The first academic of African heritage to be made a professor of history in Britain was today shortlisted for his subject’s most lucrative prize only weeks after being made redundant in a controversial cost-cutting measure.
Professor Hakim Adi, a former London university student and lecturer who leads a campaign group concerned about black under-representation among history students and teachers, is among six contenders for the £50,000 Wolfson History Prize.
He has been selected for his book African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History which was hailed today by the prize judges as an “epic narrative”.
It tells the story of black people in British history ranging from Libyan legionnaires serving in this country in Roman times to radical civil rights groups in 20th century London and the recent Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting their role in achievements such as universal suffrage and the creation of the NHS.
Other books in the running for the prize, whose previous winners include Simon Schama and Mary Beard, include Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London by Oskar Jenson and Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45 by the former King’s College and University College London lecturer Halik Kochanski.
But the most eye-catching shortlist selection is Professor Adi in the wake of the recent decision by Chichester University to make him redundant and suspend the master’s degree course on The History of Africa and the African Diaspora that he taught.
The university has justified the “difficult” decision on the grounds that the course was not financially viable, saying that it had cost more than £700,000 to run since its launch in 2017 but attracted only £150,000 in tuition fee income in return.
It claimed initially in a statement that only one student had graduated from the course in the past three years, but after complaints about inaccuracy, later issued a correction saying that there had only been one graduate since September 2021 - two years ago - and that the figure could rise next month after a meeting of its postgraduate examination board.
But campaigners, who obtained thousands of signatures on a petition to save Prof Adi’s job, warned that his redundancy and the suspension of his course was a sign of the lack of support for black history in this country.
They also attacked the university’s initial claim of only one graduate in the past three years, saying: “There have in fact been nine graduates of the MRes in History of Africa and the African Diaspora in the past three years, six of whom are now undertaking PhDs at the same institution. The claim is inexcusable since the University undoubtedly has a record of past and current students.”
One critic, Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, described it as “nothing less than an attack on black academia”.
She added that it was “no surprise that only one per cent of UK professors are black when a university .. . is willing to sack the UK’s first African-British professor of history and shut down a course created to train black academics.”
Announcing Prof Adi’s inclusion on Wolfson History Prize shortlist today, the judges did not comment on the row, but instead focused on the merits of his book.
They said it was “a comprehensive history of African and Caribbean people in Britain and the vital role they played in the struggle for equality. An epic narrative and a timely book.”
Professor Adi said his selection was “very good news” after his university had left him “consigned to the rubbish bin, under-utilised” by making him redundant and halting his course training other academics in his subject.
“I hope that it will give a much higher profile to all of this work and the subject more generally and the profile that I think it deserves,” he said. “Essentially, it’s the history of Britain over thousands of years, just being looked at from a particular perspective which is untold – the perspective of African and Caribbean people.
“Coming at this particular moment it’s very important and highlights that somebody thinks this history matters.”
The other shortlisted books are Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by the Oxford academic Emma Smith; The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich; and The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison.
The Wolfson History Prize winner, who will receive £50,000, will be announced at a ceremony in London on November 13. The five runners up will each receive £5,000.