Why Black British History Matters

by MMC
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Racial inequality remains a pervasive problem in UK universities, as it does across society. In this context, supports Angelina OsborneThe recent decision to remove a course focused on the experiences of the African diaspora sends a worrying signal about the strength of the commitment to better representation and greater space for diverse voices and stories in disciplines such as history.

“The goal of black scholarship is more than the restoration of identity and self-esteem: it is about using history and culture as tools through which people interpret their collective experience, with the aim of transforming real conditions and the entire society around them. them.”

Manning Marable

The University of Chichester’s decision to cancel the MRES (Master of Research) course in the history of Africa and the African Diaspora in August 2023 has caused national and international dismay. The university claimed the course had not recruited enough students to financially justify its continuation.

As a result, current students are left in limbo, without guidance as to how they can complete their degree. Every student in the course was undoubtedly drawn to the opportunity to research stories centered on experiences of the African diaspora. Interest in this area has grown alongside frustration with the dominant Eurocentric memorialization of British history that educators and academics have campaigned against for many years.

A revealing gesture

The news sparked an outpouring of support and solidarity, from course graduates (many of whom went on to pursue doctoral degrees) to academic and community historians, for the course’s creator and director, Professor Hakim Adi. For decades, Professor Adi has been at the forefront of the study of Black British history as a scholar and advocate for its inclusion in the national curriculum and within the academy. He has produced acclaimed works on Black British and diasporic intellectual traditions, encompassing dialogues with Marxism, postcolonialism and new perspectives on Black British history. The decision to cancel the program when “the cost of the service apparently exceeded the revenue from the fees collected” led to Professor Adi’s dismissal.

Many of those who signed the petition view the move as a retrograde step taken by the university. For them, this amounts to canceling the only course of its kind offering the opportunity to study an area of ​​history that has been seriously under-explored within the academy and which has sought to center and silence narratives historical black British. The preselection of Adi’s latest book, African and Caribbean people in Britain: a history for the Wolfson Prize adds an ironic twist to this story. This begs the question: if Adi’s research into black British history can be considered for the most prestigious prize in history, why can’t it find a permanent home within the academy?

The decision reverses one of the key recommendations made at the History Matters conference in 2015, convened by historians and teachers to highlight the low number of history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain. This recommendation was established to encourage people of African and Caribbean heritage to take history degrees at graduate and postgraduate levels, with the aim of broadening the study of Black British history within the academy, to research the stories that interested them, and as the quote from Manning Marable expresses: to interpret their collective experiences. Another aim of this conference was to encourage and support teachers, by providing pedagogies to confront and address the lack of interest in history as a subject at GCSE level, which involves both increase the visibility and address the silences of Black British history in the school curriculum. .

Black British history remains a beleaguered and precarious discipline within the academy, where small advances are countered by considerable setbacks.

The overall aim of the first History Matters conference was to challenge typical British historical narratives which have been distorted into narratives which tend to under-emphasize or ignore the history of people of African and Caribbean descent, maintaining the belief that their contributions were minimal, if any. The fact that Adi has only recently produced two well-received publications, one tracing and documenting the black presence in Britain and a collection of new research into black British history by emerging historians preceding the announcement of the suspension of the MRes, seems to add even more salt to the wound. . Black British history remains a beleaguered and precarious discipline within the academy, where small advances are countered by considerable setbacks.

The profound consequences of lack of representation

What is happening at Chichester is a reflection of the challenges of representation, and therefore attitudes towards black intellectual thought within the academy. In 2018, the Royal Historical Society’s Ethnicity and Racial Equality Report highlighted, in stark terms, the level of inequality and ethnic bias that exists in the teaching and practice of history in British universities. This report notes that of the 3,115 academics employed in history departments at British universities, 15 identified as black African or black Caribbean.

The likelihood of reading a text written by or being taught by a Black British academic therefore remains extremely low, and the implications of this in terms of representation in higher education or the richness of research diversity are profound . This statistic is also compounded by the number of students of color studying history who experience feelings of isolation and a lack of staff with whom they can relate. This comes with experiences of racism and microaggressions and a lack of support to deal with the emotional and psychological impact of these experiences and of having little or no trust in their institution to address these issues in a meaningful way. The few Black speakers are often selected to engage in activities more related to service and diversity, which impacts the time they spend on research and writing.

In her excellent and insightful article “Power in the Telling: Community Engaged Histories of Black Britain”, Melesia Ono-George examines the implications in more detail described above. She notes that “the absence of black historians…is not just an issue of diversity or representation…but a much larger issue of equity and social justice.” She goes on to say that “the lack of black historians means that people of African descent…are rarely the ones who determine the questions or direction of research, and who thus decide what historical research is important and what forms of knowledge have value.”

The goal of historians of African heritage, whether in the community or the academy, is to engage in research that will uplift their communities. As the student populations enrolled at universities become more diverse, the need for a more representative faculty becomes more urgent. This is why black history and representation matters, and why the closure of the MRes course in Chichester matters. It has produced a critical mass of black scholars who have had the space to explore research that interests and is useful to them. However, it appears that when Black historians focus their research on issues related to their communities, the legitimacy and value of their research is called into question. This must change.

All articles published on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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