Interview with Olivette Otele

The UK’s first black female history professor on universities atoning for their pasts and believing in the goodness of others

November 15, 2018
Olivette Otele

Olivette Otele is professor of history at Bath Spa University. Last month, she became the first black woman to be awarded a full professorship and chair of history at a UK university. She is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a board member of Historians Against Slavery. Her research focuses on transnational colonial history, and her forthcoming book, Afro-Europeans: A Short History, is scheduled to be published by Hurst later this year.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Cameroon 48 years ago. I left Cameroon as a child and grew up in Paris.

How has this shaped you?
I was influenced by a strong, kind and independent grandmother who lived on the edge of the rainforest. She taught me to love myself (not to be in love with myself), to share love with others, to protect the environment and to respect all living creatures. Paris and Parisians taught me how to be confident and combative and even arrogant.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was an avid reader, curious, passionate, confident – and when in situations when I wasn’t feeling that confident, I’d fake it until I made it!

How did you feel about becoming the first black woman to be awarded a full professorship and chair of history at a British university?
I immediately thought about my nan, my mum and all those women who worked very hard and yet were not always recognised for what they did. It also brought me peace to find out that I was still me. The head is still the same size, but I am proud that I hadn’t trampled, hurt or destroyed anyone on my way to this.

Your research focuses on colonial history and the ways in which Britain and France have addressed questions of citizenship, race and identity through the politics of remembrance. What are some of your conclusions?
Britain and France have been fighting against each other for centuries. They have developed different approaches to the legacy of the past, and yet the two countries are still struggling with how to achieve equality. They both have more in common than they [would] like to think. For example, they both struggle with the idea that one can be African and European and claim both identities.

How has your work shaped your worldview?
I have learned that greed and fear can make us do awful things, but it’s often in battles that one finds one’s inner strength and even develops kindness. The older I get, the more I am convinced that profound love for fellow humans is the only thing that will prevent us from destroying one another and the rest of the planet. Superficial belief in anti-racism, fairness and such can change when the context changes. Love for people you don’t even know will always prevent us from swaying according to the context.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
Some people still think that history and memory can’t work together and lead to rigorous and interesting pieces of research.

Several universities have sought to atone for their slave histories, with some removing controversial statues that relate to uncomfortable aspects of their past. What do you think of such approaches?
People fight, discuss and then some come to a solution that works for them. One approach doesn’t suit all. Hearing people say that removing statues will lead us to forget the past still surprises me. That’s not true. However, removing does not necessarily solve pressing issues that are at the heart of certain demands, such as demands for equality and the end of discrimination. Sometimes, having debates only about this may hide or distract from the deep antagonism that still exists among so-called liberals against people belonging to minority groups.

In some ways great progress has been made in terms of improving diversity and equality, but at the same time many countries and governments seem to be growing increasingly intolerant. Do you worry about history repeating itself?
I believe that intolerance [seems to be] coming back only because real tolerance was never truly achieved. History doesn’t repeat itself. History teaches us a lot, but we keep ignoring those lessons and therefore go round the same mountain again.

What do you hope to achieve through your research?
I hope to dismantle systems of oppression by showing that no human can claim superiority over another on the basis that they were born, randomly, in a wealthier country. Any success that is used only to improve one’s own life is a waste of possibilities. That is why being the first black female history professor does not mean anything to me if I’m not given and can’t find means to bring others up.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
No advice. Just words of encouragement: “You are right to believe in the goodness of people. Keep doing what you do; working hard, loving, laughing, forgiving and doing your bit might not change the whole world, but it will change you for the best.”

What do you do for fun?
I read a lot. I love oceans so I try to spend as much time as I can there. My favourite place is being on, in and by the sea. I enjoy gardening, taking landscape photos, going to museums, art galleries, concerts and cooking for people I love.

What’s your biggest regret?
That my mother is not here to celebrate this milestone with me.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Yes: work as hard as you can but, most importantly, love and laugh harder.


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Two vice-presidents have been named by Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris. Hubert Bost, president of École Pratique des Hautes Études – one of PSL’s constituent institutions – since 2013, will oversee research and graduate programmes. Anne Devulder, director of student life at another member -college, ESPCI ParisTech, has become vice-president of student life and social and environmental responsibility.

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Reader's comments (2)

"I have learned that greed and fear can make us do awful things" - profound indeed!
Yes, it’s sad that “history teaches us a lot but we refuse to learn the lessons.”


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