The colour of ivory towers

June 5, 1998

Fifty years after the arrival of the Windrush heralded an era of black immigration, Lola Young (right) reflects on how blacks have fared in the liberal world of academe.

Work is, as always, relentless: that's the same for everyone working in higher education these days. But some of the pressures on us black academics, who are so few in number, are not shared by our white colleagues. As the first black woman professor in a British university I'm particularly conscious of carrying the burden of representing my people, of being a role model for black Britons.

In fact, I am even more conscious of the burden of representation now than I usually am. As the 50th anniversary of the arrival of West Indians on the troopship Empire Windrush approaches, invitations to speak and write flow in steadily. The disembarkation, at Tilbury docks, of 492 Commonwealth citizens from Windrush on June 21 1948 is being commemorated as a milestone in a migration which has since seen half a million West Indians enter Britain.

I feel ambivalent about the construction of Windrush's arrival as an iconic moment in the history of black people's presence in Britain (after all black people have been here much longer than 50 years) and ponder how to respond to a request to write a piece about the position of black academics in British universities to mark the Windrush anniversary. I decide to jot down a diary of events and thoughts this year and hope it will reflect some of our preoccupations and anxieties.

JanuaryI start work on a lecture I am to deliver at a conference on gender and feminism. I always try to insert a recent example from the media of the kind of problems with which I am grappling. But will there be examples of the marginalisation of black women to legitimise my argument? Of course, I am worrying needlessly - there are plenty. Selecting an article from the Guardian on "the new feminism", I try to think through the reasons for white feminist journalists' failure to engage with black feminism.

FebruaryThe exhibition Black Power opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London: fine photographs of "black achievers", most unfamiliar to the public, though well established in their own fields. Black professionals in the public sector as well as writers and broadcasters. But are there significant numbers of black people formulating government policies, running influential organisations? I think not, although to say that we are completely marginal is to miss the nuances and contradictions of everyday life. Some black women have decided to form a study group to address their sense of isolation in universities where the majority of black students are those from overseas and where white colleagues are either uninterested in, or unsympathetic to, the politics of "race" and gender.

At least in my own university the student body is - to use the current fudging euphemism - "culturally diverse", and access to the university has noticeably widened since the 1980s. Yet it is clear that the number of black academics in general is small and the proportion of those occupying senior posts very small indeed. This means that we may be seen as token black appointments by some white colleagues; as both heroes and disappointments to black students; as a contradiction in terms to those white students who see black people as hugely threatening.

MarchAlthough friends (and others) tell me I can no longer claim to be an outsider, I wonder if I will ever want to feel entirely comfortable in the academic world. Ambivalence is my keyword and this is symptomatic of the condition of the apparently successful black woman or man. The acceptance of what we do or who we are is often conditional: it is OK to be rich/talented/attractive provided you do not rise too quickly, attract too much envy. These are not exclusively white people's attitudes either: the choices we make are often policed by black people too.

March is dominated by the need to get my inaugural professorial lecture written. It is not often that there is an opportunity to speak for one hour uninterrupted, and I want to make some points about the pitfalls and potential of cultural studies. Many black people believe in the power of texts to shape how we are perceived and treated, and media depictions of black issues and celebrities arouse great passions. From those iconic images of Jamaicans at Tilbury Docks 50 years ago to the reporting of the Black People's Day of Action in 1981 after the fire at a party in New Cross, South London in which 13 black teenagers died; from the uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth, Southall and Tottenham to protests about the way in which slavery is marketed in Steven Spielberg's film Amistad - all the heated discussions which occur in classrooms and in the media alert us to the continued significance of the political nature of representation.

Well done, The Guardian! The newspaper asks who is the voice of black British feminism, and answers "bell hooks". hooks is an American and it saddens me to think that the important work of scholars like Avtar Brah and Delia Jarratt-Macauley is being ignored. Should we black British feminists respond to this? The role of African-American intellectuals in black British intellectual life is one that is often discussed informally but has never really been addressed publicly.

AprilI have been looking forward to travelling to Berkeley for a conference drawing together the research of academics studying African diaspora studies - "diaspora" is the name given to any body of people living outside their traditional homeland. Although the term is too loosely used, the conference, which is hugely enjoyable, raises questions about the status of black academics in Britain.

On the last day, Barnor Hesse, of the University of East London, and I discuss how there is no space for black academics in Britain to get together and exchange information, commiserate over indignities, or celebrate achievements. Crucially, there is still that sense that being a black academic or intellectual is unnatural, a betrayal: this is particularly acute for those of us who write about culture and the arts, rather than being involved in the "frontline" subjects of social policy, psychology, education. Perhaps we should try to start something...

MayWindrush events are increasing in frequency: books, television programmes, exhibitions, talks, parties... Does this signal that there is "no going back", either literally or metaphorically? There are signs that there is a shift in mood among some black middle-class Britons, not easily categorised as optimistic - more an air of determination with regard to our position in British society and culture.

A meeting is called to talk through issues arising from being a black intellectual, including the difficulty of naming ourselves as such. It does now feel as though there are enough of us to start organising our thoughts and airing our disagreements (often buried for fear of disrupting the fragile network which is beginning to emerge).

At a conference organised to mark the retirement of one of Britain's first and most influential black academics - Stuart Hall - from the Open University, Angela McRobbie from Goldsmiths College delivers a paper asking where and how black and women scholars can take up the challenges offered by Hall's work: how can universities and colleges be made more user-friendly for those groups traditionally excluded from the power base of academe? No easy answers, but we should not forget how important education was seen to be by settlers from the Caribbean islands, South Asia and Africa. Disillusioned with the educational system and the way it operates, they established organisations such as the Black Parents' Movement, which challenged established practices in schools and offered alternatives. Of course educational achievement in primary and secondary school is crucial but even though more black people are entering university and gaining more qualifications than their white counterparts, not enough black undergraduates are becoming postgraduates or entering the academic profession. We need to think about what can be done to improve the situation.

JuneMore than anything else which has happened to me since I began teaching, promotion to the status of a professor has highlighted the distance between the perceptions held by many white people and those of many black people. When something happens to a white person, it happens to them as an individual, but when it happens to a black woman or man it happens to them as representative of their "race".

Looking at all this activity planned for the Windrush anniversary makes me wonder whether we will be in such demand next year. Whatever the mainstream media decide to do (or not) concerning racial issues, we carry on our struggles with the systems which construct us first and foremost as racialised subjects, even though we may be part of those systems, indeed products of them. In one sense Windrush has nothing directly to do with me: my parents came from Nigeria, not in answer to a call from the British government to augment a workforce decimated by war. They came to study, to take knowledge and skills back to Nigeria.

The point about the Windrush anniversary is that it comes at a moment when many black people are considering what it means to acknowledge that we are an integral part of the "New" Britain, and at the centre of "cool Britannia" (as we were at the centre of "rule Britannia"). We look back to a presence that started several hundred years before Windrush, contemplate a present as daughters and sons of intrepid travellers and speculate about a millennial future as yet uncharted.

Lola Young is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University and the first black woman professor in a British university.

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