Decolonising the Library Shelves

At the start of the Academic Year 2020-2021, the Library together with the College’s Equity and Inclusion Action Group invited Worcester students and staff to help us ensure that the Library offers access to the work of scholars and writers of colour who are all too often left off the University’s reading lists.  College members eagerly sent in suggestions, both of underrepresented authors and, more broadly, of works on decolonisation, Eurocentrism, and race and racism. The Library bought 50 new titles, covering a great cross-section of subjects – from classics, through literature, theology, jurisprudence to dermatology! 

We present here a selection of the titles suggested, with comments by College members on the importance of each work and what its inclusion in the Library means.  Further titles purchased as part of the project, together with some other titles already in our collections, can be found at the bottom of the page.

All these titles can be borrowed by College members.


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing / The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins

A graduate student in the sciences writes:

“An account of the interconnected web of ecology, commerce, and migration that surrounds the world's most valuable mushroom, this book is a beautiful attempt to look at how we might live together better in the world. It weaves seemingly disparate narratives about stateless migrants in North America with the fascinating biology of fungi, and the recovery of once-decimated natural landscapes, to investigate ways we might overcome society's greatest contemporary challenges. In doing so it puts the lives of some of the world's poorest and most precarious and overlooked people at the centre of how we can move forward and reset our interactions with the Earth and its non-human inhabitants.”

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Dan-el Padilla Peralta / Divine institutions

Described by one reader as ‘the best book I’ve read for years in Roman history’, Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Divine Institutions looks at the role played by temple construction and pilgrimage networks in holding together the ‘imperial Republic’.  A graduate student in Classics explained:

“Dr. Peralta is an Associate Professor of Classics at Princeton University, who works on religion and slavery in Roman history as well as classical reception in contemporary American and Latin American cultures. In addition to his scholarship, Dr. Peralta has spoken out regarding serious issues in the field of Classics and has been a vocal advocate for inclusion and diversity.”

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Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an Old Member of Worcester College, and his autobiography is available in the Library’s Worcester Authors section: Undocumented: a Dominican boy’s odyssey from a homeless shelter to the Ivy League.


Robin Mitchell / Vénus noire

An undergraduate in French proposed this title, writing:

 “In Vénus noire, Mitchell explores images and literary discussions of the black female body and its function as, in her words, 'a site of cultural meaning'. Her fourth chapter, 'Jeanne Duval: Site of Memory', is of particular interest and importance for students studying French at Oxford where the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) features in both the first-year ‘prelims’ course and as a Finals option.  One prominent -- though often overlooked -- theme in Baudelaire's poetry is the 'exotic', influenced in part by his tumultuous relationship with Jeanne Duval: Baudelaire called her his "Vénus noire".

“Mitchell's fourth chapter discusses how the demonisation of Jeanne Duval 'expresses France's need to rid itself of black bodies even as images and discourses about these bodies proliferated'. Mitchell sheds light on the importance of, and contexts running through, Baudelaire's discussions of Jeanne Duval. Vénus noire is essential reading for students of French at Oxford. It reveals a glaring 'blind spot' in the Oxford Baudelaire syllabus. I think this text will quickly become commonplace on any Baudelaire reading list.”

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Ann Brooks and Theresa Devasahayam / Gender, emotions and labour markets: Asian and Western perspectives

Recommended by a graduate student in Philosophy:

 “This publication provides lively discussions surrounding the topic of emotion and emotional labour. A comparison between Asian and Western perspectives reveals how the latter has been privileged ostensibly disregarding Asian sensibilities, subjectivities and contexts. A range of themes in relation to labour are explored including fertility/procreation, work-life balance and human rights, which have often been presented through a Western lens. This book is not an unthinking push for diversity, rather it surfaces the need to question dominant definitions of emotion and labour. It is certainly a worthy addition.” 

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Kelvin E.Y. Low / Remembering the Samsui women

The choice of a graduate student in Geography:

“This work details the sacrifices of women immigrants from China who became instrumental (and iconic) in the transformation and development of Singapore. Not only does this book highlight issues of labour outside the Western world, it also punctures gendered expectations and dominant ideas about how construction work and labour migration are specific to men. The major contribution of this work however is in the methods of collecting stories - a feminist approach to research which is in line with decolonising knowledge production. In the social sciences, this approach is getting significant attention and it would be remiss not to have an Asian perspective on it in our library.”

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Gerard Sasges and Ng Shi Wen / Hard at work: life in Singapore

A graduate student in Geography writes:

 “This work considers how a select working population in Singapore navigate their emotions/well-being amid societal expectations, a competitive market and conservative Asian values. The highlight of this publication is in the fact that it explores unconventional work and informal labour which cuts across themes of class, gender, sexuality and race. At the same time, this book offers an insight into Singlish, a creole that ties the multi-cultural society with a British colonial past. This would certainly be a unique addition to our shelves.”

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Ali Abdullatif Ahmida / Genocide in Libya: Shar, a hidden colonial history

This title was suggested by a graduate student in the sciences who wrote this powerful account arguing for its inclusion:

“While this book is not directly relevant to my studies I think it's a very important book given the history of Libya and the history of the cover-up of genocide. Libya was invaded by Italy in 1911 to be turned into a colony but was faced with stiff resistance by the local population. The Italians therefore embarked on a campaign on the mass movement and extermination of the local population so that the country could be repopulated by Italians instead. Concentration camps were erected and some turned into extermination camps. In fact, German Nazi officials visited Libya in the 1930s to see how successful the Italian extermination of the Libyans was and to take inspiration from their methods. Overall, 30% of the Libyan population was killed by these methods, including members of my own family.  The reason I think this book is so important to stock is that it is one of very few published in the English language that acknowledge that what occurred in Libya was genocide. The Italian authorities to this day deny having any records on the events and the author of the book was asked to leave the archives in Rome when he inquired about these records. Italians today are not educated on this matter and popular opinion in Italy is that they were not the perpetrators of genocide but rather the Germans. The reality is that both nations are post-genocidal and I believe stocking this book could help in allowing people to become aware of this fact. It would also act as some kind of justice to the victims that their suffering can be remembered and not buried by the authorities who wish to do so.”

