre and I was very honoured to co-supervise Myisha in the first of what I hope is a continuing collaboration.’  (Gavin Mensah-Coker, Senior Lecturer in English Language, Department of Language Studies and Deputy Race Equality Director, School of Media, Arts & Humanities).

‘It has been a privilege to work with Myisha on this project to uncover materials relating to Black Studies in our Library Legacy collection of rare documents and ephemeral materials. She has helped us to take a huge leap forward in the important work of ensuring the selection, describing, presentation and engagement with our collections is as inclusive as possible. Her perspective on the Black Studies materials that she meticulously uncovered, examined, listed and reflected on has been essential to the creation of this collection. She has seen links between items, authors, names mentioned and events that we couldn’t possibly have realised ourselves. As a predominantly white team here in the Library, we do not feel that it is our place to speak for the Black Community, including the student body, in exposing these significant items – Myisha’s has been an important voice that we hope will be listened to.’ (Chloe Dobson, Collection Development Librarian).

There are plans for a Library exhibition to showcase some of the Black History and Black Studies collection items Myisha selected. We very look forward to seeing what Myisha goes on to do next with her excellent research skills and hope to collaborate with her further in this important work.

Posted in Library Legacies

New Leverhulme ECR fellowship: evolving maps of decolonial learning at Sussex and beyond

The Institute of Development Studies building (1960s redbrick design) in winter with a light dusting of snow on the lawn and a 'Library Road' sign in the foreground, at the University of Sussex campus in Falmer.

The past year has been a intense one that has included many obstacles and opportunities. It’s hard to believe the AHRC-RLUK fellowship has come to an end, especially as it feels like I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the undulations of Sussex’s postcolonial map of learning. I have amassed a huge breadth and depth of archival and ethnographic data, the majority of which has not yet made it into this blog and other published outputs, but thankfully I now have three more years to develop, expand, and share this work! This is thanks to having been awarded (still pinching myself) a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, hosted by the Department of International Development, School of Global Studies at University of Sussex. After four years working for the Library here I’ve now relocated to the nearby building of Arts C, once the home of AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies) closely connected to the work of IDS (Institute of Development Studies), both of which I have referenced in previous blog posts in relation to the ways in which their intellectual and institutional memory are so resonant for the aims of my research.

In the coming weeks, months and years, I will evolve the design and content of the present research blog to showcase further findings of the AHRC-RLUK library fellowship (2022-23) whilst transitioning into sharing content and outputs of the new Leverhulme (2023-26) project. For now you can read a summary of the new project below and watch this space for further snapshots of my research story as my decolonial library learning journey unfolds!

Postcolonial library legacies and new transnational maps of learning

Dr Alice Corble, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow 2023-2026
Department of International Development, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

A black and white photograph of the interior of University of Sussex Library from the 1960s, with three circular images in the foreground depicting global maps on either side and a photograph of the statue of Cecil Rhodes bound in tape next to a banner reading 'Rhodes Must Fall' underneath with Black people surrounding it on some steps. The header at the top of the image reads POSTCOLONIAL LIBRARY LEGACIES AND NEW TRANSNATIONAL MAPS OF LEARNING. Dr. Alice Corble.

Since 2015, when the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student-led movement erupted at the University of Cape Town, calls to decolonise universities have gained traction internationally. Yet there have been few tangible outcomes for British universities, with widespread misunderstanding and controversy about what ‘decolonising’ means in academic contexts. A recent Higher Education Policy Institute report underlines this and calls for urgent action to address a ‘silent crisis’.  This project addresses this problem by evidencing two key overlooked dimensions that underpin it: (i) the historical geopolitical dynamics of international university development between Britain and the rest of the world, and (ii) the crucial role of libraries and archives in shaping and mediating the colonial roots and legacies of global knowledge production and education. 

The University of Sussex and its Library and Archives are key nodes in transnational networks of postcolonial HE development, due to Sussex’s position as the first of Britain’s ‘new universities’ established in 1961 with a local and global mission to draw ‘a new map of learning’ in contexts of shifting race relations via development of Commonwealth states and new patterns of immigration. My recent AHRC-RLUK-funded research (University of Sussex Library, 2022-23) has revealed significant legacy connections between Sussex and the University of the West Indies and various South African universities, libraries, and social movements. The present Leverhulme project builds on these findings via a multi-sited ethnographic study of these transnational field sites, exploring past and present politics and material conditions of education and knowledge production in these local and global contexts. This border-crossing project bridges disciplinary gaps and makes the case for HE institutions to take their colonial histories seriously by understanding the integral role of libraries and communities in both mediating, shaping and repairing these legacies.

The project outputs will include publications and open educational resources co-produced with research participants in Caribbean and South African academic, archival and activist communities. These will combine to form new global maps of learning that make visible and audible cartographies of knowledge and power that trace both epistemically violent pasts and reparative, fertile futures.

Posted in Research Update

Re-discovering and mapping the British Library of Development Studies Legacy Collection through global metadata space and time

Researcher in the former Library of the Institute for Development Studies, circa 1990s. From the University of Sussex Collection at The Keep archives.

“Being explorers ourselves in a new university, explorers with ample maps of other universities but with none of our own, we wanted to make our students into explorers also, to encourage them to find relations between subjects where we did not see them ourselves, and to dispute some of our own conceptions. Given the huge changes which are taking place both in the formulation of new knowledge and in the world of action where the knowledge is being applied, we did not want to be confined to our own original territory even though the boundaries within it were being knocked down. We recognized that we would also have to move into outer space. The main interest was in planning not for present change but for future change. There are likely to be immense rearrangements in the map of learning during the next fifty years…”  

(Asa Briggs, 1964) [i]

This blog post summaries and reflects on collaborative work between three members of University of Sussex Library staff who have different roles in different but intersecting library teams: Danny Millum, Collection Development Librarian in the Collections team; Tim Graves, Systems Librarian in the Digital Discovery team; and myself, Alice Corble, Teaching and Learning Supervisor and RLUK-AHRC Research Fellow in the Student Experience team[1]. What joined us together through this collaboration is a shared enthusiasm for improving and diversifying discoverability and usage of library collections via innovative approaches to mapping, visualizing and analysing collections data. The British Library for Development Studies (BLDS) Legacy Collection is the perfect vehicle for these converging interests, with particular relevance for my research focus on postcolonial landscapes of library learning and collection development. We came together in a pilot project to explore innovative ways of digitally mapping BLDS catalogue metadata, in order to experiment with alternative catalogue discovery tools that would inform and expand user experience, as well as to highlight the geopolitical distinctiveness of this unique collection.

The University of Sussex (UoS) Library houses the BLDS Legacy Collection via a partnership with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). This vast and diverse collection charts global knowledge landscapes of international development politics, policies, ideas, movements, and actions, which emerged in the aftermath of the British Empire. Sourced and developed by IDS Librarians and Fellows between the mid-1960s and early-2000s, this re-developed historical collection comprises 250,000 items in 56 languages, from 150 countries. The type of material includes government reports, censuses, newsletters, journals, books, pamphlets and other ephemera. The subject areas include all aspects of development studies, most notably economics, population and family planning, education, and health. It provides an unparalleled resource for better understanding the global postcolonial history of development.

