Reflections on Black History Month: Black Academics and Universities in the UK

I spent eight years working as an academic historian before I joined the Doctoral College, juggling teaching and research posts in England while conducting archival research on the continent, and I often found myself in unusual situations. Receiving a salute from the Pope’s famous Swiss Guard upon entering the Vatican archive remains a memorable experience, and I will never forget once being mistaken for an archivist when researching in Belgium, where I was mistakenly hurried into a frenzied meeting conducted in Flemish where I had no idea what was going on. With Black History Month on the horizon, I am sad to say that meeting professors of history who were Black proved an equally unusual experience, for it has only occurred once. There are so few Black professors in British academia that my experience is probably hardly unusual, not just in history departments, but across academic schools and faculties across the UK.  The paucity of Black professors highlights not just the systemic under-representation of Black communities in British academia, but, in historical circles at least, reflects more generally the lack of professional and popular attention awarded to the history of Black people in Britain and underlines the continuing need for Black History Month.

The reason why my meeting a Black professor of history was a singular experience was because there was only Black history professor employed at a history department at a British university in the mid-2010s: Hakim Adi, Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Adi once (very briefly) and listening to him present twice on the challenges of writing and teaching African history and the history of the African diaspora in British academia. He spoke eloquently and powerfully and I could repeat many of his insights here, but I will limit myself to one of his points—a point that caused me to reflect on my own practice as an historian and change (I hope) for the better. Professor Adi spoke of how western academic historians regularly used the term ‘tribe’ to describe both historical and contemporary African political and social communities, a term that they deployed incorrectly in an archaic sense to suggest a primitive and unsophisticated society. Yet when the same western academic historians came to describe their own societies, either historically or in the present-day, the term ‘tribe’ would never be seen, even though the European communities they studied existed in the same era with similar technologies and cultural and religious traits as the polities and units they labelled ‘tribes’ in Africa. Instead, terms such as ‘nation’ or ‘duchy’ or ‘kingdom’, or, more rarely, ‘kindred’ or ‘clan’, appeared, words with more positive and sophisticated connotations. Professor Adi argued that this trend in terminology represented one of the many ways in which African history and the history of African peoples was (intentionally or not) intrinsically denigrated, with the vibrant and culturally and religiously diverse historical communities of the continent implicitly relegated in status and importance below more important and supposedly ‘advanced’ European communities. I realise that I had inherited this terminological split from my own reading and research and parroted it myself in my teaching, ignorant of the connotations and consequences, and vowed to be more careful in how I described different historical communities in the future.

Although I can only write from my own perspective, I bet that my singular experience of meeting and listening to a Black professor in my field is highly unlikely to be discipline specific. The under-representation of Black people is particularly acute in history departments, but it remains an endemic issue throughout British academia. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), for example, only 160 of the 22,855 professors employed at universities in the UK in 2020-2021 were Black. News pieces rightly seized on this piece of data (click here for one example), noting how the fact that only 1% of the professoriate was Black shed a deeply negative light on the staff profile and recruitment patterns of universities in the UK. But that is with the figure rounded up! The statistical reality is even worse: 160 of 22,855 is roughly 0.7%, well below 1%. If you rounded to the closest half-percentage point, then the real headline should be that 0.5% of the British professoriate are Black.

Given these statistics, I am glad that Surrey is investing its own money and resources in trying to improve opportunities for individuals from Black communities to enter and establish themselves in British academia. One of the most enjoyable things about returning to work in the office (in my case, the Doctoral College’s rooms on the fifth floor of the library) is that I usually sit next to my colleague Dr Jay Rowe, a Research Fellow in the Doctoral College who manages the Surrey Black Scholars programme. The programme’s initial tagline was ‘Fixing the broken pipeline’, with the aim to award around 30 scholarships to Black British students to undertake PhDs, with tailored support built in to help the scholars secure a postdoctoral fellowship or permanent lectureship. Incremental change in creating a more inclusive cultural and academic environment at British universities will be important in fixing the so-called ‘broken pipeline’ that prevents Black British students from establishing themselves in academia, but universities should also never lose sight of the need to invest focused resources and money into supporting initiatives aimed at widening access to academic careers.

There is, thankfully, at least one more Black professor of history employed within a history department in the UK now since I met Professor Adi. David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, may be known to many, with his frequent media appearances and impressive array of publications. He recently played an important role in the BBC’s coverage of HM The Queen’s funeral, providing much-needed imperial context in the commentary accompanying the state procession, highlighting the not always positive significance of Elizabeth II’s reign for the African and Asian colonies that successfully broke away from British imperial rule and established their independence during the monarch’s lifetime.

As a final comment and as a former historian, I am very happy to write that here at Surrey in October we will have the benefit of hosting two talks given by leading academics as part of Black History Month, organised by Dr Rowe as part of the Surrey Black Scholars programme: Professor Keon West on the 4th October and Dr Emily Zobel Marshall on the 14th October. You can book your places now.

Mark Whelan

Researcher Development Training Officer

Doctoral College