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Why Black British History Matters

Racial inequality remains a widespread problem at UK universities, as well as across wider society. In this context, he maintains Angelina OsborneThe recent decision to eliminate a course focused on the experiences of the African diaspora sends a worrying signal about the strength of the commitment to improve representation and allow greater space for diverse voices and narratives in disciplines such as history.

“The purpose of black scholarship is more than the restoration of identity and self-esteem: it is to use history and culture as tools through which people interpret their collective experience, with the purpose of transforming actual conditions and entire society around us. them.”

Manning Marable

The University of Chichester’s decision to cancel the Mres (research master’s) course in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora in August 2023 has been met with national and international dismay. The university has claimed that the course had not recruited enough students to financially justify its continuation.

Consequently, current students have been left in limbo with no guidance on how they can complete their studies. Without a doubt, each student in the course was drawn to the opportunity to research stories that centered the experiences of the African diaspora. Interest in this area has grown, along with frustration towards the dominant Eurocentric commemoration of British histories which educators and academics have been campaigning against for many years.

A revealing move

The news has generated a groundswell of support and solidarity, from course graduates (many of whom have undertaken doctoral studies) to academic and community historians, towards 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 an academic and advocate for its inclusion in the national curriculum and within the academy. He has produced acclaimed works on black British and diaspora intellectual traditions, encompassing dialogues with Marxism, postcolonialism and new perspectives on black British histories. The decision to cancel the program with the apparent “cost of execution exceeding the fee income received” has resulted in the dismissal of Professor Adi.

Many of those who signed the petition see this decision as a step backwards taken by the university. For them, it amounts to canceling the only course of its kind that provides the opportunity to study an area of ​​history that has been largely underexplored within academia and which has sought to center and reactivate black British historical narratives. The shortlist for Adi’s latest book, African and Caribbean peoples in Britain: a history for the Wolfson Prize adds an ironic twist to this story. The question arises that if Adi’s research into black British history can be considered for the most prestigious award in history, why can’t he find a permanent home within the academy?

The decision overturns one of the key recommendations made at the 2015 History Matters Conference, 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 Afro-Caribbean descent to take history degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level, with the aim of broadening the study of black British history within the academy, to research stories that interested them and, as expresses the Manning Marable quote, interpret your collective experiences. A further aim of that conference was to encourage and support teachers, providing them with pedagogies to confront and address the lack of interest in history as a subject at GCSE level, which involves both increasing the visibility of and addressing the silences of black British histories within of the curriculum. .

Black British history remains a conflicted discipline that remains precarious within the academy, where small advances are met with considerable setbacks.

The overall aim of the first History Matters conference was to challenge typical British historical accounts that have been distorted into narratives that have tended to undervalue or ignore the stories of people of African and Caribbean heritage, maintaining the belief that any contribution they made was minimal. . or non-existent. The fact that Adi has recently produced two well-received publications, one charting and documenting the black presence in Britain and a collection of new scholarship on black British history by emerging historians preceding the news of the MRes suspension, seems pour more salt into the wound. . Black British history remains a conflicted discipline that remains precarious within the academy, where small advances are met with considerable setbacks.

The far-reaching consequences of lack of representation

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

Therefore, the probability of reading a text written by a black British academic or being taught by one remains extremely small, and the implications of this in terms of representation in higher education, or the richness of academic diversity, are profound. . This statistic is also compounded by the number of students of color studying history who experience feelings of isolation and lack of personnel they can relate to. This is in addition to experiences of racism and microaggressions and the lack of support to deal with the emotional and psychological impact of these experiences and have little or no trust in your institution address these issues in a meaningful way. The few Black faculty members are often selected to participate in more diversity-related service activities, which impacts the time they spend on research and writing.

In her excellent and insightful article “Power in Telling: Community Engaged Stories from Black Britain,” Melesia Ono-George gives greater consideration to the implications highlighted above. He notes that “the absence of black historians… is not just an issue of diversity or representation… but a much more important issue of equity and social justice.” He 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 focus of research and therefore decide what historical research is important and what forms of knowledge are important.” They are valuable.”

The goal of African heritage historians, whether in the community or in academia, is to engage in research that uplifts their communities. As student populations enrolled in universities become more diverse, the need for a more representative faculty becomes more urgent. That’s why black history and representation is important, and that’s why the closing of the MRes course in Chichester is important. It had produced a critical mass of black scholars who had been given the space to explore research that matters and is valuable to them. However, it appears that when black historians focus their research on issues related to their communities, the legitimacy and value of their scholarship is questioned. This must change.

All articles published on this blog give the opinions of the authors, and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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