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  • Ayo Oluyemi

Part II: The Life and Times of Britain's first black History professor, Hakim Adi

In part one of this interview, Hakim reflected on his early life experiences of racism, and the trials and tribulations of trying to promote Black British history in the curriculums of schools, colleges and universities. In part two, Hakim brings us up to speed with his recent work with History Matters, the Young Historians Project, and his current position as the Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester.


What was starting at Chichester like?

By the time I got the Chichester post (in 2012) I had a slightly different mindset in that I was even more determined not to take any more nonsense from anybody. As soon as I came to Chichester in my first semester I was awarded module of the year by the students. I teach a module called Africa and the African Diaspora in the Modern World and the students voted that module of the year. So I applied for a professorship immediately and I was rejected. In my case I was told when your next book is published but that didn’t happen until the end of 2014 despite my book being published in 2013. The great thing about Chichester was that I immediately taught what I wanted to teach: Africa and the African Diaspora, Colonialism and Anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, Black British History. I was perhaps already in a position where people knew me and I gradually began to attract more PhD students which had been a problem at Middlesex as I only had one PhD student in 15 years at Middlesex.

Then in 2014, I saw a headline which claimed that only 3 blacks students were being trained to be history teachers. I thought this was amazing, unbelievable, and that we needed to do something about it, so I began to look into it. Why are there only 3 black students for teacher training? That’s because there are such low numbers of black undergraduates who study history. That’s when History Matters started. It was me and a few other people that I contacted, teachers, my PhD students, a couple of other black PhD students,

Had you stopped the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) before History matters started? BASA was not fully functioning. It went through a stage where other people took over. It floundered a little bit but we tried to keep it going in some form. Marika, myself, Martin Spafford, Dan Lyndon-Cohen set up the BASA education committee. Dan and Martin are both long standing history teachers. We produced the new GCSE migration module for OCR, and we also wrote the textbook for it.

History Matters was a new group. Esther Stanford-Xosei was part of it, Olivette Otele was involved to some degree, and there were one or two others. We discussed what we should do and I wrote the letter to the Times Higher Education which didn’t really get much of a response. We also wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which at that stage had a widening participation committee. We wrote to it and asked them what are they doing. Why is it that there are hardly any black students studying history? The response was that they aren’t doing anything and as a matter of fact it’s not part of their remit. They said their concern was with all subjects but not history in particular. In fact they weren’t doing anything for any subject and now that committee has been disbanded.

Hakim speaking at a History Matters conference

I then contacted all the key history organisations, the Historical Association (HA), the Royal Historical Society (RHS), the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), the School’s History Project. We decided to have a conference. The Royal Historical Society was quite a challenge and they needed to be persuaded but they helped to get the Institute of Historical Research for the conference and we used to meet at the RHS office at University College London. The Historical Association were a bit more sympathetic and we met at their office too. The RHS had done a report on gender and higher education, so I asked them to do another report and to look at the issue of young African and Caribbean people. At that point we didn’t include Asian students because the initial headline was about black students but also what we tried to highlight was that there is so much enthusiasm for history at a community level, so how is it possible that this enthusiasm doesn’t translate to young people taking history at undergraduate level or even A Level? We encouraged the RHS to investigate and write a report which they refused to do. Did they give any reason for refusing? No, they said they were doing other things but they were not that enthusiastic about doing it, as I recall. So it was decided that the conference would be used to discuss these issues and find out what is going on and what we can do to address the problem. We had produced some of the statistics. Our invited speakers were young black people from school, as well as undergraduates, postgraduates, and history teachers. We also invited two experts. One was Nadena Doherty, at that time a PhD student. She’s done research into the experience of young black people and history in Manchester. The President of the RHS attended, as well as the President of the HA. The room was packed as you can see from the photos. At the Conference the RHS were encouraged to produce a report but they didn’t. I even asked the person who wrote the report on gender and she said she can’t do it without the authority of the RHS.

The key things for me that came out of the conference were the need to set up something for young people to encourage them to engage in history, for some kind of intervention in school and for some way to encourage more older people to get back into history, to do research.

After the conference, the History Matters group which had been set up to organise the conference and which had included the HA, RHS etc., disintegrated. It left me and the late Cheryl Phillips who had offered me help.

Hakim Adi with the late Cheryl Phillips

On those 3 key areas decided from the conference, I set up the online Master of Research in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora, which aimed to encourage people to come back to history and undertake research at Masters level. We established the Young Filmmakers Award with the University of Chichester which was aimed at schools and we ran that for two years. It wasn’t really fully supported by Chichester and so we have had to discontinue it, although hopefully only temporarily. The third thing we set up was YHP. That was initially myself and Cheryl, Aleema Gray who was one of the speakers at the conference, and another young man who had been a conference speaker who was fourteen at the time. Cheryl and I got them together with a few other young people and started the Young Historians Project. Melissa Bennett now at the Museum of London Docklands was also involved for a short time. We asked the young people what did they want to research. The Black Panthers was a popular suggestion but as it was already covered to some degree we decided to do something similar, ince I knew a little about the Black Liberation Front and some of the people involved.

