David Olusoga on how he turned to writing at “hugely emotional moment” in Black Lives Matter movement

After his landmark MacTaggart lecture, David Olusoga talks about his new documentary and why he won't stay silent on social media.

David Olusoga (GETTY)

It’s not often that a television presenter is at the centre of great events, but after this long, very hot and fractious summer, David Olusoga could reasonably make that claim. The 50-year-old British broadcaster, author and historian has emerged as one of the key figures around Black Lives Matter in the UK, the anti-racist protest movement that was triggered by the killing of black American man George Floyd by a white policeman on 25th May and which quickly spread to British cities.

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“This is a remarkable period,” Olusoga says, from his home in Bristol. “It’s been a profound time for me. The things I’ve written about for years have suddenly become things people want to talk about. Pretty much my entire back catalogue of BBC work for the past nine years was rebroadcast or put on iPlayer. Millions of people are engaged with those programmes. That includes people who hadn’t thought they were interested in those sorts of subjects, who maybe didn’t want to watch a programme with a black presenter. I suddenly reached a new generation of people and it’s fantastic.”

One of his shows in particular has caught the zeitgeist; you might even say helped to create it. The third series of A House through Time, the BBC2 series that explores British social history through the story of one house and its inhabitants down the decades, began on 26 May, the day after Floyd’s death. The first two series had been set in Liverpool and Newcastle, but this time round Olusoga and his team investigated 10 Guinea Street, an 18th-century merchant’s home near the docks in Bristol.

Episode one focused on the West Country port’s enrichment by the Atlantic slave trade, a history symbolised by the statue of 17th-century slaver Edward Colston that had stood in the city centre since November 1895. Olusoga discovered that 10 Guinea Street was built by a slaver who was personally involved in the enforced transportation of 12,000 people from Africa. “We also found reports in a local newspaper of a black man called Toby, probably enslaved, who had escaped from the house,” says Olusoga. “This was broadcast as the country was having huge debates about confronting its past and slavery. The levels of coincidence were quite remarkable.”

The second episode covered Chartism, the mass movement for working-class suffrage that came to Bristol in the late 1830s, and the response to it of John Haberfield, then mayor of the city. “The week that second programme was aired I was talking to my friend Marvin Rees, who is the mayor of Bristol now,” Olusoga recalls. “He told me he was watching the show with his children and they asked him, ‘What would you do in those circumstances, Dad?’”

Rees soon found out. On 7 June, the statue of Colston, long the subject of a peaceful but frustrated local campaign to have it removed, was finally brought down by a crowd of Bristolians, rolled to the quayside and thrown in the harbour. The splash went around the world and Marvin Rees, who had ordered his officials to stand back, became an international figure. Rees called Olusoga that day and discussed his decision. “It’s a lot easier for me because I’m not an elected official,” Olusoga says. “For Marvin, you’ve got to make sure people are safe.”

Where was Olusoga when the statue was brought down? “I was at home, doing what I normally do, trying to write while monitoring social media,” he says. “I was following the crowds as they moved down to the statue. I desperately wanted to be there. Seeing people and all of this energy around the statue, I fought enormously against the urge to jump on my bike and cycle down there – my home is only ten minutes away. I’ve been in Bristol longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived and throughout that time the statue has loomed over us.”

David Olusoga in Radio Times
David Olusoga in Radio Times

Olusoga didn’t join the crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters because he had told his family – he lives with his partner, a television producer, and their young daughter – that he would be “careful” during the pandemic. “It was very difficult,” he admits. “Though, before I could be tortured by not being able to go, Colston’s statue toppled. It was a hugely emotional moment but, at that point, my job was to start writing.”

Writing and making television programmes has turned Olusoga, who was brought up on a Gateshead council estate, into one of the most prominent historians in the country. But it has been a constant struggle. In his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival last month, he revealed that the effects of racism in the TV industry had led to his own clinical depression. Yet he persevered and has used his fourfold outsider status – working-class, black, northern and, to some eyes, foreign – to create a new, morally engaged style of television history.

