Turbulent though the times are, for the first time there is university-wide conversation on race, colonialism, and the Atlantic slave trade, particularly the legacies of anti-blackness highlighted by the BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.
Wadham is widely known for its rigorous and sustained commitment to access and outreach. In this context, we have long scrutinised the intersection of race and class and how this impacts educational formation and outcomes. Our fellowship is inviting to international scholars and our famous alumni reflect the historical diversity of the student body. These include, for instance, contemporary authors such as Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali, Yara Rodrigues Fowler, and Michael Donkor, who have given voice to migrant narratives and the different language worlds colliding in multicultural Britain. Amelia Gentleman has performed an invaluable role in exposing the Windrush scandal. At the same time, alongside other Oxford colleges, Wadham’s past is inflected by colonial histories, and there is no place for complacency in the post-colonial present. The College is committed to anti-racism and to sustained interrogation of its assumptions and practices, both social and pedagogical.
Here we highlight two aspects (out of many) of the College’s serious engagement with colonialism.
The English Faculty’s Postcolonial Writing and Theory seminars, which meet at Wadham College on the Thursdays of even-numbered weeks of term, have long fostered some of the objectives faculties and divisions are now setting as targets, namely: the increased visibility of postcolonial and critical race studies scholarship; the increased visibility of Black and POC scholars, authors, teachers; ongoing critical inquiry on the role of the Western university (and our own humanities and social sciences subjects) in perpetuating or combating Eurocentrism, white supremacy and privilege; ongoing interrogation of historical and structural inequalities and the importance of literary and historical study in this inquiry.
This seminar series, started in the English Faculty at Oxford by Robert J. C. Young (Fellow and Tutor in English at Wadham), and co-convened by Elleke Boehmer and Ankhi Mukherjee (since 2003) has hosted foundational and preeminent figures of postcolonial and world literature and race studies: Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Leela Gandhi, Paul Gilroy, Ato Quayson, Jahan Ramazani, Bruce Robbins, Benita Parry, and Neil Lazarus, among others. We have had the privilege of welcoming to Wadham (and Oxford) luminaries of African and Afro-Caribbean literature such as Tayeb Salih, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Caryl Phillips. The postcolonial seminars have often provided this prestigious platform to POC authors ahead of the curve, before they went on to become the household names: Kamila Shamsie, Christian Campbell, and Hisham Matar fall in this category.
The interdisciplinary seminars have become a hub in Oxford for debates on decolonising higher education, research, and the curriculum. In recent years, we have hosted talks from Oxford colleagues in Anthropology, African Studies, South Asian Studies, History, Political Science, Film Studies, and others: Faisal Devji (History), Nandini Gooptu (South Asian Studies), Wadham Fellow Margaret Hillenbrand (Oriental Studies), and Marilyn Booth (Oriental Studies).
A recent development showcases Wadham’s ethical response to colonial relics, a fraught issue for any university which has been a direct or indirect beneficiary of colonialism and Atlantic slavery. In the College’s antechapel is a commemorative window panel to William Burge, a noted anti-abolitionist controversialist and Attorney General of Jamaica in the early nineteenth century. Whilst recognising that many aspects of the built environment might have uncomfortable historical associations, which it is either impossible or undesirable to unravel, the view of a working group set up by the Governing Body in this case was that Burge’s stance on the abolition of slavery, and his behaviour as Attorney General, were particularly objectionable. The College’s official stance is that the presence in Wadham of a specific commemoration of him is offensive – to all of us, but especially to people of colour.
Rather than simply removing or covering the stained-glass panel, the College’s Governing Body has agreed to the commissioning of a replacement panel. This will deepen the historical dialogue, as well as offering an opportunity to create a distinguished contemporary artistic intervention in the antechapel, in the spirit of the ongoing renewal of the College. The College is fortunate enough to have amongst its DPhil students Shawanda Corbett, already a major international artist and one of this year’s Turner Prize winners. She has indicated her willingness to design a new panel, working with a contemporary stained-glass practitioner to realise it. She is a Black person from Mississippi, who confronts issues of race and slavery in her art. In consultation with the working group, which was keen that any new panel should in some way carry an active trace of the act of substitution, she has proposed incorporating in a repurposed form pieces of the old glass. This project embodies in material form a commitment to thoughtful and creative conversation with the past, in a way which can inform our present and future action.