Written by:
Hannah Francis

‘You have to fight for this history’

Read time:
7 minutes

‘You have to fight for this history’

Professor Hakim Adi’s latest book, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History, is a major new work that provides a fresh perspective on the history of Black people in the UK. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Wolfson History Prize in September, less than a fortnight after Professor Adi’s groundbreaking MRes (research masters) course on the history of Africa and the African diaspora was controversially axed by the University of Chichester. He speaks to the Runnymede Trust’s Hannah Francis – one of his former students – about the book and the campaign to save the course. 

What inspired you to write the book? 

I guess what inspired me was I thought there was a need for such a book. The main aim of it was to produce something that was up to date and could be used by my students and the general public. That’s what usually inspires me, because I think a book is necessary. 

There’s a gap. You know, [it has been] about 40 years really since a comparable book was written: Peter Fryer’s Staying Power was written in 1984. It was a little bit out of date and I wanted to try to update things.

In the opening chapter you quote Fryer: ‘Africans were in Britain before the English came here.’ What is the legacy of this line?

That particular line was actually quoted when we produced a new GCSE module on migration, and a textbook to go along with it, a few years ago. They were reviewed in the Daily Mail of all places [which] quoted all kinds of reactionaries saying, ‘It’s outrageous how people think that Africans are the English.’ 

We didn't say that, but they tried to misquote Fryer, so various people got very upset… But Africans have been in Britain for thousands of years. In the book, I talk about Cheddar Man, the most original Briton in the sense that [his remains are] the oldest remains of a British person. And of course [he] doesn’t look very much like how some people think people in Britain should look. They have to realise everybody in Britain – in fact, everybody in Europe – looked like Cheddar Man 10,000 years ago. 

The other interesting thing is that all these people were immigrants. Cheddar Man was an immigrant, the Angles were immigrants, the Saxons, the Romans… Thinking about those things really helps us to think about the history of Britain in a different way. 

'History is not a neutral discipline' 

Who inspired you during the writing process? 

The person who I would say inspires me the most is Marika Sherwood [a Hungarian-born educator and researcher who, alongside Professor Adi, co-founded the Black and Asian Studies Association in 1991]. She’s largely the unsung hero or heroine of this history. 

In our field, you can’t be a historian who just sits, writing things – you have to be out there, you have to be a fighter, you have to fight for this history. Marika has definitely been that… We’ve lobbied government, we’ve demanded the archives sort themselves out, the libraries, museums, teachers, publishers, everybody. I think that’s very important. 

I say the same to young historians today: you have to fight. History is not a neutral discipline in that way. Particularly this type of history, which is so under attack. Even if you don’t want to, you’re forced by the circumstances to fight.

How can teachers, students and others in education continue to make the presence of black people in Britain more visible?

It goes back to the issue of what is history? Whose history is it? In this country – with all its diversity, its imperial connections with everywhere else in the world, the fact that it has invaded nearly everywhere – it’s very important people understand that. History is the key subject for understanding, for interrogating the way the world is, and drawing the appropriate conclusions. 

It empowers us in the sense that history is about the study of change. And the fact that [change] is made by the majority of people in the world. People are the makers of history…

We have to have a history that includes women, that includes people of African heritage, of Asian heritage, of Caribbean heritage, in order that we can understand the world. The modern world is based on, among other things, the kidnapping and exploiting people of Africa, the exploitation of people and resources of Asia… 

The way we look at what’s going on at the moment in Gaza. If you understand the history, it is absolutely clear what's going on. If you don’t understand it, then you’re going to have all kinds of confusion. And you’re gonna believe what the government says… 

For this reason, it’s very important that teachers, parents, students, fight for and demand a history that helps young people understand the world in which they live and, in that sense, is inclusive.

'The MRes situation is unresolved'

Can you give us a rundown on the state of play with the MRes campaign

The MRes situation is unresolved. I’m unemployed. There are 15 or so postgraduate students without adequate supervision or with no supervision. Their studies have been very severely disrupted for the last six months or so. And the university sector is not doing anything constructive to solve the problem. 

There are three separate court cases pending which the University [of Chichester] will find itself having to deal with very shortly. And we hope that will bring some resolution. There will be a major new fundraising campaign for those cases because legal campaigns, solicitors and barristers cost a lot of money. We rely on people to support us because of the importance of this issue, which we see as a thinly veiled racist attack on our history and on our students. 

We’re also looking to transfer everything [the course and students] to another university – so if anyone’s interested in helping us, they should get in touch. 

Tell us about the third History Matters conference, which takes place on 8-9 November, and your work with the Young Historians Project, which supports the development of young Black historians. 

For the conference we’re calling on all young and emerging historians who are interested in writing something on the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain to send us abstracts (max 350 words): email histmatters@gmail.com by 31 March. 

The Young Historians Project [which Professor Adi co-founded] is coming into the latter stages of a project on Black British history and we’ll [soon] start thinking about the next one. Young people aged 16-25 who are interested can get involved via the website. We are eager to welcome them and involve them in what we’re doing.

What are you working on next? 

African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History isn't available in the US, so that's one thing we’re trying to address. In March, I spoke at the University of Exeter and earlier this month I gave the Bernie Grant Memorial Lecture.

As far as my own work is concerned, I have two writing projects. There is a possibility – I won’t say anymore than this – that I’ll be writing a history of Africa. The other project is also related to Africa, looking at decolonisation and the so-called Cold War period. 

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

African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History is out now. 

The MRes campaign is fundraising for legal fees and for the students affected: click here to donate. To donate to the campaign’s judicial review fundraiser created by Black Equity Organisation, click here.

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

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

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