The Erasure of Black History at SOAS

This is an open letter to all students at my university. To start off Black History Month,  I want to address the failures surrounding Black History in an institutional setting.

SOAS has an excellent track record of omitting central points of its history, a history which has paved the way for the campaigns we advocate for today. These campaigns began because of a lack of critical analysis into the structure of SOAS – which if they existed would encourage fruitful conversations surrounding the BME attainment gap, the eradication of the Africa department and the lack of Black professors. The origins of SOAS as a colonial hub, that trained British administrators to learn about the ‘Oriental’ and African colonies across the seas, to which they would go back and enact racist policies that controlled and decimated the culture, population and environment – is not a fact that SOAS owns up to. This knowledge is common among people in an oral form and with a good Google search you might just be able to locate a few archives and facts about this history, but this highlights the fact that the student body is the main, active community where such conversations and remedying actions must happen. The structure of SOAS, comprised as a body made up of management, marketing teams, lecturers and so on, does not collectively use their places of power to counteract the colonial strongholds – particularly within the practices of learning in the classroom. 

The history that is Black around and in SOAS is alive, but there is nothing to show for it. The Black History Walk of SOAS gave students the opportunity to connect with a history that is meaningful and significant.

However, the SOAS body will willingly adopt the campaign of ‘Decolonising’, starting at the premise of a slogan without addressing the fact of its history. This is similar to how the ‘A’ in SOAS was brutally decapitated in 2017 with the closing of the Africa department as part of a restructure which saw the department become a sub-section of the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. More to my main point, the contribution of Black people who studied at SOAS and went on to do wonderful things for the world goes unacknowledged. These histories exist in a bracket near to, yet so distant from the campaigns used for marketing such as Decolonise the Curriculum, and are submerged into a Blackhole. Do not excuse the pun.

This year, a dear colleague and I have set up a society called Art and the African Mind, which aims to educate people about the various facets of African culture through the medium of art. We kicked off with a great Black History Walk of the Soho area, including SOAS, learning about attendees of SOAS such as Walter Rodney and Ivan Van Sertima, who was a Black Guyanese African historian and pioneer of his time. He wrote ‘They Came Before Columbus’, a ground-breaking book that encouraged discourse around African and Caribbean history. Paul Robeson, a multi-talented Black man who was a member of anti-colonial movements in London. Robeson also took classes in Swahili and phonetics at SOAS in 1934,  and was an accomplished linguist, studying other major African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu. However, much of his work was rejected by SOAS for being ‘too radical’. He and many more students of SOAS were part of a collective of Black pioneers who contributed greatly to their fields, transformed conversations and shook up the minds of many. Tell me, where are their names or work in SOAS discourse? You may point out the plaque in honour of Paul Robeson, but if there is no context surrounding it, you may just walk on by because you will never know. Their work, vitality and strength to produce such great acts of history, in a time where racism was much more overt and rife, should be celebrated at SOAS of all places. The omission of Black people, our ancestors, those who came before us and set pace is part of a wider process of profiting off the notoriety and work of those who labour and still manage to thrive. In the aim of progression, why is SOAS still copying and pasting “decolonise”, when the contaminated roots of SOAS are still not being uncovered?  

The situation in SOAS is emblematic of Black history in Britain, a forgotten tale that is erected seemingly when profit looms. The streets are literally flooded with Black history that is unequal and unrecognized yet London can be afforded the title of ‘multicultural’? The Black History Walk we organized, revealed how many of the streets we drive on today in London, were paved with asphalt; a substance that is found in Pitch Lake, in the ex-British colony of Trinidad – toiled for the British, by Black-Trinidadians. The Imperial Hotel which sits across the road from Russell Square denied entrance to Learie Constantine a famous cricketer of the time in 1943, because he was Black. 

Learie Constantine decided to take legal action against Imperial Hotels, this being the main catalyst for the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965. Banks on the streets of London such as Lloyds TSB and Barclays were involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, who compensated slave owners for their loss of ‘property’ after the abolition of Slavery Act, amounting to £17 billion in today’s money. Reparations for the descendants of Caribbean slaves, many of whom consist of the Windrush generation, still only exist as a mere topic of debate. Lastly, without being forgotten, is the British museum – just over 500 metres from SOAS which exhibits stolen African artefacts from when the British raided and looted Benin. These items are the Benin Plaques, displayed on the basement floor of the museum. 

The history that is Black around and in SOAS is alive, but there is nothing to show for it. The Black History Walk of SOAS gave students the opportunity to connect with a history that is meaningful and significant. Knowledge is vital and as long as we exist, knowledge will too. It is up to us to keep it alive.

Lavinya Stenett, Co-Founder of Art and the African Mind

Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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