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Imperialism, Enslavement and Memory

Marie-Annick Gournet talks to Professor of Slavery and the Memory of Enslavement, Olivette Otele about history and memory.
Hello. I’m delighted to be here with Professor Olivette Otele. And we we’re going to talk about decolonizing the curriculum. I’m really interested in your current work as a professor of slavery and memory. And a lot of this work now has a focus on the history of the city, Bristol as well as the institution, University of Bristol. What does the decolonization of an institution look like? Well, it looks like something a kind of work that is done in several levels. So, for example, we start with students, pushing and engaging with what they see as issues, and collaborating with staff members and teachers, in particular, to try and see how we change things and change the practises that I mentioned earlier.
It also is about senior management, looking at these and responding and engaging with these recommendations and acting upon them, because decolonizing is not just about the curriculum. It’s a mindset that has to be translated into interactions– our forms, the way we recruit, the way we look at attainment gaps, the way we are inclusive, and so on. So it’s at several levels, but also engagement with the broader city and communities in the cities. And in terms of just your discipline, decolonization of history, how does your work fit into that, and how can we use this work in terms of what’s a relationship between the work that you’re doing, and how can it fit into the decolonization of history?
My work, again, in essence, is an attempt to do decolonizing in practise. So I research in ways that are not necessarily viewed by conservative historians as valid. But they are valid to us, and they have been valid to many communities and people of African descent for centuries. So it’s about introducing, for example, oral history, testimonies. But it’s also about engaging with the history, the material that is the written history, as much as it is about the work on memory. So decolonizing for me, really, is about unpacking the way we write history written history, but also the content and the kind of histories that are being taught and shared in the curriculum and at national and local levels.
And, indeed, much of the discussion or the discourse around decolonization is linked with history. And that discipline obviously has a very important place. How do you see that area of history intersecting with other disciplines in terms of influencing decolonization? Well, again, I’m going to say something that is not very well received by certain historians. History is not just the discipline of history. History, at least the way I do it, and I understand it, is multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary as well. So I’m a historian. But I’m also a scholar of memory. And memory work really intersects with many other disciplines.
In fact, the first people to start talking about, really, memory, and engaging in a very prolific way with the work of memory, are sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, literature, and arts So history, in that context, is a natural companion to memory. So the discipline intersects with many others. And I think that in the 21st century, many historians– at least those from my generation– acknowledged that and are trying to do their best. And this is the kind of work we do at the Royal Historical Society. So it’s about embedding different aspects of history-making and history-writing into the curriculum and into our practises.
And I think that the point about the history, the curriculum, the practise as well, has a strong link with some of the work that you do in the community. And, again, I’m really interested in thinking about how do you bridge this element to work with the community and work with the university? How do these two intersect again? Again, for me, it’s a natural path because for a long time, we believed that historians were the guardians of the past. And some people still believe that. But matter of fact, and the reality, really, is that there is expertise and outstanding expertise within communities.
And it’s about bringing that expertise to academia as much as it is about academia going to community and sharing their practises as well. So it’s a collaboration that is based on co-producing, co-production of teaching material and an exchange of practises, yet again. If you were to give some recommendations to other academics or individuals up there listening and learning from you, what three recommendations would you give in terms of decolonizing the curriculum, and also more widely, seen in terms of working across different fields outside of academia as well? So I think if you can share with us maybe three points?
Three points– the first one is humility, acknowledging that even if we trained historians, as we are often called, there’s a learning path and a learning curve that is quite steep when you start considering other disciplines within other disciplines in your practise of doing history. So, first of all, humility means reading a lot, listening a lot, and just standing back and unpacking what you have learned. That’s the first thing. The second thing is how do you use other people’s work within your practises? So it means going twixt the others and not just learning what they have done, but actually trying and see how they do it.
So, again, it’s about sitting and practicing with them, with our support, and trying to make things better. And the last one, really, I think it’s about students. Students are also teachers. They are very good at telling us what doesn’t work. So it’s about learning again from them and taking on board their recommendations and their imperatives as well because they see the world in a different way. And they have this ability to actually challenge our assumption. And it’s very important to listen. Professor Otele, thank you very much for this insightful discussion, and thank you very much. Thank you.

In this video Dr Marie-Annick Gournet (one of the lead educators for Week 4 of this course) talks to Professor Olivette Otele, Professor of Slavery and the Memory of Enslavement at the University of Bristol, about history and memory in the process of decolonisation. She also discusses some of the broader work in the community and city that Olivette is involved in.

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