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Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz / An indigenous people’s history of the United States

Chosen by a member of College staff, who writes:

“This work is an excellent introduction to the history of the United States from the perspective of the Indigenous peoples of North America. It is not a history of those peoples, but of their relationship with European colonizers and the United States government. Dunbar-Ortiz’s work is brief and readable, but powerful in her exposition of the violent settler-colonialism that has been fundamental to the development of the United States. She dismantles the myths and narratives that are used to justify and obscure the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous peoples. She also explores how these campaigns against Indigenous peoples have shaped US military and foreign policy more broadly. Indigenous peoples are so often treated as a prologue to US history, making occasional appearances in the history of westward expansion, and then slipping out of the narrative completely after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Dunbar-Ortiz places them at the centre of US history and reminds us that the Indigenous nations of North America are still here and are still fighting.”

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James de Lorenzi / Guardians of the tradition: historians and historical writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea

A graduate student in Philosophy reviewed this book:

“James De Lorenzi’s Guardians of the tradition: historians and historical writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea probes the rich historiographical traditions of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea from medieval times onwards. As one expert reviewer (Marzagora in Africa: the journal of the International African Institute, volume 87, number 2, May 2017) has put it, the book “responds simultaneously to recent calls in intellectual history for more international and plural approaches, and to calls in Ethiopian studies for a more dedicated focus on Ethiopian thinkers and ideas.” De Lorenzi’s book thus unsettles the widespread assumption shared among historians that historiography is an inherently European invention, with no counterpart or rival forms elsewhere. It more broadly challenges parochial assumptions of European supremacy in the field of intellectual history, as well as providing a way into greater critical engagement with historiographical texts scarcely known outside of African Studies.”

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Beatrice Gruendler / The rise of the Arabic book

Also suggested by a graduate student in Philosophy:

“Beatrice Gruendler’s The Rise of the Arabic Book promises to be an important resource for anyone looking to appreciate the importance of the Arabic book culture that flourished in the Middle Ages, and its global intellectual and material legacy. A little-known fact that this book brings to light, for instance, is that even at the height of scholasticism in the so-called ‘Latin West’ (in the 13th century), Baghdad’s largest library had about 500 times as many books as its European counterpart. The little-known story of this extraordinarily vibrant book culture continues to be grossly overlooked in dominant, Eurocentric accounts of the rise of the modern book form. This monograph’s findings may also be of interest to those interested in fields like intellectual history and the history of philosophy, whose takes on the Middle Ages continue to disregard questions of knowledge production in Arabic books throughout that period.”

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Nella Larsen / Passing

Chosen by a member of College staff, who writes:

“This under-read masterpiece from the Harlem Renaissance could have been written yesterday. It’s the story of a middle-class, bi-racial woman obsessed with her friend, another middle-class, bi-racial woman who seems able to ‘pass’ uncountable social boundaries. It raises problems of race, class, gender, and sexuality in ways far more complex, sophisticated, and downright compelling than pretty much anything written anywhere today. Larsen dares us to be as smart about all this as Passing is.”

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Teshale Tibebu / Hegel and the Third World: the making of Eurocentrism in world history

Chosen by a graduate student in Philosophy, for whom:

“Teshale Tibebu’s Hegel and the Third World: the Making of Eurocentrism in World History mounts a detailed critique of Hegel’s philosophy of history, and more specifically, its problematic alignment of reason and progress with Europeans, to the exclusion of Africans and Asians. It is a valuable contribution to a growing body of scholarship at the intersection of the history of philosophy and critical race theory, which examines the rise of a Eurocentric ‘canon’ of philosophy over the last 250 hundred years or so, and its unfortunate links to spurious anthropological frameworks premised on race. The book more broadly shows that Hegel was a key player in rationalizing Eurocentric approaches to history and philosophy. As such, it is likely to be of interest to anyone seeking to study intellectual history through a non-Eurocentric lens, and to explore what it might mean to ‘decolonise’ the history of philosophy.” 

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Cone / A black theology of liberation

A graduate student in Theology chose this work:

 “James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation is a seminal text among modern theological approaches to race. Through its title, Cone situates the book within the wider field of liberation theology, which is concerned with providing a theological account of solidarity with the poor, the marginalised, and the oppressed. Cone’s remarkable achievement was to extend the parameters of liberation theology to the very specific context of race and segregation in the United States during the Civil Rights period, during which Cone himself was marginalised within the academy, as an African-American scholar. While invested with this specific historical context, Cone’s seminal text also provides a rich account of the main conceptual issues at stake in theology today. Christology, biblical hermeneutics, soteriology and political theology are all engaged with in such a way that the text deserves to be considered alongside other great works of systematic theology written during the post-war period. Above all else, the legacy of this text and of Cone’s wider career is the emerging field of black theology. Whether by building on his ideas, or by producing vital critiques of his theology (such as Dolores Williams’ womanist critique of Cone’s writing), this field traces its theological lineage to Cone and to this text in particular. It is a work of singular importance and one which will enrich the study of theology wherever it is read.”

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Other books bought as part of this initiative


Other books in the College Library highlighted by readers as part of this initiative