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Five minutes with… Olivette Otele

Dr Olivette Otele is a historian of transnational colonial history at the College of Liberal Arts, Bath Spa University. Her latest book, a history Afro-Europeans will be released next year. 

What is an historian?

A person who seeks to not only understand, to write histories that influence our comprehension of the past. He/she is passionate about trajectories and experiences that shaped societies. A historian is someone who enjoys examining what guides communities’ choices in various areas.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

The need to understand who we are as human beings and what led us to such uneven relationships. I wanted to work on poetry/literature but a huge sense of injustice and the need to inquire into the roots of inequality took over. I wanted to study power struggles and resistance movements in societies. Clio might be personified as a woman, but for centuries women’s work as historians was not deemed relevant. I wanted to help change that. I aimed at being me, a woman racialised as black and an even better version of wonderful historians such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Cheikh Anta Diop and Elikia M’Bokolo, whilst using a multidisciplinary approach to analyse historical events. I was determined to make African-American historian and activist Anna Julia Cooper proud. I set up to defy French historian Hyppolyte Taine by using his very rigorous methods while telling the story in a much more humane way. In that journey, I found bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Toyin Falola, Michel Foucault, Theophile Obenga, Achille Mbembe, Francoise Verges, Ibrahima Thioub, Myriam Cottias, and many other historians and thinkers from other disciplines. They have helped me grow as an intellectual and human being. As I read new research from vibrant historians I keep learning and I am enjoying the journey.

Is there one history book you couldn’t do without?

I can’t choose one. I constantly read (my best and worst form of procrastination…) all sorts of books; more poetry and literature than history, but there’s one book I keep coming back to and it’s pure escapism. I don’t remember how many times I’ve read it, but it always takes me to far far away lands: The Travels of Ibn Battuta.

What is your favourite website for historical research?

Good old National Archives and Archives Nationales. I also read a huge number of history websites like … The History Vault!

Do you have a favourite historical site?

The seas and oceans: they are places of war, rebellion, exchange, trade, human connections, etc. They have contributed to the birth of our modern societies in so many ways.

You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?

I’d go back to spend one day with Queen Nzinga in the 1630s-1640s and learn about her tactics and strategies as a military leader and a diplomat who fought against the Portuguese colonisation in what is known nowadays as Angola.

What is your normal working pattern?

I wake up at 4:50: stretch, exercise (or just lie down on a mat and think), work about 1h30/2hrs. Then kids, breakfast, school runs if I can – it depends on my timetable that year. I then go to university and teach. This year, with the grants, I mainly spend my days at the archives, at home writing or engaging with activists and community members.

On the weekend I try and stay away from the computer and indulge in my passion for the sea (water sports), seascape photography, cook for friends and relax. I don’t really have a strict working regime. I’ve learn to work around my family commitments and make time (for instance sleeping less:  not healthy but I try to catch up on weekends).

Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?

I’ll indulge in writing poetry and novels about historical events and the people connected to them.

Why is history important today?

I still (naively I’m told) believe that understanding the past and who we are as people will show us the way forward. History is about sharing stories and coming together as communities of people. That’s why one of my main areas of research is memory and memorialisation of the past. I often hear that history repeats itself. It doesn’t really. What does repeat is our desire to ignore history and place our own insecurities and greed above our ability to create beauty and bring about equality. So, understanding that each one of us has the power to make our world an interesting and wonderful place is crucial. Historians don’t just tell stories. They engage with the workings of human nature. Even ‘just’ telling the story is a powerful act that can be turned into a tool for social justice.

What is your best historical fact?

When I found out that the resistance leader (to German colonisation in Kamerun), Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, travelled to Germany and UK around 1912. It was this story that gave me the idea to write a book on the history of Afro-Europeans. The volume is coming together slowly but, hopefully, nicely. It will be published by Hurst in 2018.


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