Life and times of Britain's first black History professor, Hakim Adi (Part I)
I joined Young Historians Project (YHP), because I wanted to learn about black British history and meet other young black Britons who were interested in the subject. Having been part of YHP for nearly 18 months now, I can definitely say its expanded how I approach my thinking about history. The sidelining of black British history, which I was already aware of, became even more glaring to me. Through attending YHP events, I have learned far more about it than I did in school or popular culture.
Professor Hakim Adi is one of YHP’s co-founders and the first black History professor in the UK. He is a founding member and former chair of the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA), which was chartered in 1991. Prof. Adi is a trustee of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), Britain’s premier Black heritage centre, and was a member of the Mayor of London’s Commission on African and Asian heritage. He has written widely on the history of Africa and the African Diaspora, and is editor of the highly anticipated publication, Black British History: New Perspectives. In October 2014, Prof. Adi rallied a group of black historians and teachers to form the organization History Matters, which challenges the under-representation of students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage within the History discipline. Out of History Matters was born the Young Historians Project, and the rest is History!
I wanted to interview Professor Hakim Adi, to understand more about the work he’s done over the years to promote black British history, and what it’s like to work in a profession where there are still limited numbers of black people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Part 1: Growing up, SOAS and BASA
What made you interested in history?
It started when I was a very young child, probably about 5 years old. I was growing up in Kent, near Canterbury. In those days there was a very famous children’s TV series about Robin Hood. That idea of a man who took from the rich and gave to the poor was what first got me interested. My mother bought me history books around that subject (not necessarily about Robin Hood) and I started reading Ladybird books. When I was 13, I became more interested in African history. At that stage it was more to do with what we’d call black history in general.
What was it like growing up in Kent?
It’s difficult for people now to appreciate, but in those days particularly growing up outside London, you didn’t see anything that related to Africa or black people. There was nothing on television. There were no black newsreaders. There were no black footballers. Diana Ross on TOTP would be the extent of anything. It was quite challenging. In those days racism was common. There were racist TV programmes and racist humour was commonplace, just like anti-Irish humour was commonplace.
Do you think things have changed?
On TV only recently there was a documentary (BBC’s School) about a school near Bristol, and the only black child at that school getting into difficulties. People made racist remarks to her. I went through all that. In the last 50 years things have changed for some people, but not for this girl in rural Bristol. Things probably haven't changed too much in Kent, but in London and big cities, even down here, people probably have a bit more understanding of the issues.
What drove you to pursue your interest in history?
I felt like I had to find out for myself why there was so much racism, negativity about Africa and Africans. I began to study that at the age of 13. I read novels. I read books about music, jazz, anything that related to black people really. From reading one thing, something else would be mentioned. I would go to the bookshop and order books. There was a series of Penguin books about Africa covering history, politics, sociology, poetry. I’d buy all of those or as many as I could afford and read everything. I read things about Black Power, I didn’t understand all. I read Franz Fanon at 13 or 14.
When did you decide to study history at university?
I decided at around 15. My plan at that stage was to become a school teacher. I wanted to be able to teach kids what I didn’t have at school. After going to Nigeria for around 6 or 7 months at the age of 18, I got a place at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and I went and studied African history and social anthropology. It had its own challenges. Firstly, I suppose, there were no African teachers or lecturers. In those days at SOAS even African languages weren’t taught by Africans.
What was that like?
I often tell the story of my friend and I walking down a dark corridor at SOAS and suddenly coming across – not just a black lecturer, but a black woman, giving a lecture. We were astounded. We’d never seen any black person give a lecture or doing anything. She was a visiting geographer from the US. No one had told us and there were just a handful of people there. We marched in and introduced ourselves. She was pleased to see us. We went and rounded up all the black students at SOAS and two days later when she gave a talk in that room, you couldn’t move in there because we packed it out. There were probably 20-30 of us.
What was the History department like?
In those years, the students at SOAS were very political. There were big discussions about the revolution in Ethiopia for example. We had an African society. People would come in and talk. Ansel Wong from the Black Liberation Front came in I remember. But the history department in those days was very conservative and Eurocentric. At that stage, I lent more towards social anthropology, which was less conservative. It was the anthropology department that invited me to do a Phd and obtained a scholarship for me. So I went immediately into that after my first degree. However, that didn’t work out for various reasons. I felt that I couldn’t write the way I wished to. So I walked away. I tried to go back to teaching, applied to the Institute of Education and Garnet College but was rejected by both. I was unemployed for about 18 months, maybe two years, then became a youth and community worker in Waltham Forest.
What did you do then?
I began to teach history at community level. I taught African history mainly. I used to do stuff on Ancient Egypt. This was the early to mid 1980s and people were very interested since in those days there wasn’t very much of this presentation of history around. I remember running a course in Greenwich and I had only one student. I ran an African history course in Broadmoor mental hospital. Any opportunity I had to teach about Africa anywhere, whether it was a one off, a course, adult education, I did it.
During that time I got a full time position as a youth and community worker in Waltham Forest. I reapplied to Garnett College and this time was accepted to do a PGCE specialising in history. Then I started working part-time as a Further Education (FE) teacher. I taught a range of subject GCSE history, A- Level history, Government and Politics etc. I did that for 10 years, working part time in a number of FE colleges in London.
Why did you move on from that?
It quickly dawned on me that I’d never be able to teach African history at an FE college. There were a few Access courses to Higher Education in those days that would have a few African history components, but I’d never be able to focus on teaching Africa. Someone said the only way you’d be able to do that is get a PhD and teach at uni level. I decided that I would have to go back to SOAS and start again. So I applied to do Masters at SOAS but rather surprisingly I was again encouraged to do a PhD. I decided that I needed to do something about Africa, but with a British connection so that it would be easier to research from here.
What did you do your PhD on?
I came up with the idea of doing something about the West African Students Union. So I started that PhD in 1987 and I did it for 7 years part time while I was teaching in FE. That sort of propelled me in a different direction, not only looking at the history of Africa but also the history of the African diaspora. Although there were a handful of people presenting African history at a community level, even fewer people were dealing with the African diaspora in Britain. When I started in 1987 the only other person, I can think of is Marika Sherwood. I first met her in 1987. She came to a seminar I was giving at SOAS. We’ve been friends and colleagues since then. We’ve now written three books together.
What work did you and Marika do initially?
We decided that there was really nothing being established regarding the history of African and Caribbean (or South Asian) people in Britain. This history wasn't taught in schools, hardly anybody was researching it, it wasn’t being developed in anyway, so we decided to establish an association to do that. We set it up in 1991. It was originally called the association for the study of African, Caribbean and Asian culture and history in Britain, which no one could remember, even us! So after a few years it was changed to BASA – Black and Asian Studies Association.
What did BASA do?
BASA campaigned for history being included in the national curriculum and that there would be more attention given to it by organisations like libraries and archives. It organised conferences for teachers and archivists. We lobbied government. Initially it was the two of us and then a few other people became involved. Later we formed a committee, (which created more problems). Others involved included people like Caroline Bressey and Martin Spafford.
What did you do after your Phd?
I got my PhD in 1994, so then the challenge was to get a job at university level. I managed to get a part time job at Middlesex and then full time from 1995. Initially I was teaching history of all sorts and doing a little bit of African history. It was a question of trying to build up your subject area gradually. At Middlesex we had a Minor Award called Studies in Race and Culture, which was effectively a black studies course but wasn’t a complete degree. I taught in that and kept trying to develop various things.
What did you develop?
I organised a Black London summer school, for example, which focused on various things – history, music, literature. BASA continued. I started writing more, Marika and wrote a book on the Manchester Pan-African Congress, that came out in 1995 fo the 50th anniversary. I was also asked to write a children's book, African Migrations, that was published in 1994.
What was it like?
It was very tough going, because in those days (even today there are problems), but back then, people would look at you as if you were crazy when you demanded more regard for what is now called Black British History. I remember going to the Imperial War Museum to talk to the director (with Marika). We asked him why do you call this an imperial war museum but there’s nothing about Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, don’t you realise that in all the wars since the c18th there have been troops that came from the empire? He showed us the door. That would have been in the early 90s. We had meetings with the department of education, I remember having a meeting with Charles Clarke about National Curriculum history but these people had no concern or interest, they just showed us the door.
What did BASA do?
If you look back at BASA and what it achieved. It actually made a big impact. The National Curriculum for History has changed tremendously, archives have changed a lot, so too museums. There are still a lot of problems, but there’s definitely a change since when we first started. There’s more recognition that Eurocentrism is an issue to be considered. They can’t deny that there are problems that need to be taken up and solved.
How did you make change?
The thing I always think of is what can be done? You can’t persuade these people in positions of power, they have their view, at least this is my conclusion, so you need to find ways of organizing people so as to have a bigger impact. You need to find different ways of approaching these subjects in order to make a difference. And you don’t necessarily always know the best way to do it, but the thing is to keep going, just keep going and you keep organising people, keep talking to people and try to develop the sort of force that can bring change. It’s very challenging. Not only because of the institutions you’re trying to deal with, but the people you’re trying to work with aren’t always singing from the same hymn sheet.
What was Middlesex like?
There was always the threat of courses and jobs being cut. Studies in Race and Culture was axed, we had a whole campaign to prevent it but we failed. Eventually the whole history department was axed. I was the last historian there. In 2009 I found myself unemployed again for nearly two years. I was there for 15 years and it was challenging the whole time – to make progress, to get promoted, to keep my job, to try to write. It’s hard work. I haven’t got any patience for all this now. I was outspoken then, but I’m even more outspoken now.
One thing I’m very conscious of recently since becoming a professor is how hard it was to make any progress, for me at least. I look at the age of other professors around me and they’re all young or young-ish. When I was promoted to professor I was nearly 60 and it was my third attempt.
What kept you going?
The importance of the issues involved. Whether one’s talking about Africa or the diaspora in Britain. It’s just a glaring injustice. it’s eurocentric, openly racist, that there is an intention of ignoring a whole area of history. In the case of Africa a whole continent, or in the case of Britain, just a vital part of British history. And people want to ignore it – how is that possible? So that keeps me fired, however challenging – it’s like you’re being written out of history. Somebody saying you don’t matter, your ancestors don’t matter. You could say your actual identity is being attacked, your existence. The other issue, the way I look at it, it’s a form of disinformation, it’s trying to confuse people about the past and therefore also the present. It’s trying to obscure the way people look at the world and see the world and falsify reality and History. I’m not prepared to accept that Africans don’t exist or that Africans have no history – how could you? It’s not possible to accept that. It’s that kind of thing that keeps me fired up and wanting to continue.
And also seeing the impact that it has. In the documentary I mentioned earlier, I was very touched when I saw this young black woman saying what people said about her – I think she set off the fire alarm and I think the teachers recognised it was a call for help, she didn’t want to be at school because people were talking about her hair and her nose, or you hear about young people being only taught about slavery every single year of their school, or having to reenact aspects of it. Things like that really anger me and you want to try and do something about it. Over the years, what I’ve learned is that the struggle to do something about it, or to change things may take a long time, so what is equally important is to develop your own alternative to all this falsification and disinformation – like YHP. Where people are doing their own thing. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing if we are doing something positive to address the problems.
What have the challenges of academia been?
When I got made redundant I was probably in my 50s. I thought that I was never going to teach again. Fortunately I was writing a book , so I used the two years to write the book. In those two years I had two job interviews. The job at Chichester came up, which again was a demotion for me as I was at Reader level. It was only a senior lectureship, but I applied and I got it.
This was in 2012. The redundancy at Middlesex came after I was awarded a British Academy/ Leverhulme Fellowship which is supposed to be very prestigious. I believe that only 7 are awarded a year but I got one and was made redundant the next year. That’s how things go in academia, which in itself is a challenge. One of the other things I haven’t said about academia is that up until recently I very rarely get invited to speak at any universities or conferences in Britain. I would get invited to the US, Canada, Africa, China, Europe but never in Britain or very rarely. That’s also challenging but you have to get on with it. In any case throughout my career I always did more outside of academia than inside, I had always done community based things...
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview