In this interview for the Decolonising the Curriculum Interview Series, BILT Student Fellow Rhona Wilkinson talks with Jini Agbu, the President of the AfroLit Society.
The AfroLit Society is a student group dedicated to providing an outlet for people to discover and appreciate literature and literary art produced by Black writers and create a safe, welcoming environment for students wanting to expand their interests.
Rhona and Jini explore the importance of providing a platform to voices who are excluded in the mainstream university curriculum, why decolonisation matters and how the work of AfroLit can be translated across the university and disciplines.
To learn more about the AfroLit Society, check out their Instagram here: The AfroLit Society (@afrolitsoc) • Instagram photos and videos
Below is some of the key extracts of our conversation. This interview is an example of the passion and dedication amongst students to work towards decolonising and empowering different voices. We can learn from the actions of AfroLit.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do the meeting and the interview. I was reading all about AfroLit and the society and I thought oh my god it would be good to learn a bit more about it and obviously it relates to decolonising and relates to so many other issues as well. I guess if you could introduce the AfroLit society, why it was established and what activities you do and things!
Jini: So we are a University society and our kind of goal is to promote and appreciate Black Literature. When I say, Afro, it’s not necessarily just African literature, but black culture and literature in general. We move through different regions, so we do African American, West African and Afro Latina and different forms of Black literature. [We] chat and [provide] a space to promote and appreciate that and also show it out to other people who are interested and also discuss the issues that are raised in these texts that relate to larger global concepts like colonialism, imperialism, environmental racism etc.
So that’s what we do. We started 2 years ago, this is our second year. It was started by a girl called Elsie, I think she’s in her final year now and just from speaker to her, her main aim with starting the society was to have that space which she didn’t feel was anywhere else in University, where people could come together in their love for African and Black literature.
The types of activities we do include bi-weekly sessions. We run book clubs where we choose a specific text. This could be a novel or poem, could even be a song, a play. We read it and then have discussions about the text and the general themes surrounding the text. We also do events and activities. So this term, we’ve done meet and greets, back when you were still allowed outside. We have done quiz nights, games nights and looking towards doing an open mic night if everything allows for that.
It’s kind of like a community you’re doing other things other than the literature side. You’re creating this community of people. Maybe if you could give an introduction of yourself and what your role is within the AfroLit society?
Jini: OK, so I’m Jini Agbu, I’m a second year English student and I’m the president of the society. So I mainly oversee the general running of the society, work with all the other committee members to deliver these sessions and activities. I am primarily in charge of choosing the text, that’s a really big aspect of my role and one that I really enjoy and what drew me into the society because in choosing texts, it opened [me] up to many different authors I’d never heard of. Researching what we are going to do next always leads me down so many rabbit holes and I’m just learning so much more. I also moderate the sessions as well, so even though it is a free discussion, you still need to be the one to guide the discussion and throw out questions when it gets a bit dry. I also work with other societies, we have a good partnerships with the Film society, the Poetry society and Creative Writing society. We’re looking to do like joint events.
We are usually part of bigger representations for black students in the University. So for example, the Black History Month series of events that the University did last year, AfroLit was a big part of that and we hosted two events. So we usually do get into meetings and conversations about better increasing or improving the welfare of black students in the University.
I am really interested in the stuff you were doing around representation across campus.
Jini: So, it’s just mainly with our connection to the BME because we also do have a strong relationship with the BME. With the protests that were happening over this last summer to do with Black Lives Matter, Khadija, who is the chair of the BME Network invited all the presidents of Black societies, so AC, Black Muslim Society and we wrote a letter to the Vice Chancellor to put out a statement about the protests. So things like that. Just being key players in the planning of the Black History Month campaign in October. We have been in meetings with [a] Vice Chancellor who is really close with the BME network and she’s always there to help. So when there is something to do with that, I usually do get invited to meetings to discuss different issues surrounding black students experience in the University. So, the meeting that I’m talking about with the Vice Chancellor was actually to do with decolonizing the curriculum. She basically [was] just asking [and] having that direct conversation with representatives of black societies in the University about what they [the university] could do to better improve our experience and things like that.
