A London university has announced it will offer the country’s first postgraduate degree in black British history, starting from September of this year.
Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London, will be introducing the programme of study in September, marking the first time that that a course specifically about black British history is available to study at a postgraduate level at a UK university.
A handful courses looking at different elements of black British history have emerged in recent years, the first being the Black Studies degree at Birmingham City University that opened in September 2017. A Black Humanities course, soon to be available for study at Bristol University.
A Goldsmith College spokesperson said their new course will “serve as a healthy corrective to the prominence of US Civil Rights in the teaching of black history at UK schools and universities”.
The news comes amid increasing scrutiny and concern about the lack of diversity across UK academia.
A recent report on race, ethnicity and equality from the Royal Historical Society (RHS) showed that the number of black and minority ethnic students and staff remains low in UK history departments. Black historians make up less than 1% of UK university-based staff and students and only 11% of History students coming from BME backgrounds, compared to nearly a quarter of all university students
The RHS argues that school and university curriculums which incorporate different and diverse histories are vital for engaging a wider pool of students and future historians, and for improving public understanding of Britain’s past.
“Universities need to do far more to ‘decolonise’ than market courses they think will bring in revenue”
It highlighted racial and ethnic inequalities in the teaching and practice of history in the UK, drawing attention to the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic students and staff in university history programmes, the substantial levels of race-based bias and discrimination experienced by BME historians in UK universities, and the negative impact of narrow school and university curriculums on diversity and inclusion.
Just weeks ago, around 300 academics and activists - under the collective Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) - sent a letter to Edinburgh University, querying its appointment of Celeste-Marie Bernier as the UK’s first Professor of Black Studies in 2016.
Bernier has an extensive and impressive academic career during which she’s penned published work about African history and the transatlantic slave trade; she is also a white woman.
Addressed to the university’s principal, Professor Mathieson, the document read: “Given the current rise in black studies courses in the UK and growing mainstream concern regarding the representation of Black academics in our universities, the signatories to this letter would like to raise a few questions regarding the appointment of Celeste-Marie Bernier as the University of Edinburgh’s first Professor of Black Studies.
“In writing to raise these concerns, we do not wish to impugn Professor Bernier’s work in any way,” they wrote.
Questions were also raised about the recruitment process, in view of speculation that the post was not advertised.
In a response, seen by HuffPost UK, the principal said “I can confirm that the University’s recruitment guidance was followed and that the panel, which included external members, was satisfied that Professor Bernier met the requirements.”
Reacting to news of the new Goldsmiths postgraduate course, Dr. Kehinde Andrews - the professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, who launched the UK’s first undergraduate course – said, “it’s never bad news that new courses are being offered that challenge the white curriculum,” but warned that people should not get carried away with how much change new courses represents.
“The problem with universities is not just the lack of courses on black life, or other topics but also how the mainstream topics like history, psychology, philosophy etc are taught,” he said.
“There are also a wealth of other problems like access and support for students, as well as the attainment gap and marketisation in general. Universities need to do far more to ‘decolonise’ than market courses they think will bring in revenue.
“Over the years I’ve learnt to never to be optimistic about much that universities do; I can’t say that I ever trust universities on issues of blackness,” he added.
“one of the many ways of excluding black academics has been not giving the opportunity to teach the history that’s also related to their heritage.”
Andrews, who is also co-chair of the Black Studies association, says that the ethnicity of the staff teaching the new course is crucial. He believes a black British history MA without black British staff “would, in many ways, be worse than there being no degree at all.”
“I would think for the legitimacy of the course it will need black staff members. One of the dangers of the move to diversify the curriculum has always been that you can do this without changing the make-up of the staff of universities,” said the academic.
When approached for comment, a Goldsmiths spokesperson said that the university is still recruiting for the role, adding that the college is “committed to attracting the best academic staff and doing more to encourage academics from black and ethnic minority backgrounds to come here and support them in their careers.”
Dr. Olivette Otele, Britain’s first black female history professor, is optimistic about Goldsmiths’ new course but believes it should be an opportunity for a black person to teach, because of the lack of black historians across UK university staff.
“I think the concept is fantastic but I don’t know who’s teaching the course and that is something that needs to be looked at,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Of course anybody can teach history or black studies, in an ideal world it should be like that, but we also know that one of the many ways of excluding black academics has been not giving the opportunity to teach the history that’s also related to their heritage.
“The recent Royal Historical Society report showed the importance of people being able to make connections with what speaks to them, their heritage, their identity - and the lack of representation in that area is damaging.”
Dr John Price, head of the Department of History at Goldsmiths, told HuffPost UK: “Although it has been in development for over two years, the launch of the MA Black British History programme is particularly timely given the recent report on race, ethnicity and equality from the Royal Historical Society. The report showed that the number of black and minority ethnic students and staff remains low in UK history departments and we see this MA programme as a positive and proactive move to begin addressing that.
“We are currently in the process of recruiting a new full-time member of staff to convene and teach on the programme and, later in the year, we will also be recruiting a part-time lecturer to support the programme. As with all our appointments, we will be looking to recruit the person most qualified for the job so as to ensure the highest quality learning experience for our students.”
Based in the Department of History, the MA Black British History will run alongside the existing MA History and MA Queer History.
Students enrolled on any of those degrees will have the option to study a Black British History module.