Following the closure of the IDS Library in 2017 due to funding cuts, and a period of uncertainty and dormancy for the collection, in 2019 a £400,000 Wellcome Trust grant was awarded jointly to the UoS Library and IDS to improve its accessibility, with the aim being to create an invaluable and enduring research resource for a new generation of scholars. Thanks to the meticulous work of Caroline Marchant-Wallis, Danny Millum and colleagues over the past 3 years, the material has been preserved and catalogued, and is now being promoted and accessed. It has a dedicated website and can be browsed by theme or country via the University of Sussex Primo Library discovery platform

The value of the BLDS Legacy Collection lies in both the breadth and scope of its contents, and the fact that the collection primarily derives from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in the Global Majority, where limited funds and digital infrastructure, conflict, and/or environmental disasters have often led to substantial archival destruction. Amidst current concerns to decolonise both development studies and librarianship, the collection contains a wealth of research data latent with potential to (re)generate and diversify global knowledge connections. I’m interested in what kind of (de)colonial stories this data might tell.

Here’s a video clip of Danny talking about the collection and our metadata mapping pilot project, part of a lightning talk that he, Tim and I delivered for the CILIP Metadata Discovery Group annual conference earlier this month.

University of Sussex Librarian Danny Millum on the BLDS Legacy Collection and mapping its metadata

Sussex and IDS and their libraries were developed in the early 1960s at significant historical juncture of geopolitical change, with the forces of international development and decolonisation being shaped by neo-colonial logics of nation-building and knowledge-building. As the quote that opens this blog post illustrates, a key lens for my research is the vision of University of Sussex’s founding father Professor Asa Briggs to ‘draw a new map of learning’ via interdisciplinary schools of study and degree programmes, reflecting shifting geopolitical landscapes of knowledge and nationhood in a the rapidly changing global context of the Cold War and development agendas around decolonisation of Commonwealth nations.

Archival documents from early 1960s working party committee meetings on the establishment of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex clearly show how the “key to the success of the institution” was the development of its library collections, which were developed via close relationships with the Colonial Office Library and Ministry of Overseas Development, with ”ancillary libraries available material for the study of development administration on a world-wide scale.” As one committee member argued, the need for this was urgent since “…if action is not taken promptly, Britain will no longer hold its position as a centre where there is available material for the study of development administration on a world-wide scale.”[ii]   The earliest records in the BLDS Legacy collection are from the 1860s, a century before IDS was established, which demonstrates the legacy connections with the former Colonial Office libraries and government administrations in the British colonies. The collection really explodes in size and types of documentation in the second half of the 20th century, with many items from liberation groups and organisations, highlighting the material culture and epistemic tensions of anti-colonial struggles and decolonial development.

Covers from the bulletins of the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America : publications. Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Available at University of Sussex Library BLDS Legacy Collection.

I want to find out why and how these collections were acquired across these time periods and geographic regions, who used these documents, and for what purposes, throughout the institutional evolution of IDS and Sussex. Interactive maps are a really helpful and dynamic way of informing these research questions and connections as I interview IDS and Sussex alumni. My research methods are very qualitative, so I turned to colleagues like Tim and Danny to ask for help in exploring the more quantitative aspects of collections data. When I discovered they were experimenting with visual mapping prototypes to visualise BLDS Legacy collection, this was music to my ears and we began collaborating on how to develop these tools, with me being the person to ask lots of pertinent questions about why and how the collections data is configured the way it is.

Our collaborative BLDS metadata mapping experiments were spearheaded by the ingenuity of our interdisciplinary colleague Dr Ben Jackson, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities and the Library, whose expertise in Heritage Informatics and big data mapping enabled him to generate an alternative to the traditional library catalogue digital interface. Ben created a prototype interactive world map visualising all the catalogued items in the BLDS Legacy Collection based on the catalogue metadata fields for publication date and country of origin. The resulting digital atlas displays the density of BLDS Legacy records associated with any one place in the world at any given historical point on the collection timeline. The interface also documents the number of records that have no geographic location data associated with them on the catalogue, which can read as forms of archival absence, an important concept in decolonial information studies [iii]

Armed with Ben’s coding formulas, Tim developed the maps from 2D atlas visualisations to 3D globes. Along the way, he encountered some puzzling issues that highlight colonial epistemic legacies hidden within the ways in which the collection metadata has been catalogued over time. Here’s Tim demonstrating this in his segment of the lightning talk video.

University of Sussex Librarian Tim Graves presenting on visualising the BLDS Legacy Collection metadata

Tim’s 3D visualisation displays publications from countries like towering stacks, offering an instant understanding of data distribution across global territories. Tim’s visual exploration faced challenges due to inconsistencies in ‘MARC’ data. For instance, differences in country of publication naming conventions, like Rhodesia’s old name versus its present-day Zimbabwe, became problematic. This inconsistency complicates search functionalities, presenting a puzzle Tim believes might be solved with linked data in the future.

My first impressions of these metadata mapping visualisations underlines for me the importance of understanding not just the quantity but also the quality and origins of these collections items. The way the content is catalogued, through the Eurocentric prism of Library of Congress classification system and MARC21 bibliographic metadata coding, must be critically examined. The original BLDS collection under the management of former IDS Librarians, did not use these Eurocentric ‘universal’ cataloguing and classification systems, but rather a bespoke catalogue that was tailored to the uniqueness of the collection and the needs of its users. This system of knowledge organization may also be subject to decolonial critique, however we can only speculate on this, as this institutional memory was lost when the library closed and the librarians were made redundant.

Here’s a clip from my segment of our conference lightning talk, in which I reflect on these epistemic (in)justice conundrums.

Alice Corble presenting on the postcolonial epistemic conundrums of the BLDS metadata mapping.

To add to my conclusion in this video, I will end this blog post on this thought: mapping collections is by no means an exact science; it is an experiment populated with the ghosts of imperial territories and dominions of knowledge building. On this we can gain wisdom from the most enigmatic of librarian-storytellers, Jorge Luis Borges [2]:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges, 1946
Claudius Ptolemy’s world map


[1] My Library teaching and fellowship roles at UoS Library will end on 30th September, and on 1st October I will commence a three year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Sussex School of Global Studies.

[2] This one-paragraph short-story by Borges titled On Exactitude in Science, published in 1946, is credited fictionally as a quotation from “Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658″.


[i] Ashley Glassburn Falzetti, ‘Archival Absence: The Burden of History’, Settler Colonial Studies, 5.2 (2015), 128–44; Pamela VanHaitsma, ‘Between Archival Absence and Information Abundance: Reconstructing Sallie Holley’s Abolitionist Rhetoric through Digital Surrogates and Metadata’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 106.1 (2020), 25–47; Archival Silences: Missing, Lost and, Uncreated Archives, ed. by Michael S. Moss and David Thomas (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021).
[ii] ‘Memorandum on possible procedure for developing and exploiting Afro-Asian library materials in the University of Sussex.’ M.H. Rogers, Subject Librarian, 8 June 1965. (University of Sussex Collection SxUOS1/1/3/5/11/13, The Keep).
[iii] In David Daiches, The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), p. 66.

