Each month, Herstory Club will be a featuring an interview with a woman currently working in History. We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.
Herstory Club (HC): Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us, Renée. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Renée Landell (RL): My name is Renée Landell, I am a fully-funded AHRC doctoral researcher (PhD) in the School of Humanities at Royal Holloway, University of London. My research interests include Carribean studies, post-colonial scholarship, literary criticism, ecocriticism and womanism. I examine works by Anglophone Caribbean writers who, from the twentieth century, have produced a significant body of literature prized for its contemporary engagement with the colonial legacy in the form of the neo-slave narrative. I argue that the responses to, and demythologisation of, Western anti-Black stereotypes by Anglophone Caribbean writers is an attempt to reclaim the Caribbean body and also promote positive ecological practices. I perform scholar-activism in an independent capacity as founder of Beyond Margins UK — an award-winning organisation which promotes the achievements, and aids the development of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority students and staff in the UK. I am also a member of the ACRC, and one of the founding organisers of Black in Arts and Humanities, alongside Dr Hannah Robbins and Dr Leighan Renaud.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
RL: The violent and vindictive assault on African peoples, from slavery in the Caribbean to the Jim Crow Era, the dark and perilous crosses betwixt and between, and the ramifications which present themselves (post-colonialism) are the periods of history with which I am most interested. More specifically, popular and pervasive stereotypes such as Mammy, Jezebel, Mandingo and the Sambo which are deeply rooted in the history of slavery, encapsulate my intrigue. These stereotypes serve as justification for the sexual, maternal, and gendered histories of violence against the bodies of Black women and the demonisation, fetishisation & infantilisation of the Black man.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
RL: As a Black woman whose favourite female figures are Black women, I know that my answers to this question are most likely women who are unknown, unappreciated, forgotten, erased, misunderstood, and/or tokenised. As a British Caribbean, I am also aware that the voices of Black women which are being unearthed in recent years (slowly but surely) are predominantly African American.
One of my favourite female figures in history is Breffu, an enslaved African woman from what is now the nation of Ghana who was sold to Danish slave traders and transported to the Caribbean island of St. John. Breffu is said to have been an Akwamu leader of the 1733 slave insurrection on St. Jan (now known as St. John), who led one of the longest recorded slave revolts in history. The Akwamu rebels killed numerous enslavers and their families, burnt down houses and destroyed crops as a way of superseding the racist plantocracy and the gruelling slave system, essentially taking control of most of St. John. Breffu represents the one and twenty three, who together commited suicide in a ritual ceremony to avoid capture. Their death was an act of resistance, a way of reclaiming their bodies and a route to freedom. Today Breffu is remembered in the Caribbean as the “Queen of St. John”, and is commemorated annually with a re-enactment of the insurrection and a parade.
HC: How did you get to where you are now?
RL: I love this question because it really shines a light on what I believe to be the power of names. My name (Renée) means “re-born” which, in a word, explains how I got to where I am now. I grew up as a distinctly shy and anxious young girl, who found it difficult to offer body language when it would have been most useful; a girl who feared talking to adults and being independent. I was also performing below the academic level of my age-group in formative years. I then fulfilled my name, I was “re-born” (hopefully, not for the last time). I became very vocal and visible, I was placed in top-sets and gifted and talented classes at school and was one year advanced in English Literature at sixth form. How? Well, I was tired. Tired of having so much to say, so many inquisitive questions about the world and being afraid to share it with the world. I became an unapologetic and radical thinker and speaker: I’ve spoken in front of both small and large audiences on a range of different topics, I became the founder of an award-winning organisation, started my PhD, featured in multiple articles, news appearances and even an upcoming documentary. I would not say that I “found” my voice, because it was not lost, it was intentionally hidden as a result of fear, I would say that I decided to “use” it. I think it is really important to celebrate yourself and your accomplishments, but I would be ungrateful if I failed to acknowledge the people who helped to get me to where I am now (too many people to name) and most importantly God.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?
