The University Cannot Be Decolonized

The University Cannot Be Decolonized

Kehinde Andrews, the only Black studies professor in the UK, says we should stop trying to make institutions anti-racist and instead build community.


Nearly two dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed bills banning public schools from teaching critical race theory (CRT). Conservatives claim CRT portrays US history, especially white people’s role in it, negatively. As a Black studies scholar, I am often asked what can be done to fight such legislative efforts: As Black history disappears from school curricula across the country, how should communities of color respond? In an interview I conducted with Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, he talked about Britain’s Saturday school movement as a counter to the absence of Black studies from the school curriculum in the UK. Since the 1960s, Black communities across Britain have organized weekend supplementary classes—held in Black-owned businesses, homes, and churches—to educate their children about their history and culture. Might a separate Black studies curriculum similar to the Saturday school efforts in Britain be needed in the United States? I asked Professor Andrews to explain this kind of community empowerment and education.

—Karlos K. Hill

Karlos Hill: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Kehinde Andrews: I am the only professor of Black studies in the UK. In fact, I’m the only professor of Black studies in all of Europe. When you think about it, that’s crazy. We have professors of African history, I’d guess, and there’s probably a professor of Caribbean studies, so it’s not like there are no other Black people in academia. But in terms of Black studies in Europe, I kind of started the movement.

KH: Could you talk about some of the work you’re doing to try to bring more Black history into the British school curriculum?

KA: There is nothing about Black history in the UK school curriculum, or even in most university curricula. They have brought slavery into the schools a little bit sometimes, but there is nothing about Black life or Black studies. I’m reminded of Carter G. Woodson in America, who came up with the idea of a Negro history week in the 1920s. The racism was so bad, he was worried about genocide, right? Like, they’re actually going to kill us all if they don’t understand that we’re human beings. We’re not worried about genocide in the UK, but look at the way we’re still treated in schools and by the police, for example. A large part of that is that we’re not seen as fully human.

The purpose of Black studies is empowerment. That really is the emphasis, and that really is what’s needed. My parents were involved in the British Black Power movement, which was largely about education. And then there were the Black-owned bookshops, which provided a space for Black voices. During the Black bookshop movement, when I was a child, we actually worked in the Harriet Tubman bookshop here in Birmingham. The racism was so bad in the schools that Black communities organized their own supplementary classes, which we call Saturday schools because they were usually held on Saturday. These were ways to create different knowledges, to link things on the outside to things we had on the inside.

So Black studies in the UK is all about community activism, community work, and especially community education. And now we’ve essentially brought that community education into the university for the first time. It wasn’t easy, because universities here really don’t like to hire Black people. We have seven Black faculty in the department, and that’s more than most universities have. And as bad as it is in the UK, it’s way better here than in Europe. So we have this unique space here where we can do different things. Malcolm X is my absolute favorite intellectual legacy, and Marcus Garvey and people like that—Angela Davis, the Black Marxists, the Black Panthers. We’ve been able to bring all of that work into this place.

KH: It sounds like there is some institutional support, white support, for creating a Black history curriculum in the UK schools, but not enough. Can you expand a bit on the Saturday schools? They seem to be the tradition that Black history month in the UK builds upon, much as Black history month in the US built upon Negro history week.

KA: If Black history were properly embedded into the school curriculum and into the university, there would be no need for Black history month. It’s really just an opportunity for institutions to virtue signal. They celebrate some Black stuff, but you don’t learn anything about Black history. The big difference in the UK is basically demographics, in terms of where slavery was. The British-owned slaves were in the Caribbean, not in Britain itself. It’s not like America, where slavery accounted for the Black population. It’s only since the Second World War that there have been large numbers of Black people in the UK. Initially it was adults who would come, and they would bring their children later. So it wasn’t until the 1960s that there were large number of Black kids in the schools.

What often gets missed is that the Caribbean was part of Britain in the same way that the South is part of America. The people who came here were moving from one part of Britain to another. They had a British education, so they assumed that their kids would get a good education in the mother country and would be treated better here. They were really surprised to find that racism was so severe in the schools. Most kids came out with no qualifications at all. They were deemed educationally subnormal, which is essentially saying they had special needs. There were campaigns to change the schools, to fix them, but one thing about the Black Power movement in the UK is that it was highly influenced by Garveyism, so it was all about self-help. If the schools weren’t going do it, then the community would have to. The Saturday schools, supplementary schools, emerged from there.

The Saturday schools were teaching maths, English; a lot of them didn’t do much more than teach the basics. But there was also an emphasis in a number of these schools on teaching Black history: We’ve got to teach about Africa; we’ve got to teach about the Caribbean; we’ve got to teach about the things that schools don’t teach about. I think there is a different tradition of community education in the UK.

Imagine this: As a professor, I’ve been through all levels of education, from the lowest to the highest, and I never heard the word “empire” at any stage of my education—which is insane given that you can’t understand the whole of Britain without the empire. Yet we would never talk about it. Since George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s been more of a desire to talk about slavery/colonialism and how it impacts us today. We are at least having those kinds of conversations now. In the last two years, there’s suddenly been a lot more appetite for that. Whether it’s being taken seriously, whether there’s been any real change, I don’t know. But certainly I think that I’ve seen a change in the kind of things people are interested in. Maybe. I’m trying to be positive about it.

KH: In many ways, you seem to be a one-man movement for Black studies in Europe. Can you talk about your role in its community education and community empowerment aspects?

KA: I am the only formal professor of Black studies in the UK, but there are other Black scholars here. Together, we are trying to build connections across Europe to other scholars. We aren’t trying to decolonize the university, because it can’t be decolonized. My university is just as racist now as it was before Black studies. In fact, what I have to go through at work is probably worse now, not better. I’m the only Black professor in my whole university. It’s a tokenistic thing that they like to put in brochures. They like to talk about it, but they don’t really support you. But ours is the only institutional space that does Black studies, that allows that critical work to be done. So while Black studies is not new in the UK, it’s new in the university. I like to say that we’re trying to colonize the university.

It’s so much more concrete and possible in the United States, where African American studies is so established, and you have some leverage. Whereas here, there’s just not that many of us, so we don’t have the resources. Out of 20,000 full professors in the country, only 150 are Black. There are so few of us that we can’t all get on a plane at the same time, because if there’s an accident, it wouldn’t be good. There are loads of opportunities in the US, and we need to start thinking differently to make sure that we are properly leveraging all of those resources and not getting trapped within the UK’s system. There’s so much opportunity for us to do things, but we don’t always do them, because we spend so much time trying to make institutions antiracist. But they aren’t going to be antiracist; it’s impossible. So we have to think about self-help. We have to think about how we’re building communities.

When you think about what the role of a professor generally is, it’s a bit like what a slave pastor was supposed to be. You go out and teach passivity, and you teach people to become part of the system. But a lot of the slave rebellions were led by preachers, right? Look at Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey. A slave pastor could travel to different plantations, could talk to big groups of people, was allowed to read, so in the same way they gave us this category that was supposed to oppress us, they gave us a bit of the freedom so that we could actually free ourselves. And that’s our role. It’s uncomfortable to think that our role essentially helps to maintain racial oppression, because that’s what the university does. But if we think about it differently, that role allows us to do things that can really be liberatory. And that is the challenge I’d put to any Black studies scholar.

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