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Posted in Library Legacies

‘Libraries of Racial Discovery’: transatlantic hidden histories and the politics of memory


In my first blog post I introduced the Centre for Multi-Racial Studies (CMRS), which was established at Sussex in 1964 and ran until 1974, with its main site in Barbados in partnership with the University of the West Indies. The discovery of this forgotten centre via newly acquired archival collections at The Keep has occupied a large portion of my interest and time during my fellowship, growing my knowledge of Sussex’s hidden histories of postcolonial knowledge formations, which I aim to bring to light. This blog post details the history and legacy of the CMRS and raises questions about racialised archival silence and noise, to make the case for bridging library, archival, scholarly and community approaches to reparative history and epistemic justice.  

Archival avenues

I first became aware of the history of the CMRS when, close to the start of my AHRC-RLUK fellowship in October 2022, I was exploring the University of Sussex Collection at The Keep, which is organised by institutional function according to these five sections : Governance, Staff and Faculty, Research, Teaching and Assessment, and Students[1].

University of Sussex Collection archival hierarchy

I began my archival catalogue search across this collection with a range of grammatically related keywords to help me identify aspects of knowledge organisation and institutional memory relating to notions of race, colonialism, imperialism, national and cultural identity. In this way, I found three CMRS annual reports in the ‘Research Centres’ section of the archival hierarchy. This subsequently led me to the administrative papers of John Fulton, a subseries within the ‘Sussex House Admin’ series of the Governance section. These papers, (spanning 1960-1967, the years of Fulton’s tenure as founding Vice Chancellor), charted the origins and development of the CMRS, including correspondence with ministers in the Foreign Office and diplomats from various countries, applications for funding from a wide range of international corporations, and correspondence with Fernando Henriques. I could see there was an important story here, but not enough information.

I discussed this puzzle with Sussex Archivist Karen Watson, who a few weeks later happened to be called to Sussex House (the university’s administrative centre), to examine several boxes of historic files that were earmarked for disposal. Among other items of value, she noticed several piles of material relating to the CMRS and brought these to my attention. Over the past few months I have been working though these uncatalogued archives which tell a rich but partial story of the CMRS’s development, mainly from the point of view of Asa Briggs, who helped to champion the centre through troubled waters over its decade-long establishment.

I began this section by outlining the structure of my way in to these archival avenues, in order to highlight the significance of the core archival science principal of provenance, which traditionally denotes the causal relationship between records and the individuals, groups or organisations who created them for particular functions, and hence requires these records to be held together and sequenced according to their original order. Until the recent critical turn in information and archival sciences, there has been scant attention to the cultural and political dimensions of this principle, which can be theorised as ‘societal provenance’[i]. Records that are archived by organisations are highly affected and infused by the society and culture in which they are created, and archivists are not immune to the biases and inequalities that permeate such informational contexts when they accession, preserve, and maintain these records[ii].  This notion of societal provenance is, I argue, crucial for understanding the ways in which racialised archival biases and silences develop.

CMRS origins and mission

In 1964, the same year the University of Sussex Library opened, and the School of African and Asian Studies commenced, The CMRS unit was established within the School of Social Studies. Funded principally through a grant from the Bata (“Shoemaker to the world”) Foundation, with support from the UK Foreign Office, CMRS was officially inaugurated at Sussex by Brazilian sociologist Dr Gilberto Freyre in June 1965. The Director of CMRS was Professor Fernando Henriques, recruited to lead this project by Asa Briggs, who knew him from their time together at University of Leeds, where Briggs was previously Professor of Modern History, and Henriques a senior faculty member in Social Anthropology. I will return to the significance of Henriques’ life and work for the intellectual history of Sussex, and Black British and Caribbean history more broadly, towards the end of this blog post.

In the 27th October 1964 edition of the University of Sussex Bulletin, the CMRS was announced as having three main tasks:

  • the assembly of materials and information relating to race relations with particular reference to the Caribbean Area, Latin America and Africa;
  • research projects relating to this field in which graduate students would be involved;
  • the arrangement of seminars of varying duration for people outside the University and particularly from the areas concerned. The members of these seminars would be drawn from the universities, the public services, business and labour.

The first two priorities relied primarily on development of a specialist library to serve as a knowledge base for progressive research on “the race factor” in global politics and culture.  While Caribbean, Latin American, and African contexts were the main geographic focus, the Centre’s outputs were not limited to these regions; British, European, and North American comparative studies of race and class were also developed. The third priority aligned with concerns of government and corporations alike about tensions around race relations in a rapidly diversifying citizenry and labour market in a post-imperial Commonwealth context.

Universities, especially new ones like Sussex, had a role to play in these addressing these issues. Founding VC John Fulton proclaimed in the opening lines of his inaugural address, published in The Times on 16th August 1961:

Throughout the world – and especially in the underdeveloped countries – education is the new religion. Men of every colour, race and creed see in it the key that will open the doors to self-realization for the individual, to the true independence of nation or group, to the possibility of co-existence in peace for a divided human race; and, above all, to influence over the intellectual leaders of the generations to come.

Fulton, J. S., ‘Balliol By The Sea Faces Its Future’, The Times, 16 August 1961, p. 9.
Archival cutting sourced from the Library series in the University of Sussex Collection (SxUOS1/3/5/1/9)
Briggs, Asa. “Maps of Learning.” New Statesman (1957), vol. 61, 1961, p. 338. Available via Periodicals Archive Online.

In a like-minded vein, Fulton’s collaborator Asa Briggs’ mission to “as he put it, ‘redraw the map of learning’ at Sussex made sense: it was designed not simply to guide Britain’s path into the future but to balance the redrawn map of geopolitics”[iii].

Building the CMRS knowledge base from Falmer to Barbados

With political and financial backing from the Ministry of Overseas Development, in 1965 Sussex developed a partnership with The University of the West Indies (UWI) to develop a CMRS research centre at the Cave Hill campus in Barbados, with land provided by the island’s Prime Minister. The CMRS building was the property of the University of the West Indies and staffed by employees of Sussex, with Professor Henriques serving as Director, supported by a secretary, research assistants, and resident warden, Jill Sheppard.

The CMRS opening ceremony in the new building took place on 15th and 16th April 1968, in the lecture hall that Asa Briggs announced in his inaugural speech would be named “The Martin Luther King Hall”, in memory of his legacy following his assassination just eleven days prior, making the priorities of the centre even more urgent [iv]. Other distinguished speakers at the two-day opening ceremony included The Prime Minister of Barbados, Errol Barrow; Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir Philip Sherlock; Pro-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams; Lord Caradon, Permanent U.K. Representative at the United Nations; the Governor-General of Barbados, Sir Winston Scott; and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, Meyer Fortes (Henriques’ former doctoral supervisor, a white South African-born scholar of West African cultures). Fortes argued for the urgent need to apply a new generation of research and practice to the “spectre of race” haunting not only Europe (referencing the opening words of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, although not in the same ideological spirit), but “haunting the whole world”[v]. I will come back to this notion of haunting via a decolonial archival perspective in the conclusion of this article.   

