Olivette Otele: “SOAS is the place to be”

Professor Olivette Otele is a world-renowned historian, author of African Europeans: An Untold History (2020) and was the first Black woman to be appointed to a professorial chair in History in the UK. She joins SOAS as a Distinguished Research Professor of the Legacies and Memory of Slavery within the Faculty of Law. We sat down with Olivette to learn more about her new post and what she’s looking forward to the most.

Your new role is in the SOAS Faculty of Law. What led to your transition from History to this new direction? 

It was a natural transition for me. I’ve worked a lot on the legacies of the past, but in terms of the cultural traces of those legacies, particularly in relation to how we remember the past and what we do about that regarding resilience and surviving trauma.

So for me, it’s more to do now with the idea of restorative justice. It has been widely explored already, but I want to focus on this in relation to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery or enslavement, depending on the term we want to use. And the legal aspect of it has also been explored. But I want to work on that further. My last position at The University of Bristol was about looking at the relationship that the university, and universities as a whole, have with the past. What was interesting for me was to think, how do we change after we’ve looked at all these things? How we address inequalities that are related to that past? And the notion of restorative justice has appealed to me for quite a few decades now, but I felt that I wasn’t ready to work on this, and I didn’t have the tools. I do now.

What do you think those tools are? 

Before that, I looked at legacies, but not in depth at their legal side. So although my PhD was actually on memory and politics, I had focused entirely on cultural aspects and on memory, trauma and recovery. The practical sides of restorative justice are financial, but they are also broader than the notion of just giving some money to a group or not. They are wider and quite dynamic because they have been evolving in the last few years and do not look the same in the UK as in France, for example.

What interests me as well is something that is really shaping conversations around equity in a broader sense, be it political, legal, social, or economic. The question of equity is linked to the legacies of the past and is at the heart of issues that affect us all as a community of people living in the UK at this point in time.

Is that an important part of your new Distinguished Research Professorship? 

Yes, it’s crucial to me. I’ve come to a point in my career and my life where I want to see the practical ramifications of my work. I mean, people have told me that my work has had an impact on them in various ways, but I want us to dig deeper and work further and beyond than individual impact.

Do you know what projects you'll be working on? 

At the moment, there are several paths. One is to continue the work I do with communities and the paths toward restorative justice. In the process, we need to interrogate what we mean by restorative and what justice looks like. That is important because we all attach various meanings within communities to these words but to work on a plan we need to come to an agreement as to what we mean by restorative justice at local and national levels in the UK, and it all translates into action. Equally important is how what it looks like when you bring politics and law together.

I still believe that the journey toward that is also to examine the notion of restorative justice itself using trauma and genocide studies. From that, we can also analyse how restorative justice can open ways towards recovery from trauma and uses creativity as resistance. The term has evolved greatly in within disciplines in Humanities, so the multidimensional aspect of it also needs to guide us. Is justice the end game, or is there something more? Could that something be more about the ability for communities to bounce back and to create new meaning for citizens?

Restorative justice is often seen in terms of money. How do we move the conversation away from just money? 

We need to address the question of money because so many inequalities are based on that, but receiving money is not the end of it all. Some damages can’t be repaired only with money. We need to think about broader consequences, for example, the discrimination and exclusion we have seen in our educational institutions. For instance, we’ve seen Child Q searched in school, young Christopher Kapessa who was pushed into the river and drowned in Wales, or young Raheem Bailey fleeing bullies and losing his finger. So, there are ramifications to discrimination and racism. In these examples funds to support these families besides psychological assistance are crucial. However, these do not qualify as restorative justice. The damage cannot be repaired, but we can work on preventing similar horrid incidents to happen.

We need to think perhaps more broadly about what led to that. What kind of society has created an environment that made these attacks on children possible? We must address the root causes of these discriminations and the kind of thought process that led to that. Children turning on other children is quite significant. It means that they’ve already been conditioned to think in a certain way from a young age and inflict violence as a learnt behaviour.

Restorative justice, for me, is a stepping stone to addressing other things. Communities have been addressing issues, being resilient and creative, but I feel that that aspect of creativity is either seen as “art”, as creative or “resilient”, as surviving. But it’s much more than that. It’s restorative because it brings something not just to the society we live in but to all of us. Something about art tends to bring people together at a higher level, at almost an unconscious level. That for me is restorative in so many ways.

Does a STEM-focused funding model with reduced resources for arts, culture and humanities mean that it's more difficult for underrepresented people to have that creative problem? 

Yes, absolutely. There’s that aspect. But, you know, several battles are going on. Two things I would say about this are all of that is true. However, we can work with STEM people. We can find ways to work together. For example, you can see this in the field of Medical Humanities. There are places where we can come together to fight back against these kinds of discrimination or thought processes. Having said that, yes, it is crucial to fight, and utterly fiercely, to have more funding attached to this because society does not function only through STEM subjects. We know this already.

So why did you pick SOAS in particular for this new direction? 

SOAS is the place to be. This is where I think changes can be made because I have seen what SOAS is capable of. This is an institution that has a reputation for fighting for equality. Not just in the broadest sense, but in practical ways, given the kind of staff and students there and given the ethos of the institution. It’s also an institution that has the potential, given the new position, to reach out to a different kind of audience as well. That’s one of the reasons these new posts were created. So, there’s a militant, creative and powerful reputation that I found incredibly invigorating.

What are you most looking forward to, working at SOAS? 

So many things. I’m looking forward to connecting with people working in similar areas and different areas to see how we can work together. I looked at many staff profiles at SOAS and found that there are so many I could collaborate with and that goes across so many faculties. I’m looking forward to connecting, working with them, and thinking practically about applying for funding for big projects. I’m passionate about that.

As for the students, well, the variety of the student population here is very different from other institutions that I’ve taught at in the past. This is going to be a new and wonderful experience for me and I look forward to that. Interestingly enough, over the years, I’ve had students from SOAS getting in touch with me and asking questions about slavery and enslavement. So, I was meant to be at SOAS!

I would also like to get to know more communities in London and see how we can connect and work together on projects with SOAS directly. This idea of a separation between the university and the community is not my ethos. I believe communities have knowledge that they can share with us and teach us. In other words, they are the fabulous architects of knowledge production that Higher Education institutions can learn from. However, the collaboration should not be extractive and exploitative. I want to work towards looking for equitable partnerships.

Professor Olivette Otele joins SOAS as the Distinguished Research Professor of the Legacies and Memory of Slavery within the Faculty of Law. Olivette recently received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Arts and Science at Concordia University. Follow her on Twitter at @OlivetteOtele.