A.S. Francis is writing Black history, like it or not

Students of African history and anticolonial resistance found themselves fighting their own university after it silently cancelled their course and fired their supervisor.

by Jay Richardson
31 August 2023

On 16 June this year, Dr Claudia Tomlinson earned her PhD. She became the first graduate of the University of Chichester’s MRes in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora to complete a doctoral course at the same university, under the same supervisor: Professor Hakim Adi. 

Less than a month later, a petition titled ‘Stop University of Chichester’s axing of the MRes History of Africa & the African Diaspora’ started circulating on Twitter. University administrators had told Professor Adi they’d cancelled recruitment for the course—including the cohort due to start this September—and that his tenure might go with it.

At one point, university administrators asked him to crowdfund to save the course; Professor Adi told the Voice he’d “never been so insulted.” The university has cited the course’s cost as a reason for closing it, while basic pay for the Vice Chancellor, urban historian Professor Jane Longmore, rose by over 6 percent to £185,000 in 2022. The University and College Union said it’s “disappointed at the way in which the university has chosen to tie Professor Adi’s employment to this Master’s course,” which started several years after he arrived at Chichester.

The university told the Voice it would start a “full teach-out programme” to let current students finish their studies with a different supervisor. In an open letter, two current PhD students said they’re “not convinced that any person within the University or outside of it has the expertise required.” Asked who would deliver the teaching, University of Chichester spokesperson Claire Andrews said: “It remains inappropriate to comment further on any individual’s employment status due to the confidential nature of such matters, which are ongoing.”

Andrews said conversations with Professor Adi resulted in “no viable counter-proposals or solutions” to save the course, but that “until this process had concluded it was not appropriate to discuss the matter with students” because of the “potential for different outcomes.”

On 25 August, Professor Adi’s redundancy was announced—not by the University of Chichester but by History Matters, an education non-profit he leads. To date, the university has not publicly announced any changes to the course or to Professor Adi’s position, except in comments to the press. History Matters said Professor Adi’s expertise had been a “large source of recruitment and publicity” for the university, and called the redundancy “a clear attack on the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain and globally.” In an Instagram video on 29th August, Professor Adi said: “I want to make it very, very clear to everybody that this is not the end of things. Our struggle continues.” 

Last week, I met A.S. Francis, a doctoral candidate at Chichester under Professor Adi’s supervision. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your PhD about?

It’s about women who were involved in Black radical organisations in Britain during the 1960s into the ‘80s. I’m going into what I’m hoping is my final year, which is my sixth because I’m doing it part time, but obviously this whole thing throws that up into the air.

Who are you looking at and where are you finding the sources?

I’m starting with the emergence of Black Power in the mid-‘60s, and that gradually moves into the development of autonomous Black women’s groups as they separated, or multiplied, from the mixed-gender Black organisations they were part of. But I guess the political influences for a lot of these groups were Marxist Leninism, Pan-Africanism, socialist orientations—and of course Black feminism.

Is it fair to say their history is underappreciated?

It is, yes, 100 percent. Well, certainly I think so. In the last few years, there’s been a lot of improvement, and that’s down to researchers who’ve begun an interest and started recovering it—but it is very much a process of recovery because the history has been hidden and lost in so many different ways. 

For me, one of the key sources is oral history. I’ve done a number of interviews with women who were activists at the time, and I’m supplementing that with a lot of archival research.

When you say it’s “hidden and lost,” I’m imagining there’s not much of an institutional support structure to archive the documentation around the movements. But do you also find a deliberate process of erasure?

I think that comes up in different ways. If we take somewhere like the National Archives as an example, things that are deposited or not deposited there are a good indication of the way the powers that be handle certain histories. Claudia Jones is one of the women I look at. She would have been very heavily surveilled by MI5 and others, and so there would have been massive records on her, but the amount that’s in places like the National Archives is indicative of how much has been destroyed and redacted. Then you have the other side of the coin, which is misogynist narratives of history. When the Black Power movement especially is written about or documented, it’s very much from the perspective of the men who were involved, and kind of gives the impression that there weren’t that many women around, or if there were, they were in the background doing something less important. That’s the other struggle. What has been documented is not entirely accurate and fair.

Claudia Jones (date unknown; probably between 1936 and 1955). Wikimedia Commons.
Claudia Jones (date unknown, probably between 1936 and 1955). Wikimedia Commons.

Is that partly down to how the history has been written by previous generations of historians?

That’s a good question, because you could ask: is it deliberate or is it just subconscious? In some cases I think it is deliberate, because I mean, I’m not going to name the figures, but I think some of them have had the means to write about the history themselves, they’ve gotten into certain positions where they’re able to present themselves as a leading figure. And that comes down to the resources they have compared to other people who are not so easily able to tell their story. It’s the general case that women are marginalised across all aspects of history, but it really shows up in narratives of Black activism.

Have you been surprised by the University’s approach to this?

All of it, yeah. Because just thinking about where Professor Adi is in his career, he’s really one of the stand-out academics, maybe the stand-out academic at the university. You’d think that with his stature comes a level of safety and that being a Professor comes with a level of safety. And the amount he’s done for the university, in building a reputation for one of the biggest postgraduate History cohorts of people of African descent, having a really unique, one-of-a-kind Master’s course—this is really something that they could have used to elevate the university, and could have got so much recruitment from, and they’ve decided to do the exact opposite. I’m also surprised because when I was an undergraduate student, you get the feeling Chichester is a very supportive atmosphere. It’s a very small university so there’s this community feel you don’t get, maybe, with bigger city universities. It’s been completely baffling in that sense.

