The Black Studies Movement in Britain

*This post is part of our new blog series on Black Europe. This series, edited by Kira Thurman and Anne-Marie Angelo, explores what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on Europe and the Black Atlantic. 

Young woman at a student protest in London against fees and cuts in 2010 (Photo: Chris Beckett, Flickr).

In 1967, the Afro-Caribbean Self-Help Organisation (ACSHO), based in Birmingham, started one of the first Black supplementary schools in the UK, sparking off a movement that transformed how mainstream schools treated their Black children. Supplementary schools refer to voluntary education programs run by concerned parents, teachers, and community members because of the racism faced in the school system. Bernard Coard’s classic 1971 study, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British Education Systemfound that in some London boroughs eighty percent of Black boys were being classed as “educationally subnormal.” On evenings and most Saturdays the community came together and offered classes in subjects like English and math to support mainstream school work, and added Black history. Supplementary schools eventually became absorbed into school provision, funded by the state, often with trained teachers and increasingly on church premises. But “supplementary” is probably the worst word for what ACSHO started in 1967. They focused on a Black Studies curriculum and, as education activist Mel Chevannes explained, “it is not possible to supplement what does not exist” in the mainstream schools.1

When ACSHO opened its Saturday school the state originally “tried to smash it.” Parents were warned off by the police and there was no chance of support from the mainstream schools. ACSHO taught about Black revolutionaries and Marxism-Leninism, and the organisation hosted freedom fighters from across the globe. Saturday schools like the ACSHO’s, independent from the state and developing an alternative curriculum, were hugely important in shaping Black consciousness in Britain. In his new book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, the rapper and education activist Akala praised the Saturday school that he went to as a child. He argued that it enabled him to challenge the Eurocentric instruction he received in state school. In Britain, then, there is a long standing tradition of Black Studies outside of mainstream schooling. But it was only in 2017 that we were able to bring this framework into the university when we launched the very first Black Studies undergraduate degree in Europe at Birmingham City University.

As one of the founders of Birmingham City University’s Black Studies degree, I believe that it is important to situate Black Studies in Britain within these wider community mobilizations of knowledge not only to remind us of the history of Blackness in Europe, but also to hold the degree to account. In building Black Studies we have been informed by the “the community component” of the discipline and the urge to “wed Black communities…to the educational process, to transform the Black community.” It is this approach that makes Black Studies different to African or Caribbean Studies in Great Britain. Those subjects are rooted in a colonial gaze that does not seek to dismantle the relationship between the community and the ivory tower. In fact they both thrive off of it. Black Studies is the inclusion into the academy of the alternative knowledges developed in the community and across the Diaspora that are seeking to change the social world.

At the heart of BCU’s Black Studies program is a direct critique of the university establishment. We are currently teaching our first cohort of students. I have spent so much time questioning the role of the university in general, and academics in particular, that the students have been wondering why they came. But this critical introduction was necessary to shake them (and us) out of complacency. A degree in Black Studies is nothing to celebrate until we can prove that it is useful in terms of changing the conditions facing Black communities. Black Studies is far more than just learning about Black people, it is the “science of liberation,” engaging with the mechanisms to improve conditions for Africa and the Diaspora.2

Black student handcuffed by the Metropolitan Police during student protests in London, 2010 (Photo: Chris Beckett, Flickr).

In designing the theoretical basis for the course it was necessary to transform some of our key concepts of knowledge. In doing so, a recognition that academic is not synonymous with intellectual, and can often mean the opposite, is foundational. Intellectual influences are just as likely to include activists like Malcolm X, Claudia Jones, or Olive Morris, as scholars like Stuart Hall, Audre Lorde, or C.L.R. James. We also broke the tendency to build national boundaries around our analyses. The course is in Britain, but it is not British. There is no way to understand Blackness in Britain (or Europe) that does not include a global framework. While there have been Black people on the island for centuries, the vast majority of us are here because of relatively recent family migration. Africa and the Caribbean are important in shaping our frame of reference. More importantly, we are the embodiment of the nation-state lie of the great European powers.

Britain was never a nation-state that stood on its own feet; its wealth was built through a global empire on which the sun never set. Until so-called independence began to be granted in the post-World War II period, the places where Britain’s Black citizens hailed from were a part of the nation. When my father migrated from Jamaica he was moving from one part of Britain to another, as his passport at the time made abundantly clear. To view him as a foreign migrant is absurd, especially given that the colonies contributed more to the wealth of the nation than anything done on the British Isles. Without transatlantic slavery and colonialism there is no industrial boom in Europe.

Understanding Britain as empire also means that we cannot ignore the global dimensions of Blackness. Malcolm X is the basis of my intellectual thought and I often hear the criticism that he’s too American to be applied to the British context. But Malcolm’s mother was from Grenada and both his parents were in the Garvey movement. Garveyism was the biggest influence on Malcolm’s politics (one of the many reasons I dub the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey the ‘greatest Black Briton of all time’). He also spent a large chunk of the last part of his life travelling Africa, the Middle East and Europe, giving his last speech outside of the US in Birmingham just nine days before he died. Malcolm’s theory is not American, it is a testament to the global dimensions of Blackness. This approach is woven across the degree where we are as likely to use examples from Britain as we are from Zimbabwe, Brazil, Canada or Trinidad.

Given the history and reality of racism in British schooling and universities it is right to question how such a degree came into being. Only around one hundred out of over 16,000 full professors are Black in Britain, and we only account for 1.6 percent of the academic workforce. Black staff are so few and far between in British higher education that most universities would struggle to find enough academics to put together more than one Black Studies module. But in the department of Criminology and Sociology at Birmingham City University we have six Black academics all working in Black Studies. There is simply no parallel to this in any other European university. Achieving this staffing was key to establishing the degree and it is an understatement to say that it was a struggle. We were able to do so by pioneering Black Studies as a research area, generating publications and activity within the university. As the department grew we recruited three Black female academics in a row, despite some senior reservations about what it meant to be a “proper academic.” Given the inequality in the sector, being the first Black Studies degree in Europe is not so much a badge of honour, as a reflection of the sad reality of institutional racism.

Black Studies at BCU aims to challenge the racist exclusions and that are embedded within higher education, but we must also be aware of the dangers of neoliberal institutions. Now that university education costs over £9,000 per year, the cap on overall student numbers in public universities has been lifted. It was this expansion of student numbers that allowed us to launch a Black Studies degree in the pioneering search for new markets. Campaigns like “Why is My Curriculum White?” and “Rhodes Must Fall” proved that there was an interest in a non-Eurocentric curriculum. Blackness has long been used as a commodity. Our task in developing the degree is to ensure that we do not become accommodated into the university status quo. The only way to accomplish this is to root our knowledge and practice in the tradition of Black Studies in Britain and to fuse the degree into the fabric of Black communities.

  1.  Mel Chevannes and Frank Reeves, “The Black Voluntary School Movement: Definition, Context and Prospects,” Racial Inequality in Education, ed. Barry Troyna (London: Routledge, 2014), 147.
  2. Robert Staples, “What is Black Sociology? Toward a Sociology of Black Liberation,” The Death of White Sociology: Essay on Race and Culture, ed. Joyce A. Ladner (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 168.
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Kehinde Andrews

Kehinde Andrews is Associate Professor of Sociology at Birmingham City University. He is director of the Centre for Critical Social Research, founder of the Organisation of Black Unity, and co-chair of the Black Studies Association. He is the author of "Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century" (Zed Books, 2018). Follow him on Twitter @kehinde_andrews.