Yeah I guess that leads quite nicely onto my next question! How do you think the work of AfroLit and the work you do in general across the campus relates to this move to decolonize and decolonize the curriculum?
Jini: Generally, I would say it’s just the presence of having a space to be free. In an academic setting, you feel almost boxed in and there’s only certain things you can discuss, certain things we can talk about. I think [AfroLit provides a] space where you can feel comfortable in discussing all these issues.
Separately from that, I do English as I said, and one thing I’ve noticed about the English curriculum, I don’t know if it’s similar with other curriculums, is that we usually get for example, British Black Literature which is an optional module, one of your special subjects. If it’s not, and you’re trying to study it in the mainstream curriculum, you usually just get a block of black British literature, so you would do black British Literature for a week then move on. I haven’t always agreed with that because it’s kind of inadvertently separating it to one category and it’s like Okay you can choose to study it if you’re really interested in it. It shouldn’t be a choice because black perspectives are intrinsic to the history of British literature and this country. It should be with all the other mainstream authors that we do. So, another big aspect of what [AfroLit] do, like I said, is introducing people to the black British authors that aren’t in their curriculum that they don’t get to learn about. Oftentimes even when they do show up on your curriculum, it’s only this one type of black British author that, you know, [writes about] political experiences or political topics and sometimes you just want to study teen fiction, you just want to read black teen fiction or black sci-fi. That is what AfroLit is for, just introducing that diversity and breath of black literature and allowing people to partake in that.
It is important to study black literature not just for the sake of studying black literature, but because I don’t think you can call yourself a scholar and you don’t look into the full breath of the work that you’re studying and different perspectives. It is also a thing of how do we have a more quality education because we’re teaching these subjects and it’s just one perspective, it limits our learning, not just in the sense of underrepresentation but it actually limits our learning of the other scholars of other cultures that we’re learning.
Something that Toni Morrison writes, and she’s basically talking about how it’s about how it’s a disservice to White authors to exclude those contexts of racialised history that plays into their texts. So you can’t just look at an author like William Faulkner or Allen Ginsberg or Scott Fitzgerald and totally ignore the historical context that they’re writing in and how blackness exists even in those texts written by white authors. So, it’s not just introducing more diverse black authors into their curriculum, but also studying racialized contexts and histories within white literature as well, I think, is really important to decolonizing the curriculum.
Just talking about like more about why it’s important to decolonize the curriculum, I think it’s important because what we see in our curriculum and what we learn about tells us about who’s important and who’s worthy to be studied. If you don’t see for example, African history in your history curriculum, it tells you that they weren’t doing anything at that time – people only study those doing anything of relevance. That plays heavily into how you then navigate the world as an African person, believing that this is the only history that matters. Plays into that idea of some cultures being superior and some being inferior.
So you know, apart from like a qualitative education side, it’s also very something very deeply personal about you know, not seeing yourself in a curriculum that can play into you, know how you navigate the workplace and everything after that.
It’s really interesting, and I guess, maybe on a practical level for academics and stuff, how do you think the work of AfroLit could be translated into what they’re doing if that makes sense. When they need to organise a module or organise a unit, how do you think they should approach decolonising?
Jini: I think it’s mainly maybe looking at the diversity – like I said before, the breath and range of black literature. It’s important to ask yourself why you are introducing this author into the curriculum because often, I think inadvertently someone might be introducing an author for the purpose of ‘I’m going to teach my students I want to use this to have students think about how race works in the world and [about] racism’. That can be a very good thing but black authors are more than that [more than just writing about the issue of race]. I think they should be included on the strength of their expression, their writing and the quality of their literature and less so as a subject for someone else’s education and someone else’s enlightenment.
I would say to give more of an audience to different forms of black critics. So when we do look at black texts, the often accompanying literature around it, the scholarly articles we look at could also be by Black authors as well so we get the full breath.