RL: My “why” stems from the many questions I had/have about my hyphenated identity. I am a Black-British-Caribbean woman. The hyphens have been designed to both exclude me from, and half-include me in several groups. I am Black, though distanced from my African heritage/name/tongue; I am British, but reminded constantly that true Britons are white (my hair, skin, bodily features and background disqualify me); and I am Caribbean, but I have never been and was born in Britain. This triangular relationship between Africa, the Caribbean and Britain (all parts of my identity), reflects the triangular routes of the transatlantic slave trade/the diaspora. My identity is tied up in paradoxic narratives of triumph and suffering, of departures and arrivals. My research is both a personal and collective endeavour to uncover the true histories of my people and our environments, as such, I take a postcolonial and ecocritical approach to Anglophone Caribbean neo-slave narratives to bring Britain, the Caribbean and Africa into one sustained dialogue. The stories uncovered in my research are rare facts, hidden truths, taboo…what I call the “missing pieces.”
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field and your line of work – both positive and negative experiences are welcome!
RL: I have had some really positive experiences in the School of Humanities at Royal Holloway, University of London. I often sing the praises of my department and find much hope in their genuine willingness to learn from their student community, particularly underrepresented and minority groups. Though as is common across the country, I have always been the “only one” or “one of few” Black students in my classes throughout my school years and higher education. The lack of diversity in the Arts and Humanities is something that I have spent a lot of time campaigning about over the last three years: hosting and speaking at events on the subject, designing awareness campaigns, consulting departments and more recently co-founding the new global network ‘Black in Arts and Humanities’ with Dr Hannah Robbins and Dr Leighan Renaud. The lack of diversity is not the only reason for my participation in this particular activism, I am also interested in dismantling the stigma of the Arts and Humanities which exists within my own community. I spoke about this last year at a ‘Black in Academia’ event by Leading Routes, which you can watch here. On the level of course content and treatment, I have many positive things to say about my experience in my department— my specific course, Comparative Literature and Culture, cross-culturally examines literature from across the globe and engages cultures and historical periods in interdisciplinary dialogues. Though seeing others in the classroom that reflect my identity, both at student and staff level would not only decrease my flare-ups of imposter-syndrome, but will offer Black students some of the same advantages that other students are afforded.
HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?
RL: White men are the most advantaged group in academia across all disciplines. While some departments at certain universities may have more women at faculty level, the curriculum often encourages us to centre scholarship by white men. Prior to Covid-19 we saw a succession of UCU strikes in protest against the gender pay gap, but one thing that I have not seen addressed by staff and colleges is the ethnic pay gap/ the lack of Black academics in the most senior positions, and the *Black* (not BAME) attainment gap. Evidently I am greatly concerned about, and stand in solidarity with, all Black women academics not only in my field but across academia. We face the “double burden.” Previous research has found that there are only 25 Black women as professors employed at universities in the UK. They make up less than 1% of all professors (25 out of almost 20,000). I am overjoyed to hear that since this report more Black women have been promoted to this position, but the percentage remains the same. In light of this I want to highlight Dr Nicola Rollock’s exhibition entitled ‘Phenomenal Women: portraits of UK Black female professors’ which celebrates Black women UK professors. I hope to be among them one day.
HC: If you could give any advice to females in this sector or those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
RL: I’m deeply passionate about history and culture and the ways in which they inform and interrogate the present, so my advice to women wanting to get into history or engage with history, is to remember and constantly remind yourself why it is important for you to be in this sector/field. Disabled women, women from around the world, radical women, unapologetic women, women with much to talk about, women who have a specific thing to say, future women historians and current women historians, the story is only partly told/ partly imagined and partly reverenced without your voice and visibility. History (including work/research which engages with history) should not be told solely by those who get to decide it and those who have written it but by those who have lived, been affected and have contributed to it.