Winchester History Weekend 2018: 5 minutes with Olivette Otele

At our Winchester History Weekend 2018, historian Olivette Otele will delve into the ways people of African descent navigated and integrated into European societies between the 16th and 21st centuries…

Olivette Otele.

We caught up with historian Olivette Otele ahead of her talk, How Africans changed Early Modern Europe, at our Winchester History Weekend 2018…

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Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk at our Winchester History Weekend 2018?

I will be talking about how people of African descent have navigated different worlds between the 16th and 21st centuries. My presentation is about outstanding individuals, born in either Europe or Africa, who are often not remembered in popular history books. Understanding the journeys of these people sheds light on questions of displacement, migration and multiple identities. Their lives reveal very interesting facts about European’s attitude towards ‘otherness’. We will see how that played into the way these Afro-Europeans integrated into the societies they lived in.

Winchester speaker programme:

Buy tickets here

Audience at Winchester History Weekend 2017.

Q: Why are you so interested in this period of history?

I am fascinated by the way human encounters (traumatic or not) shape identities and societies. The period I am looking at is quite long – and geographically the territories are diverse – so there are many interesting life stories to explore.

I find the 18th and 19th centuries interesting because these eras of great achievement for Europe were based on the misery and exploitation of other human beings. Many in the western world still tend to remember that past as altogether positive and worth emulating. The way we shape that past and remember it is fascinating to study.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…

People might be surprised to learn why the Spanish court protected an educated Afro-European scholar in the 16th century. They also might want to find out what led Napoleon to try and erase the story of a man of dual heritage who had been popular with French queen Marie Antoinette in the 18th century.

John Blanke. (Illustration: Rose Wilkinson for BBC History Magazine)

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

I would like to invite Suzanne Césaire (a writer, school teacher and activist who was born in Martinique), Anna Julia Cooper (the fourth African-American scholar to earn a doctoral degree) and the 17th-century queen Anna Nzinga. They were three highly educated women who left their marks on history. Their determination, diplomatic skills, resilience and commitment to their causes taught me that friendship, support and collective effort are at the heart of many success stories. Their trajectories also taught me that when one rises, one should always support those who helped so that they too can achieve their dreams. Standing on the shoulders of these women gives me strength.

Q: Which history books would you recommend?

There are many books I would like to recommend but I will just mention a few published in 2018:

  • Martha S Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (2018)
  • Josephine Quinn, In Search of the Phoenicians (2018)
  • Kalwant Bhopal, White Privilege (2018)
  • Helen Castor, Elizabeth I: A Study In Insecurity (2018)
  • Kehinde Andrews, Back to Black: Re-Telling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (2018).
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Olivette Otele will be speaking about how Africans changed Early Modern Europe at our Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 7 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.