“Be not arrogant because of your knowledge. Take counsel with the ignorant as well as with the wise. For the limits of knowledge in any field have never been set and no one has ever reached them. Wisdom is rarer than emeralds, and yet it is found among the women who gather at the grindstones.”
(‘The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt’ translated by Maulana Karenga)
The low numbers of Africans studying history in university and African history lecturers is pretty much trite knowledge. This recognition has recently led to some moves to redress the situation. However, as British African History in particular slowly moves from Africana and Black studies, to become a stand-alone programme in British universities, history consultant Kwaku cautions us not to cast our eyes solely on the Academy, but also unto what’s happening within the community history space.
African History Month may have just ended. But for many community historians and groups, such as Andrew Muhammad, Black History Walks, Black History Studies, PASCF (Pan-Afrikan Society Community Forum), Avril’s Walks and Talks, and my organisation BTWSC/African Histories Revisited (AHR), the teaching of African history continues.
Considering that these programmes are delivered online on platforms such as Zoom, which reduces the challenge of access, how many academic historians engage with community programmes to enhance their own learning, and for cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge?
Indeed, there needs to be a recognition that, at least for now, the overwhelming body of British African history knowledge doesn’t reside within the Academy. A genuine mutualistic relationship needs to be fostered by formal education institutions and community groups. It is for this reason that I will highlight some exemplars, which where possible should be replicated, in order to improve what happens in both the academic and community history spaces.
But before that, what’s been happening on the academic front?
There’s currently a vacancy advertised by Queen’s College, University of Oxford, for a Professorship in Black British History. Incidentally, the closing date is Dec. 14 2020. And the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t stop Goldsmiths, University of London, which launched its MA Black British History course this term.
These recent green shoots come on the back of a wide range of discourses and initiatives.
In 2014, as part of the then emerging decolonising movement, there sprung two initiatives within academia – Why Isn’t My Professor Black?, which pointed to the appalling number of UK professors from AAME (African, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. The other, Why Is My Curriculum White? spoke to the Eurocentricity of the school curriculum.
Staff and students of UCL (University College London), home of Francis Galton and the pseudo-science eugenics, actually created a Dismantling The Master’s House microsite on UCL’s website, which was “committed to righting racialised wrongs in our workplace and in the wider world”. And in 2019, one of the few, long established African professors, Paul Gilroy, was appointed founding director of UCL’s new Centre for the Study of Race and Racism.
Olivette Otele, who was made a Professor of History of Slavery and Memory of enslavement at the University of Bristol in 2018, is still the only female African history professor. Hakim Adi, a longstanding history teacher and Professor of History of Africa and the African Diaspora at University of Chichester, was joined last year by historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, as Professor of Public History, and this year by journalist Gary Younge, as Professor of Sociology with a research interest in “the Black presence in post-war Europe”. The two new professors are employed by Manchester University.
In 2017 Birmingham City University (BCU) launched a BA Black Studies programme, which has since developed variants, including an MA. Kehinde Andrews, who helped develop the courses, is now a BCU Professor of Black Studies.
Whilst the growth of the Black Studies courses offered by BCU may indicate an interest in the topic, one needs a cautious assessment, bearing in mind the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality Report’.
The report highlighted racial and ethnic inequalities in the teaching and practice of History in Britain. It also drew attention to the under-representation of students and staff from AAME backgrounds on university History programmes, and “the substantial levels of race-based bias and discrimination experienced by BME historians in UK universities, and the negative impact of narrow school and university curriculums on diversity and inclusion.”
So what now that some, albeit limited, visible start has been made towards addressing both questions, Why Isn’t My Professor Black? and Why Is My Curriculum White?
I wish all the programmes, particularly those focusing on British African history, all the best – strong intake and great lecturers. Regarding the latter, there’s been some disquiet expressed about the “importation” from overseas and employment of Europeans to either teach or lead some of these programmes. This, it is said, gives the impression that there are no competent British-based African academic historians.
Personally, I wonder what the reading lists are like for these courses, bearing in mind the newness of the courses, and what I believe to be a paucity of books that speak specifically to British African narratives and possess the rigour required for academic study.
BTWSC/AHR’s Reading British African History In Books Zoom event on Monday Nov. 30 is aimed at parents, teachers, researchers and lovers of primarily popular history. Even those in the Academy may discover titles that can support their work in the British African history field.
This event is in response to the perennial scrambling for ideas and resources by teachers and work place designated staff as African History Month either approaches or starts. It is also for adults and parents, who in the course of the Month ask about resources to satisfy either their new found interest in history or a responsibility for their youngsters to learn some history.
British African History is too new a discipline to fall into the silo-mentality, and hardened, entrenched academic history versus community or public history divisions. The former, I posit actually needs the latter more, particularly when it comes to “history from below” or “hidden histories”, not yet officially published.
Now, in terms of academic-community exemplars, firstly, there’s Young History Project (YHP). This is an outcome of the 2015 History Matters conference, which was “formed by young people encouraging the development of young historians of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain”. YHP provides part of the solution, by getting young Africans in school interested in history and a potential pipeline into university to study history.
Mentored by the likes of Prof Adi, YHP’s first Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) project explored the history of the Black Liberation Front. From producing an accessible resource on the British Black Power movement, its second and current HLF funded project is equally radical: it focuses on (Continental) African Women and the British Health Service. This will help fill a lacuna and add to the African narratives on the health service, which have been overwhelmingly African Caribbean.
Incidentally, as I write, there’s a TV documentary in preparation on the health service. By looking at the last 70 or so years, one can imagine that it will inevitably focus on the contributions of the Windrush generation. However, as the production company’s aware of a recent article I published about my mother-in-law who came from Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1947 to study nursing, before the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury and the founding of the NHS, I’m confident this programme won’t repeat the usual exclusion of the contributions from Africa.
Secondly, there’s History Matters (HM). It was formed in 2014 by “a group of concerned black historians and teachers to highlight the alarmingly low numbers of history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain.” It has since its first conference in 2015, helped create YHP, organised the 2017 New Perspectives on the History of African and Caribbean People in Britain conference, from which submitted papers were published in 2019 as ‘Black British History: New Perspectives from Roman Times to the Present Day’. This is an accessible academic collection that will no doubt feature on the reading lists of British African History courses.
Although based at the University of Chichester, HM has an academic-community collaborative ethos, as evidenced by its collaboration with the Black Cultural Archives, the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and other partners.
HM currently has a call for papers for the second New Perspectives conference set for October 2021. This is another opportunity for young and emerging scholars, particularly those of African heritage, and activists to help “provide a platform for the sharing of knowledge regarding the histories of African and Caribbean peoples in Britain”.
Thirdly, there’s Black British History, which is based at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. It aims to “foster a creative dialogue between researchers, educationalists (mainstream and supplementary), archivists and curators, and policy makers. We seek to identify and promote innovative new research into the history of people of African origin or descent in the UK”.
It’s better known for its What’s Happening in Black British History? (WHBBH) Workshops that take place in higher education establishments across the country. The speakers on the workshops have traditionally been a mix of academic, independent and community historians and activists, which has been reflected in the audience.
However of late, the speakers have been drawn almost exclusively from academia. One hopes this is by accident, rather than design, as that would diminish the initial accessible, straddling across academia and community, which introduced many community history practitioners, activists and fans into the Academy.
It was at the first WHBBH workshop in 2014 that I witnessed a successful partnership between a university, in this case University of Huddersfield (UOH), and a community project, Kirklees African Descent Community Media Productions and Kirklees Local TV (KLT), in which the former provided funding but left creative control to the latter to develop a co-production speaking to a local British African history.
They argued that “the future of black British history lies in the co-production of historical knowledge – through collaboration between community partners and universities, to ensure that people of African descent are ‘writing’ their own histories and contributing to the discussion of British history taking place in universities, which in turn has an impact on school education and media representations.”
