As part of Rosslyn Hill's 'Celebrating Black Lives' series, we celebrate the writer and historian Olivette Otele.
Born in 1970 in Cameroon, Olivette was raised in Paris. After acquiring a PhD in history from the Sorbonne, Otele moved to Wales and become the first female Black history professor in the UK when she picked up a post at Bath Spa University. Having also served as Professor of the History of Slavery at Bristol University, Otele is currently a professor at SOAS and is the Independent Chair for Bristol’s Commission on Race Equality and a Vice President of the Royal Historical Society.
Throughout her career, Olivette Otele has emphasised that Afro-European identity should not be governed by a false “either/or” dichotomy, which she explored in her book African Europeans: An Untold Story, and made efforts to increase the awareness that Black people have existed in Europe for time immemorial.
“We are more than the idea of Britishness that is presented to us. It’s skewed, it’s based on a specific time and place, because even Britishness is shifting constantly. But most people of African descent specifically, and sometimes those of Asian descent, are expected to demonstrate loyalty ... They are made to feel guilty about being attached to the idea of being, for example, from African descent of from Caribbean descent, or Asian descent. It’s ridiculous because the world is global, Britain is and was a global power, and in the 17th and 18th century, those questions were not that important.”
"I often hear that history repeats itself. It doesn’t really. What does repeat is our desire to ignore history and place our own insecurities and greed above our ability to create beauty and bring about equality. So, understanding that each one of us has the power to make our world an interesting and wonderful place is crucial. Historians don’t just tell stories. They engage with the workings of human nature. Even ‘just’ telling the story is a powerful act that can be turned into a tool for social justice."
"[The most important lesson history has taught is] kindness: we exist because many before us have survived hardship and have chosen to share their space, resources and stories."
Each month we mark the significant life of a person of colour as a positive statement and a contribution to redressing historical imbalances in our society. More profiles.
Dabhoiwala, Fara. "African Europeans by Olivette Otele review – when race mattered less." The Guardian, 4 November 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/04/african-europeans-by-olivette-otele-review-when-race-mattered-less.
"Five minutes with… Olivette Otele." The History Vault, https://thehistoryvault.co.uk/five-minutes-with-olivette-otele/.
"'I don't want to be the UK's only black female history professor'." BBC News, 19 November 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-46247776.
"Making history: Interview with Professor Olivette Otele." The Bristol Magazine, https://thebristolmag.co.uk/making-history-interview-with-lecturer-olivette-otele/.