Decentering Britishness

Market with sellers seated before baskets, and many individuals in white clothing milling about.

Lesson Plan Production Details

Developer: Kira Braham Contact

Collaborating Peer Reviewers: Heidi Kaufman, Indu Ohri, Breanna Simpson

Lesson Plan Cluster Developer: Adrian S. Wisnicki Contact

Cluster Title: Mary Seacole and the Caribbean

Publication Date: 2021

Note: This page uses the Chicago Author-Date citation format for all textual references. All references also appear in the project bibliography using the MLA citation format.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson plan is designed to foreground conversations about Seacole’s complex positioning as a colonial subject of color and to encourage critical discourse about “Britishness” (or “Englishness”) as an identity category. In highlighting how the realities of global empire and its afterlives foreclose the possibility of defining Britishness as a stable national identity, this lesson plan takes a transimperial and strategically presentist approach to teaching Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Students will be encouraged to consider how Seacole’s Jamaican, colonial, and racial identities shaped her experiences as an entrepreneur, nurse, and war heroine and her account of those experiences in Wonderful Adventures as well as how those identities also shape readings of Seacole and her text in the twenty-first century. The pathways offer suggestions for how this lesson plan might be organized into smaller units, but the suggested materials can be read in any configuration.

Pathways (with Corresponding Texts)

Postcolonial Positions

Recommended Texts (full references below): Gikandi 1997; Hall 2002; Longfellow 1883; Poon 2007; Punch Magazine (1856) 2016; Salih 2010; Seacole (1857) 2005

Summary: In placing an emphasis on reading Wonderful Adventures through the lens of postcolonial studies, this grouping could serve as an introduction to students unfamiliar with the commitments and concepts of postcolonial critique, while providing them with a vocabulary to discuss Seacole’s self-representation and her representation by others as a nineteenth-century Jamaican and British woman of color. This grouping includes:

  • two nineteenth-century poems – one about Seacole and one about Florence Nightingale – that highlight how Seacole’s racialized representation contrasted with the idealized image of white Victorian womanhood;
  • a short piece of historical analysis that discusses the severity of racism in nineteenth-century England;
  • two pieces of literary criticism that provide differing perspectives on how Seacole’s self-representation and assertion of agency aligned with and/or worked against imperialist ideologies; and
  • a critical essay that considers how representations of Seacole’s mixed-race identity are consistently shaped by the conceptual vocabulary and ideological commitments of the reader.

Seacole as Text

Recommended Texts (full references below): Fleming 2016; McCrae 2019; Pinto 2019; Salih 2010; Seacole (1857) 2005; Shepherd 2005

Summary: This grouping is focused on the competing narratives surrounding the historical legacy of Mary Seacole and how her identities as a Jamaican, woman of color, and “Black Briton” inform contemporary discussions and representations of her and her Wonderful Adventures. This grouping could help students to conceptualize and discuss the relationship between nineteenth-century literature, collective memory, the continuance of systemic racism, and racial justice. This grouping includes:

  • a speech by a Caribbean historian that both contextualizes the limitations faced by Seacole in her time and challenges twenty-first century British attempts to monopolize Seacole’s legacy;
  • an image of the Seacole statue erected in London in 2016 and two contemporary articles that showcase the controversy surrounding Seacole’s memorialization;
  • a critical essay that discusses how Seacole has been mobilized in the construction of “corrective histories” that elide or obscure racial injury and injustice; and
  • a critical essay that considers how representations of Seacole’s mixed-race identity are consistently shaped by the conceptual vocabulary and ideological commitments of the reader.

Related Contemporary Topics

  • Globalization and imperialism
  • Intersectionality and representation
  • Minority entrepreneurship
  • Race and national identity
  • Public memorialization and histories of racial violence
  • Collective memory and racial justice

Suggested Materials

Nineteenth-/Early Twentieth-Century Materials

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. 1883. “Saint Filomena.” In The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 173–74. Cambridge: Riverside Press.

Punch Magazine. (1856) 2016 “A Stir for Seacole.” In The Dictionary of Victorian London.

Seacole, Mary. (1857) 2005. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Edited by Sarah Salih. New York City: Penguin Books.

Neo-Victorian/Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Works

This lesson plan does not include Neo-Victorian/Postcolonial literary materials at present.

Historical/Cultural Contexts

Fleming, Amy. 2016. “Sculptor Defends His Mary Seacole Statue: ‘If She Was White, Would There Be This Resistance?’The Guardian, 21 June 2016.

Hall, Catherine. 2002. “Carlyle’s Occasion.” In Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, 347–63. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This text quotes racist language from the nineteenth century that will require discussion in advance.

McCrae, Niall. 2019. “Mary Seacole: The Triumph of Ideological Narrative in the History of Nursing.” In The Article, April 13, 2019. This article represents an oppositional position to the Seacole statue. Fleming 2016 provides important context for this argument, and the two are meant to be read as a pair.

Shepherd, Verene A. 2005. “Dear Mrs. Seacole: Groundings with Mary Seacole on Slavery, Gender and Citizenship” (PDF). Speech.

Surai, Sumit. 2019. Mary Seacole. Photograph [of Statue].

Criticism/Theory

Gikandi, Simon. 1997. “Mary Seacole: In and Out of Englishness.” In Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism, 122–43. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pinto, Samantha. 2019. “‘The Right Woman in the Right Place’: Mary Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 50 (2–3): 1–31.

Poon, Angelia. 2007. “Comic Acts of Belonging: Performing Englishness in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.” Victorian Literature and Culture 35(2): 501–16.

Salih, Sarah. 2010. “Mulattos in the Contact Zone: Mary Seacole and Ozias Midwinter.” In Representing Mixed Race in Jamaica and England from the Abolition Era to the Present, 124–34. Abingdon: Routledge.

Further Reading

Banerjee, Sukanya. 2018. “Transimperial.” Victorian Literature and Culture 46: 925–27.

Gilroy, Paul. 1995. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Olusoga, David. 2016. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books.

Developer Biography

Kira Braham completed her Ph.D. in English at Vanderbilt University in 2020. She will join the faculty of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Fall 2021. Her fledgling book project, Victorian Vita Activa: Work Ethics and Prowork Politics, explores nineteenth-century philosophies of work and their potential role in reenergizing and reimagining twenty-first century labor politics. Her research interests include nineteenth-century British and transatlantic literatures, Caribbean literatures, working-class literatures, histories and ethnographies of work, science fiction, and utopian studies. Her work has appeared in Extrapolation and The Gissing Journal.

Header Image Caption

Jubilee Market, Kingston, Jamaica. c. 1890s. MonoVisions Black & White Photography Magazine. Public domain.

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Kira Braham, lesson plan dev. “Decentering Britishness.” Heidi Kaufman, Indu Ohri, Breanna Simpson, collab. peer revs.; Adrian S. Wisnicki, lesson plan cluster dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2021, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/seacole_decentering_britishness.html.