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Cambridge student is the real winner, says Dotun Adebayo

PICTURED: Lola Olufemi (Photo credit: Students of Cambridge)

LOLA OLUFEMI the poster girl for the campaign to decolonise the Cambridge University reading list, is this year’s true most powerful black person in Britain, NOT (with all due respect) Gina Miller.

I’ll tell you why. In writing an open letter to the university’s English department to cease and desist disseminating racist literature, she took on the heart of the establishment in this country, and won. And, in so doing, virtually single-handedly, has emancipated black Britons, from mental slavery.

Power on that level transcends Ms Miller’s challenge to Brexit which has, as yet, not achieved anything other than to give MPs a vote. You only have to look at the lies and character assassination that The Telegraph perpetrated about Lola, and then how the paper had to bury a grovelling apology to her in some hidden corner of the paper after she fired a volley of complaint back at them.

As Lola and the other conscious black (and white) students know, Cambridge University, like its counterpart Oxford, are the seats of not just wisdom, but also power.

IDEAS

These are the places where opinions and ideas and philosophies are formed, and where the status quo is maintained. Oxford and Cambridge are the curators of the assumption that God is an Englishman and the nation and language supercedes all.

In addressing the issue, Cambridge wrote a letter saying that “for too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”.

The university went on to say that although some seek to retain such an approach, that they “welcomed” change not only in bringing more women writers on board, but also tackling what they described as the risk of “perpetuating institutional racism”.

The letter said that the history of the canon had “wilfully ignored, misrepresented and sidelined” authors from Africa and the Caribbean, and that few challenged this injustice and bias. When they did, tutors were ill-equipped to tackle it.

In conclusion, the university wrote: “The legacy of colonialism means that British literature is the literature of the global south, the two are mutually constituted. It is crucial that we include the work of postcolonial writers...”

It is with this in mind, under the guise of the so-called ‘canon’ of books on Oxbridge dons’ essential reading list at these seats of learning, that for hundreds of years, white minds were ‘enslaved’ into believing that there can be no greater good for man or mankind than the gift of Englishness.

There is truth in the irony of poet laureate John Betjeman’s prayer from a woman at Westminster Abbey during the Second World War: “Gracious Lord... Keep our Empire undismembered, Guide our Forces by Thy Hand, Gallant blacks from far Jamaica, Honduras and Togoland;

“Protect them Lord in all their ghts, And, even more, protect the whites; Think of what our Nation stands for, Books from Boots’ and country lanes, Free speech, free passes, class distinction, Democracy and proper drains...”

Take away the irony and one sees, without truth, the colonialist so-called ‘canon’ that Lola Olufemi and the myriad of other gallant blacks at Oxford University have taken on in their challenge against the mental enslavement that is perpetrated at these great institutions.

In their hugely important letter, which came as a result of a meeting that took place among students who felt a need for the faculty to decolonise its reading lists and incorporate more postcolonial thought, the students raised some points that really needed raising.

The students began their letter by imploring the English department to incorporate such postcolonial thought and discussion if it sought to portray itself as the leader in “academically rigorous thought and practice”.

This is not about small gestures, they argued, but about giving the issue thought, consulting with students and tackling such misrepresentation in the context of the course in its entirety.


CHANGING CAMBRIDGE: Cambridge University

“Taking into account the constitutive role of colonial and postcolonial literatures and cultures as well as British imperial history” is vital to create real change, and the university must make Edward Said’s Orientalism “as essential in preparation for the course as Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text”, they argued.

By detailing how they feel the department “dismisses issues of race and postcolonial thought”, Lola and the students are doing Cambridge a service despite the disservice meted upon them and generations of other students in creating a colonialist invention of the supremacy of all things English and the denegration of all things African.

INCLUSION

In their letter they offer up plenty of good ideas too, such as the inclusion of two or more postcolonial and BME authors on every exam paper, a postcolonial look at Shakespeare, diversity training for supervisors, having a speakers series focused on postcolonialism and zero tolerance on the dismissal of race as a worthy subject for discussion in essays.

“This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists, but a call to re-centre the lives of marginalised writers who have been silenced by the canon,” they conclude.

They are, of course, not the first people to do it (having referenced the great Palestinian philosopher Edward Said and his seminal work ‘Orientalism’ I would urge black people seeking to understand ‘the black condition’ to read it).

But it has been a discussion within the academic world without the impact of toppling the canons from their lofty perch, despite Chinua Achebe debunking Joseph Conrad as being anything other than a racist with a heart of darkness.

And, indeed as Lola and her colleagues point out in their letter to the English department at Cambridge, it will filter down into the school system, the A-level and GCSE systems and right down to nursery schools where it all begins with Jack and Jill going up the hill.

It is a letter which I hope is winging its way to the Black Cultural Archives as we speak, to be preserved for future generations – for it is they who will benefit from this.

You know that old saying ‘What was hidden from the wise and foolish/prudent now revealed to the babe and suckling’. Well, has there been any better example of that?

A balanced education is, like a balanced diet, the key to a healthy and long life and prosperity. If all you do is learn that Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water you will die of ignorance.

Such tales are the starting point of education for nearly all of us, but no matter if you’re in Britain or in the Caribbean or Africa – we must be taught that this is only half the story. Just like Jack and Jill, with British literature we need to hear the full story.

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