Date- 6/3/2013

GUEST SPEAKER: Prof. Susan Pennybacher

CHAIR: Dr. Ankur Datta, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, India

DISCUSSANTDr. Diya Mehra, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, India 


This seminar explored Transnational approaches to the history of Britain crossing artificial boundaries between the old imperial and diplomatic narratives, and more recent social and cultural studies of the colonial and post-colonial orders. In pursuing history in a global context, this approach disrupts and transforms the study of “domestic” British history.Prof. Pennybacker’s presentation was an attempt to explore several 20th century case studies to illustrate this innovative approach. These included: the Scottsboro rape case in the American South and the international campaign to free its defendants; the Meerut conspiracy trial in India and its reverberations in Britain; and the lives of South African anti-apartheid exiles in London in the era of the Cold War. New kinds of interrogations of established collections, and the juxtaposition of materials from an array of British, European, Russian and South African archives, provoked us to rethink what we understand as “British history.”

Her book ‘From Scottsboro to Munich ‘ was the talk of the day and it shed new light on the racial debates of the 1930s, the lives and achievements of committed activists and their supporters, and the political challenges that arose in the postwar years. Presenting a portrait of engaged, activist lives in the 1930s, she beautifully captured a global network of individuals and organizations that posed challenges to the racism and colonialism of the era. Prof. Pennybacker positions race at the center of the British, imperial, and transatlantic political culture of the 1930s, from Jim Crow, to imperial London, to the events leading to the Munich Crisis–offering a provocative new understanding of the conflicts, politics, and solidarities of the years leading to World War II.

Professor Pennybacker highlighted the British Scottsboro defense campaign, inaugurated after nine young African Americans were unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. She explores the visit to Britain of Ada Wright , the mother of two of the defendants and also considers British responses to the Meerut Conspiracy Trial in India, the role that antislavery and refugee politics played in attempts to appease Hitler at Munich, and the work of key figures like Trinidadian George Padmore in opposing Jim Crow Laws and anti-Semitism. Prof. Pennybacker thus used a wide variety of archival materials drawn from Russian Comintern, Dutch, French, British, and American collections. Literary and biographical sources were complemented by rich photographic images.

Her talk made us more sensitive to the global dimensions of the diverse and often contradictory strands of racial thinking in the inter-war period and their continued influence in the post-war era. The seminar took the listeners on a circuitous and enlightening journey ‘from Scottsboro to Munich’, international events that bookended the 1930s and underscore the importance of race to the political tremors of the decade. It also suggested some ways in which we might begin to re-evaluate the period’s relationship to events on the other side of the great deluge of the early 1940s. She made it clear that despite the differences in their political affiliations, people of color collaborate together and how such networking has been airbrushed from the history.

The discussant highlighted how we are in need of that kind of history at the present juncture where in life stories are connected to political grounds and subaltern history should be made a part of the wider picture.

Aatina Malik
M.A. Sociology 2nd Semester
South Asian University


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