Photographic image of the CMRS Library and Administration Building at University of West Indies Cave Hill campus, with CMRS logo designed by Rosamund Henriques (née Seymour). Source: The Centre for Multi Racial Studies First Report 1968 (University of Sussex Collection SxUOS1/3/1/3).

In his opening speech, Professor Eric Williams argued that the universities of “the Commonwealth Caribbean territories … can never afford to adopt a position of ivory tower detachment”.  

The centre’s logo was designed by Rosamund Seymour, Fernando Henriques’ wife, who also did a lot of work developing the centre. The linocut print depicts black and white hands in a circular formation cradling the islands of Britan and the West Indies between an abstraction of the Atlantic Ocean. This design adorns the annual reports and official publications of the centre, which became part of its nascent library collection.

Libraries of Racial Discovery

The Barbados site was also the site of one of the CMRS’s greatest assets, the specialist research library, whose bookshelves were built from wood gifted by the Guyanese government and filled with the books and documents of its founders and associates, as well as the Richard B. Moore Collection. This unique and rare collection was purchased by the Barbados Lions’ Club and presented to the Government as an Independence gift, and subsequently housed at the CMRS.

Richard Benjamin Moore was a Barbadian author, lecturer, political activist, and book dealer, who divided his life between Barbados and Harlem (New York City), where he experienced and raised consciousness about “the realities of European colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the injustices of Jim Crow and lynching in the American South”[vi]

Richard B. Moore Image Source: Sidney Martin Library, University of The West Indies Cave Hill Campus

Over the span of half a century, Moore amassed a personal library of over fifteen thousand books and pamphlets, many of which were rare or out of print, documenting the lives and achievements of African and diasporic communities. As Burghardt Turner asserts: “This was one of the most extensive and complete searches for such literature ever to be undertaken by an individual without government, foundation or organization financial support and with no appreciable personal wealth or income to support the effort.”[vii] His motivations for developing this collection were to demonstrate ample evidence of the pernicious falsity of white superiority, and to address the gap in most libraries between the history and culture of African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American communities.[viii] In this way, his work can be understood as enacting and articulating a theory of historical recovery, which Adalaine Holton and Hannah Ishmael analyse through the work of Arthur Schomburg’s archiving and publicising of diasporic Black culture for Pan-African liberatory ends [ix].  

This collection was hence a prized cornerstone of the bibliographic and intellectual foundations of the CMRS, which Professor Fernando Henriques intended to develop into a ‘Library of Racial Discovery’, via a series by his own publisher MacGibbon and Key, with the first title being his Family and Colour in Jamaica (1953, with the second edition hot off the press in 1968). This book is a significant work of historical anthropology which analyses the enduring impact of European colonialism and slavery on multi-racial Jamaican society via variegated class-colour oppressive hierarchies.  

Excerpted image from the CMRS First Report 1968.
Founding CMRS publications in the ‘Library of Racial Discovery’

The book stock of the CMRS Library was divided into two sections: the Richard B. Moore Collection comprising one half, and materials acquired by the Centre on the other, the latter distinguished by a CMRS book stamp and differently shaded cards in the catalogue. As well as books, the library acquired a variety of periodicals, pamphlets, government publications, press cuttings and tape recordings. The cataloguing was done in a modified form of the 1967 Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, cross-referencing authors’ works with other relevant authority files.     

Archival excerpts documenting the CMRS Library, from the Research Papers of Fernando Henriques, University of Sussex Special Collection

Records show how difficult it was to develop and sustain funding for the Centre’s research programmes and its library, despite the high esteem in which it was held.

 Thankfully, the Richard B. Moore Collection is preserved and available at the Sidney Martin Library at University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus, and is listed on the Barbados National Register of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program. I am in the fortunate position to travel to be able to travel Barbados to explore this and related collection when I commence my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (2023-2026, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex), which will expand the current project to examine transnational postcolonial library legacies and social movements connecting Sussex with knowledge spaces in the Caribbean and South Africa (watch this space for further blog posts detailing this).

The remainder of the present article will introduce the hitherto hidden history of Fernando Henriques, which is now ripe for renewed recognition, since my research – which I’d like to think is continuing his vision of a ‘Library of Racial Discovery’ – has led to his personal archive being donated to the University of Sussex special collections at The Keep, thanks to his son Professor Julian Henriques[2]. The above images of the notes on the CMRS Library are taken from this personal archive (as yet uncatalogued).

Re-collecting and rediscovering Fernando Henriques

Fernando Henriques at University of Leeds, 1950s. Source: uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Fernando’s son Adrian Henriques.

Fernando Henriques (1916 – 1976) was born in Jamaica and moved with his whole family to England at the age of three in 1919. He served in the National Fire Service in London during the Second World War[3], and soon after won a scholarship to study History at University of Oxford, where he became the President of the Oxford Union in 1946, and in 1948 completed his anthropology doctorate under the supervision of  Meyer Fortes and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. He was then appointed as Lecturer in Social Anthropology at University of Leeds in 1948 and went on to become “Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies – possibly the first Black academic to hold such a role anywhere in the UK”. This unprecedented trend continued when he was recruited to Sussex by Briggs in 1964, becoming the university’s first Black professor.

In a ‘Personal Statement’ chapter of a collective memoir of the Henriques family[4], Fernando reflects on his diverse ethnic and cultural heritage as a man racialised as Black in colourist Caribbean and racist British contexts. Fernando also reflects in this chapter on how his employment at Sussex in 1964 to direct the CMRS necessarily required a personal as well as an academic involvement:

“In some occupations the individual can preserve a distance: the lawyer does not become involved with the personal lives of his clients. But my suggestion is that race relations does demand a personal commitment from those who choose this as their field. My criticism of many white people, in both Britain and the United States, who have elected to embark on this course is that they lack feeling for the problems which exist, and merely regard it as another career. In some cases in the field of black/white relations the whites involved do not really care about black people as persons but as part of an equation which must be understood in objective terms. It requires great imagination on the part of white people to enter fully into the experience of what it means to be black in a white world.”[x]

As a white British person engaged in the historical-sociological study of race relations and coloniality in a professional academic library and archival context, I heed this provocation acutely. The professional, like the personal, is political [xi]. The UK information profession is 95% White, with only 0.8% of the surveyed workforce identifying as Black[xii]. I am committed to an ongoing process of critical self-reflexivity and anti-racist praxis in my work as a member of this white professional supermajority, following Mario Ramirez’s call for a liberatory critique of archival “whiteness and its semantic markers (such as tradition, neutrality, and objectivity) and having honest dialogues about how we as a profession and individuals perpetuate inequality”[xiii]. As an interdisciplinary scholar I strive to apply what Martin Savransky calls “decolonial sociological imagination” to my work, which cultivates a recognition that “there is no social and cognitive justice [and I would explicitly add racial justice here] without existential justice, no politics of knowledge without a politics of reality”[xiv].  

My experience of exploring the archives of the CMRS at The Keep contrasted with my encounter with his personal archive at the Henriques family home. I met Julian Henriques at a garage outside his daughter’s flat in North London. He had laid out a table ready for me to delve into the five large crates of papers and ephemera documenting his father’s life and work, covering around half a century of material, including anthropological research on race relations whilst at Oxford in the 1940s, Leeds in the 1950s, and Sussex and the West Indies in the ‘60s and 70s’. Quite unlike the institutional archival environment of the Keep, with its warehouse white walls, fluorescent lighting, and clinically-cool atmosphere; being greeted with a warm handshake at the intimate space of the family garage filled with the materiality of living memories, and leafing through the files to the sound of summer birdsong and sights of Henriques family members smilingly passing by, reoriented my senses to past and present lives and knowledges in vivid colour. In this sense, we were re-collecting this collection via its familial and societal provenance and roots.

Julian Henriques showing me his father’s archive at the family garage storage space (photograph by author).
Archival detail from Fernando Henriques personal archive (photograph by author).
The Research Papers of Fernando Henriques collection arriving at The Keep (photograph by author).

Conclusion: listening to archival noise

As Sara Ahmed attests, “Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space.”[xv] The archival bodies of knowledge of CMRS and Fernando Henriques has thus far taken up only a marginalised, silenced and forgotten space in the institutional memory of the University of Sussex. Indeed, the redundant files that were being discarded from Sussex House could have quite easily ended up being disposed of, were it not for the efforts of a single archivist in dialogue with a research fellow interested in the (post)colonial and racialised lives and legacies of the library and archive. The gift of the Henriques’ personal archive will form its own archival special collection at the University of Sussex, thereby complementing and contextualising the existing CMRS institutional records in its own right. There is hence now the potential to recover the societal provenance of these records and make audible the voices within them.

Stanley H. Griffin defines decolonising archives as a necessarily noisy activity, disrupting Eurocentric epistemic silences and violences with the rich diversity of Caribbean culture via polyvocal and multimodal archival forms[xvi]. He likens institutional archives to the lifeblood of an institution, and in the many institutional contexts wherein much blood has been spilled through the violence of colonialism, we need to listen to how this blood beats through the rhythms of the records: “the repressed and silenced in the archival records will agitate and haunt until full recognition and acknowledgement of its informational and enduring values are secured. These noises demand the attention of both archivist and researcher alike.” [xvii]

In my work this attention involves tuning out (like a radio) what I call white noise in the archive: the dissonant interference of the whiteness of institutional machinery and memory in constructing what and how we re-member and recover diverse knowledges. For archivists and librarians this needs to involve reparative archival description to make archival access points more inclusive, as well as pro-active collecting policies that imaginatively attend to unequal frequencies and channels of diverse voices[xviii]. Together with scholars working across the humanities and social sciences, we need to heed the calls of both Stuart and Catherine Hall to expose and repair the ways in which imperialism continues to structure and fracture our institutions, records and cultural heritage[xix]. Both archivists and scholars need to come together to approach this work dialogically, contextualising archival sources within their societal provenance; recognising archives as sites of cultural contestation and political struggle, and activating them according to reparative archival principles of recovery and transformation. Our archives need to be living organisms, animated and articulated in sonic technicolour, pitched to the ears and eyes of diverse publics.

Endnotes and References

[1] The Library’s administrative archives sit within the ‘Services’ series of the Governance section.

[2] Thanks also go to Professor Jeremy MacClancy, who consulted the CMRS archives at The Keep for his research on Fernando Henriques’ contribution to anthropology, and connected me to Julian Henriques.  

[3] He had wanted to serve in the RAF but was refused entry after a sergeant told him that “wogs … were not considered officer material”, on which he reflects was the ongoing stronghold of the “shibboleth” of British imperial power (Holland 2020, pp.166-167).

[4] This memoir, The Jippi-Jappa Hat Merchant and His Family (first published in 2014), was written and published almost forty years after Fernando’s untimely death in 1976. The ‘Personal Statement’ chapter is the text of the intended introduction to his final monograph Children of Caliban: Miscegenation (1976), the published introduction of which was edited to be considerably shorter. The essay speaks volumes about Fernando’s lived experience and intellectual reflections on the intersectional societal nuances of race, class, and gender in mid-late twentieth British and Jamaican cultural and academic life.

[i] Michael Piggott, Archives and Societal Provenance Australian Essays (Oxford, UK: Chandos Pub., 2012).

[ii] Tom Nesmith, ‘The Concept of Societal Provenance and Records of Nineteenth-Century Aboriginal-European Relations in Western Canada: Implications for Archival Theory and Practice’, Archival Science, 6.3–4 (2006), 351–60; Anthony W. Dunbar, ‘Introducing Critical Race Theory to Archival Discourse: Getting the Conversation Started’, Archival Science, 6.1 (2006), 109; Anthony W. Dunbar, ‘Every Information Context Is a CRiTical Race Information Theory Opportunity: Informatic Considerations for the Information Industrial Complex’, Digital Transformation and Society (2023).

[iii] Matthew Cragoe, ‘Asa Briggs and the University of Sussex, 1961–1976’, in The Age of Asa: Lord Briggs, Public Life and History in Britain since 1945, ed. by Miles Taylor (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015), pp. 225–47 (p. 226).

[iv] University of the West Indies and University of Sussex, ‘Transcript of Centre for Multi-Racial Studies Inauguration Ceremonies 15th and 16th April’ (Cave Hill Campus, Barbados, 1968). <>. With thanks to Julian Henriques for finding this document in the UWI digital repository, which he cited in his chapter in Holland (2020).

[v] Julian Henriques, in Mark Holland, The Jippi – Jappa Hat Merchant and His Family, Second Edition (Horsgate, 2020), p. 216; University of the West Indies and University of Sussex, p. 15.

[vi] W. Burghardt Turner, ‘The Richard B. Moore Collection and Its Collector’, Caribbean Studies, 15.1 (1975), 135–45.

[vii] Turner.

[viii] Carolyn, ‘Richard B. Moore, The Caribbean Militant Of Harlem 1893–1978’, Harlem World Magazine, 2014 <> [accessed 18 July 2023].

[ix] Adalaine Holton, ‘Decolonizing History: Arthur Schomburg’s Afrodiasporic Archive’, The Journal of African American History, 92.2 (2007), 218–38; Hannah J. M. Ishmael, ‘Reclaiming History: Arthur Schomburg’, Archives and Manuscripts, 46.3 (2018), 269–88.

[x] Mark Holland, The Jippi – Jappa Hat Merchant and His Family, Second Edition (Horsgate, 2020), pp. 188–89.

[xi] Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood, ‘The Professional Is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries’, in Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian, ed. by Alison Lewis (Library Juice Press, LLC, 2014), pp. 119–40.

[xii] Martin Reddington, A Study of the UK’s Information Workforce 2023: Mapping the Library, Archives, Records, Information Management and Knowledge Management and Related Professions in the United Kingdom & Ireland., 2023 <> [accessed 21 July 2023].

[xiii] Mario H. Ramirez, ‘Being Assumed Not to Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative’, The American Archivist, 78.2 (2015), 339–56 (p. 352).

[xiv] Martin Savransky, ‘A Decolonial Imagination: Sociology, Anthropology and the Politics of Reality’, Sociology, 51.1 (2017), 11–26 (p. 13).

[xv] Sara Ahmed, ‘A Phenomenology of Whiteness’, Feminist Theory, 8.2 (2007), 149–68 (p. 150).

[xvi] Vance Woods, ‘“There Is a Tangible Tension between What Is Held in Caribbean Archives and What Is Remembered in Caribbean Communities”: Interview with Stanley H. Griffin, of the University of the West Indies (Pt. 1)’, Archivoz, 2023 <> [accessed 19 July 2023].

[xvii] Stanley H. Griffin, ‘Noises in the Archives: Acknowledging the Present yet Silenced Presence in Caribbean Archival Memory’, in Archival Silences (Routledge, 2021), p. 85.

[xviii] Christina Kamposiori, Developing Inclusive Collections: Understanding Current Practices and Needs of RLUK Research Libraries (Zenodo, 13 July 2023) <>.

[xix] Stuart Hall, ‘Whose Heritage? Un-Settling ‘The Heritage’, Re-Imagining the Post-Nation’, in Whose Heritage? (Routledge, 2023) (1999); Catherine Hall, ‘Doing Reparatory History: Bringing “Race” and Slavery Home’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), 3–21.

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Posted in Library Legacies

Making Black British history and future: reviewing the launch of Black at Sussex

It is noh mistri

Wi mekkin histri

(Johnson, 1984)


The thing about making history, especially institutional history, is that the truth of lived experience often gets disfigured, silenced, or buried. Such archival asymmetries were addressed by a brilliant line-up of speakers at the launch of the Black at Sussex programme, which took place at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Windrush Square on Thursday 22nd September 2022. These speakers shared recollections of the political and creative cauldron of late-twentieth-century Black British cultural life, and the role played by University of Sussex in the educational chapters of their stories.

The album Making History by poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) was recorded and released in London in 1984, with lyrics that reflect a national and global condensed moment of political, economic and social crises. There are more than a few echoes that resonate with today’s crisis-ridden landscape. The mesmeric dub poetry beat of LKJ’s music, which includes tracks commemorating the New Cross Massacre and the Brixton Uprising of 1981, resonates with the rhythms of resistance and cycles of history that continue on our streets and in our places of work and learning today. As LKJ reflected on his time contributing to the Race Today Collective in the 1970s-80s, channelling the mantra of Black Panther Bobby Seale, the rallying call then (and many present-day anti-racist activists and cultural producers will agree endures today) was to “Seize The Time” (in Field, Bruce and Hassan, 2019, p. 8).

Today as I leaf through the archived print copies of the AFRAS Review, a periodical produced by Black and Asian students and staff at University of Sussex School of African and Asian Studies (AFRAS) in the 1970s (one of whom was Len Garrison who went on to co-found the BCA) I see and hear these rhythms of resistance indelibly inked on the page.

“The Power of the Drum”, poem by Len Garrison AFRAS Review No. 2 Summer 1976, p. 37.
Book review of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s DREAD BEAT and BLOOD (Bogle l’Ouverture Publications Ltd) by Rex McKenzie. AFRAS Review No. 2 Summer 1976, p. 40.

As someone who lived, worked, and studied in the densely populated multicultural inner London boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham for close to two decades before my move to Brighton for a job at University of Sussex Library in 2019; it felt good to be going back to my old stomping ground for a community event in inner-city South London, a place which significantly contrasts with the rural, rarefied, and white-dominated spaces of campus life in Falmer. I hope that future Black at Sussex events and activities can find embedded connections and reach wider audiences with Black and diverse communities based in Brighton and Hove urban areas, where many of our students, staff and alumni live and work.

Black at Sussex is a five-year education and cultural inclusion and creative advocacy programme, which aims to improve the experience of Black students at Sussex, thereby acting on the university’s antiracist pledge and widening participation priorities. It intends to do this by showcasing and celebrating University of Sussex Black alumni and their contributions to public life via public art created and embedded on campus by Black photographers and curators, and a programme of critical discussion events about racialised educational experiences.

The Black at Sussex launch event was expertly facilitated by host Karina H Maynard, along with Lisa Anderson (BCA interim Managing Director). It opened with an address by University of Sussex’s new Vice Chancellor Sasha Roseneil, who celebrated the many Black Sussex alumni who have gone on to make major contributions to British cultural life as well as international arenas. She also acknowledged the much more dismaying fact that many Black Sussex students both in the past and the present suffer an isolating and exclusionary educational experience, suffering the harmful effects of racialised microaggressions and structural inequalities.

The line-up of speakers was impressive. Renowned photographers Charlie Phillips & Eddie Otchere talked in dialogue about their work photographing portraits of Sussex Black alumni, commissioned as part of the project. Valerie Kporye spoke about her experience as a current Sussex BA Philosophy & Literature student, and what she has learned and gained so far from her involvement in the development of Black at Sussex; in dialogue with Professor Martin Evans who talked about his motivations for developing the collaborative project. Poet and educator Jenny Mitchell spoke about her time as a student at Sussex in the 1980s and delivered a powerful poetry reading. Playwright and artist Michael McMillan and Afro-Queer artist and filmmaker Topher Campbell spoke about their early educational and activist experiences at Sussex and how this informed their creative careers. Finally, Marie Garrison spoke about the work of her late husband Len Garrison, photographer, educationalist, historian and co-founder of BCA (who sadly died in 2003), in particular his work as a photographer and educator documenting and developing diasporic lives and communities.

Black Cultural Archives

BCA is the only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving, and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain.

Black Cultural Archives newsletter for Black History Month 1993. Papers of Len Garrison, Black Cultural Archives Collection.

BCA grew out of a community response to a catalogue of racial injustices in the 1970s and 80s, including the New Cross Massacre (1981), in which 13 young Black people were killed in a house fire caused by a racist arson attack (for which there is still no justice and no peace); the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984); the underachievement of Black children in British schools; the failings of the Race Relations Act 1976; and the harmful impacts of racism against people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK.

These compounded structures of national and institutional racism were evidenced in the powerful work of Bernard Coard, who studied at Sussex in the late 1960s and in 1971 published the book How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain. Coard’s work was pivotal in the Black Education Movement in Britain and a landmark in a seismic moment in the history or racial justice struggles in Britain2. As John La Rose (Chairman of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, political and cultural activist, poet, writer, and founder of New Beacon Books) remarked at a speech given at Brixton Civic Centre in February 1976 to mark the second anniversary of Race Today1, over time this movement sadly turned into “the decline of the black youth political organisations and the rise of internal neo-colonial practices directed at blacks, workers and middle strata” (Field, Bruce and Hassan, 2019, p. 16).

After graduating from his Sussex degree in African and Caribbean history in 1976, Len Garrison decided that Britain needed a space where members of the Black community, especially young people, could come and find positive historical and cultural representations of themselves. The Black at Sussex programme is designed to do just that and more at the University of Sussex.

Image on the left: Bust of Len Kwesi Garrison inside the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, by sculptor Fowokan George Kelly. Image on the right: bust of Sir Henry Tate outside Brixton Tate Library next door to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Photographs by Alice Corble.

