Hakim Adi

History matters

Hakim Adi 16 9Professor Hakim Adi is an award-winning historian. He was the first historian of African heritage to become a professor of history in Britain when he was appointed Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester in 2015. In 2018 he launched the world’s first online MRes in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora which trained many students including six currently engaged in PhD research. In August 2023 the University of Chichester suspended all recruitment to the MRes and terminated Hakim’s employment.

Hakim was instrumental in the founding of the History Matters initiative in 2014 and is also the founder and consultant historian of the Young Historians Project

His most recent books are Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939; and Pan-Africanism: A History. His latest publication Africa and Caribbean People in Britain: A History was shortlisted for the prestigious Wolfson History Prize in Britain in September 2023.

Can you please give us an introduction to your work and tell us why you wanted to study in this field?

My most recent work is entitled African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History. Much of my work has been on the African diaspora in Britain but I have also written extensively on Pan-Africanism and on African anti-colonial activity more broadly. I have also written on the impact of Communism on Africa and the African diaspora. In short, I’m interested in the conditions for the total liberation of Africa and Africans and so that is what I have researched and written about. In addition, growing up and being educated in Britain, I’m also concerned with the Eurocentrism that exists within education in this country (and more widely) and especially its impact on the study of history. When I was at school, we learned nothing about Africa or Africans. While at university, where I studied African History, it was often presented from a Eurocentric perspective. So, I’ve tried to develop work inside and outside the academy that addresses these issues, including the distinct lack of historians of African and Caribbean heritage in this country.

Could you please tell us about your contribution to knowledge?

My contribution to knowledge has mainly been to counter the prevailing Eurocentrism that exists regarding the history of Britain, which has hitherto largely excluded those of African and Caribbean heritage. I have also focused on the interconnection between the history of the African continent and the African diaspora, histories which have often been regarded as totally separate in academia. In addition, my aim has been to present historical research for the general reader, including children. My books have been translated into several European languages and, most recently, into Arabic.

However, this contribution involves not only writing books and articles, but also lectures and public speaking, as well as campaigning for a change in attitudes towards history more broadly and encouraging a broader interest and engagement from those of African and Caribbean heritage, who have been alienated from the study of history by the prevailing Eurocentrism. For that reason I was one of the founders of the Black and Asian Studies Association in 1991, the History Matters initiative in 2014 and the Young Historians Project in 2015

Could you tell us about your new book and why you wanted to write it?

My most recent book African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History, was commissioned by Allen Lane and the publishers approached me. However, I wanted to write it as I’ve been working in the field for nearly 40 years, and it was an opportunity to present a summation of my work over that period. I also thought that there was a lack of material for a general audience. Peter Fryer’s book Staying Power was written in the 1980s and there has been much more research since that time. My aim was to summarise that research, hopefully in a comprehensive and readable way.

What knowledge or insights have you gained from your research that you wish you known when you started?

I think that the more you know, the more you realise that you don’t know. So that’s very useful. I suppose one very obvious insight is that all history is interconnected and so there is always more to learn, to deepen our understanding of things. The other thing I’ve learned is to keep going and never give up. One of my books took ten years to research and several different publishers before it saw the light of day. It’s important to keep going and not worry if others work in the same field, indeed that’s often helpful.

What about your area of study do you wish more people knew?

All of it! History is about change and the role that humans play in that change, the centrality of Africans and those of African heritage in human history is often distorted, or hidden, in such a way that we are hindered from fully understanding the world in which we live, how if might be changed, what role we can all play, that all humans are equally important etc. Regarding the history of Britain, some key episodes involving Africans, but also working people, including women, are simply removed from sight and instead we are presented only with the narrative of the white men of property. These are just some of the areas that everyone needs to know more about.

How has your background and ethnicity influenced your work?

Undoubtedly being of African heritage has. I started studying or reading about history when I was a very young child but, by the time I was a teenager, I read it to find answers to the issues and questions that confronted me on a daily basis, such as racism. Why was only certain history taught and written about, why did it not include Africa and Africans etc? I decided at that young age that I would study the history of Africa and become a history teacher to try to help other young people avoid the experiences I had at school. I’m still trying to fulfil that aim.

What’s your view of history and the study of history?

History is the study of social change and the role that humans play in that social change, whether environmental, economic, or political. The fact that change is not just possible by inevitable is an important lesson from history. History also teaches that that all humans are equally important, and that everyone has a history. I’m particularly interested in the centrality of Africans and those of African heritage in human history and the need to combat Eurocentric distortions of history so that we are not hindered from fully understanding the world in which we live. History is also contested, particularly at present but I think that history should be written from the perspective of the many not the few.

If you had infinite time and resources what understudied area would you want to research?

The impact of the Cold War on Africa’s anti-colonial struggle – a very important subject that I have been working on for some years but limited time and resources, as well as other book projects have prevented me from getting as far as I would wish.

The African diaspora in Latin America – a very important part of the diaspora, including such countries as Brazil and Cuba where some of my work has been translated and published, but where I’ve done very limited work and would wish to do more, not least because in many countries in this region, the African diaspora has in recent years been making its voice heard more vociferously regarding its political, economic and historical marginalisation.

How would you like to see the study of history and academia change in the future?

Academia is often very undemocratic, Eurocentic and discriminatory at present as my recent sacking by the University of Chichester has shown. There are very few academic historians of African and Caribbean heritage, and relatively few students of that heritage studying history so that is a major problem to be overcome. I was the first person of African heritage to become a professor of history in the county. Doesn’t that speak volumes? When we established the MRes in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora it made a significant difference. Within a few years, we produced seven Black PhD students, two of whom had book contracts even whilst still students. So, it is possible to make changes but of course, that initiative was terminated in the most discriminatory fashion. We have made similar efforts with the Young Historians Project which encourages young people of African and Caribbean heritage to engage with history. One of YHP’s first members received her PhD last year and we have several others who will soon be equally successful. It is always possible to make changes but it is necessary to take measures to solve the problem and not give up when the powers that be are not supportive. Just like every other area academic history is undergoing change and the young historians who are emerging need to be supported and encouraged to continue to struggle for change.

What do you see as the value of diverse perspectives in history?

For too long history has been dominated by one perspective, that of the white men of property. Amongst other things, they expressed the view that Africa had no history and therefore Africans had no history, whether in Africa or Britain. Such views are completely erroneous. This Eurocentrism also removes women, working people and others from being the makers of history. In other words, it’s a complete distortion of reality. But if we study history to understand not only the past but the present world in which we live, it is evident that we cannot accept such distortions. To understand what is happening in Gaza or Ireland we must study the facts of history, then everything is crystal clear. Diverse perspectives really mean that nobody should be excluded from history. For example, we need to know in the 18th century that there was a mass movement in this country against racism and human trafficking involving millions of working people, women, Africans etc until it was suppressed by the government of the day. It was one of the earliest and biggest mass political movements in Britain’s history so why should it be hidden, whose interests does that serve?

Which African Thinkers and/or books by African authors would you recommend people read?

There are so many:

Yolande Mukagasana, Not My Time to Die.

Zohra Drif, Inside the Battle of Algiers.

Nawal el Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire

Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source

There are also important books in which African oral sources are gathered such as Jenny Hammond’s Sweeter Than Honey