There were few if any programmes about black people when he and his four sisters and brother lived with their white British mother on Tyneside in the 1980s, but there were books. His parents had separated and Olusoga’s Nigerian father would send parcels from Lagos, stuffed with books by Nigerian novelists including Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. “My father wanted us to read these novels. He was proud of Nigeria’s cultural output and wanted to make sure his children, who he saw regularly, had access to these novels. I read them because my dad would ask me.

Both Achebe and Soyinka feature in Olusoga’s new documentary, Africa Turns the Page, which charts the huge influence of Africa and African writers on world literature over the past 70 years. One work in particular captured the young Olusoga’s imagination – Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart that, for the first time, told the story of Africa’s colonisation by Europeans from the African side. “Everyone should read Things Fall Apart,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, never mind one of the great African novels. Brilliant.”

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The documentary begins with what Olusoga suspects was a key point in the immense cultural change we have recently witnessed in this country – Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize victory with Girl, Woman, Other, which put the experience of black British women at the heart of our national conversation.

This, says Olusoga, is the true nature of BLM: it is cultural and political, rather than an outbreak of lawlessness. “Almost predictably, what happened in Bristol was put down to thuggery,” he says. “The word ‘thug’ has long been used in this country as a dog whip for attacks on black people, it’s a word that drips with racism, but it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The nearby statue of Edmund Burke wasn’t touched. Queen Victoria’s statue is around the corner – that wasn’t touched. There’s a supermarket full of alcohol. If there had been thuggery, there would have been broken windows, there would have been alcohol and cigarettes stripped off the shelf. None of that happened.”

One of the more surprising things about Olusoga is his willingness to engage with those who criticise him personally on social media. “Every day on social media, someone says, ‘Stop talking about slavery. You hate Britain. If you don’t like it, go back home’. These are ways of trying to get black people to stop talking about their history and culture and experience of racism. I ask people why they want me to be silent. What is it about black people talking about these issues that makes you so uncomfortable?”

He says it’s worse for women, both black and white, on Twitter. “The campaign against [Labour MP] Diane Abbott is a national disgrace. And my friend [academic and TV historian] Mary Beard has a much harder time than me. There are people out there who have found social media to be a place in which they can express a hatred for women. Misogyny never went away, it just found its new arena.”

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In such a climate, does he ever worry about his physical safety? “It would be stupid if it wasn’t in my mind,” he says. “I know David Lammy and it’s clear black MPs are even more in the firing line. Dawn Butler has closed her office. It’s four years since an MP [Jo Cox] was murdered in this country by a white supremacist. I’m horrified by how little impact it has had – how little investigation has been taking place into white supremacists and white-supremacist terror. In that environment, when an MP can be killed by a white supremacist and those organisations are not denounced as terrorists the way they would if they were non-white organisations, it would be stupid of me not to take it seriously.”

Thankfully, his recent physical interactions with the public have largely been happy. “If I knock around London or Bristol, I’m stopped routinely by young people, black and white, who want to talk about the issues in the programmes I’ve made.” The pandemic took so much from the young, not least their education, but it gave them the streets and, he says, they’ve used the opportunity to demand social change.

“This is a generational shift. People who don’t have much contact with young people, who don’t teach like I do, don’t understand that this generation doesn’t want to live in a racist society any more. And they don’t see the job of toppling white supremacy as something that falls only to black people. Right now, the most remarkable thing about the summer was seeing Colston dumped into a harbour. But, with a bit of distance, I think we’ll look back and say the most remarkable thing was actually the level of engagement, reading and self-education that was embarked upon by so many people, most of them white. There was a moment in June when five of the top ten bestselling books on the non-fiction list of The Sunday Times were about black history or something to do with race. I never thought I would see anything like that. Hundreds of thousands of people going out and thinking, ‘I want to learn about this stuff’.”

If that sounds like an optimistic view, it’s also tinged with sadness and anger. “The most important thing, the thing we cannot forget, is that Black Lives Matter happened because for eight minutes, 46 seconds, an American policeman murdered publicly, on the streets, an African-American man. If we can say that good things have come out of it, then they came out of something terrible.”

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This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.