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A fragmented perspective of black hands pulling apart shackles from the book cover 'Invisible Voices'

Discover the Meaning of Black History: Invisible Voices and Stories Untold

Posted on: September 26, 2022

When we talk about celebrating British black history, we immediately think of the important figures we know about from the past and present, from Mary Seacole and Frederick Douglass to Lewis Hamilton. Or we look to the cultural recognitions made, with popular events like Notting Hill Carnival now a central part of British tradition. Often the 'starting point' of black British history is considered the arrival of the Windrush generation in 1948 but of course, black people have been present for hundreds of years in British history.

We talk to British author, theater director, cultural activist, and criminologist Martin Glynn about his experiences. From being a mixed raced child in a white family and community and his work with black offenders in prisons, to the impact our mis-told history still has on us all today: "The famous Marcus Garvey said 'an individual without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots'. Well, Black Britons have no knowledge of the history that oppressed them really because they didn't write it. Because they were oppressed." 

What is the meaning of black history?

During black history month, we give meaning to black history by celebrating black cultures and recognizing black figures from history. But for Routledge author Martin Glynn, the true meaning of black history lies in its ability to heal - to reveal the historical accounts about black people that have been missed from the history books and still don't get taught today. Through his research as a 'history detective', a name he gives himself as opposed to a 'historian', Martin suggests the meaning of black history is to give British black people today a sense of identity they have never had before.

This tied in with his later work in prisons when black offenders would say 'Martin, I don't know who I am', which led him to turn his attention to the role of history within criminal justice. By revealing some of the missing voices in key criminal justice cases and demonstrating the unfair racial bias, Martin invites us to review the information and use his latest book Invisible Voices as a 'workbook for our consciousness'.

The meaning we ascribe to Black History Month and the vital work of people like Martin goes much further: "Nobody really looks at history as a tool for healing, improving self-concept. I know if I can do some healing and build my self-concept, I can close the attainment gap in education."

"So therefore the purpose behind the book was not just to recycle events and activity. There is a purpose that when I've got white or black students, they engage with the uncomfortable reality that black people have to do the healing. And white people have to confront, not that they were directly involved, but their ancestors like mine created the conditions that's got them into this situation."

Who are some important black voices in history?

They might not be the most famous or come up in google searches 'top 10 important black figures in history', but it's the missing stories told by the invisible voices in black history that help us build a complete picture. Martin reflects on the moment of realization that he had an untold history, aged 11: "In the first geography lesson I ever had, the geography teacher Mr. McKnight – where I was the only Black person in the class - came in with a mango seed and he held it up. And he said to everybody, 'Does anybody know what this is?' He held it up. Nobody knew. And then he qualified it by saying, 'but I know there's one person in the class that will'. And I was looking around me. And he said me."

"Now, I grew up in a white family so I didn't know what it was. And the shame and humiliation of not knowing what a mango seed was, triggered me into wanting to find out the history that I'd never been shown."

Martin’s latest book Invisible Voices gives accounts of black people in history who were wrongly judged in the criminal justice system because of the color of their skin. You can take a look inside the book here to get a sense of our author’s purpose and direction in sharing these previously untold stories:

Martin’s work shows why educating ourselves on black history gives us self-identity: "History has healing." As well those wrongly accused in criminal justice, accounts of black peoples lives and their achievements, in general, have gone unrecognized and continue to be neglected in academic teachings, despite having shaped our present society in countless ways. It is time to celebrate our unsung heroes and continue to discover black people in history that haven't yet been recognized.

Why is it important that Routledge represents black voices?

"More people like me need to write," says Martin. "For me, the politics of this is not just to represent diversity in terms of your published one or two black people. But in the way, it understands diverse narratives and the way they're presented."
"But you know what I realize is, many black people never get a legacy - all the people in my book died before they could bring their legacy through." 

He talks about his experience when first started writing his books with Routledge: "Tom [my editor] - Tom just listened and he heard. He knew that I was raw. He knew that I was new to this. He knew that. But he never posed me a threat... I never came to Routledge to make any statements about race. I had a story to tell. But what I wanted to do by choosing Routledge, is to show the black community in particular that nobody at Routledge has ever told me what and how to write. In fact, for my last book, I had virtually 100% creative control. I wanted to go to Routledge because they're one of the biggest and the best publishers. That's what I wanted. I wanted my mum to know I went to the best, not the one that I was pushed into."

"I sometimes think, 'oh my God, they trust me.' But what I had to understand, and this is what [my editor] Tom said, is that he's always trusted me. I didn't trust myself because of that history of denied access."

"There's a 12% attainment gap for non-white students. It's been going on for 40-odd years. And some of that attainment gap that leads to an increase in criminal justice and poor health outcomes is because when you feel excluded you become deterministic with the self-fulfilling prophecy.' 'So Routledge has a social, corporate social responsibility to close the attainment gap by reflecting material that people feel connected to. And they feel that they can move through society and increase social and cultural capital. And if I go back to the Victorians, one of the things that worked is that middle-class white people really bolstered their position of superiority around the world through literature. That's how important literature and writing is. So if we shared the load, we share the responsibility."

Martin will be launching a book competition for young black writers in 2023 to be published in an anthology with Routledge, with more information coming soon.

Recommended reads:

  • Martin Glynn calls for the development of performance-driven research dissemination that seeks to bring urgent attention to minority, excluded, and marginalized perspectives within research dissemination as a whole, in Speaking Data and Telling Stories.
  • Black Men, Invisibility and Crime explores the relationship between desistance and racialisation. This book seeks to bring much needed attention to this under-researched area of criminological inquiry.
  • Invisible Voices: The Black Presence in Crime and Punishment in the UK, 1750–1900 is crucial reading for students not just of Criminology and History, but also Sociology, Cultural Studies, Black Studies and Law, as well as criminal justice practitioners. It also aims to provide scope for A-Level students contemplating going to university, community educational programmes, and prison education departments, as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the black presence in UK history.