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  • Aleema Gray

In memory of Professor Justin Champion

We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Professor Justin Champion, who among many things was a key supporter of the Young Historians Project.

I first met Justin in 2015 during my final year of my History degree at Royal Holloway, University of London. I was on a train ride from London to Egham and spent the journey reading Horace Campbell’s Rasta and Resistance. Justin, who was sitting opposite me, kindly interrupted me to ask for more information on the book. What had begun as a simple conversation turned into a half an hour discussion on the role of revolutionary struggles in the Caribbean. For the duration of my journey I remember thinking, why is this white man so interested in what I have to say about Black history?

I remember feeling strange because it was the first time I felt seen. By the point I had met Justin, I was sure that History wasn’t for me; I had spent the majority of my degree being the only Black person in the room and spent most of my time learning about Black history through the perspective of the United States and Slavery. I spent my degree knowing I had something to say, and knowing that there must be another story – HERstory, OURstory. But, like many young Black students, I retreated into silence and self-doubt. I began thinking that the community history I had been exposed to from a young age was merely a figment of my imagination. I became so sure that my energy would be better placed elsewhere, perhaps sociology or international relations; after all what space was there for a young Black scholar in a field based on a regime of whitewashing the histories and experiences of me coming here, and being here.

Justin provided a space for me to voice some of my concerns and apprehensions. More importantly, he listened and responded with actions. Our discussions lived out the train journey. He ended it by asking me for my email address to follow up with more information on the things I could get involved in to support me as I approached the end of my degree. To my surprise, he emailed me an hour later, introducing me to Professor Hakim Adi, who he had admired deeply. At the time, he was working closely on the History Matters conference and convinced me to take part. In fact his exact email urged me to ‘never out my flame’, and reminded me ‘to always remain curious and critical’, and that ultimately, ‘your voice and experiences is vital’.

The conference became the founding place for the Young Historians Project and the rest is history.

Justin bridged the gap between the academy and the community. After hearing the news of his passing, I am obliged to reflect on those who were at the beginning of my journey as a Historian. Justin supported Black historians and Black history in Britain at a time when no other white Professor seemed to care. His life and works is a testament to what ally-ship looks like; freeing up space, giving up power, amplifying the voices that have been silenced, and seeking new ways to repair ontological and epistemological violence. Justin honoured a commitment to reflection and action and for that, we will be forever grateful.

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