Black British Literature in British Universities: a 21st-century Reality?

Joan Anim-Addo
Joan Anim-Addo is
Senior Lecturer in the
Department of English
and Comparative
Literature at Goldsmiths,
University of London,
where she teaches
Caribbean Women’s
Writing, Creative
Writing and Creole
Literature. Her books
include: Touching the
Body: History, Language
and African-Caribbean
Women’s Writing

(Mango Publishing, 2007)
and the poetry
collection, Janie
Cricketing Lady

(Mango Publishing, 2006).

Last spring, we contributed to a panel discussion on teaching Black British literature as part of the On Whose Terms: Critical Negotiations in Black British Literature and the arts conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London (2008), which brought together internationally renowned writers, like Andrea Levy and Malorie Blackman, with critics and teachers. The interaction between panellists and audience presented the opportunity to explore the limited extent to which British universities have made Black British literature a staple aspect of undergraduate courses. We established that other countries, such as the US and Belgium, were more innovative and could provide models for how and why we in the UK should be more concerned, and consistent about the teaching of our full heritage.

Reflecting afterwards, it seems that the key issues are the role that the teaching of English literature plays in defining to whom the English language belongs and by extension whose stories make up the national story, as well as the cultural gate keeping this entails.  It is precisely for such reasons that books are important. As Edward Said once remarked, the task of the humanities is not merely of ‘consolidating and affirming what ‘we’ have always known and felt, but rather a means of questioning, upsetting, and reformulating so much of what is presented to us as commodified, packaged, uncontroversial and uncritically codified certainties, including those contained in the masterpieces herded under the rubric of the classics (2004: 28). Yet, universities, as places of thinking, questioning and understanding, remain damaged by the legacy of race and racism. The teaching of English literature is governed precisely by codified certainties that rank and order what is valued. We suggest that the legacy of race thinking and racism compromises the criteria of what is deemed worthy of inclusion.

Internet searching verifies that, nationally, we teach very few courses on ‘Black British literature’. Yet, to state this empirical fact is to inevitably open up the humanistic can of worms. On the one hand, the liberal sensibilities of a few colleagues are offended since, deeply interested, they have sought to be inclusive by adding selected texts to existing courses. On the other hand, the more rigid cultural gatekeepers in our English departments, when pressed, sniff about quality and readily dismiss contemporary literature to what one English professor referred to recently as ‘Mickey Mouse universities’. Whether or not such an offensively evaluative comment referred to ‘new’ universities, we suggest that such reactions reveal unpleasant realities about the degree to which the Humanities and our departments of English are cast in racism’s shadow, especially given increasing information concerning the relative absence of black and ethnic minority students from ‘top’ universities. The situation is starkly illustrated in the analysis which highlights: ‘Shockingly, there are more students of black Caribbean origin at London Metropolitan University than all the Russell Group Universities put together’ (Sims citing Curtis, 2007: 4).

Les Back
Les Back is Professor
of Sociology at
Goldsmiths, University
of London, where
he teaches courses
on race, racism,
popular culture,
globalisation and
cultural politics.
  His books include The
Art of Listening
(Berg, 2007) and Out
of Whiteness
of Chicago, 2002).

From the outset, it needs to be stated that our perceptions of realities within the Humanities is coloured, so to speak, by different locations. On the one hand, Joan speaks from a space characterised as one with a distinct ‘lack of ebony’ (Bunting, 2004) and as a rare, black, female, tenured scholar with a particularised interest in seeing herself reflected on the page. On the other, Les is a white male teacher for whom Black British literature provides a resource to enrich his pedagogy. Together, we share a sense that the Humanities remain, in large part, concerned only with a small fraction of the human family. How this relates to one of the profound conceits of Empire, which ignored or disparaged those citizen migrants who came to the ‘Motherland’ in the Windrush generation, is yet to be researched. While much has changed, the legacy of Empire is still in evidence and we have a long way to go before we can realise a truly multicultural university.

What does this mean? Setting aside the historical presence of a complex black diaspora – Black African, African-Caribbean, Black British – and its literature(s) in the UK, results in ignorance revealed in the most casual of academic exchanges. So, when on introducing a senior member of an English department to a new MPhil/PhD student researching Black British literature, he queried, ‘is there enough material for a PhD?’, the question raised grave concern. It is astonishing that a university teacher of literature could say such a thing given the mass appeal of writers like Andrea Levy and Malorie Blackman or the historical legacy of writers like Samuel Selvon and George Lamming or, indeed, the post-emancipation appeal of Mrs Seacole and, going back to the literature of freed slaves, the autobiography of, for example, Olaudah Equiano. As the saying goes, in the abundance of water only the fool is thirsty.