Then after only a few months in, Cheryl unexpectedly died at the age of 49. That was a very big blow. At that stage I think there were only three young people around. Then Lwam Tesfay who was at that time studying for a PhD with me got involved and took over the coordinating role. So we began to gradually build YHP and put in the application to HLF. Then we began to involve a few others, Carol Pierre, Jasmine Breinburg and Aleja Taddesse, for example, and it went from strength to strength.

How do you feel about the RHS


Hakim with YHP members

The RHS has always been urged not just to write a report but work with all of us who are concerned about these issues. There is now a new RHS president and I recall encouraging her to do something. The unfortunate thing about their report is that they didn’t consult me at all, let alone involve me. They didn’t consult or involve anyone else who had taken part in the History Matters conference. Although we had collaborated with them, and encouraged them to be involved they completely excluded me and History Matters. Indeed I knew almost nothing about it. When it was published the RHS President asked me if I was coming to the launch. I asked why I had been excluded and not even consulted? She said she was sorry that I felt excluded, but I explained that it’s not a question of my feelings, it’s a fact. She even claimed that History Matters inspired the RHS report, but if you read it History Matters is hardly mentioned and there is no mention of the History Matters conference, nor that the RHS was involved, nor that the report came out of the conference, if that is the case, nor that all this was our initiative (black teachers, academics, students). As if to add insult to injury they even launched it in black history month as if it was a great revelation and that the RHS had discovered and no one has ever discussed this before and so on. I was extremely displeased because it’s a complete falsification of history. It is an attempt once again to exclude us from history. Of course the RHS don’t mention any of the initiatives that came out of the conference which included YHP etc. The other problem is that the report doesn’t commit the RHS to do anything. There’s no action, there are no proposals to remedy the situation or proposal to work with other to remedy it. So for all of those reasons what is there to be pleased about? What should be done about this falsification of history?

Hakim Adi with Angela Davis
Hakim with Angela Davis

It was everywhere. Professor Justin Champion, who is the President of the Historical Association and was involved in the History Matter conference wrote to me when the report came out and said what is all this? How is it that you’re not mentioned? He told me I should say something. But the problem here is that not only do you have to fight against the powers that be, you are also put in the position where you have to struggle against those who claim to be your friends, or collaborators, or colleagues. It’s a tiring diversion but then if nothing is said history remains falsified.

Did you know anything about the survey they conducted? No, they didn’t invite, ask or consult me.

Have they offered an explanation why? They said it was just a questionnaire for people in Higher Education. I asked how many black professors of history are there in Britain that might be asked their view. At that time I think it was one, i.e. me.

How did you feel when you were made the first black history professor in the country?

It’s a combination of feelings. I'll tell you another story by way of explaining it. I remember when I was very very young, maybe 18/19, just starting university. I had 3 ambitions: one was to be a professional basketball player. Not very likely now, probably wasn't very likely then. The second was to be a jazz pianist. That didn't happen either, third was to be a professor of African history, and in fact at that time that seemed to be the least likely. Anyway, I had these three, not that I wrote them down, but I had these three desires or ambitions in life.

So when it finally happened, there was a feeling of relief. It was the third time of asking so it was a sense of relief and accomplishment and then various people say you should make a lot of it, give a lecture and do various things to kind of blow your own trumpet as it were. So, strangely enough by nature, I am very reluctant to do any of that and so I was slightly conflicted as to whether I should. Not so much from my own point of view but from the point of view of announcing something that others thought was of historic importance. But the more I thought about it the more I felt that it in a way wasn't an achievement. It was not something to celebrate, quite the reverse it’s actually a situation that we need to do something about. Someone says you're the first or only black professor of history, it's not a good thing, it's a bad thing. That's how I approached it. It's not something you should be sitting around and celebrating, rather it should be an opportunity to speak, to agitate, to demand to encourage others and young people in particular, so that's how I've tried to approach it. I don't think I got any recognition anyway, I don't think anyone did anything to celebrate. I see Olivette has an interview in The Times Higher. Nobody has interviewed me, certainly no one in this country interviewed me. I saw somebody else wrote an article about Olivette recently, saying she is the second and mentioning me as the first but I think that might be the first time someone has written that I was the first.

Why do you think that is the case?

