Love Me or Leave Me: Black Lives in the English Archives, A Response

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. You can join Rebecca and Jamie to celebrate the publication of the posts at a free event at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 19 May – the event includes presentations by the post authors and a tour of the LMA’s new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Jacqui Stanford, PhD

I thought I knew what I would call this post. Someone had kindly dropped a citation in the chat as a group of people working on race in medieval/early modern Britain met in an online symposium discussing Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives. My contributions to the symposium were really me still responding in my head to the final words in another book. That book had taken Habib to task on the idea of black slaves being in Britain in Tudor times, and Habib’s decision to include as many people in his database as their names suggested they were Black to him, Blackmoore and its variations being a chief source. I hadn’t even read Habib’s Black Lives when I was reading the critique, yet I felt protective of Habib and had a willingness also to allow what he had done. Call it instinct…

Now, I am sitting on my own book. Rather it’s sitting inside of me. Rather it’s a maelstrom seething begrudgingly in the depths of me. For it is time.

My book’s about six Black individuals I discovered in the archives. Others have seen their names before me. My six are not unknown. They are listed and noted in the parish registers, although they have remained out of focus as other things and people, who share the same pages on which they are recorded come into focus. No one as yet has taken up the detritus about them. Removed the dust, excavated the site of their burial in a single line, if that, set in parchment. There they lay, sullen, aggrieved; … something caught my eye.

The thing is, as far as we can tell, these six individuals did not know each other. The archives literally tell us little or nothing about them. So it is something that I’ve ended up spending a few years, so far, with them: following every lead they throw up; literally buying myself a brand new library; taking up residence in archives, where I am not especially welcome; clocking up travel and expenses in their single-minded pursuit, at my personal expense.

Mine are an exacting bunch. And they don’t care. For it is time.

They hold me in that chokehold. They won’t let go. And I won’t move. We will rise together on the dust of the mold and mildew. For they will go through the streets of London, again. For it is time.

My head was thumping in my hand as I paused the typing here. Then the tears, running past the carpal canal. The struggling to breathe. The other hand reaching up for the neck. I really wasn’t expecting this. I had taken to writing this post today as a come down from a few intense weeks. Jamie had sent me the article, now on my desktop. It was short … I was going to read ‘I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness’ then write a response entitled, ‘…but I must insist you do: a response to I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness’. I thought I was going to suggest why … As the piece revealed itself, and I met the thoughtful, moving moment the why gave way. I hit on these two sentences, and it was all over:

“I feel like I have to keep reading, to strain my eyes and agitate the arthritis in my back because I need to find all of the black people and sit still with the actual lives scattered amidst the stuff of Montgomerie’s life. a large Stew Pan. To honor them and the survival of black people…”[1]

My head was throbbing and bobbing now. My temperature kept rising from this point til the end of the article. Then the last line came:

“I am here for Othello”.[2]

I was undone.

I want to take the opportunity to publicly become one with the feel: I feel like I have to keep reading, strain my eyes, agitate my arthritis, find all of the black people, and sit still with the actual lives scattered amidst the stuff.

Note, I am at the stage where I am just wanting to find all the Black people, and sit still with their lives scattered amidst the stuff. And even here, the pull simply to find them, is strong. To find them. Then to sit with their scattered lives.

If someone doing race in the medieval/early modern does not get this, leave it alone.

Also, Habib was right.

Click here for links to all the posts in this series.


[1] Kim F. Hall, “I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness,” postmedieval 11, no. 2-2 (2020), 176.

[2] Hall, “I can’t love this,” 177.

2 thoughts on “Love Me or Leave Me: Black Lives in the English Archives, A Response

  1. Love this
    This is a thought-provoking and emotional post about the author’s personal journey of discovering and honoring the lives of six Black individuals in the archives. It showcases the importance of uncovering and remembering the forgotten stories of Black people in history.

  2. Pingback: Reflecting on Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium | the many-headed monster

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