I will say, maybe this isn’t practical way for the current academic, but I would say hire more black teachers as well because that really goes a long way. I’ve had a white teacher [teach] an African American module and she was amazing and I really enjoyed it and I wouldn’t have any criticisms to say about her. But I do think there ae some kind of nuanced conversations that black students need to have to engage properly with their work that they may not be able to get from a white academic. I think diversifying the curriculum but also diversifying how it’s disseminated is also a really big thing.
Going back to AfroLit specifically, how would academic unfamiliar with the work of AfroLit get involved and learn a bit more about what they you guys are about and learn from you, [your] passion and enthusiasm and how then they can translate that into the work that they do.
Jini: So to that point, I would just like to also kind of add to my last point as well and say I do think it’s important to have these societies outside of an academic context. So, even though it would be good to diversify the curriculum, I do think that are like some things you would just want to study outside of an academic curriculum and that’s why society is like I’ve really come into play so much, so I think it would be a really good thing if the University could like support that more. I think especially the English department for Black students who would like to have that space and not necessarily want it to have it in an academic context.
For any academics, students, anyone looking to get more involved in the society, we do post regular updates. We are most active on Instagram, so that’s where we post regular updates. We do different types of posts announce our activities. We also do have a WhatsApp group which is also for announcements, but we also do get into conversations in our WhatsApp group as well.
Then also specifically for academics we, like I said we’re a bit more limited this year, but one of our plans was to have sessions where we could invite some lecturers or academics to come and be a part of our conversations, especially when they are related to a lecturer’s specific field of study. So, for example, if we were doing an African American text, we could have a lecturer whose specializes in African American literature to just come and sit in and maybe even have a panel discussion. That’s one of the things we’re looking more seriously into and that would just be a great way to support [but] our sessions are open to everyone regardless. You can come to the sessions and we’re always happy to have different voices, different perspectives, because it makes for more interesting conversations.
It’s definitely a constant exchange, there’s always things we can learn [from] each other.
Definitely, I think the work of AfroLit challenging what a lot of the time is just accepted, the mainstream reading lists and researching authors that don’t necessarily always appear on the curriculum and that their work is amazing, but it’s not celebrated in the same way as other texts. I think that’s something that academia, like academics can really learn from.
Jini: I would just like to add that you know a big part of AfroLit is we are in literature society. But I think one of the things I pride most about it is these just the space being given for black students in the University to come and talk about the issues that they face. So, most times when we do choose a text, the text is just kind of like the excuse to be there and we go into so many different other topics around surrounding that text but still to do with our own personal lives and personal experiences. I think it would be a good thing, not just academics, but people with power in the University hear directly the issues that people face, hear directly from them and be in those conversations to learn how they could contribute to making it a safer, more comfortable environment for black students.
I think the work that you’re doing, it can be translated across the university and across disciplines and I think that by academics from all disciplines engaging with the worl you’re doing and the work of other societies, I think that’s a really good start. Hearing the voices of students and things. Have you got any final points or anything?
I think my final points would be just that coming into the society in first year, I wouldn’t have run for [president] if it wasn’t for the experience I had in first year and how much it helped me. [It helped me to] find my feet in the University and my biggest or favorite part still about being the president of the society is just the fact that I get to be there, I get to still have these sessions and still talk and have these conversations. So, I definitely would like to see that for other people and want other people to partake in that and gain what I gained from being there. [This is] especially, while we do the work of decolonising the curriculum, we’re still a really long way to go. So in the meantime, I would like for black students and people [in general] you know it’s open to every culture, we have so many different types of people in the society. So, it’s like the coming together of people who appreciate and love black literature and are interested in learning. That’s a big thing as well – how we share knowledge and share education between ourselves. There’s so much I have learned from my peers and that’s a whole different education in itself, just learning from the people around you that [are] on your level. Just getting that different perspective on issues that you all face is so fulfilling. I would really, really like that for other students, new students coming in, students that have been here but weren’t able to find a place like that. So, I think I would really love to see more collaborations and partnerships with other sectors so the BILT or even the English Department, the Falstaff society, other socities. It is really great that we are able to have that connection with the BME. So I would just like to see that it gets a bigger presence across the university, so it’s available and accessible to anyone who needs it.
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