This is not simply a matter of unawareness. Our overarching blindness to the need for the teaching of Black British literature in UK universities is at once historical and ultimately political. Last year was, after all, the bi-centenary of the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, a moment about which Joan has written elsewhere as one marking the beginnings of universal recognition of the black body as human (Anim-Addo, forthcoming). By way of reminder, prior to that moment, there had been global agreement that African-heritage people were chattel, that is, not human and, significantly, could not think. Enlightened humanist philosophers such as Kant and Hume confirmed the lowly position of ‘negroes’, that is, those we now perceive as black people and who were confirmed as human only with the end of the trans-Atlantic trade in black bodies. How, then, could these ‘new’ humans be writing much that might be valued and taught in our universities? If they have, indeed, produced a range of books why are they not visible in our bookshops? Most importantly, where are the reviews in prestigious journals? The questions lead inevitably to whether the quality of available writing merits inclusion. After all, as the 18th-century philosopher warned, such writing may well represent slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly (Hume, cited in Eze, 1997: 33).

Space does not permit attention to the range of questions indicated above. Rather, the absence or invisibility of such writing within our academy remains of intense interest since, it seems clear that it is precisely through literature that some of the most articulate black voices have sought to open up and address the absences in the way that the British historical experience has been narrated. At the same time, there appears among the wider reading public to be a genuine thirst for, and an appreciation of, the role that Black British literature has played in working out or working through the legacy of empire and the complexities of postcolonial life. For example, Andrea Levy’s multiple prize-winning novel, Small Island, sold a half a million copies worldwide in its first year of publication. We might also cite the commercial success of Zadie Smith or Monica Ali as additional evidence. This public interest in Black British literature is not reflected in our universities and particularly in departments of English that cling to a literary canon that either ignores or challenges the inclusion of Black British writers within the curriculum.

The meanings of this may be examined in terms of two key questions: first, what happens to Black women’s literature when it is ‘subjected exclusively to critical approaches’ albeit, ‘useful and illuminating’, which do not foreground or give primacy to ‘black women’s experiences and intellectual traditions?’ (Lee, 1995: 201). The second question refers to students denied access to Black women’s theorising and who experience an intellectual tradition marked by the invisibility of Black scholars. In the case of UK universities, and particularly within the Humanities, it is not enough that even rare access to Black scholarship underscores a corresponding absence of those who might be considered our own home-grown Black British literary scholars and who might offer a particular leadership in the field. Anticipating more objections on grounds of ‘quality’, it may be enlightening, perhaps, to point to the identifiable trend of a black brain drain away from British academic culture that ‘is stifling’ Black academics (Christian, 2006).

Lee’s questions might, then, be transposed so as to highlight Black absence and or invisibility at professorial and critical leadership levels within universities impacting upon the educational, pedagogical and cultural provision for Black British literature in the UK. While not wishing to promote the fallacy that only Black scholars might be interested to develop Black British literature, it cannot be denied that we have a situation here in Britain where there are signally few Black literary scholars recognised as such at the highest level, and correspondingly few courses focused centrally on the literature. In our universities, specifically in our English departments, there is a troubling absence of Black scholars to effectively counter the dormant myth of racial inferiority, of lack of reason and of an inability to produce knowledge. Discussion with students and interested colleagues in the UK and continental Europe confirms that while the under-representation of Black students and academics is rarely challenged, the assumption persists that absence correlates with a non-production of knowledge that might be valued. As one reflective student told Joan, ‘I suppose we have to wait for new course areas to come to the fore.’ That he could not imagine black academics teaching the core areas of an English curriculum is one matter; that new course areas such as Black British writing so rarely surface is deeply problematic.

As HESA figures confirm, of approximately 10 Black female professors in the UK, at least five are in nursing. We have yet to discover one in the Humanities.

Our concern then is with black intellectual traditions, including specifically that of literary scholarship in the UK. However, the flagging of gender within this discussion is deliberate, since it is our contention that, regardless of the growing body of academic rhetoric concerning equality, this issue nestles within the wider unspoken debate concerning a corresponding absence or invisibility of women at professorial and critical leadership levels within the Humanities. As Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures confirm, of approximately 10 black female professors in the UK, at least five are in nursing (Bunting). We have yet to discover one in the Humanities. So, ‘the Black woman’ figures these absences metaphorically and literally.

