Skip to navigationSkip to content
College students dance in front of Westminster Abbey in London. Olivette Otele this week became the first black woman professor of history in the UK.
AP Photo/Gero Breloer
About time.
MAKING HISTORY

The UK’s first black female history professor says history has taught her kindness

By Cassie Werber

A woman who studies the slave trade might be expected to think a lot about violence. Indeed, one popular way to conceptualize history as a whole is as a series of bloody encounters from which only a few emerged unscathed to then write the books about it.

But Olivette Otele, who this week became the first black woman professor of history in the UK, has taken some much more positive messages from her field of study. Otele, who has Cameroonian heritage (she speaks three of that country’s languages as well as English and French) and took her first degree at the Sorbonne university in Paris, told History Today that the most important lesson history had taught her was kindness.

“We exist because many before us have survived hardship and have chosen to share their space, resources and stories,” Otele said. As a scholar, the discipline had also taught her humility, she added. “We very rarely discover anything, but reinterpret and add to palimpsests.”

Otele, who is now research professor at Bath Spa University in the southwest of England, specializes in collective memory and geopolitics, particularly related to Britain and France’s colonial histories. When announcing her appointment on Twitter she said she hoped it would form another stepping stone for black women towards achieving their goals:

She also talks about finding such role models herself. Imagining ideal dinner party guests—a classic interview question—Otele chose three women who had inspired her: writer and teacher Suzanne Césaire, Anna Julia Cooper, one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctoral degree, and Anna Nzinga, a 17th-century Angolan queen. “Their determination, diplomatic skills, resilience and commitment to their causes taught me that friendship, support, and collective effort are at the heart of many success stories. Their trajectories also taught me that when one rises, one should always support those who helped so that they too can achieve their dreams.”

Bath Spa University confirmed that Otele was the first woman of Afro-Carribbean heritage to hold the title of history professor in the UK.

When it comes to violence and its opposite, Otele seems to agree with psychologist Stephen Pinker, who has argued that we are living in the most peaceful time our species has known. When asked which period in history she would most like to have lived, she chose today. “Now is a good place for me as a scholar and a black woman,” she said to History Today in January. This week it got a little bit better.