Black History Month is upon us! Whilst the month has always held personal importance for me, casual conversation quickly revealed that for most people, this is not the case. This inspired me to sit down with the committee of the African Caribbean Society (ACS) to find out what the month means to them and what they’re hoping to achieve.
Let me introduce you to them:
Joshua Prah, President, a chemical engineering student from London by way of Ghana. A confident leader, he considered himself the only man for the job and hopes to bring a “relaxed atmosphere” to the society this year.
Rae-Kahlile Powell, Vice President, a Law student. An international student from Trinidad (and Tobago), Powell brings an unmatched air of mirth and enthusiasm to the group.
Tariq Chastanet-Hird, Secretary, a tranquil Politics and History student. Another Londoner, Chastanet-Hird is of St Lucian origin. This year he hopes to bring “organisation, perspective and calmness” to the committee as he facilitates the integration of black students, both to the society and the university.
Then there is Aminat Subair, the Cultural Officer. A Londoner of Nigerian origin, she hopes to “provide members with more opportunities to explore their own culture” whilst making this year’s ACS “bigger and better”.
She is joined by Tihesia Riley-Bennett, Events Officer and budding doctor. Originally from Peterborough and of Jamaican heritage she hopes to “empower our members and allow them to celebrate and accept themselves”. Through arranging and hosting different events, she hopes to showcase the diversity that exists within the community and encourage members to develop their talents.
There is also Femi Jayeola, Treasurer and Politics and International Relations student. Thoughtful and well-spoken, Jayeola ran for Treasurer because he felt he could strengthen the links between students and sponsors. He hopes to highlight the plethora of career options available to members of the society.
Then, Otteri Dowding – Sports Officer. A Jamaican-born Psychology student from Birmingham, Dowding is fun and funny. She ran for sports officers because she felt there was a lack of opportunities for girls to get involved with sports in the society last year. This is something she is determined to change.
Nicole Agyekum, a Politics and International Relations student from London, is Media and Promotions Officer. Being of Ghanaian descent, she wants to make the ACS a “more tight-knit community” as she felt it important to cultivate a safe space for black students.
Finally, there is Mubarak Tairu. A Physics student from South London and the son of Nigerian immigrants, Tairu is a self-described “opportunist”. This year he hopes to stay motivated and disciplined, something he is close to attaining with Metamorphosis. A project he hopes will challenge the lack of support given to youths in deprived communities across the UK and enable them to succeed in academia.Photo: KeithTyler @Wikimedia Commons
The committee has already packed a lot into the month, starting with the Great Debate tour on October 5th, an event at which people can come together to discuss issues facing the black community today. Soon after, a media night on the 12th will include screenings of 13th, Hidden Colours and 42. The films have been specifically chosen with the goal of celebrating and empowering black people.
For the 17th, they’ve arranged a networking event with JPMorgan whilst the 26th will bring a collaboration with other BME societies including Aspiring Young African leaders (AYAL), Urban Lawyers North and the African Caribbean Medics Society. With a mind to working hard and playing harder, they’re rounding off the month with a Halloween party on the 28th. The theme? Black Power.
When asked what they hope to achieve during the month they said “with the events planned, we hope more people will be interested in joining the ACS. We hope they’ll get a greater appreciation and understanding of black culture. We want to promote awareness of our own history and achievements and make it a very interactive learning experience. We also want to empower our members. There’s a lot of focus on slavery when we talk about black history but we want to move the focus towards empowerment”.
Their personal favourite events ran the gamut but emphasis was placed on the networking night with JPMorgan. Tairu, the ACS Careers Officer, said “JPMorgan is a great platform. We want to use it to expand, not only in terms of sponsorship but we want to make sure that people understand that it’s not just a financial firm. They have various divisions and opportunities and they do a lot for people of colour so we need to celebrate that a bit more”.
Their own personal feelings on black history month varied. Powell, Vice-President and native Trinidadian said, “it’s a new concept for me, every day is black where I’m from.”
Subair, Cultural Officer, said “for me it’s a month where we can really reflect on what it means to be a young black person and celebrate our history. It means a lot to me”. Tairu said “I think it’s about celebrating ourselves. We’re always moving at 100mph but as a people we don’t always take enough time to stop and see how much we’ve progressed.”
We then stopped to think about some black figures we found personally inspiring.
Jayeola picked Barack Obama. He said “as President he overcame so many challenges. So many obstacles that other presidents never had to face. For example, the debate over where he was born. It’s hard to succeed as a black person in America so that’s something that really inspired me.”
Tairu picked Tupac and Skepta, saying “in terms of the progress they’ve made, they’re phenomenal. They came from volatile areas but they paved the way for black musicians now. In hip-hop and in grime. Skepta is independent and that’s changed the whole music industry. He’s broken down barriers for many other people.”
