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  • Hannah Francis

Reflections on the Bernie Grant Memorial Lecture 2024

On April 11th 2024, Professor Hakim Adi gave the annual Bernie Grant Memorial Lecture entitled History Matters: Affirming the History of Africa and the African Diaspora. Born in George Town, Guyana in 1944, Bernie Grant emigrated to Britain in 1963 to join his family in Haringey, North London. Back home in the Caribbean, Grant had been inspired by radio reports on anticolonial struggle and liberation movements in the African continent and the Caribbean and this seemingly influenced his activism as a young adult and socialist politics further into his adulthood.

The lecture opened with the following quote from Bernie Grant:

“Our history has been distorted so as to deny our achievements.”

“We are saying today that there are certain historic truths. There are certain things that happened in the past and those things cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.”

Reparations or Bust, Bernie Grant, 11th April 1993

On the theme of Grant’s quote above, Professor Adi’s talk spoke on debunking the myth of the inferiority of Africans and descendants of Africa, especially in light of our current Government’s aversion of teaching the truths of Britain’s Empire. From the Hamitic Hypothesis- a theory developed by European countries in defense of colonisation of Africa inferring the superiority of Hamites (a subgroup of the Caucasian or ‘White’ race) over Black Africans- to the myth of ‘Windrush’ fed to us by the British state- the liberalised idea that people of Black African descent only arrived to Britain in 1948 on HMT Windrush upon invitation as opposed to acknowledging the presence of Africans predating that of the Romans for over 1000 years - Professor Adi’s lecture reaffirmed how essential it is for us to counter these narratives. Combating this sweeping generalisation of Black presence in Britain is of great importance, especially as someone who’s family are generally considered as part of the ‘Windrush' generation when really and truly my grandparents were part of the British Airways generation (my granddad was deported to Britain by British Airways- or British Overseas Airways Corporation as they were formerly known- in September 1959).

His book African and Caribbean people in Britain: a History was a key focal point of the lecture, a publication covering around 10, 000 years of history of the presence of Black people in Britain- from the Cheddar Man to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 in Britain. Some key figures highlighted in the lecture and also featured in the book that really stood out for me were the stories of William Cuffay- a mixed race man of African heritage who first became involved in political organising for the rights of workers in 1834 and was a leader in the Chartist Movement; Alice Kinloch- a South African human rights campaigner and founder of the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900; and Claudia Jones- a Trinidadian communist and founder of some of Britain’s first major black newspaper West Indian Gazette.

Professor Adi went on to speak of the way we can empower everyone, not solely our Black African and Caribbean brothers and sisters, to push back against false narratives of Black British presence and the fight against empire. He recalled one story of meeting a white History teacher who felt somewhat defeated about the role of white British folk in the subjugation and exploitation of Africans. He relayed that he went on to tell her that it was more likely her ancestors and those of other white workers were more likely to have been aligned with the plight of African workers than not! We must rectify the narrative in that, despite the racism experienced by members of the diaspora, there were workers’ and anti-racist movements which fostered heaps of solidarity- one example being that of British women’s suffrage activist Sylvia Pankhurst who was united with the London-based organisations the West African Students Union (WASU) and the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in their demand for a meeting with the Colonial Secretary in opposition of the repressive governance of African colonies. I found this part of the lecture to be really affirming and one that welcomed everybody as part of the fight to assert Black history as a key part of British history.

The lecture went on to emphasise the role of history teachers and historians more broadly to continue to challenge ideas of division and watered down perceptions of Britain’s role in colonisation and imperial expansion, and encourage younger members of the diaspora to play a key role in uncovering and documenting Black British History. Professor Adi spoke of the founding of History Matters and the organisation’s conference that led to the creation of the Young Historians Project- an organisation that further solidified the importance of public access to knowledge of Black presence in Britain. In light of the ongoing campaign to save Professor Adi’s MRes in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora, axed last summer by the University of Chichester with little warning, alongside the axing of Professor Adi’s role at the institution, now more than ever is the time to affirm the presence of Black people in Britain’s history. First of its kind, the MRes was launched in 2018 to encourage older Black people and others to return to education and access history of the African continent and the diaspora in Britain. The course went on to be popular amongst many age groups and has seen a growing number of Black History graduates uncover knowledge of our presence in Britain. I graduated from the MRes in 2021; Professor Adi was a great course lead, supervisor and mentor for myself and our cohort of students, many of which have gone on to do PhDs and continue to research Black British History.

Following the lecture, a panel discussion chaired by radio host Dotun Adebayo took place. A. S. Francis- consultant historian to YHP and author of Gerlin Bean: Mother of the Movement- and I were invited by Professor Adi to take part in the panel to discuss the MRes campaign. For me- I had never had the opportunity to participate in such an integral annual event of this scale. People like Bernie Grant, Professor Adi, Claudia Jones, are the very reason I wanted to be a historian- to challenge what I’d been told in my history lessons in school about Black people in Britain not having much of a history, to challenge the stereotypical, one-sided, negative views on communism and organising I’d been fed by my history education in secondary school, and the fact that Black African and Caribbean people and their allies were in fact the heart of liberation movements all over the globe. Alongside the panelists, I was able to discuss that courses like the MRes and others (such as the University of Chichester’s BA Hons in Modern History led by Dr Dion Georgiou of Cypriot and Guyanese heritage and threat to make a total of 17 staff redundant; the threat to Goldsmiths’ MA in Black British Literature and their masters course in Black British History; and the the threat of redundancy for 25 Humanities staff at the University of Brighton to name a few) were another direct attack by universities and the wider British state upon the accurate teaching of national and international marginalised histories.

Below, we have some closing thoughts from A. S. Francis on their experience taking part in the event:

The Bernie Grant Memorial Lecture is an important occasion for bringing to attention those continual struggles for justice, and this year’s lecture by Prof Adi provided us much needed insight and reflection on the meaning of history, why it is a subject that is so integral in our fight for a better world, and in particular why the history of Africa and the African Diaspora is one which requires all of us to fight to protect, expand public understanding and access to it.

As one of Prof Adi’s longstanding students, and as someone who’s learnt so much from his mentorship, I was honoured to have the opportunity to participate in the event and add my perspective on the ongoing campaign to save the MRes course, and safeguard this important avenue for prospective students of African and Caribbean heritage to become powerful historians of the future.

For a video of the lecture, please follow this link:

Please follow this link to find out how you can support the Save the MRes campaign and support the students who have been impacted by the actions of the University of Chichester: 


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