Photography, Archiving and Power

The Black at Sussex launch event was titled Photography, Archiving and Power, and photographer David Mensah has powerfully captured moments and portraits of the event and its speakers and attendees. However, no official audio or video recording of the event was made, and to my knowledge there has not yet been a written review of it other than the University’s Internal Communications promotion of it3. It is this absence of a textual archiving of the event that prompted me to write this blog post, documenting it as an important moment in British Black history4.

The legendary photographer Charlie Phillips (OBE), described by historian Simon Schama as “the most important (yet least lauded) Black British photographer of his generation”, and his collaborator Eddie Otchere, described by The Financial Times as  “the patron saint of British urban photography”, were the first guests to speak following Roseneil’s opening address. They talked about their commission to create a series of photographic portraits of Black Sussex alumni situated in locations of the subjects’ choosing. Phillips reflected how this project has made him realise how much “hidden talent” has come out of academia, which “the institution hasn’t properly explored or invested in”. He expressed hope that the programme will encourage the “best of British Black academics” to come forward and be given opportunities to have their contributions recognised and rewarded. He was pleased to be able to document this legacy, which adds to more than fifty years of his outstanding oeuvre documenting Black British life. 

Charlie Phillips in conversation with Karina H. Maynard and Eddie Otchere, 22nd September 2022. Photograph by Alice Corble.

Phillips reflects in this moving film by Leo Buckley about his work, which was unjustly overlooked for decades:

When mi first came to England, living in London was a nightmare. I just thought I didn’t fit in. I started taking photographs, documenting the community I was growing up in. Hoping that one day, you know, when we go back to Jamaica, they’ll be all in an album and we can show what life was like in England. I thought I’d document our history. Tell our side of the story. But nobody wanted it at the time.

(Charlie Phillips – I was Always Here, Buckley 2022)

In dialogue with Charlie, Eddie Otchere reflected during the event on his work as the curator of the Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive, which he poignantly referred to in terms of handling “bodies in the archive”, conjuring a sense of both loss and vitality in the Black cultural visual historical record. Eddie has previously described his own photographic practice as bringing to life “dead materials” through hauntological mediations in the darkroom. The phrase that resounded most for me in his contributions to this event was “we need to add more bodies to the archives.” This reminds me of Stuart Hall’s notion of a “living archive of the diaspora”, about which he maintained “all three terms need to be considered for the hidden implications they carry” (Hall, 2001, p. 89).

“A new generation looks to the future” Photographed in South London by Len Garrison, AFRAS Review Vol. 2, Summer 1975, p. 3.

“Len was always taking photographs”, Marie Garrison recalled as she began her contribution as the final speaker of the evening. She shared how her late husband never went anywhere without his camera, which was unusual in Black communities and family settings at the time, and he captured countless moments of everyday life, particularly of children who he noticed were very unrepresented in community and educational settings. We learned that Len started his professional photographic career in the 1960s as a medical photographer, documenting images of patients’ ailments for diagnostic purposes at the Royal Free and Maudsley hospitals in London, progressing to become head of the photographic unit at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry. His work as a photographer was later developed through his postgraduate studies at University of Leicester, as well as his educational work at the Afro-Caribbean Education Resource Project (ACER) in Brixton, which culminated in showcasing his visual research on the Rastafarian movement and Black British youth at FESTAC – the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria in 1977.

Marie concluded her reflections on the value of Len’s photographic work by quoting the most photographed American man of the 19th Century, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who like Len, harnessed the power of images to advance his cause, arguing: “what was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all” and that Black people “can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists”.

Student in University of Sussex Library, 2021. Photo by Library Assistant Skye Brackpool.

Intergenerational Library Learning

During his reflections, Eddie Otchere cited Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of The Oppressed (a copy of which I serendipitously happened to have with me and was reading on the train from Brighton to Brixton that evening), recalling how he had been schooled in the Black radical tradition from a young age by his history teachers who were friends of Len Garrison. This political education informed Eddie’s reflections on how the alumni portraits he is developing with Phillips for the Black at Sussex project is part of a wider and longer history of liberatory learning struggles and dialogues. Eddie also referred to the power of the 24-hour library available to all at Sussex, and the legacies of Black research and education embedded with it, which he argued is “what archives are here for”.

Professor Martin Evans shared the impetus behind his role developing the Black at Sussex programme, which was in part inspired by an interview he did with Professor Paul Gilroy in 2018. This interview informed Evans’ teaching on the current core module for History undergraduates at Sussex called History of Now, for which I have delivered anti-racist information literacy teaching. Gilroy is an award-winning sociologist and Professor of Humanities and Founding Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism & Racialisation. He undertook his BA at Sussex between 1975 – 1978, and in conversation with Martin he reflected on the way in which he was able to discover the contributions of Black authors and scholars who had come before him through the collections available to him at the university Library. Gilroy recalled how as a young student at he “immersed himself” in the Rosey Pool Collection of twentieth century African-American cultural and political literature and letters available at the Library; as well as a key discovery of the Sussex PhD thesis by popular jazz musician Ben Sidran, titled “A Cultural History of Black Music in America: The Foundations and Functions of an Oral Culture” (1970) and was published as the book Black Talk in 1971.

I sat reading his PhD thesis in the library at Falmer and I thought – so this academic work!!!! – maybe I can take the things I know and render them in a compelling historical voice.

(Paul Gilroy, interview with Martin Evans, 2018)
(Sidran, 1970)
Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex Library.

Gilroy’s educational experience via the University of Sussex Library legacy of Black scholars who came before him informed Gilroy’s subsequent writing and publication of one of his most famous books, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Martin shared how he had been discussing this with a PhD student from a Caribbean background who had felt very isolated at Sussex, who was amazed to find out from him that Paul Gilroy and been a student there in the late ‘70s, and shared that if she’d known earlier it would have made her time at Sussex more meaningful.

As current Sussex undergraduate student Valerie Kporye astutely remarked during the event, the value of the Black at Sussex project is the way in which intergenerational connections are created for meaningful open dialogue on what it means or has meant to be Black at Sussex, and the ways in which spaces of exclusion and inclusion are formed and re-formed through these processes of reflection. “As a student you’re quite limited what change you can make on the curriculum”, Valerie observed, but discovering the legacies of Black students who came before her, particularly through her exploration of the legacies of AFRAS in the university archives and via conversations with fellow Black alumni, has helped her to feel a sense of belonging and connection to radical open discourse that transcends the present moment.

Poster by University of Sussex final year BA Philosophy and Literature student and Black at Sussex contributor Valerie Kporye, designed for the Sussex Junior Research Associate (JRA) Scheme.

Intergenerational learning was also a theme present in Jenny Mitchell’s contribution to the launch event. After a moving recital of her poem Black Men Should Wear Colour, dedicated to her brother, she reflected on her time as an undergraduate at Sussex. Jenny acknowledged what a difficult time she had as a student of English Literature, struggling to adapt to the culture shift of university life as a young adult from a strict family background, being overwhelmed by the “poshness” and the “whiteness” of Sussex campus life, as well as the emotional trauma of grieving her brother’s death at that time, for which she got no institutional support. In spite of this, gaining a Sussex degree opened doors for Jenny after graduating, and she has developed a successful career as an award-winning poet whose work explores the global legacies of British transatlantic enslavement, with the aim of opening up “conversation between people of all ‘races’ about this history” for collective accountability and healing.