One, I'm a man, it’s unfashionable to be a man. I don't know what Olivette has done herself but certainly, a lot of information has come out that she is the first woman, whether that came from her, or those around her I don't know, whereas I didn't present any information publicly. For whatever reason no one wrote about me and I didn't write about me. Someone did write about me in The Voice but that was recent, a year ago. Maybe it has to do with my own reticence, or maybe it wasn't picked up. I don't really know what the explanation is but I am used to it in a way and, as I said, my approach is that it's not something to celebrate. Interestingly Olivette's position is very different. For one she came from France, she hasn't gone through what I went through, so it's slightly different. But that's her own accomplishment, to come from France and do it- but I've done it definitely the hard way because I have gone through all the system, the challenges, all the difficulties the redundancies, unemployment, you name it, it took me a long time. but it is what it is. The thing now is to try to make something of it. I did suggest to one or two people that we should do something, I think I suggested to BCA that we should do something but then nothing happened, so after a while you think you can’t really blow your own trumpet, if people don't think it’s an opportunity to do anything then ok.

Do you think black history is more visible now?

Hakim Adi during his 2019 US tour

It’s definitely not linear, I think in general things are better, you know there's more recognition that this history, in general, is important. There are more people involved, especially at community levels, doing things, there are blue plaques etc., BCA, there's black history walks, you know a whole range of people and things that weren't there 30 years ago that's for sure. There's also ‘Decolonise The Curriculum’ and ‘Why Isn't my Professor Black’ etc. All that is a recognition that things need change, so that's all positive. Having said that, there are still a lot of challenges. What is being taught in schools, how few young black people take up history at GCSE, A-Level, undergraduate level, how few postgraduates students there are, how few academics there are, how few teachers there are, all that is still a problem. These issues of how people are represented, or not represented, where decision making is concerned, whether that is in the education, archives or museum sectors. The decision-making issues are key because we are not the decision-makers and in that sense the status quo or the system fundamentally hasn’t changed.

In this regard I don't agree with this idea of decolonising things. I don't agree with it because decolonising is something that the colonial powers did, it's not something which the people did. So when De Gaulle, the President of France, said ''decolonisation is in our interest therefore our policy'' -you see why I am not interested in decolonising. If you decolonise that means you leave the system, the mechanisms, the structures intact and you produce neocolonialism essentially, so to my mind what is required is anti-colonialism, in other words, the people must become the decision makers and establish their own system. If you look at Africa that hasn't happened anywhere. There has been decolonisation but the anti-colonial struggle hasn't been taken through to the end. So with archives and curriculum what's important is that the students and the people become the decision makers and that there are mechanisms in place to achieve that and at the moment that hasn't happened. It may be the beginning of it but I think it's important that people see the direction that the struggle should take if it is to be successful. The fact that there are 2 black professors in history in Britain says it all. Yes that's a step forward but in this whole context that's not a cause for celebration. It should be a stimulus for more action. That's how I see things. There are possibilities there but there needs to be a lot more victories.

With YHP you encourage us to record our own history - obviously there's been the decolonising movement amongst young students but do you think there's a knowledge of what has happened before, in terms of the past struggles?

No there isn't enough knowledge and that's why the work YHP does is so important. This issue of African women in Britain is a good example. It is so important but where is this history, you can’t find it. You go on google you will not find anything, it hasn't really been written and yet it’s so important and integral to Britain’s modern history. The struggles to change things is also not known. and you can say in some cases, deliberately falsified.

So then the RHS emerges as the alleged champions of all these things, whereas the reality is very, very different. It’s so important to know history, sum up that history and learn the lessons from it. That's very very important. History is not just about the past but about the present and the future. We take up that study and understanding of history in order to understand our world and change it because history is the study of change and how humans changed things. We have to learn the lessons and develop theory from experience and practice, and apply it to our own situations and our own world.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I am always full of revolutionary optimism. Optimism because history is on our side. History shows us that the future belongs to the people and that people are the agents of change and the makers of history. We are our own liberators whether it's on these questions of history and knowledge and enlightenment or if it's about other more obviously political things. I'm very optimistic. You can see how things have developed with YHP. If you think of us as a little stream when we started, we are like a little river now and in 5 years time, we might be a big river. We must keep building and keep going because if you give up you don't achieve anything. You can see that last year some people get disheartened with YHP and perhaps thought nothing is happening, although a lot was happening. Perhaps some just want to do other things but those of us that understand can see that there is something important here and other people get drawn to that. Then there's so much to do and so much we can achieve. It’s interesting to see the recent letter from Dr Lola Oni and Wendy Olayiwola saying how important this history of African women is and that they are so glad YHP are undertaking it. We get all the invitations because no one else is doing what we do. So we must strive to be successful so as to encourage other young people and bring other people in. So yes I’m very optimistic about YHP.

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