Two decades ago, I discussed the idea of doing a PhD on Mary Prince with a Senior Lecturer from a Russell Group university. “It’s already been done.” he retorted. And then, a little more spirited, he said, “There’s something I want to show you.” I swivelled in his direction on the chair in his small book-crammed office. He opened two large doors to reveal ceiling-to-floor of spine-bound brown books. “This is where PhDs end up”, the Doctor of Philosophy concluded glibly. A few days later, he sent me an essay on Mary Prince written by one of his students, published on the University’s website. I was highly critical of the essay’s central argument but had neither the language nor the platform to challenge it.
Fast forward to 2019 when my PhD supervisor at the University of Wolverhampton, Ben Colbert, drew my attention to the BARS Stephen Copley Award. I carefully read the brief and informed Ben that, “I can’t see myself in this.” Ben assured me that I would be fine and much to my surprise, I won the award which took me to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to investigate the archives of the pro-slavery journalist, James MacQueen. Consequently, I presented a paper in the NASSR/BARS conference in August 2022 called ‘Antics and Theatrics: British and West Indian newspaper/periodical (Re)presentations of Mary Prince’.
I often describe my PhD journey as a dense forest in which I have created a path but as I walk down the route I have carefully constructed, the path, almost of its own accord, branches out in different directions. This tests my discipline to stay on track. Occasionally, I find a tangential lane irresistible – I tell myself that I’m not changing directions, just modifying the shape of the path a little. Such was the case when I saw the invitation to apply for a new BARS award. Besides (I told myself) opportunities rarely appear in a timely fashion and the Mary Prince website – my main reason for applying for the BARS President’s Fellowship – had been at the back of my mind for some time.
As an African Caribbean scholar, I am keenly aware that since Britain’s clumsy attempts to dismantle the infrastructural evidence of chattel slavery and colonisation, this sceptred isle has been uneasy with itself and its relationship with the Caribbean ‘other’. I am also acutely mindful of the fragmentation and the invisibilities of African Caribbean histories which lead me to continually examine my own role as a black scholar.
Since beginning my PhD research, I have observed a number of historical milestones – the Windrush scandal (2018); the Covid pandemic (2020 onwards); the murder of George Floyd (May 2020) and the international protests which followed led by Black Lives Matter (BLM). These events have intensified my self-scrutiny as a black scholar in the academic spaces within which I interact.
In addition to global protests from America to Japan and from Brazil to Israel, George Floyd’s murder sparked a spate of activity and conscientisation world-wide. For instance, in July 2020 all the top 10 books on the New York Times’s bestseller list were about racism. And closer to home, Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race became the first books by British black women to top the UK’s fiction and non-fiction paperback charts, respectively. The businesses of many of my friends who worked in HR and Diversity thrived from a surge in soul-searching by institutions all over Britain. I was asked to run courses in Decolonising the Curriculum but like many of my HR consultant friends, my optimism was short-lived; complaints amounted to the same weary conclusion: “They’re still not listening”. My decolonisation courses were poorly attended – they had been quickly added to educational programmes with little thought about objectives, publicity and so on. But at least the establishments had put them on – Tick!
Even before the public murder of George Floyd, this experience of institutional short-termism was all-too common amongst black professionals like me. I have concluded a long time ago that often white institutions do not listen with the intention of gaining new knowledge and to consider how they will adjust their central position in response. They, especially universities, owing to their long-established position of power through the dispensation and validation of knowledge, believe in their own superiority. Consequently, new knowledge serves to reinforce their elevated sense of selves and high positions in society and further entrenchment of their dominant culture. This is epitomised in the oft paraded statement that universities are ‘custodians of knowledge.’
BARS has reawakened some kind of hope that all may not be lost with ‘the custodians of knowledge’. Having only attended one BARS conference and interacted with BARS members, I believe that the organisation’s soul-searching long pre-dated the events of May 2020. For me, BARS is a scholars’ community who is always asking questions. Not only did the BARS President’s Fellowship scheme appeal to people of colour but I was also attracted to the award’s openness; the elasticity of the remit evidenced that BARS want to listen, want to grow with its membership and because of its membership – in short, to be relevant. So, I had no hesitation in applying.
Everything about my vision to create and launch a website during Women’s International week, aimed at local community access was realised on Monday March 6 at 2pm at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. My event, ‘Am I a Woman or a Slave; the Formidable Layers of Mary Prince’, sold out twice on Eventbrite. The audience from the Windrush generation and younger, non-academics and scholars gathered in one space and discussed issues which arose from my presentation about Mary Prince’s narrative, The History of Mary Prince; A West Indian Slave Related by Herself. Choreographer Aderonke Fadare and her dance troupe performed an original piece interpreting the Mary Prince story. I also devised WomanChat – a panel of African Caribbean women who responded from their own perspectives to my presentation and Aderonke’s dance performance. These brilliant women chaired by Ruth Minott were as follows: Nicola Taylor Brown, a PhD researcher in Criminology and Women; Pat Clarke, chief executive of the Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation; Kerensa Hodges, an MA student in Artificial Intelligence, Dr Nneoma Otuegbe, researcher in Black women’s fiction, and our choreographer, Aderonke Fadare. This was followed by a Q and A.
Mayor Sandra Samuels opened the event. She was the first black woman to have held the post in Wolverhampton. So, it was apposite that she delivered the keynote speech about Mary Prince, the first black woman to have had her slave narrative published. Mayor Samuel’s closing remarks in her warm speech, were simple and resonant – ‘Take care of yourselves’.
When I cast my mind back to 2004, I now imagine that my retort to the glib response “It’s already been done” should have been “Shakespeare’s works are four centuries old but he’s still being done”. And as a custodian of my own knowledge, I continue to tread gently through the dense forest which is my PhD, taking care to value, validate and valorise the scattered fragments of our diasporic African Caribbean literary histories.
I would like to thank Dr Helen Davies, my supervisor who supported my application and Dr Nicola Allen; Professor Sebastian Groes who supported an additional application to the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Transcultural and Transnational Research (CTTR) – this grant paid for Aderonke and her dancers. I would like to thank BARS for making me feel that I belong with this thriving scholars’ community, and naturally, I am very grateful to have been made the first recipient of the President’s Fellowship. And of course, I am ever grateful to my supervisor Dr Ben Colbert who ‘saw me’ when I couldn’t see myself in this scholastic space. Nuff Respect, Ben!
Ifemu Omari is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research explores the paratextual apparatus around the slave narrative The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831). Ifemu is passionate about public engagement with diverse and non-academic communities. Examples of this are: ‘The Whip-In Conversation with Juliet Gilkes Romero’, (on-line interview, October 2020); ‘This Book Was Not Meant For Us – A Fresh Look at the History of Mary Prince’, (on-line presentation, November 2021); ‘From Struggle to Freedom’ – A series of weekly seminars at the Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation (in person, Oct – Dec, 2021); ‘The Uses of Literature: Arts, Culture and Wellbeing in Times of Crisis’ (in-person panellist, April 2022); ‘The Big Book Review: Reviewing Shakespeare’ (in-person presentation with Prof. Sebastian Groes, May 2022); ‘An Interactive Pictorial Seminar of Memories, Fun and a few explorations based on the Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon’ (in-person presentation, June 2022). She taught Literature for 14 years at Fircroft College, Birmingham and has also taught Literature at the Universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. She was shortlisted for the BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinkers’ scheme (2021).
For more about the BARS President’s Fellowship, see the link below: