I am currently working towards a Masters’s qualification at the University of Cambridge, in the UK. I specialize in Spanish literature, as this is my native language. I am writing my thesis on the representation of cimarrones, (black slaves that escaped from the plantations in Spanish America) on Lope de Vega’s poem La Dragontea. I am also applying for a Ph.D. position on the portrayal of Africa in Spanish Early Modern Literature. My supervisors for both projects are white, and so am I.
I feel like I’m taking someone else’s place.
As a Spanish woman, I am often aware of the lack of scholarly attention in regards to the Black experience in Spain and the Spanish empire. For this reason, I think my projects are incredibly important. I want to shed light on the complexities that were present in the relationship between Spaniards and Black people that were in positions of power, such as African kings and governors of black towns. Most of the scholarship regarding race in Spain during this period have focused on indigenous people and forgotten Black Africans and their experience.
When I found primary sources from the time that represent Black people in a different and new way, I felt compelled to study them further and to shed light on the experience of a group that has often been overlooked by historiography. However, I sometimes wonder if it is okay for me to write about an experience that I have not had.
Obviously, Black scholars of today have also not experienced slavery firsthand. Nonetheless, I do question whether I am doing a good job of trying to understand the discrimination and opposition that these communities face from people that look exactly like me.
Men write about women. Can I write about race?
But at the same time… isn’t it racist to limit Black scholars to Black issues?
There are plenty of male authors that write about women and the female experience. I do agree that there have to be more female scholars and writers, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the research made by men. Andrew Wilson has written a brilliant biography of Sylvia Plath, and Robert Archer and Martin Lunefeld have analyzed the role of women in late-medieval Hispanic literature, to name a few.
Moreover, although it is important that women write women’s history, it is also more important that women write all kinds of history; that they are not relegated to the ‘women’s studies’ section and are considered experts in all fields.
The same should go for BAME scholars.
According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 217,065 academics working at UK universities in 2018-19. Out of those whose ethnicity was known, only 2% were from Black, mixed, and other backgrounds. White academics comprised 83% of the total number and 10% of academics were Asian. Only between zero and two people from Black backgrounds were recorded as being academic managers.
There’s a desperate need to decolonize the curriculum.
There is a desperate need for more BAME people in academia. But we need them in all areas, not just in the study of their own identity.
My doubts come from knowing the sad truth that there is a real lack of Black scholars and the guilt for feeling like I am taking a place that isn’t mine. However, I cannot hire Black scholars, or publish their work. What I can do is use the opportunity that I have been given by having the chance to study at university to shed light on a part of history that deserves space and attention. Moreover, I can also ask the universities to make a serious commitment to diversity and to revise their curriculum to include more BAME scholars.
It has taken me time to come to terms with my privilege and decide to take advantage of it to help underrepresented communities and support them. I can only hope that I’m doing it right.