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Making history: Olivette Otele – The UK’s first black female professor of history

Recognised for her world-class research on transnational and European colonial and post-colonial history, Bath Spa University’s Olivette Otele recently became the first black female professor of history in the UK. But why has it taken so long? Jessica Hope caught up with the academic

Despite being recognised as the first black female professor of history in the UK, Bath Spa University’s Olivette Otele has faced criticism from a number of fellow academics following her recent promotion. While some have cited not having a long list of publications to her name as a reason for not deserving this promotion, others have ignorantly suggested her professorship has only been awarded because of her race and gender.

Otele took to Twitter to speak out against what she called the “stuffy white men” who have lambasted her behind closed doors. She didn’t want to respond by naming and shaming these academics in public, so instead took to social media to voice her frustration and validate why and how she has gained this promotion. In a thread of tweets Otele addressed her “fellow women academics working hard in many ways w/o recognition” and, through listing her tireless job commitments, demonstrated how hard work can indeed lead to the recognition many academics deserve – especially those who are often overlooked in intellectual positions, most notably women and black and ethnic minorities.

As well as becoming a professor of history in October, Otele was awarded a personal Chair position by Bath Spa University in recognition of her work, which has included securing millions of pounds worth of grants for research projects in recent years. And to add to her list of achievements this year, she was also named in the BBC’s 100 Women 2018 list of inspiring and influential women from around the world in November.

Her promotion caused a wave of celebrations on Twitter when more than 8,000 people liked Otele’s tweet announcing her new position, many of whom recognising this as a significant milestone for black people and for female academics.

Following the announcement, Bath Spa University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Sue Rigby said “If this well-merited promotion also plays a small part in correcting the under-representation of women and people of colour in UK universities, then we are delighted to be able to do this, it is not before time.”

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 25% of all professors in UK institutions were female in 2016/17. As a result, the news of Otele’s promotion was especially welcomed by notable historians including Janina Ramirez, Kate Williams and Helen Castor. “I have had outstanding support from very powerful and high profile women over the last year or so,” says Otele. And despite the criticisms, she has been bowled over by the amount of support she has received. “We focus a lot on the negatives, but the kindness and warmth of people can also be forgotten in the midst of all this,” she says.

“It happens to most women, and even more to black women. But what is the alternative? For me, as a black woman, do I just give up? I can’t do that.”

Specialising in areas such as European colonial and post-colonial history, slavery, memory and politics, Otele is an eminent historian and expert in her field of study, yet throughout her career she has experienced racism and sexism. “I am more or less expecting it all the time,” Otele tells me.

“It started when I was doing my PhD, with the kind of history I was doing, because I am a black woman people said this isn’t the type of history I should be doing because I would be biased. But then again with my other interests in history like the French Revolution, other people would say that I can’t do that kind of history because it’s not really ‘my history’.”

It was these kinds of comments that drove Otele to work harder and prove a point to those who doubted her ability to become an academic. “It’s unfair because it means that the recognition only comes after you work harder than anyone else, and you get half of the reward. It happens to most women, and even more to black women. But what is the alternative? For me, as a black woman, do I just give up? I can’t do that.”

Otele was born in Cameroon, before moving to Paris when she was a child, and often visited Wales to see extended family members, as well as travelling to Cameroon to see her beloved grandmother. It was during these holidays that she became increasingly engaged in history. Her grandmother would sit her by the fire and recall stories from the past, many of which would have been influenced by family stories of Cameroon being under British, French and German rule. “She would tell us these stories, many of them very scary. But it was the reality of her life, growing up in Cameroon and going through different regimes,” she says.

After completing her BA in literature and history from the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris in 1998, Otele’s decision to study history for her MA and PhD came from, as she describes, “this urge related to social justice. I wanted to understand the root of racism and discrimination – this idea of hating someone for something they are not responsible for, something that is incredibly random.”

With her grandmother’s stories clear in her mind, Otele wanted to deepen her knowledge of colonial history and the domination of the British and French empires on the world in past centuries, but knew that this would be a difficult subject to explore. “This is horrible history. It really shows the extent of human wickedness, greed and violence. When I was doing my PhD, it was probably the most difficult time because I would be in the archives reading examples of torture being greatly described. But it also taught me a lot about survival.”

It is this notion of perseverance that Otele has had to champion throughout her studies and career. After six years of commuting between Paris and Newport, Wales (where her family and children live) for her PhD and work, as well as juggling a job as a teaching fellow at Bath Spa University, she secured a full-time position as a senior lecturer in Bath in 2013.

Otele enthuses about teaching students at Bath Spa University. “My work is really articulated around memory, history and the past, so I love teaching history covering long periods of time. You’re showing the students the ramifications of the past on the present,” she says.

“…because I am a black woman people said this isn’t the type of history I should be doing because I would be biased.”

“A lot of young people are interested in history, but they don’t actually know it is history when they are speaking about it. When we talk about parliament and Brexit, the set up of the EU, or when you talk about the NHS and health, it seems to me that everything that matters to people is all related to things that have happened in the past. There is a history behind it all and it impacts on where we are now.”

This is a key element to the teaching at Bath Spa University. “On the history course we challenge the current political contexts by looking back at the past and bring in the historical context,” says Otele.

Showing how the past has impacted on the present is key to much of Otele’s work, both for the university and outside it. Since 2007 she has been considered an expert by the French government on the concept of how memory, politics and slavery intertwine, and her PhD became compulsory reading for trainee teachers in France as part of their examination process. Otele has also been instrumental in securing vast sums of money for projects such as SLAFNET, which looks into slavery in Africa and the connections between European and African communities, and she is also researching how Afro-Caribbean and African communities have settled in Wales in the 21st century.

What does she hope to achieve with her new professorship? “I really want to be able to set up mentorship and funding for people who need it the most,” says Otele. “Figures show that the majority of the black population are working class, so I want to secure funding to support people who have no means, and who don’t believe that they can achieve.” Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, this is another project that Otele will be working hard to bring to fruition in the future.

This will be the next challenge on Otele’s hands – all while conducting imperative historical research, addressing her critics, bringing up her children, teaching and finding any waking hour to apply for more grants. If anyone has proven they are worthy of such a promotion, Professor Otele has warranted it in leaps and bounds.