In another sense, it’s not so surprising—if we think about the wider context of higher education and what happened with the Black [British] History MA at Goldsmiths, what’s happening in America with Black history and the way it’s treated, or just any kind of marginalised history. It’s following a trend.

Were you conscious of that when you started your PhD?

I don’t think so as much, because it felt like the start of a new beginning. It was about six years ago and there were very small advances being made. It felt like sometimes these histories were being co-opted, and universities were talking about equality, diversity, and suddenly it was really cool, so you felt like maybe we could use that to our advantage—and it’s gone completely the opposite way. I think a lot of universities have said, ‘Well, we’ve done that now. Let’s move on to the next thing.’

What’s going to happen to your PhD?

At this point I can’t answer that. I actually don’t know.

So you don’t know if you’ll continue next year?

Well, I will continue. I don’t know where I’ll be, but I’m going to finish the PhD. And I ideally want the person who I sought out as my supervisor to remain my supervisor. There’s no one at the University of Chichester with his level of knowledge, or specialism, who could replace him. If he is to leave, or he is to be made to leave, the University risks also losing that whole cohort of Black PhD History students. It’ll be a very bad look for them and I’m sure they’ll come to realise it at some point, but at the moment it seems they’re committed to shooting themselves in the foot.

What’s your sense of the general mood amongst the PhD and MRes cohorts?

There’s a lot of anger towards the university and unity between us all, because we’re all in the same boat. I think we’re just very invigorated to keep the campaign going and find a solution and support Professor Adi, to stand in solidarity with him. We’re all on that same page.

I’m curious about the way the work that is, or was, being done at Chichester is remaking the field—changing what gets published, what gets read, what gets taught. Can you see the decision having a material impact on the direction of the field as a whole?

Yeah, absolutely. It completely removes a really vital pathway that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the UK. Without that, I think we’ll go backwards in a lot of ways. There was a conference called the History Matters Conference in 2015. History Matters was investigating the really low numbers of people of African descent who were being trained as history teachers, lecturers, PhD students. At the time, and I think still today, history was the third-least popular subject among young Black people at university level. In 2016 there were less than 10 Black PhD History students in the UK. But Professor Adi has this developing cohort, and he has 11 PhD History students himself, so already we’ve doubled that number.

The aim of the MRes is to ready people for PhD study, if that’s what they want to go into, so that’s been slashed. If it doesn’t exist and if no other university picks it up then I think the history field is kind of screwed. That’s the only way I can put it, really.

What’s your experience of history at school? Because mine was very much like, Romans, Tudors, World War I, World War II, that’s kind of it. The narrative I’m seeing in some outlets is that this will harm the field of African history and the history of the African diaspora, and while I’m sure that’s true, I also wonder if it will harm the field of history.

The thing is, there’s so much that needs to be improved upon at a school level, and this was one way in which we were encouraging a positive development. Because I’m sure many people who have studied with Hakim will go on to teach. So you’re losing teachers. But also, when you’re at school and you’re a person of African descent and you’re sat in your history class and you’re just learning about, as you say, the Romans, the Tudors, you think, ‘Well, I don’t exist in history. Where am I? I don’t understand.’ That’s a really dangerous precedent, and it’s not only for people of African descent. It’s for anyone who thinks, ‘So, have Black people just not existed? And they suddenly appeared in today’s society?’ 

It also throws up all kinds of issues with racism today. One of the key demands of the Black Lives Matter movement was more education around Black history, because how are we going to enter an anti-racist society if we’re actively removing an entire section of people from our history books, or not including them? It’s part of reparative justice to ensure there’s coverage of people of all different backgrounds in history. To remove a pathway for people to go into education and to improve the curriculum and to have a positive impact on young people is just so dangerous.

What was your experience of studying history at school?

I have always been really interested in history, even though I didn’t always feel represented by it, so I stuck with it, and it was when I chose GCSE History that I encountered the Martin Luther Kings and Malcom X’s of the world. But that’s from a US perspective, so again, it’s giving young people the impression that all these things happened in a completely different area, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t have any of that happening in England, there was no civil rights movement, there were no key activists like Malcolm X, it’s just something that happened over there.’ It has this off-putting effect on young people. When they get to the stage of choosing what they want to do for university, a lot of people will say, ‘Well, I’m not doing history, because what does it have to do with me?’ And that’s how it’s become the third-least popular subject among young Black people. 

For me, it had the inverse effect, in that I thought, ‘This is my chance to uncover all the things I want to uncover.’ And Chichester was unique in that it had someone in post who was teaching on Africa, African anticolonialism, Pan-Africanism, all these things that I didn’t really understand but just knew I wanted to find out more about. So again, even though I didn’t know who he was, I was attracted to what Hakim was teaching. And without the whole cohort at Chichester, it’s going to be really sad for prospective students. They’re just not going to have those same options.

‘Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain,’ edited by Hakim Adi with contributions by A.S. Francis and Claudia Tomlinson, is now out from Pluto Press.

A.S. Francis’s ‘Gerlin Bean: Mother of the Movement’ is available on pre-order from Lawrence Wishart and will be released on 16 October.

Related

Francis, A.S. (forthcoming, October 2023). Gerlin Bean: Mother of the Movement. Lawrence Wishart.

Adi, Hakim, ed. (2023). Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain. Pluto Press.

Francis, A.S. & Kelly Foster / British Library / Black women activists in Britain

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