The necessity of Black Studies

An Interview with Dr. Ebun Joseph on Ireland’s first Black Studies module

In their 2019 Action Plan, the Irish Department of Education proclaimed: “We want an education and training system which empowers learners to be confident in their national, cultural and individual identity.” However, in the history of Ireland’s third level education, it wasn’t until last year that a university offered a module devoted to the experience and identity of people of black African descent. 

Dr Ebun Joseph, alongside fellow module coordinator Kathleen Lynch at University College Dublin (UCD) launched Black Studies and Critical Race Perspectives in Education to educate students about Africa and the Black Diaspora outside of Eurocentric paradigms. Dr Joseph was born in Nigeria and has lived in Ireland for the past 17 years. Joseph has an impressive interdisciplinary academic career, with an M.Ed. in Adult Guidance and Counselling, a Bsc. in Microbiology. Working in the RCSI and lecturing in Trinity, she earned her PhD in Equality studies at the UCD School of Social Justice.

In Ireland’s first ever Black Studies module, Joseph seeks to challenge conventional discourse on African history and black culture. She poses questions to her class, such as: why does Medieval historiography leave out Mansa Musa, a West African ruler of the Mali Empire in the 14th century whose inestimable wealth puts Jeff Bezos’ empire to shame? Looking at the imperialist era of the Scramble for Africa, she asks her students if Africa is truly as poor and depraved as its contemporary accounts proposed, if the continent has really contributed nothing to the world, why would nations scramble for nothing? 

Many of them found themselves, took pride in their blackness.”

The objective for the module is not to “indoctrinate my students into a way of thinking. You don’t have to think like me, I just help you to develop how to understand a counter story.” She asks her students to analyse media and pop culture, movies like Selma or music like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. These are black people’s “own way of telling a different story than the dominant discourse that was there”. She asserts that one must, “question even when it is black people who’ve done it because the stereotypes are deep seated.”

Joseph relates that another key emphasis of her elective is to instil her students with a new sense of purpose when approaching the study of Black or Africana studies.  Previous historiography dictates the study of Africa or black people only in relation to their enslavement or subjugation. “Before they were enslaved, they operated, they existed, they did so much, they owned lands… People don’t know that history. And so when you start a people’s history from the thing that went wrong with them, then you have determined the rest of their life.”

Joseph is conscious of young black immigrants’ sense of identity and works to counteract the standard educational message that supplements and justifies the racism and xenophobia they already face. “Ireland is all they know. So this is their identity. And so when the place they think they belong to says: ‘Get out, you don’t belong to us, and call them names,’ it’s damaging”. Joseph argues that through teaching Black Studies, educational institutions can help those of the Black Diaspora find new perspectives on their identity, as well as develop new levels of understanding for non-black people. 

Joseph finds this method imperative in the study of Africa, and expounds on the importance of Ireland’s thorough, complex understanding of the continent. Ireland’s relationship with the continent of Africa is intrinsic, through immigration, volunteering, investment and exports. “So how do you want to be trading with the people and you’re not raising your people to understand the group of people you’re trading with? For me it shows a certain level of disrespect or disregard.” 

The state doesn’t see the need. And if the people who can see the need are not within the system, nothing happens.”

Under Joseph’s school of thought, Critical Race Theory, this is accomplished through engaging with counter-stories. CRT is a theoretical and methodological framework which attributes racial inequalities to structural as opposed to individualised causes. The counter-stories presented in Black Studies “allow us to see how the world looks from behind someone else’s spectacles. They challenge us to wipe off our own lenses and ask, ‘Could I have been overlooking something all along?’” The dominant narratives are propagated by current educational practices, and Joseph calls for academia to “de-center” the narrative that fuels Eurocentric thought. 

Critical Race Theory allows one to engage in the discussion of race in a more nuanced, structured, academic way. “You need to frame it theoretically, because if not, people tell you that it’s only your experience, you’re just being subjective,” says Joseph. “I use this to help people to understand [racism] from a deep level. And not just from an academic level. I’m not telling you something I have just read I am teaching you something that I have experienced and am still experiencing.” She refers to recent personal experiences of racism, including a message sent to her work email where someone  called her “an ape woman”, and that she should be “grateful to white people for rescuing me from Africa,” if not she would have been “raped every week by a black gorilla man.” She posted a screenshot of it to Twitter in her cheery wry miene: “Day 4 of a new decade! Just wondering, do other academics in Ireland who talk about race and racism get this kind of targeted harassment?” Her motivation for sharing this shocking content being “because people say there’s no racism.” 

Separately, a parody Twitter account using her name and face, posts racist satire with underpinnings of anti-immigrant sentiment, accusing her of being elitist and anti-Irish. In describing these moments of prejudice and reception of hate, Dr. Joseph urges for a change in education by introducing Black Studies, claiming that “Black Studies is not just for black students, it’s for everyone. It’s for us to understand. Without it, you’re disadvantaged, blindsided.” 

Beyond the online racist pushback, Joseph describes the positive social media response as large and encouraging. Students from UCD, other universities, and even people who aren’t students email her all the time asking to take the class. But for Joseph, the most striking response was the UCD Africa Society organizing an event called ‘A Glimpse into Black Studies’ for their Black History Month. “I could have fallen off my feet!” Joseph exclaims. Her former students themselves gave an hour long lecture on the importance of the subject. “Many of them found themselves, took pride in their blackness,” says Joseph, “because you can’t peel it off, you can’t wish it away. It goes with you, it’s your calling card of difference, so you have to help people be comfortable living in it.” One girl described that before the class she had only known one side of Black History that excluded black peoples experience and achievements. One girl, shy, recounts how Black Studies taught her the importance of counter-stories: “I didn’t really want to come up here and talk, but I told myself that me coming up and talking about the counter-story and talking about my perspective is me telling my side of the story and giving people the opportunity to learn.” Another says, before quoting and discussing Carter G. Woodson, “I’ve never had a black teacher before.”

Joseph has hope and is assured that good market for Black Studies exists, but says change in education needs to be more urgent. She describes the reason Ireland doesn’t have more modules or even a degree in Black Studies as a domino effect: “If we had more black lecturers within the academy we would push for it. But there are barely any black lecturers. So there is nobody pushing that agenda. The state doesn’t see the need. And if the people who can see the need are not within the system, nothing happens.” After completing the first module last year, Joseph went around to three other universities with no success. While she wants to bring change she says she needs to be financially practical. “So while the while the Academy’s not pushing back, they have not gone out of their way for it. They’re not pushing forward,” says Joseph.

“If you’re seeing inequality and injustice, call it out, ask for diversity. Demand for it.”

Trinity itself in the department of Political Science has a hefty 15 ECT module called African Politics. It’s first learning outcome listed on the syllabus? “On successful completion of this module students should be able to: Articulate the different theoretical and ideological viewpoints on why Africa continues to be the poorest continent.” It’s module content is summarized by “the legacies of colonialism in Africa, post-colonial experiences of authoritarian rule, recent moves towards democracy, the causes and consequences of economic crisis, the persistence of conflict and crises in health.” Dr Joseph does not argue to eliminate modules such as these, but that as the sole academic look at the continent begins and ends with subjugation and suffering, we are teaching a one dimensional view of an entire people and their diaspora. Black Studies is to teach a counter-narrative to complicate this history, not to displace it, Joseph outlines.  For Joseph, the absence of Black Studies modules or degrees is a symptom of racial hierarchical thought as well as part of the production of that problem. Our universities have Jewish Studies, Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies etc,. The absence of Black Studies connotes to students a lack of its importance, complications, and overall merit of serious study. The very first Black Studies degree in Europe was only introduced in 2016 at the University of Birmingham. 

Dr Joseph will be teaching the module Race, Ethnicity and Identity in the School of Sociology. However, focusing on topics ranging from xenophobia, anti-Traveller and Roma racism, Islamophobia and Afrophobia, it still does not devote the singular focus on the black experience Dr. Joseph considers necessary in the education system. 

As the interview ends, I thank Dr Joseph and hold down the record button on my clunky dictaphone. She pauses to recommend an app that transcribes while it records – a revelation almost worth its weight in Mansa Musa’s caravan of gold. Half joking, she says “perhaps it’s better you didn’t for this interview. It sometimes doesn’t understand my accent. See, racism everywhere, even my apps.” Later, after downloading the software and watching in real time as it documents with precision every white American “uh,” “yeah,” and “um,” stumbling from my lips and failing many of the brilliant careful words of the respected academic before me, her thoughts on de-centering racial experience becomes starkly, if not mundanely, poignant.

Students are the only ones inside the institutions who can drive this change and need to be the ones who place demand on their colleges to have Black or Africana Studies, according to Joseph. “They’re the game changers. They should begin to build the future they want by changing it now.” When I ask if she has any final words for the students of Trinity, she charges us to “ask questions. We should be uncomfortable with uncomfortable situations. If we are comfortable with inequality then we are complicit, we become part of the problem… If you’re seeing inequality and injustice, call it out, ask for diversity. Demand for it.”