Clare Burgess and Olivia Wyatt, University of York
At the end of February, amid staff strikes and growing rumours about an as-yet unfamiliar disease, we stood at the front of an auditorium and opened a conference that had been nearly a year in the making. We were nervous, and felt a little like imposters – after all, what business did two undergraduates have organising a national conference? But we pushed these thoughts aside because we truly believed, and still do, that what we were doing mattered.
The initiative for “From Margins to Centre? An Undergraduate Conference on Marginalised Histories” grew from the findings of the RHS report on Race and Ethnicity in UK history, as well as our own experiences as undergraduates. We felt that certain stories were neglected in undergraduate teaching, and that the omissions were shutting out students who wanted to see themselves represented in history. Our response was to organise a conference to allow undergraduates to share their research, and to firmly centre the marginalised voices that are so often missing from the classroom. We wanted to give space to the histories of disability, women, the LGBT+ community, and of Black and minority ethnic groups, allowing undergraduates to demonstrate their innovative and the important research they were doing in these areas.
Organising the conference was a mammoth task, in which we were supported by many people. The History Department at the University of York covered numerous costs, and we received a grant from the BME Events and Activities fund administered by the Social History Society, as well as from the Royal Historical Society. This material support was huge, but equally important was the response we received from individual historians and students, who offered encouragement and advice. We were buoyed by a sense of hope; it seemed that we were not alone in our dreams of a more representative and diverse narrative of history. This feeling was bolstered by the number of submissions we received, and the fact that students from across the country wanted to be involved – from the University of the Highlands and Islands to the University of Portsmouth.
The conference was organised into four panels: erasure of contributions, oppression, resistance and identity. Each panel saw four undergraduates present original research, and then engage in a roundtable discussion, chaired by an academic and including audience contributions. We had an incredible array of papers – from discussions of intersectional solidarity in the miners’ strikes to the healthcare initiatives of the Black Panthers, from sixteenth century disability aid to the history of drag in Brazil. The range was truly astounding, and is one of the things which made the conference so special – many attendees commented on the rich variety of topics and the dynamic nature of the projects. Our chairs, Sue Lemos, Esme Cleall, Jonathan Saha and Benno Gammerl, were key to the conference’s success: they were able to thoughtfully and considerately guide the discussions, creating a welcoming and supportive space for discussion, and engendering an exceptional level of audience engagement. There were also posters presented by undergraduate students, dealing with topics such as the AIDS epidemic and the education of Native American children.
Another stand-out moment of the conference was the keynote address, given by Professor Catherine Hall, who spoke about her own experience of creating radical change within the discipline, and about the importance of unseating the mainstream in favour of the margins. For undergraduates who often spend years reading the work of scholars like Catherine Hall, this personal interaction was exceedingly important and inspiring.
Inspired by the work of Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks, whose text “From Margins to Centre” gave the conference its name, we endeavoured to create a deliberately intersectional event, with a strong focus on the intersecting nature of marginalisation and the necessity of non-traditional methods of study. As a result, discussions repeatedly highlighted the need for community involvement in the study of history, in particular as a way of centring the voices of marginalised peoples. Oral history was championed, but also the idea of “re-voicing the voiceless”, finding ways to restore the experiences of those so frequently written out of the historic record.
We created “From Margins to Centre? An Undergraduate Conference on Marginalised Histories” as a way of drawing attention to the failings of mainstream undergraduate history to tell the stories of marginalised peoples. The conference was a one-day event, but the conversations that took place have created a community across the country which is dedicated to innovative and transformative change in the discipline. Not only will a second conference take place next year, in the capable hands of undergraduate students Rohin Alexander and Kat Sandercock, but the papers and posters will be published in an online journal this year. The journal will include reflective pieces from chairs and organisers, as well as the papers of the undergraduate presenters.
An event like this, focused squarely on the margins and under the leadership of undergraduates, is more important now than ever. Discussions of institutional anti-blackness and overwhelming systemic bias are only just reaching universities, but in order to create radical change we must listen and give credence to new voices, including those just beginning in the discipline. We must also demystify academia – gatekeeping is a force for racism and exclusion which has barred so many from the study of history. We did what we could to combat this at the conference, including making it open to the public. Our audience was not just academics and students but community members, and we reached out to people using Twitter, a non-academic space, to engage with those outside of academia. We hope that our efforts will inspire similar events, and that undergraduates will feel empowered to take ownership of the discipline. We also hope that our conference can be an example for professional historians of what can be gained by situating the margins firmly in the centre.
About the authors:
Clare Burgess is an undergraduate history student and Laidlaw Scholar at the University of York, with a focus on European women’s history in the Early Modern period. This autumn she will be starting an Mst in Early Modern History at the University of Oxford, researching displays of agency amongst sex workers in sixteenth century cities, with the aim of pursuing doctoral study.
Olivia Wyatt is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of York whose research focuses on Black British history in Leeds – where she will start her MA in September. She volunteers with the Young Historians Project (an organisation which trains young Black historians) and Harewood House, where she researches the Lascelles family’s connections to the Caribbean and explores how these histories can be represented in the museum’s displays.
To learn more, visit http://www.marginstocentre.com or search #UGhistconf on Twitter