Beaver

LSE fails to put the ‘History’ in Black History Month

Illustration by Lea Pelleteret

Despite attempts over recent years to address Eurocentrism in LSE’s curriculum, the School’s undergraduate offerings on Black and African history remain limited. 

According to the LSE Department of International History website, only 3 out of 29 permanent faculty members mention Africa in their research interests, with one of the three being on sabbatical leave for this academic year. None of the current teaching fellows or visiting staff in the department state Africa as a research interest. 

By contrast, other British universities are taking proactive steps to incorporate Black history into their curriculums. Earlier this year, the University of Cambridge appointed Dr Michael Joseph as its first lecturer in Black British history. Dr Joseph specialises in the history of the British and French Caribbean and will expand the university’s teaching of “Caribbean history, black British history, and the history of the black diaspora more broadly”.

Professor Alex Walsham, Chair of the Faculty of History at Cambridge, said in an article, “His appointment advances our commitment to renewing and broadening our curriculum and to widening participation in our undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.”

Such developments beg the question: Where is the Black history at LSE? 

According to a faculty member at the Department of International History, as part of an anonymous interview, the School is “long overdue for appointments on the history of Africa”. The high student demand for Black and African history is evidenced by choices of dissertation topics and the popularity of the limited number of Black history modules, but the supply remains far from sufficient.

Out of the 36 undergraduate modules offered by the Department, only two explicitly address Black history:

  • HY333 Enslavement, Commerce, and Political Formations in West Africa, c. 1550-1836
  • HY246 The Global Caribbean: Colonialism, Race and Revolutions 1780s-1980s 

It is notable that both of the above modules compress more than 200 years of Black history into single courses. By contrast, many of the other European history modules offered by the department revolve around historical periods of between 5 and 50 years. 

A third-year student taking HY333 this year said that, while it is “refreshing” to finally be able to do a module focused on Black history, it is a “shame” that she had to wait until her final year to delve into it. She argues the need for a more diverse range of history modules to avoid mischaracterising Black and African history as a “monolith”:

“Even calling it ‘African history’ is kind of problematic, in my opinion, since Africa is huge and its history is so extensive. Whilst I appreciate the opportunity to be able to [study African history], more needs to be done to ensure that African history gets the same representation and dedication as other courses.”

Other students have pointed out the Black history narratives offered by modules such as HY333 and HY246 are largely insufficient as they appear to only emphasise themes such as the transatlantic slave trade and Black history in relation to Western imperialism. Consequently, precolonial, regional, and postcolonial African histories remain virtually unexplored. 

A first-year history student sums up the above argument: “[The department] covers[s] everything from early modern European states to world war history… But how about learning more of the multicultural history Africa has to share outside of colonialism?”

The solution, according to the student, lies in “decolonising” the curriculum, which is about “being more accurate, inclusive and interculturally responsive” and hence addressing both sides of the story.

It is important to note that the department does offer other modules that don’t explicitly revolve around Black history but which still address aspects of it. These include: 

  • HY113 From Empire to Independence: The Extra-European World in the Twentieth Century
  • HY240 From Empire to Commonwealth: war, race and imperialism in British History, 1780 to the present day

Whilst these modules may not directly address Black history, they do emphasise African and Asian narratives. Another first-year history student pointed out that, despite the “noticeable lack of explicitly non-European modules”, modules such as HY113 have been particularly useful in providing a counterweight to the Eurocentrism in the department. The student further explained that although HY113 covers the same period as HY116 (“International Politics since 1914: Peace and War”), it employs an “extra-European perspective” with an emphasis on African and Asian narratives, thereby offering a multidimensional representation of the twentieth century.  

However, The Beaver has received a tip about the history department being in talks of potentially replacing the HY113 module. The new module, according to the tip, will retain certain elements of its predecessor but will ultimately focus on transnational networks. This is hugely consequential as it would omit the single-country analysis of various Asian and African countries. For instance, the Rwandan Genocide, one of the most popular topics covered by the module, will likely be disregarded. 

It should be acknowledged, however, that LSE’s history department is relatively small and therefore does not have the same number of faculty members at its disposal as other larger UK universities. Nonetheless the diversity in its module offerings remains minimal. 

According to the 2018 Student Equality and Diversity Data, more than 44 percent of LSE’s student body identifies with a non-white ethnicity, hence raising questions about the need for the School’s academic offerings to be representative of the student body. 

A first-year history student said, “I wanted to feel included in the past and feel a sense of belonging by hearing the voices of people I share an identity with. LSE has a notorious reputation for its diversity and so why can’t they do the same for their courses?”

Professor Nicholas Ludlow, Head of the Department of International History, was not immediately available for comment.

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