Sunday, December 5

David Olusoga: ‘Blacks were told they had no history’ | David Olusoga


HIstorian and broadcaster David Olusoga has been the face of a decolonial turn in British broadcasting that, in recent years, with series including the Bafta winner BritForgotten slave owners of ain, A house through time and Blacks and Brits: A Forgotten History, has inspired new conversations about injustice in the history of Britain and the British in living rooms across the country. In anticipation of this year’s Black History Month (October), he has contributed a foreword to Hodder & Stoughton’s reissue of The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, the memoirs of an enslaved man of the 18th century which is also widely recognized as a seminal text of British black literature.

What led you to endorse this reissue of Equiano’s memoirs?
It is a book that I read in college and that has been a part of my life for 30 years. I think it is the most important of the British narratives of the people who were enslaved. Equiano is someone who managed to get out of slavery, to travel the world as a black person in a time when he could be kidnapped and transported back to slavery. He was a skilled sailor, a political operator. He became a public figure when this country was the largest slave trade nation in the North Atlantic. Many voices emerge from the British slavery experience, but none have the same impact as Equiano.

You have been a key advocate for Black History Month. Because we need Black history? And how would you describe the impact of Black History Month in supporting that need?
Black History Month in Britain has been an astonishing success. It’s an American tradition that started as Black History Week. It was brought to Britain in 1987, so not long ago. Since then we have made it an institution, a part of the British calendar. This is a real achievement. Blacks have their history written, sometimes deliberately, sometimes systematically, of the history of Great Britain because it is the history of slavery and empire and that does not fit the comforting narrative of the island’s history. Blacks were told they had no history, Hegel said Africa is a place without history, and that double act of erasure and denial meant that blacks did not have a history to explain why they were in Britain or what their history had been like. relationship with Great Britain. counterfeit. I think it is tragic and surprising that those 492 people who came down from Windrush in June 1948 and made their homes in London and Bristol and Liverpool did not know that they were making their homes in cities where there had been previous generations of British blacks. – Black Victorians, Black Georgians. Imagine what it may have meant to the Windrush generation, when people said, “What are you doing here, what right do you have to be here, what is your connection to Britain?”, When they faced racism and were told that they belonged in Africa or they had no right to be here. Imagine the strength they could have drawn from that story if it had been known.

Did Black History Month also help articulate a Black British History vs. Imported African American History?
Yes, and this has been the true evolution. I used to go to schools and give talks and see Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, but not Equiano. You would see work done on the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, but the kids had never heard of the Bristol bus boycott. Only in the last five years have we done Black History Month. [into] British Black History Month.

What are the three main titles orn you Black history reading list?
One of the most important books for me personally was Peter Fryer’s book Staying power, which I read when I was 16 years old. Just published [by Pluto Press] with a fantastic foreword by Gary Younge. I’m a big fan of Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black tudor. Sam Selvon’s novel Lonely Londoners It is an incredibly moving and meaningful book that I think, more than anything I have read, can transport you back to the experiences of what it was like to be black in Britain in the early 1950s. And I think we should all read Paul Gilroy. Books like theain’t no black on the union jack. Paul is just a giant figure; I’m afraid we won’t recognize who Paul is until he’s gone. I don’t think a lot of people really understood who Stuart Hall was and what he meant until he left, and I think that happens a lot to black writers. Let them be understood in hindsight. Paul has been terribly neglected by television.

Why do you think it is?
I think there is a subconscious malaise with the idea of ​​black intellectuals. If you go to an American university where Henry Louis Gates teaches, or Cornel West, you have to enter a lottery to move on to those courses. People sneak into those conferences. People also like Michael Eric Dyson. Nikole Hannah-Jones. They are celebrated as black thinkers, black intellectuals. Ibram X Kendi is celebrated. There is a star feeling around these people. We don’t have that. We have never had that.

Not you?
No, I am a television presenter.

Olaudah Equiano:
Olaudah Equiano: “a public figure when this country was the largest slave trade nation in the North Atlantic.” Photograph: World History Archive / Alamy

Who are the contemporary decolonial writers you are most excited about?
One of the great positives of recent years is the number of academics of Indian origin who are studying the British Empire and transforming the field. Priya Satia, with her book Time monster. Sathnam Sanghera with Empireland. Ian Sanjay Patel with We are here because you were there. I long to see black British writers alongside South Asian writers, alongside people from the Caribbean and African American writers making the black British experience more global. To take the life of Equiano, for example, you cannot understand the life of Equiano only in Britain. This is someone who, we believe, was born in Africa, enslaved in the Caribbean, traveled the world and, if not for a decision he made, would have gone to Sierra Leone and possibly died there. This is a global job. He traveled thousands and thousands of miles. He lived much of his life in that great empire of the sea. It is a global and indicative life and typical of what it is to be black and British.

What are you reading right now?
Long after everyone else, I’m reading Afropean by Johny Pitts, I’m rereading The slave ship by Marcus Rediker, because it is an absolutely fantastic book. I have Imperial Nostalgia by Peter Mitchell to start with and I’m reading Hugh Kearney’s book The british islands. I also have my old copy of The Lion and the Unicorn by Orwell, because I keep quoting from him. It’s still horribly relevant and I thought I’d read it all over again for the first time in many years. Orwell had the idea that there was a form of left-wing British patriotism that could be reached in some way. I really hope you are right.

  • The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, with a foreword by David Olusoga, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£ 9.99). To support the guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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