Written by:
Hannah Francis

Sidelining Black British history 

Read time:
7 minutes

Sidelining Black British history 

On 25 August, the University of Chichester officially announced it was axing its groundbreaking MRes (research masters) course on the history of Africa and the African diaspora and making Professor Hakim Adi – the first Black professor of this subject in the UK – redundant. Current students and graduates of the course – including the Runnymede Trust’s Hannah Francis – had been notified that this devastating move was under consideration the previous month. In this personal response, she writes about why Professor Adi’s work and course are so vital.

The stated rationale behind the University of Chichester’s decision is one that we have heard time and again about vital higher education courses that go beyond the Eurocentric memorialisation of British histories: the institution claimed that the course had not recruited enough students to financially justify its continued existence. As with the threatened axing of the MA in Black British studies at Goldsmiths University, London in 2021, Chichester’s decision appears to value Black British history merely as a money-making scheme – once it stops generating revenue for the institution, it is cast away. 

The decision was made as Chichester’s vice chancellor, Professor Jane Longmore, saw a recent salary increase of more than 6 per cent, which indicates that she now earns £185,000 per year; the average salary at the university is recorded to be £24,000. The institution has also come under fire for taking this action without consulting – or even informing in advance – Professor Adi. 

As the Guardian reported on 23 July: ‘[A] spokesperson said the university had made the difficult decision to suspend or close a number of postgraduate courses that were not viable as the cost of delivery outweighed the income from fees received. The MRes in the history of Africa and the African diaspora was suspended after a review by the curriculum planning committee. The spokesperson added: “Since the programme launched in 2017, the university has invested over £700,000 into the delivery of this programme but has only received £150,000 of tuition fees during this same time period.”’

The idea for the course initially emerged as a recommendation from a 2015 conference by the History Matters group, which was founded the previous year in response to the alarming lack of Black history teachers in further and higher education. The conference took place at the Institute of Historical Research in cooperation with the Black Cultural Archives, the University of Chichester, the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and other partners. It aimed to investigate what could be done to increase both Black students and teachers to undertake and teach history: the MRes was a key part of this initiative. 

Intended to mainly train mature students of African and Caribbean heritage as historians, many people of all ages – from Africa, the Caribbean, North America and Hong Kong, as well as from the UK – went on to study the course. Seven have gone on to undertake studies at PhD level, six at the University of Chichester. The course serves histories that are currently underserved in the UK and its institutions: the histories of Black people and members of the African diaspora in Britain.

‘The course serves histories that are currently underserved in the UK’ 

As a person of mixed Black Caribbean and white heritage, I grew up in a nuclear, high-earning middle-class family in a town in southeast England of almost 18,000 people, less than 1 per cent of whom were Black. From a young age, we experienced racist incidents, particularly when my sister and I were at school, and it became something we felt hyper aware of, as well as the town’s highly prevalent and visible class divide. It was very isolating, but learning history became a means to alleviate this isolation and find community. 

Having been able to attend university at 18, it was important for me to undertake a course that would teach me the value of historical record, memorialisation, and what it means to be of mixed heritage and part of a system of institutions that are overtly racist, as well as reflect more on my own privileged class position and intersecting parts of my identity.

After completing my undergraduate study, I scheduled a call with Professor Adi and subsequently enrolled on his course. Despite Chichester’s seemingly lacklustre reputation as an academic institution and its scant marketing of the course, the MRes still drew a wide range of students from a variety of backgrounds, each of whom brought their own life experiences to the programme of study. 

During the peak of the pandemic, Professor Adi helped my cohort of over half a dozen students to access free online resources, contact Black-led archives such as the George Padmore Institute and the Black Cultural Archives, and stay motivated to keep writing our history. Not the celebration of Black celebrity and capitalistic ventures, nor the typical focus upon slavery as the start and end of Black History, but the achievements of working class, unemployed and poor Black people fighting the state to better the conditions for us all. 

For example, the West African Students Union, which campaigned against the colour bar in Britain and successfully crowdfunded to open a hostel to provide shelter for Africans who could not get housing; Black people experiencing generational mental health problems who continued to advocate for the wellbeing of those that were marginalised in Britain; Black people who had been deported here – such as Claudia Jones, who helped to found the Notting Hill Carnival – but actively engaged with our communities to advance our interests and concretise our presence. 

Just after he was made redundant, Professor Adi was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize’  

Black history – our history – is the belly of Britain, but it is treated almost as if it was a beast we cannot go near. A reminder of Britain’s history of brutal colonial rule, Black history is often skewed and relayed to us by the state in a fashion that posits Britain as an almost benevolent force in the lives of Black people. 

This could not be further from the truth. The axing of the MRes in the history of Africa and the African diaspora is another example of institutions pledging allegiance to Black people in Britain and honouring their presence purely as a box-ticking and money-making exercise, further silencing the contributions, sacrifices and lives of Black people in Britain. 

In response to Professor Adi’s redundancy, a campaign to reinstate him and the course is underway. The campaign group is urging people to show their support by donating what they can to our fundraiser, signing our petition, writing to the university or any other action. 

Just after he was made redundant, Professor Adi's new book, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History, was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. An Evening Standard article on the announcement reported that the University of Chichester had claimed only one graduate had graduated from the course in the last three years. The institution previously made the same claim in a Voice article on 31 August, but it is incorrect – there have been at least three graduates from the course over the last three years, including myself.  

It is deeply ironic that Professor Adi’s contributions are formally recognised by a prestigious history writing prize, just days after his employer was happy to make him redundant. Black history should be visible, studied and celebrated. As much as the University of Chichester – and the UK more generally – may want this to be viewed as a simple financial decision, it is an evident case of discrimination that cannot be swept under the carpet.

The Save MRes Campaign continues.

Hannah Francis is a research analyst at the Runnymede Trust and a graduate of Professor Adi's MRes course on the history of Africa and the African diaspora.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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