Not only does this university-community relationship continue, but KLT CEO Milton Brown is now undertaking a PhD at UOH, focusing on “the experience of African Caribbean people navigating race and constructing identity in post-war Britain”.
A variation of this partnership model is demonstrated in the fourth exemplar. In 2016, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) was innovative in my opinion, by putting out a funding call focused on the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD) initiative which begun in 2015. Secondly, it opened this call for boundary-crossing research networks to a collection of academic, community and activist groups.
Criticism of how and when this funding was publicised notwithstanding, the University of Liverpool administered fund ended up supporting eleven network projects, one of which, International Network of Scholars & Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR), is based at University of Edinburgh.
After a number of workshops and exhibitions in different parts of the country, a report about the research networks was launched a few weeks ago. In an area where awareness is low and there’s scant documentary evidence on how communities are engaging with IDPAD, this report and related resources provide an obvious starting point for any enquiry, whether academic or community led.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, some funders have been innovative in offering funding to capture the impact of Covid-19. I’d like to see academic funders continue that innovation by not only funding history programmes, but more importantly, encouraging the input from knowledgeable community historians and projects.
Lastly, not surprisingly the internet allows for spaces that academic and non-academic history communities can occupy. For example, although the JiscMail lists are meant primarily for the academic and research sectors, two JiscMail lists run by BASA (Black and Asian Studies Association) and British Black Studies, exemplify accessible forums where subscribers within academia and those outside discuss and and exchange information, without unnecessary hegemony.
As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rise in post-George Floyd #BlackLivesMatter/#AfricanLivesMatter activism, a number of scholarships have been offered to students either from African heritage or AAME communities. One such example is University of Hertfordshire’s just announced BAME PhD Studentship in History.
This African History Month, young readers have been especially catered for. It can be argued that frankness in calling out racism, following George Floyd’s death, had a hand in seeing an updated version of Prof Adi’s ‘The History Of African and Caribbean Communities’ children’s book being re-published. Whilst an eye on a potential growing market, saw a request for David Olusoga to re-purpose his previous tome as ‘Black and British: A short essential history’ for youngsters. Even Kandace Chimbiri’s 2018 self-published children’s book ‘The Story of the Windrush’ was republished by an independent publisher.
Although Olusoga has has a hand in a string of popular televised African or British African history documentaries, it’s Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ docu-features that had the biggest reception. One of the films, ‘Mangrove’, has renewed interest in British Black Power politics and history. Whilst I’m glad that the film has raised awareness of the Mangrove Nine trial, we should not lose sight of the fact that there have been several other cases, some of which also reached the Old Bailey.
A number of these cases, such as the Cricklewood 12, Lewisham 24, Bonfire Night 12, Oval House 4, not to be confused with Oval 4, and Burning Spear Club 6, will be explored in the Police And The Criminalising Of The African British Youths By Numbers event, led by me, with support from special guests with intimate lived experiences of some of cases, on Monday Nov. 23.
Migrating unto online delivery means we are getting attendees not only from different parts of the country, but also from overseas.
There are now really no excuses preventing those who genuinely love history and wish to learn about the narratives not usually tackled within mainstream programming or formal education, from engaging with what’s on the community history scene.
Kwaku is a music industry and history consultant, and programmer for BTWSC/African Histories Revisited. Upcoming programmes are posted at http://www.AfricanHistoryPlus.eventbrite.com, which include: Police And The Criminalising Of The African British Youths By Numbers on Monday Nov. 23, Reading British African History In Books on Nov. 30, and Black Music And A History Of Racism In Britain: Dec. 7 1507-Dec. 7 2020 on Monday Dec. 7.
He is also an identity and decolonising activist and co-ordinator of TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question). His position on the use of African instead of Black to describe people, African History instead of Black History, Afriphobia instead of anti-Black racism can be found in the TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) Manifesto 2020+ on www.TAOBQ.blogspot.co.uk and at the Interrogating Language 3: Identity, Decolonising, Reparations; Araning & Should Africans Have African Names? event on Wednesday Nov. 25.