As an institute situated in the UK but devoted to the study of the culture, politics and history of the United States, the RAI is deeply concerned with two societies that have been fundamentally shaped by slavery and colonialism. It follows that the intertwined histories of racial oppression and territorial expansion are, inevitably, core to our programming.
By Oxford standards, we are very new, having been established in 2001, and we do not run any degree programmes. Our remit is to support the best scholarship on the US and the polities that preceded and co-exist with it in North America, always with an eye to situating America in a global context. To that end, the RAI uses its small endowment to support several seminar series in American literature, history and politics, hosts major public lectures and visiting researchers. We encourage DPhils and other Early Career Researchers in the field to make an intellectual home at the RAI and are able to support a small number of studentships and Junior Research Fellowship for post-doctoral researchers. So, while we directly employ or fund very few people, our community is made up of scholars within and far beyond Oxford.
We also take very seriously our remit not just to support outstanding scholarship but to engage a wider non-academic public. Every week in term time we run public events, either online or in person, that aim to help shape the public conversation about America. At a time when demands for racial justice in the US have spread worldwide, when the outcome of American elections seems so pregnant with importance for the whole world, and in the midst of a culture saturated with images of America, we believe that the RAI can provide an authoritative, engaging voice helping British people to contextualise this still-dominant power.
The RAI’s main contribution, then, to Oxford’s essential ongoing conversation about the legacy of colonialism that surrounds us, is to help create an academic culture within the University in which issues of race and systems of domination are front and centre. In the last year, we have, for example, held large public events on the writer James Baldwin; an RAI Book Club with the academic Saidiya Hartman about her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments about early twentieth century black intimate life; and a film series focused on African American filmmakers that have changed the Hollywood landscape. Our regular research seminars across the disciplines – the American Literature Research Seminar, the American History Research Seminar, the American Politics Research Seminar, and the Oxford Early American Republic Seminar – all regularly hold sessions focused on race and ethnicity. Our major US Election series, America Decides, included a dedicated event focused on ‘Race and the 2020 US Election’, as well as considering this key issue through the series. Similarly our weekly podcast The Last Best Hope? regularly features discussion about race in America. All of these events are open to all and promoted widely within and beyond the university. It would be impossible for us to think about the United States and its place in the world without thinking about race and ethnicity.
Part of that process is to ensure that we give voice to people – as speakers and researchers – from groups who have been historically marginalised in Oxford. We have clear guidelines to ensure that our events are diverse, on the grounds that real intellectual challenge comes from having multiple perspectives grounded in differing experience.
Taking seriously our commitment to deepening understanding of the role of race and racism in American society, we have funded a major project to produce a bibliography and resources for the use of UK undergraduates and their teachers. This has included hiring an intern to develop the bibliography through collaboration with Faculty members within and beyond Oxford, and mentored by one of our RAI staff. In October 2020, we hosted a high-profile webinar bringing together a panel of experts and attended by around a hundred people which re-evaluated how to engage students about issues of race, especially in an environment in which the removal of statues and the killing of unarmed black Americans has both intensified and complicated the teaching of these issues. The bibliography will be made available to all and demonstrates how we seek to develop resources which help colleagues here and elsewhere to teach the culture, politics and history of the United States as one of racial oppression and territorial expansion.
For more details about the RAI’s programmes, see our website.