February 15, 2014.
We have a strong tradition of black thinkers in the UK, yet interest and coverage is rare outside Black History Month
Olaudah Equiano (C 1789) the powerful black intellectual,
who played a role in the abolitionist movement.
(Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
As a pioneer of cultural studies and coiner of the term "Thatcherism", Prof Stuart Hall, who died this week, was in the truest sense a public intellectual. He was also something else: probably the only black British intellectual who most people could readily name.Read the rest here.
A bit of prompting might produce mention of Paul Gilroy of King's College, author of The Empire Strikes Back and Black Atlantic, who has recently returned to Britain after several years in America's more fertile ebony towers. But how many other black British thinkers have a public profile?
When I began writing a book called Black British Intellectuals and Education, even friends sympathetic to the project asked, "Are you sure about the title? What do you mean by black British intellectuals?" This is not a state of affairs Hall would have relished. But let's be clear. Britain has a powerful black intellectual tradition: from Olaudah Equiano and the black anti-slavery campaigners, to those who arrived in the mid-20th century, (think, for instance, of Claudia Jones, founder of the Notting Hill carnival), up to the present day. Yet, Hall and Gilroy aside, most struggle to gain coverage in our classrooms, lecture halls or TV screens. Moreover, while it is certainly not the case that all great intellectuals are academics (the great polymath CLR James, for instance, was not university educated), British academia has offered poor soil for the coming generation of black thinkers.
The division of labour in which blacks entertain and whites think is deeply embedded in western cultures. Britain still seems, even in the 21st century, to struggle with the notion of home-grown black thinkers. In the public sphere, black communities are too often viewed as social problems to be theorised by white thinkers. For example, think back to the summer riots of 2011. David Lammy MP, alumnus of both the School of Oriental and African Studies and Harvard, and Gus John, veteran of the anti-racist movement, spoke insightfully about the causes of and potential solutions to urban disaffection; yet media coverage was dominated by the commentary of David Starkey, whose talents lie as a historian of Tudor England.
Truth told, interest in black thinkers rarely goes beyond Black History Month. My own university students tell me they rarely encounter black intellectual work of any kind on their courses. In contrast, several contemporary black thinkers with British roots are now firmly established on university reading lists across the United States. They include Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose book Cosmopolitanism has reinvigorated debates on multiculturalism in America, and Hazel Carby, Devon-born professor of American Studies at Yale, who was one of Stuart Hall's early proteges.
The effect of these absences on black students' intellectual confidence is rarely taken seriously. And for those who do seek careers in British academia, there is little nurture. In its 2011 report on the experiences of minority ethnic academics, the Equality Challenge Unit highlighted dire rates of promotion among black scholars. At a conference a couple of years ago in the US I remember being surrounded by American colleagues aghast at recent reports that only 50 of Britain's 14,000 professors were black.
In addition, the failure to embed black studies in the curriculum has left many aspiring black scholars without a sense of an intellectual home. The recent closure of bodies such as the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick has further narrowed horizons. In this context the brain drain that has seen excellent black scholars head off to the US and Caribbean is unsurprising.
Yet while they too rarely gain admittance to the front row of public debate, there are contemporary black British intellectuals whose work is helping to carry forward Hall's legacy. Let's hear more, for instance, from black feminists such as Heidi Safia Mirza, whose Race, Gender and Educational Desire should be compulsory reading for those concerned with "intersectionality", the interweaving of gender, race, class. And when barely a month seems to pass without a soul-searching crisis over racism in sport, why not give a seat on Question Time to Kevin Hylton, our leading expert on sport, race and culture.
*****Comment: I immediately thought Paul Gilroy but still Stuart Hall was a legend even in his own time. It will be hard to fill his shoes by any measure.
I also thought about who the black intellectuals are in South Africa ... still thinking after a day or more.