David Olusoga: ‘Black people were told that they had no history’

2 months ago 59

Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga has been the look of a decolonial crook successful British broadcasting that, successful caller years, with bid including the Bafta-winning Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, A House Through Time and Black and British: A Forgotten History, has inspired caller conversations astir injustice successful the communicative of Britain and Britishness successful surviving rooms crossed the country. Anticipating this year’s Black History Month (October), helium has contributed a foreword to the republication by Hodder & Stoughton of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the memoir of an 18th-century formerly enslaved antheral that is besides wide recognised arsenic a foundational substance of Black British literature.

What led you to get down this republication of Equiano’s memoir?
It’s a publication I work astatine assemblage and that has been portion of my beingness for 30 years. I deliberation it’s the astir important of the British narratives of radical who were enslaved. Equiano is idiosyncratic who managed to acquisition his mode retired of slavery, to question the satellite arsenic a Black idiosyncratic successful an property wherever you could beryllium kidnapped and transported backmost into slavery. He was a skilled sailor, a governmental operator. He became a nationalist fig erstwhile this state was the biggest slave-trading federation successful the North Atlantic. There are galore voices that travel retired of the acquisition of British slavery but nary of them person the aforesaid interaction arsenic Equiano.

You’ve been a cardinal advocator of Black History Month. Why bash we request Black history? And however would you picture the interaction of Black History Month successful supporting that need?
Black History Month successful Britain has been an astonishing success. It’s an American contented that began beingness arsenic Negro History Week. It was brought to Britain successful 1987, truthful not precise agelong ago. Since past we’ve made it into an institution, a portion of the British calendar. This is simply a existent achievement. Black radical person had their past written retired – sometimes deliberately, sometimes systematically – of Britain’s communicative due to the fact that it’s the past of slavery and empire and that doesn’t acceptable successful with the comforting land communicative narrative. Black radical were told that they had nary past – Hegel said that Africa’s a spot with nary past – and that treble enactment of erasure and denial meant that Black radical had nary communicative to explicate wherefore they were successful Britain oregon however their narration with Britain had been forged. I deliberation it’s some tragic and astonishing that those 492 radical that got disconnected the Windrush successful June 1948 and made their homes successful London and Bristol and Liverpool didn’t cognize that they were making their homes successful cities wherever determination had been erstwhile generations of Black Britons – Black Victorians, Black Georgians. Imagine what it mightiness person meant to the Windrush generation, erstwhile radical said: “What are you doing here, what close bash you person to beryllium here, what’s your transportation to Britain?”, erstwhile they were confronted with racism and told that they belonged successful Africa oregon that they had nary close to beryllium here. Imagine what spot they mightiness person drawn from that past had it been known.

Has Black History Month besides helped to articulate a specifically Black British communicative arsenic opposed to the imported African American one?
Yes, and this has been the existent evolution. I utilized to spell to schools and springiness talks and I’d spot Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, but I wouldn’t spot Equiano. I’d spot pieces of enactment done astir the Montgomery, Alabama autobus boycott but the children had ne'er heard of the Bristol autobus boycott. It’s lone successful the past 5 years that we’ve made Black History Month [into] Black British History Month.

 ‘a skilled sailor, a governmental  operator’
Olaudah Equiano: ‘a skilled sailor, a governmental operator’. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What are the apical 3 titles on your Black past speechmaking list?
One of the astir important books for maine personally was Peter Fryer’s publication Staying Power, which I work erstwhile I was 16. It’s conscionable been republished [by Pluto Press] with a fantastic foreword by Gary Younge. I’m a large admirer of Miranda Kaufmann’s publication Black Tudors. Sam Selvon’s caller The Lonely Londoners is an incredibly poignant and meaningful publication that I think, much than thing I’ve ever read, tin transport you into the experiences of what it was similar to beryllium Black successful Britain successful the aboriginal 50s. And I deliberation we should each beryllium speechmaking Paul Gilroy. Books similar There Ain’t No Black successful the Union Jack. Paul is conscionable a elephantine figure; I fearfulness that we won’t recognise who Paul is until he’s gone. I don’t deliberation galore radical truly got who Stuart Hall was and what his value was until helium had gone, and I deliberation that often happens to Black writers. That they’re understood successful retrospect. Paul has been appallingly neglected by TV.

Why bash you deliberation that is?
I deliberation there’s a subconscious discomfort with the thought of Black intellectuals. If you spell to an American assemblage wherever Henry Louis Gates teaches, oregon Cornel West, you person to use successful a lottery to get connected to those courses. People sneak into those lectures. People similar Michael Eric Dyson arsenic well. Nikole Hannah-Jones. They are celebrated arsenic Black thinkers, Black intellectuals. Ibram X Kendi is celebrated. There’s a prima feeling astir these people. We don’t person that. We’ve ne'er had that.

Isn’t that you?
No, I’m a TV presenter.

Who are the modern decolonial writers you’re astir excited about?
One of the large positives of caller years is however galore scholars from Indian backgrounds are studying the British empire and transforming the field. Priya Satia, with her publication Time’s Monster. Sathnam Sanghera with Empireland. Ian Sanjay Patel with We’re Here Because You Were There. I agelong to spot Black British writers alongside those southbound Asian writers, alongside radical from the Caribbean and African American writers making the Black British acquisition much global. To instrumentality the beingness of Equiano, for example, you can’t recognize Equiano’s beingness conscionable successful Britain. This is idiosyncratic who was, we think, calved successful Africa, enslaved successful the Caribbean, who travelled the satellite and would, were it not for a determination helium made, person gone to Sierra Leone and perchance died there. This is simply a planetary work. He travelled thousands and thousands of miles. He lived overmuch of his beingness connected that large empire of the sea. It’s a planetary beingness and indicative and emblematic of what it is to beryllium Black and British.

What are you speechmaking astatine the moment?
Long aft everyone else, I’m speechmaking Afropean by Johny Pitts, I’m rereading The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker, due to the fact that it’s an perfectly fantastic book. I’ve got Imperial Nostalgia by Peter Mitchell to commencement and I’m speechmaking Hugh Kearney’s The British Isles. I besides person my aged transcript of The Lion and the Unicorn by Orwell, due to the fact that I support quoting from it. It conscionable keeps being horribly applicable and I thought I’d work the full happening again for the archetypal clip successful galore years. Orwell had this thought that determination was a signifier of leftwing British patriotism that could beryllium reached somehow. I truly anticipation helium was right.

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, with a foreword by David Olusoga, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£9.99). To enactment the Guardian and Observer bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply