Twenty-five years after turning his back on academia, David Olusoga is about to give his first lecture as a university professor.
Next month the television historian will begin his new role as professor of public history at the University of Manchester. It is, he admits, an unlikely role for someone who rejected the idea of a PhD after taking his master’s at the University of Leicester.
“I decided, when I was 24 or 25, that I did not want to become a historian and ran away to join the circus of TV,” Professor Olusoga told Times Higher Education.
“But at the BBC, I ended up making history programmes, so it’s one of the least successful escape attempts,” he reflected on his “scenic route” into academia.
It is not, however, a surprising destination for the 49-year-old, whose status as one of Britain’s most respected TV historians was cemented by his work on last year’s landmark BBC One series Civilisations alongside Mary Beard and Simon Schama, arguably the corporation’s two great academic heavyweights. Professor Olusoga’s award-winning programmes on race in Britain – one recalled his own experiences of racism growing up on a Newcastle council estate – have also made him one of the BBC’s most compelling presenters.
However, he was tempted to enter the classroom only after Manchester made a “very good case” for him to take the professorship. “They made me think what this role could be,” explained Professor Olusoga, who hopes to explore the evolution of the popular history industry and how presentations of heritage are shaping contemporary political discourse.
Such questions are more than just provocative talking points, insists Professor Olusoga. “Our current view of the Second World War is dangerously problematic – it is giving us a false sense of history, our relationship with the Commonwealth and the world and it is contributing to us making some damaging decisions as a nation,” he said, in an unmistakable reference to Brexit.
He will not shirk some of the current controversies around British history either, such as the recent furore caused by reappraising Winston Churchill’s historical legacy. Britain’s wartime leader was branded a “white supremacist and a mass murderer” last month by Ross Greer, the youngest member of the Scottish Parliament, and a “villain” by shadow chancellor John McDonnell over his role in the suppression of the Tonypandy riots, provoking outrage in many quarters.
“Churchill’s record is extremely mixed,” said Professor Olusoga. “I’m glad he was there in 1940 and overwhelmed the group around Lord Halifax [to become prime minister], but nothing that happened that summer erases what happened just three years later in Bengal,” he said, on Churchill’s refusal to divert food to a famine that killed 4 million people.
“His attitudes to the Irish, Indians and working-class people were reprehensible too – my white Geordie grandparents certainly regarded him as the enemy of the working class,” he added, saying that “both sides of the historical ledger” should be acknowledged.
Students who have pursued this type of revisionism have faced criticism for calling for the removal of memorials to former icons of Britain’s colonial past, drawing inspiration from the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa. However, students “leading these conversations about Britain’s past” should be applauded, Professor Olusoga said.
“I don’t think they are trying to erase history, but to draw attention to people who have been heroicised and bring some nuance to discussion of these figures,” he said.
Professor Olusoga also backed student calls to add more black and ethnic minority authors to reading lists to “decolonise” the curriculum.
“I really admire this generation who will not accept the things that my generation did,” he said, noting the absence of black historians during his time studying the history of slavery as an undergraduate at the University of Liverpool. “I did not really expect to find them [on reading lists] and learned you had to teach yourself these things,” he said.
“That may have been OK in the early 1990s, but this generation is not willing to accept this as normal service.”
Universities must also do more to support ethnic minority staff, said Professor Olusoga, who namechecked the recent report by Goldsmiths academic Nicola Rollock which said that the UK had just 25 black female professors – and a further 90 black male professors.
“For a country which is close to being one-third black and ethnic minority, students will justifiably ask why their professors do not reflect that,” he said.
Professor Olusoga recalled how he was with Olivette Otele at Bath Spa University when she became the UK’s first black female history professor in October. “That date is surely going to be a pub quiz question in the future and the outrageous and astonishing answer is 2018,” he said.
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