Humanising Historians: Ama Biney

Posted on: 31 March 2023 by Ama Biney in 2023 posts

Ama Biney

In this blog series, members of our History department have come together to share with us their own thoughts and personal interests. Today's interview features Lecturer in Black History, Dr. Ama Biney.

What initially ignited your interest in history i.e. your field?

My interest in history was sparked by introduction to the transatlantic slave trade as a 12-year-old child in an East London comprehensive secondary school in which the National Front were prevalent in the local area. I was one of the few African children in a white dominated school taught history by a white male tutor in the late 70s. History and English literature were my favourite O level subjects. The Brookes ship, built in 1780-81 in Liverpool and co-owned by Liverpudlian Joseph Brooks,  is the famous illustrated ship of 454 enslaved Africans, that most British school children are likely to have seen in history books. It left an impressionable mark on my curious mind as I pondered: what lives did these African people have before they were packed like sardines aboard this ship? Did they survive? To say that such an image unsettled me is an understatement. I continue to think that the teaching of transatlantic slavery is often disconnected from African history i.e. that enslaved African people came from sophisticated societies and cultures that were thousands of years old; that possessed history and ways of dealing with their societies before the likes of Hegel and Hugh Trevor Roper who furthered the disparaging of African history by claiming Africa and Africans had no history. Seeing this slave ship initially ignited my history in black history. However, I started with African Studies as my first degree and on account of my interest in the history of the African diaspora studied and taught both African and Caribbean history.

 Who is a historical figure that inspires you and why?

This is a very difficult question to answer as I am inspired by many female and male figures throughout history and from around the world. If I had to select one, it would be the life of the Mozambican freedom fighter, Josina Machel because I think we need to retrieve from historical obscurity lesser known historical figures who contributed to transforming society. In short, at the age of 18 she fled Mozambique to join freedom fighters in Tanzania to fight for the liberation of her country from Portuguese rule. Six months imprisonment did not deter her. After her release she went on to inspire men and women in her country to take up armed struggle. She died on 7 April 1971 aged 25 from either liver cancer or leukaemia. Her life is inspiring as for one who died so young, she achieved so much.

 Who is a historical figure that you don't care for much and why?

It is very easy to point fingers at historical figures such as Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Siad Barre, Mobutu, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Margaret Thatcher, Sani Abacha and many other unsavoury figures that carried out anti-people policies, dictatorship, genocide and authoritarian rule across the globe. However, I think it’s important for people to grasp that historical figures required systems and structures and specifically other people to be complicit in the operation of such policies and to buy into the societal vision they promoted. Such figures could not act alone. Therefore, if we are to understand historical leaders, we must also interrogate the values, the socio-economic and political processes they help to engender that required sections of society, state and government to concede to dictatorship, genocide and the implementation of anti-people policies.

 What current events and processes inspire you or disturb you?

I find deeply troubling the repeal of the Roe V Wade anti-abortion legislation in many conservative US states in a country that purports to be the “the land of the free”, alongside attempts in this country to curb the right to protest that has long been fought for. The Police Crime, Sentencing & Court Act 2022 is being pushed through and it seems the police will have powers to shut down protest in anticipation that such protests will inevitably be disruptive. Yet, the police no longer seems to have the confidence of many people on account of the recent alarming findings of Baroness Casey report into Metropolitan police. That aside, it is deeply inspiring that young people around the world, such as the Ugandan, Vanessa Nakate, are taking up the cause of climate change, as it is their future that will be affected. Action on climate change has the potential to bring people together across towns, cities, societies and countries as we are all impacted by the ongoing environmental crisis. Solutions lie in collective action. Another inspiring development around the globe is Afro-Columbian woman Francia Marquez, who was elected as Vice President in Columbia in August 2022. Similar to President Obama’s election to office in 2008, her election to office was a significant historical moment for people of African descent, known as Afro-Latinx in the region.

 What historical monument, museum, site, or object do you consider to be impressive and why?

I don’t think I’ve seen anything as impressive as the gigantic Cambodian Hindu/Budhist temple called Angor Wat that sprawls for 162.6 hectares. It’s beautiful, yet parts of it are deeply eery. I think it’s impressive due to the fact that it was constructed in the 12th century and took 28 years to build.  In a part of the temple complex there is a mesmerizing tree that has some of its roots organically clinging onto parts of the temple. I found it unsettling and strange. The entire temple and that tree are certainly worth seeing. A one day’s visit does not do it justice.  

Angkor Wat

 What are you currently reading and why?

I am an eclectic reader and often have at least half a dozen books that I am reading simultaneously. Last year a friend bought me Corrigidora by Gayl Jones and I have started it and yet to finish reading it. She was very keen for me to read it.  It’s endorsed by James Baldwin and John Updike which is encouraging. Every time I see it on my bookshelf, my conscience is pricked to pick it up so that the next time I’m asked what I think of it, I have something to say other than “I haven’t finished it.” There are other books I am reading but I won’t bore you!

 What's on your "yet to read" list and why?

I have a very long list of books I would like to read in addition to what I am currently reading, as well as a couple of books that I have been asked to endorse by publishers. There is the new book by the Nigerian philosopher Olufemi Taiwo, “Against Decolonisation Taking African Agency Seriously” which makes a serious attack against “the trope of decolonisation.” As there is a current bandwagon of “decolonizing” everything i.e. the curriculum, the archive, museums etc, and using “decoloniality” and “decolonisation” as synonyms, I think it’s important to clarify what one means by these terms, in addition to how decolonisation is done?  

 If you could go back in time, which historical time period would you like to live through and why?

I think the 1960s of the national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia were an inspiring decade that I find particularly exciting. There was so much optimism, excitement and promise during this time in which the mass of humanity were challenging empire, colonialism and seeking to forge new nation states that sought to meet the aspirations of ordinary people in terms of employment, education, health needs and to take control of their economies.  Even here the UK, the demographics of the country was changing with Caribbean and African migrants coming to settle in Britain in greater numbers and bringing their rich cultures to Britain. Despite this, people of African descent have been living on these shores, since Roman times. Perhaps it is with nostalgia that human beings look back in history as there is certainly a romanticisation of certain aspects of the past that erases the ugly deeds of human beings.

 What kind of TV programmes interest you and why? Any guilty pleasures?

I am very selective in what I watch on TV as there is so much rubbish to act as a new societal opium. I have found extremely thought provoking the documentaries Can’t Get you Out of my Head, Bitter Lake, and Hypernormalisation, by Adam Curtis.  But that aside, for sheer entertainment, I watch on a regular basis hospital drama like “Casualty” that periodically comments on social issues. I enjoyed “Line of Duty” until the plots became so convoluted. I was absolutely hooked on “Happy Valley” and admire the actors Sarah Lancashire and James Norton. She was superb in the role as a strong, determined, vulnerable, fearless, no-nonsense cop with a complex professional and personal life. He was equally compelling as a violent, misogynistic narcissist who was humanised (to some extent) in his relationship with his son. I plead not guilty in regards to thoroughly enjoying ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ every winter without fail. Thank God for BBC iPlayer to watch missed episodes because to paraphrase Emma Goldman, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of any revolution.

What do you like to do to switch off as a hobby - if you have any?

Gardening, listening to music, going to concerts, theatre, long walks and cycling.