Jenny Mitchell in dialogue with Karina H Maynard, 22nd September 2022. Photograph by Alice Corble.

Jenny has also applied the healing power of literature to working with young people in library settings, including young care leavers considering university. Her work offers valuable insights for higher education widening participation programmes. Jenny reflected that universities need to acknowledge that being Black and from underprivileged backgrounds at university is a 24/7 experience, and hence there has to be so much care, support, investment, and resources given to each individual Black student, in order to place them on an even playing field. Jenny concluded her contributions by highlighting the need for the Black at Sussex programme to highlight the particular experiences and legacies of Black women alumni, a point which also chimed with Topher Campbell’s reflections on the need for an intersectional approach to the project.  

(Crenshaw, 2017)

From interdisciplinarity to intersectionality: “making difference work”

The founding vision of Sussex in the 1960s included the integration of public art with campus life. Evans referenced this when discussing the vision for the Black at Sussex programme, which brings together historians, world-class artists and curators, including the legendary photographers Charlie Phillips and Eddie Otchere, and curator Jenni Lewin Turner, and a range of university staff, students and community stakeholders, to create an inclusive visual and historical legacy for the intersectionally diverse communities of Sussex, which is integrated with the present and future cultural fabric of the university. The pedagogical foundations of Sussex as a university were designed to break the mould of traditional academic departmental silos through an interdisciplinary schools system, putting arts into dialogue with the sciences and African and Asian studies into dialogue with European studies. Founding Father Professor Asa Briggs dubbed this mission as forging “a new map of learning”.

Interdisciplinarity was apparent in the learning and creative journeys of the speakers at this event, with the artistic and literary careers of Michael McMillan, Topher Campbell, Jenny Mitchell and others having spanned a range of genres and mediums. As both Topher and Michael highlighted, however, what is important is the craft and the active doing of producing art and knowledge, rather than the notion of interdisciplinarity per se, which is a Eurocentric concept that is misplaced in an Afro-Caribbean-centred approach to cultural and knowledge production. McMillan referred to the Surinamese notion of Ala Kondre – unity through difference – to articulate this; and Campbell reflected on how – particularly as someone who came out as a Black Queer young person in the 1990s when homophobia was rife across all societal and racial groups (the violent effects of which he experienced at Sussex) – the notion of intersectionality is more resonant than interdisciplinarity.

Active intersectionality is relevant to archive-making as well as art-making, as evidenced in the rukus! Black, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (BLGBT) Cultural Archive, which Topher X co-founded with his long-time collaborator Ajamu X, and which remains the largest Black-led LGBTQ+ archive in the world. This is housed at the London Metropolitan Archives rather than the BCA, since unfortunately at the time the archive was created, structural homophobia within Black and diasporic communities and cultural institutions posed significant barriers. Topher and Ajamu benefitted from the teachings of Stuart Hall in the development of their arts collective and archive, who offered them the phrase “making difference work” to articulate their boundary-crossing creative interventions, which have made huge cultural impacts in artistic and cultural heritage fields5 (The Homecoming: A Short Film about Ajamu, 1995; Ajamu X, Campbell and Stevens, 2009; Morris, 2022).  In a recent Black Digital Archive podcast on The Oral Tradition, Ajamu X discusses the evolution of the rukus! Archive and makes the important point that

“we need to think that the archive is not static but the archive is in motion, the archive is constantly in process. Move away from the archive as a dead box for dead history, towards something more organic, more alive.”

(Ajamu X, 2021).

Archives (including digital ones) are material, embodied entities that are generated and created over years and carry with them vital affective forces which transmit knowledge and human connectivity and create intergenerational dialogue which can be harnessed for intersectional understanding and social change6. As Ajamu wisely continues, we do not engage enough with the archive as a tactile, living, embodied assemblage – we do not talk about this enough in archival discourse and practice “because we are locked into this social public framework about who we are and what we are”.

Ajamu’s words resonate in dialogue with those of the speakers present at the Black at Sussex launch event, and also reverberate in my encounters with the University of Sussex archive for my research fellowship. There is plenty of white space and white noise in this institutional archive, as the voices of people like Topher, Michael, Jenny, Valerie, and so many more Black alumni, are so seldom found in the boxes upon boxes of official institutional memory. This is a balance I intend to redress in my research and practice, by highlighting archival absences and racialised oversights in the making of university history and futures and inviting current and former marginalised Sussex students and staff to bring the archive to multidimensional life with their stories. A call for participation will soon be forthcoming.

I aspire for this to be a form of “making difference work” that benefits those individuals and communities more than it does the white gaze and privilege of the institutional power structures (including my own whiteness) that dominate the university. In this sense, I am learning from the approach of the University of Repair, an antiracist initiative led by Esther Stanford Xosei in collaboration with the Decolonising the Archive collective, inspired by the “groundings” principles of Walter Rodney (1969).

“Liberation Struggles” speech given by Walter Rodney at the Afro-Asian Cultural Society meeting, University of Sussex. Published in AFRAS Review No. 3, 1977-78


  1. Print volumes of this journal are available at University of Sussex Library here.
  2. Coard’s work was more recently recognised in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series on BBC and the BBC documentary Subnormal.
  3. Since publishing this article I have discovered that Valerie Kporye has written and published an inspiring and insightful article for the Royal Historical Society blog, which introduces the Black at Sussex programme with a focus on the photographic portraits of Sussex Black alumni by Charlie Philips and Eddie Otchere. Highly recommended reading.
  4.  A copy of my present article as well as Valerie Kporye’s RHS blog has been digitally deposited in the University of Sussex Archive.
  5. Topher’s first film The Homecoming: A Short Film about Ajamu (1995), features Stuart Hall analysing Ajamu’s work. Available to watch via BFI Player. Congratulations to Topher for achieving the Pink News Broadcast of the Year Award for his brilliant 2022 documentary film Moments that Shaped Black Queer Britain. Listen to Ajamu X talking about the rukus! Archive and oral traditions here.
  6. In October this year I chaired a fascinating panel discussion featuring Topher Campbell alongside a diverse group of Black, Queer and Trans archival and library practitioners at The Coast is Queer literature festival, where these themes and more were discussed. Video recording available on request.


Ajamu X, Campbell, T. and Stevens, M. (2009) ‘Love and Lubrication in the Archives, or rukus!: A Black Queer Archive for the United Kingdom’, Archivaria, pp. 271–294. Available at:

Black Digital Archiving (2021) The Oral Tradition podcast with Ajamu X. Available at: (Accessed: 5 December 2022).

Charlie Phillips – I Was Always Here (2022). London: Gramercy Park Studios. Available at: (Accessed: 5 December 2022).

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Posted in Library Legacies

Welcome to the blog

The Decolonial Maps of Learning blog will serve as a research diary for the project, highlighting snippets from the archives and my ethnographic journey traversing the hidden historical and contemporary institutional and cultural trails of library and archival life at Sussex. Watch this space for regular updates!

Posted in Library Legacies