Carolynn Look, BA Chinese and Development Studies
As many at SOAS are (or should be) aware, October is not merely a month of beer drinking, workload meltdowns, and costume preparation. It is also officially known as “Black History Month”, with the event’s name itself begging the question whether one month is really enough for a topic with such significance.
The problem with this monthly attribution, as Learning Advisor Carol John pointed out at a panel discussion on black representation in academia at SOAS, is that Black History should be remembered 365 days a year, rather than shoved into a narrow time bracket; this renders it easy to ignore throughout the remaining 11 months.
Besides Carol, three other panellists were invited to share their views at a discussion that took place in the JCR on the 7th of October . Louise Egbunike, a former SOAS PhD graduate, in conjunction with Yovanka Perdigao, a recent postgraduate student, offered insights into the current situation that black students encounter at SOAS. Dr Hakim Adi, who attended SOAS as one of very few black students in the 1970s, and is now a historian at the University of Chichester, also participated in this debate.
Dr. Adi claims that African underrepresentation has always been a problem at SOAS, and that only few significant changes have been made to this day. When he first came to SOAS in 1976, the way in which African history was problematic; the material focused on history from 6 billion B.C. and was highly Eurocentric. There were no African teachers, and even African languages were taught by an English expert. Only once did he encounter a black academic at SOAS, and she was a visiting scholar from the United States.
“SOAS has a focus on Africa, but not on Africans,” Dr. Adi believes, adding that African diaspora or achievements hardly have a place at the university.
Carol John, a Learning Advisor at SOAS’ Disability and Dyslexia Service, claims that back when she was an undergraduate, SOAS was seen as “that colonial centre,” and not a place where black students chose to study.
Even these days, Carol has become increasingly aware of how disenfranchised and unhappy black students have felt with certain aspects of the curriculum. According to her, many have felt so distressed at the objectification in discussion of politics and issues of African countries at SOAS that they have left the institution. In fact, two PhD students weren’t able to complete their degrees because their views and sources were not consistent with what was being taught.
“SOAS owes a debt to Africa,” Carol claims, and yet she finds that, although it is the “O” in SOAS that is constantly being negotiated in terms of its political correctness, it is the “A” that is constantly being under acknowledged, underfunded, and pushed out.
Yovanka, a recent postgraduate, claims to have only been taught by one black professor in her four years at SOAS, and that the “lack of diversity in the academic realm was and is appalling.” She is therefore in the process of setting up “Alternative Curriculum”; a society with the aim of challenging Eurocentric perspectives and showing SOAS that there is a demand for classes on post-colonialism.
“Everyone who comes to SOAS thinks they’re coming to something different from what it is,” Dr. Adi explained towards the end of the discussion, telling the audience that he had recently discouraged a friend’s daughter from attending SOAS on the basis of that impression.
Many students in the audience shared stories that seemed to have a lot in common with those of the panellists. Especially noteworthy was the fact that, for the second year in a row, the African law course has been cancelled, despite many students coming to SOAS specifically for an opportunity to study this field.
This year’s SU Black Officer, Manuela Schwarz, who is organising the events surrounding Black History Month, reflected that “the panel showed that there has been a problem with representation at SOAS for years now and that only few things have changed. Conversations with black first year students have revealed that the lack of or biased representation is a problem from the beginning, so I hope we can come together as a whole and start a campaign to #ReclaimTheA in SOAS.”
“Black History Month is important because the fact that we still need it reinforces the fact that so-called ‘black’ history has not yet become part of mainstream history,” she adds.
“The fact that this year at SOAS there is a focus on writing women into the narratives of ‘black’ history and culture is incredibly important, because the figures often highlighted are male and this is an opportunity to break with the mainstream in both general and ‘black’ history.”
For more details regarding events within Black History Month, please visit the SOAS BME Network’s Facebook page.