Dr. Somak Biswas – History Department/IAS (University of Warwick)
A large room with an overflowing audience. More than eighty people were spilling on to the floor, excitedly talking about the speaker and her impending talk. This was a rare occurrence for any History Department seminar series. As organisers we were beyond thrilled; more so because the majority of the audience were black and brown people, who gathered to listen to a young queer Black feminist Lola Olufemi speak on the ‘Uses of the Feminist Imagination’.
Why is this significant? In February 1978, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), was founded by fifteen members at the University of Warwick, many of whom became key figures in the history of British Black feminism. Yet the first Black historian to be invited to a Warwick History departmental seminar was not until 2019: Professor Barbara Savage (University of Pennsylvania). That in itself is a sobering thought but fully in step with the recent Royal Historical Society report on ‘Race Equality’ that indexed the dismal state of ‘race affairs’ across history departments in the UK (2018). Persistent race inequalities have long been institutionalised and reproduced in different forms even in the best of departments. As someone in the audience remarked, ‘what is Warwick if not white’ – a comment on the demographic that is usually drawn to Warwick. Lola’s talk – as well as its audience – impressed everyone with a defiant gesture: students and staff of colour exist, and are here to stay. Here to resist. Warwick is not always white.
Lola’s talk focused on how institutional silences and curious erasures reproduce forms of white privilege and power. A critically aware intersectionality, she emphasised, is required to understand how race, sexuality, class and gender, among others, impinge on each other to dis/empower certain communities. Situating herself firmly in the rich tradition of Black feminism, the discussion focused on how decolonising efforts need to build a collective language of resistance against the neoliberal university. This decolonising is not just diversification, merely by adding people of colour to otherwise static scripts, but a radical rethinking of structures, relationships and discourses within higher institutions of learning.
The audience was asked to break into small groups to converse on ways such efforts could be built. A robust post-talk Q&A ensued, and student members of the audience engaged in a free-wheeling conversation on the challenges of decolonial feminist work.
The fight is far from over.
P.S: Readers might be interested in Lola’s latest book: Feminism, Interrupted (Pluto Press).