Dr Lucy Bland is Professor of Social and Cultural History at ARU, teaching on the BA and MA History and also leading on the MA. At the moment she is researching race relations in the 1930s, and was recently awarded the Social History Society’s Book of the Year prize for Britain’s Brown Babies: The Stories of Children born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War, as well as a Museums Association award for its accompanying online exhibition.
Tell us a bit about your book Britain’s Brown Babies – why do you think it had so much impact?
It's a very hidden history – I first heard about it in late 2011, from a three-part programme on the BBC called ‘Mixed Britannia’, about the mixed-race population in Britain in the Twentieth Century. The second one opens with George Alagiah, the presenter, going off to meet his brother-in-law, married to his sister, who is one of these children called ‘Brown Babies’ by the African American press. I thought this was fascinating. I went back to it in 2013, and found that virtually nothing was written about it. I thought ‘I really want to talk to these people,’ so I went about trying to ask them to come and talk to me. I had large numbers – it was absolutely amazing - and it was very cathartic for many of them. Some of them had never told anyone about their childhoods.
The book came out three years ago, and I’ve had more and more people contacting me since to say ‘I’m one of these children’ or ‘my mother/father is one of these children born to a black GI and a British woman, could you help me find my American relatives?’ or could you help me do this and that?’ I say ‘yes, absolutely’ and, although I’m not doing another book, I can put their story up on this exhibition that we have on mixed museum. So we’re putting more stories up all the time.
What one thing inspired you to do what you do now?
Unlike many people it wasn't a wonderful teacher at school. I had a terrible history teacher at school who really put me off, it was just battles and it was dreary. Ironically, someone came to my school called Mr Hand who taught economics, and he made it so interesting. Subsequently I’m not at all interested in economics, but I ended up doing Economics A-Level, not History A-Level. Then I did Sociology at university, not history, but I did a PhD in History later.
What inspired me was reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ Outcast London, a wonderful book, and also reading some feminist history, particularly by Sheila Rowbotham, when I got involved with the women’s movement. I realised that I loved history, and in fact I think I always loved it essentially, but it had been taught in such a negative way. So really, what I got from that was the realisation that how you’re taught is absolutely crucial in what you end up studying. It really had a big impact on me, and I regret that I had this terrible teacher. If it’s taught in terms of narratives, stories that bring it alive, it would have been different – she just had endless dates, and it was just so boring. So I do try, when I’m teaching history, to engage with what people experienced at the time, so that you get that human element.
What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your own education?
I think the recognition that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. I think my thirst for knowledge, my curiosity, has been nurtured and nurtured. The idea was you learned all this, and then you know it – history may not be unique in this, but you have this recognition that there’s so much you don’t know.
I went to a lecture at Oxford the other night about the Black Death by a global historian who looks at the whole thing at a global level. I thought ‘Oh my goodness, how can one ever do that?’. I’m more a micro-historian than a macro-historian. I just thought it was so fascinating.
So yes, a thirst for knowledge and the recognition that you know so little and there’s so much more to learn, and that’s exciting. And that will always be exciting. Even with ageing etc, I always want to go on learning. I want to learn something new every day.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
Well, I would have said ‘You had that excitement around certain aspects of history, if you just follow that and sort of bypass the teacher…’ But it’s very difficult at the time.
Plus also have had some science. So I wish I’d done history earlier – at A-level and then on at university – and I wish I’d done some science, certainly in my teens. That would be my advice. I’ve sort of caught up – well no, I haven’t really caught up with the science at all. The history of science is very interesting, and I’m interested in the history of medicine as well.
What have you learned about Cambridge that other people might not know?
What I learnt, which was so interesting, is for the centenary of women over 30 getting the vote, in 2018, there was a lot of work done on Cambridge suffrage called Cam100. I learnt how active many women were, and of course Millicent Fawcett, who was the head of the NUWSS (The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) lived for a time in Cambridge. There’s now a blue plaque that’s been put up for her.
I also learned from my friend and colleague Mary Joannou, who has just written a biography of Clara Rackham, who of course was very involved in local government and was linked to our university – there’s a plaque going up for her as well.
There’s all sorts of really interesting things – I need to learn more. I teach in Cambridge, but I live in London. The commute is very easy – I live in Finsbury Park, in North London, and there’s a train that only takes an hour, so that’s great. But I teach in Cambridge then come back. My colleague Sean Lang keeps telling me he’s going to give me a tour.
What projects are you currently working on, both at ARU and outside?
At ARU I’m developing a new module for BA History first years called ‘A History of Now’. I’m quite excited about this, because there are so many issues of the day in the press all the time, like climate crisis, like #MeToo, like Ukraine, like BlackLivesMatter etc. But most students won’t have the long view, won’t have the history behind all this. So I want to take a few of these issues and talk about the long view. I’m also doing the pandemic – that’s why I went to that talk on the Black Death – from the Black Death via Spanish Flu to Covid 19. These are big subjects, but I want to give students a sense of those histories, and how people in the past might have experienced them and lived with them, how it might have been different or there might have been parallels. There’s also going to be a live brief – they’re going to work with Cambridge Sustainable Food. We’ll also be doing talks about poverty and the economy.
I’ve also got a British Academy small research grant to work with Chamion Caballero who runs the Mixed Museum. We’re doing a project on the inter-war period. There were race riots across the country in 1919 in nine ports – places like Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, South Shields, Salford, and Hull. These were about white British men returning to find the presence of a lot of men of colour, seaman from places like Africa, China and the West Indies, who had come and worked there during the war, and some of them were now domiciled in these ports. Some had been there for a long time, but there was a big increase because there was demand for their labour in the Merchant Navy during the war, and there was a great resentment. The white men thought that the black men had taken their jobs, their houses, and their women. There were attacks on black men and on the women, and there were some deaths. It was horrendous, and it led to a moral panic about these relationships. In these different ports, reports were written on what to do. A little bit of this is known but not very much, so we’re going to these places, and it’s actually going to inform a bigger project that we want to do on a multi-racial British home front, 1938-48.