Only too perniciously, while our academic community is denied access to ‘black women’s theorising’, specifically concerning this corpus of literary texts, this under-representation serves to regenerate the persistent pattern of white interpreters ‘speaking for’ and about, and seldom in dialogue with Black people. Yet, if there is scope for enthusiasm it springs importantly from the voices of Black writers themselves or the ‘new’ humans that the Humanities so reluctantly acknowledge. This is what Sylvia Wynter refers to as ‘a second self-assertion’ concerned with ‘altering of our systems of meanings, and their privileged texts’ (1990: 365). Wynter’s novel Hills of Hebron was published, here in London, in 1962, following her period of postgraduate study at London University. The notion of the ‘new human’ is borrowed from her theoretical writing for the irony it allows in terms of alluding to the legal recognition of African-heritage people ‘in the West’ as humans only in the 19th-century.

The problem is under-representation of Black students in universities generally and in English departments in particular which then feeds through into the under-representation of Black staff in English departments.

Although Black British literature cannot usually be considered part of the ‘privileged texts’ of our institutions, the cultural production that concerns us is crucially about Wynter’s particularised ‘self-assertion’. This ‘self-assertion’ is precisely what causes the literature to flower, despite the difficult conditions of production. Equally, the situation in British universities, specifically within English departments – as we have described it – cannot be maintained. The profile of students studying English makes this situation even more urgent. Depressingly, though access and widening participation initiatives are having an effect on who now attends university, statistically, English stubbornly remains a degree taken up by white, middle-class, young women. Based on an analysis of 2004 UCAS forms, 91% of applicants for English degrees are white, 72% are female, 86% are under twenty years old, and 73% come from higher socio-economic groups (Gawthrope, 2007: 30). One might argue that because of the evident lack of diversity among its students, English departments should be working harder to attract more ethnically diverse students and a place to start might be with curriculum change. The advantages of the reading of Black British experience here might be two-fold: first, it would enable white middle-class students to access a broader sense of the human condition; and second, if Black and ethnic minority students saw themselves reflected in the curriculum they might find the prospect of an English degree more attractive. Academics generally imagine this lack to be insignificant to ethnic minorities. Such under-estimation should not be trusted. Rather, we wonder how many parents, like Joan, have counselled their loved ones against studying English at university because its curriculum is so ‘lodged in the past’ to borrow from Stuart Hall (Back, forthcoming) that it negates the very existence of thinking Black people, their literature and intellectual traditions.

In the mid 1980s, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe commented upon the newness of Black women’s writing – mainly from the US – and the remoteness of the idea in Britain of Black women’s writing. The situation has altered in the intervening years, but an appreciation of this literature within the academy remains hindered, especially by Black authors being viewed as a callow novelty. Therefore, despite our long-established Black presence, it proves easier to find courses on Black British literature in the US than in the UK. In the face of this we might question: Who is teaching this literature in the UK and where? A simple Google search using the keywords ‘Black British literature courses UK’ returns zero hits. Variations of the keywords direct attention to ‘Postcolonial’ literature courses. The University of Leeds, ‘MA in Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies’, usefully illustrates the possibilities of promise and delivery. Their 1-year full-time course (2 years part time) bravely offers a range of optional modules covering ‘the literatures of South East Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as well as Black British Writing’ (

Girl reading

Increasingly, financial realities conspire to deny the promise of such literary riches, and questions about who will teach persists. The situation is necessarily complex. Less experienced colleagues, with both the interest and expertise, may well propose such courses, which then become most vulnerable to cuts. A similar effect applies for colleagues at institutions with high teaching loads and, correspondingly, little research time where courses are undertaken but remain invisible to the research community. Equally, research-led teaching may be dependent upon the interest of senior colleagues who are already over-stretched though prepared to tolerate the suspicion that their research on Black British writing is perhaps not quite as stringent as it might be if it were focused on canonical Victorian or Renaissance literature.

Leeds is, of course, not to be singled out in its practice. Edinburgh offers details of a comparable semester-long ‘Postcolonial Poetry’ course which, while ‘including Scottish, Irish and Canadian verse’, offers the ‘main focus’ of ‘Caribbean and Black British’ poetry ( While this narrower focus offers a greater certainty in terms of content, the course also allows some insight into the provision available, as well as some appreciation of the handful of enthusiasts who fashion crucial provision often in the face of little real commitment from our institutions. The picture is consistently patchy at undergraduate level. A difference is that ‘Black British Writing’ is unambiguously offered as an optional ‘unit’ at South Bank University and at the University of Warwick. Given the under-representation of these courses, we consider it premature to adopt any prescriptive position. The plurality itself is to be applauded.

What kind of student audience is there for Black British literature? Often, in planning, there is the assumption that Black students will take up the courses when offered but somehow white students will not find them attractive. This is not the case, though similar thinking prevails in the ‘rejection slips’ of publishers when they suggest that there is no ‘market’ for the literature. Andrea Levy commented in 2005: ‘Publishers have a herd mentality. They were worried that I’d be read only by black people – less than a million and they don’t read anyway ...’ (Allardice, 2005). Dare we suggest that English professors have a herd mentality too?

In the UK, as in much of Europe, the ‘Academy’, may seem from the perspective of the Black student to be an ivory tower in more than one sense. This underscores the issue of the under-representation of Black faculty within the Humanities and by inference within English departments of many universities. While statistical evidence is unavailable, Wakeling’s paradigmatic linking of postgraduates produced by an institution to the ‘socio-demographic composition of the discipline’s personnel’ (Wakeling, 946), serves to confirm the likelihood that, given the composition of English faculty, the reality of under-representation is set to continue.

We are emphatically not proposing that Black literature be viewed as the exclusive property of Black critics and scholars, but we are saying that Black intellectual voices should be part of the communities of interpretation, criticism and knowledge production.

We are emphatically not proposing that Black literature be viewed as the exclusive property of Black critics and scholars, but we are saying that Black intellectual voices should be part of the communities of interpretation, criticism and knowledge production. Given the dismal projection, above, it is not simply a matter of viewing the role of Black British literature as providing the means for an increasingly diverse student body to see themselves in the curriculum. The problem is under-representation of Black students in universities generally, and in English departments in particular, which then feeds through into the under-representation of Black staff in English departments.

We wish to argue that Black British literature is integral to understanding British history and our current predicament.  An Andrea Levy or George Lamming novel allows its readers to inhabit the historical imagination as citizen migrants. This experience is not a separate story but part of our collective historical narrative. In addition to the crucial significance of their aesthetics, these texts challenge the provincialism of the national identity question and point to imperial interconnections, linking the fates as well as certain divisions along the lines of colour and shade. “Britain is finally beginning to gather up its more distant voices and listen to the rich stories they have to tell, stories that are as central to the history of Britain and British literature as anything we are more familiar with,” concludes Andrea Levy. In the 21st-century, this gathering up of voices is not taking place in our universities to the extent to that it should be. Rather, Black British literature remains, at best, marginal.

To conclude, British universities remain ivory towers in which the legacy of racism affects and damages academic judgments and hierarchies of value. Put bluntly, the absence of Black British literature on the curriculum is a result of a genteel racism that colours intellectual judgments. Thus, Black British literature, under-valued by colleagues, is not widely taught. The invisibility of Black/ethnic minority staff members in English departments compounds this situation and re-enforces the under-representation of ‘blackness’, particularly in academic areas, such that white students remain ignorant that they are even missing out on a particular literary tradition, while their black and brown peers perceive English as a subject of little positive value to them. This situation cannot be transformed overnight by specialist courses. Indeed, much discussion remains concerning the presence of Black writing within specialist courses or their integration within the core content of English programmes of study. Our contention is that, here in the UK, we are merely at the beginning of a process that is ultimately inescapable. This is because what is finally at stake in the teaching of Black British literature is the realisation of the multicultural university that admits fully the diversity of humankind on the curriculum, at the lectern and in the classroom. Only then will the Humanities be truly deserving of its name.

* A Report on the Subject Centre event: Teaching Black Literature and the Arts: At Home and Abroad is also available.


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Back, Les. ‘At Home and Not At Home: Stuart Hall in Conversation with Les Back,’ Cultural Studies (forthcoming).

Bryan, Beverley, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe. The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. London: Virago, 1985.

Bunting, Chris. ‘Distinct lack of ebony in the ivory towers’. The Times Higher Education, 4 March, 2005.

Christian, Mark. ‘Why do we go abroad? There are no opportunities for us in Britain’. The Times Higher Education, 22 October, 2004.

Curtis, Polly. ‘Black students failing to get into top universities.’ The Guardian, Tuesday 3 January, 2006.

Eze, Emmanuel, Chukwudi. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Gawthrope, Jane. ‘Is English a Young, White, Female, Middle-Class Subject?’ English Subject Centre Newsletter 13, October, 2007.

Lee, Valerie. ‘Testifying Theory: Womanist Intellectual Thought’. Women: A Cultural Review, 6, (Autumn 1995: 2000–6).

Said, Edward. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Sims, Jessica Mai. ‘Not Enough Understanding? Student Experiences of Diversity in UK Universities’. London: Runnymede, March, 2007.

Wakeling, Paul. ‘White Faces, Black Faces: Is British Sociology a White Discipline?’  Sociology, Vol. 41, No. 5 (2007:945-960)

Wynter, Sylvia. ‘Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/Silencing the ‘Demonic Ground of Caliban’s Woman’. In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, eds. Carole Boyce Davies & Elaine Savory Fido. New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1990, 355–72.

-----. Hills of Hebron. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.

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