Prah chose Jesse Owens. He explained “he entered the Olympics surrounded by such controversy. But he still won 4 gold medals and he set records in all the events he competed in and those records stood for so long. He overcame what black people were facing at that time in America and he showed us that black people aren’t second rate. We aren’t second class citizens and we can do just as well as anyone. We can go above and beyond.”
Riley-Bennett said “its definitely changed over the period of my life. When you’re younger you learn the obvious ones like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and obviously, they’re still important, they still inspire me. But now, I feel like a lot of people in the media such as Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monae are really promoting being carefree and black and I like that.”
Subair chose Leomie Anderson. She explained “she’s a model from South London and she’s done Victoria’s Secret, she’s done high fashion but she’s also using her platform to empower young black girls. She has LAPP the brand, she has a clothing line that Rihanna’s worn and she was part of the Fenty Beauty campaign so to see her come from south London and break into a very white industry inspired me.”
Powell chose Rihanna, a fellow Caribbean, explaining “she got her break at a young age and she’s been able to take that and make a brand out of herself. Now she operates on a global stage”, before adding Usain Bolt. She said “if anybody knows Jamaica, they know when you’re poor you’re really poor and it’s really hard to excel there. But he did, against the odds and now he’s the fastest man on earth.”
Dowding said “any black person who is doing well for themselves inspires me because we all know it’s hard. We often feel that we have to be twice as better to get halfway as far, so any black person in a position of power inspires me.”
Chastanet-Hird gave an enlightened contribution in Kofi Annan. He says “he was the 7th secretary general of the UN and he’s really done a lot to help black people. He’s done a lot of work in international development, reducing HIV in Africa and he was also awarded the Nobel peace prize.”
My personal addition was Eartha Kitt. A singer, dancer and actress once described as “the most exciting woman in the world”. She found herself blacklisted and ostracised from Golden Age Hollywood for her views on Civil Rights and the Vietnam war. She even once made Lady Bird Johnson, who was FLOTUS at the time, cry at a White House Dinner after telling her “we raise children and you send them off to war.”
We then discussed the experience of black students at university. When I asked if they felt properly represented at university they said “Yes and No. On the one hand, you have statistics that are telling us that every year a record number of black people have made it to university but if you look deeper, you’ll see that not many of them have made it to the top universities. There’s a very low number of black people in Russell Group universities”.
Tairu said “there are hardly any black students in STEM courses. On my first day, I went to a lecture and I couldn’t find a single person of colour. I was completely out of my comfort zone and that made me a bit reclusive”. Whilst maintaining high spirits throughout the interview, they were notably subdued when we turned to the university’s current approach to black history month. Bluntly, they asked “is there an approach?’. The consensus being that the university does not do enough to promote or acknowledge the month. They said “they haven’t asked us. It’s not as big as something like Pangaea and we definitely don’t get as much funding or support.”
However, they kept inclusivity in mind acknowledging that it’s very easy for black history month to come across as “exclusive” and niche. They hope to change this perception. They said “it’s not just for us. Non-black people can definitely learn about black history and get involved during the month. There’s a bit of stigma around the African Caribbean Society, people often think ‘well I’m not black so it has nothing to do with me’ but that’s not the case at all.”
I then asked them to consider whether they thought equal emphasis is placed on African and Caribbean heritage, a point that sparked a lively debate. It was agreed that the two are often, erroneously, combined. Jayeola said “we’ve already said that there aren’t many black people at top universities, it’s even less if you’re Caribbean. In most cases, they lump us all together but realistically they mean African. West African more specifically. We need to be getting more Caribbean people to university”.
The lack of Caribbean students in Russell Group universities hasn’t gone unnoticed. Chastanet-Hird spoke of his involvement with Cariconnect, a non-profit organisation set up to mentor young Caribbean students in London schools. Through this, Caribbean students from Russell Group universities are visiting schools in London and mentoring younger Caribbean students.
Additionally, the different experiences of Caribbean and African migrants were discussed at great length. Many British-Caribbeans, starting with the Windrush generation, came to England during the post-war period. Riley-Bennett stated “When most Caribbean immigrants came here it was awful. They faced so much racism, people would brick their windows and graffiti their houses. They’d get attacked in the streets. My dad used to tell me stories of trying to play football and getting beaten up on the pitch”. She adds “that’s why there are so few Caribbeans at university now. You had trained doctors and teachers coming over and being made to drive buses and sweep streets, how were they supposed to prioritise higher education?”
Whilst it was generally agreed that African migrants (and their children) have had a largely different experience, it’s not to say it has been easier. Tairu, a South London native, talks of the changes he’s witnessed in his community, in his lifetime alone. He says “the government doesn’t help. Community centres, youth centres and libraries are shutting down every day because there’s no funding. People are getting left behind but they don’t care.”
In keeping with the theme of the month I quizzed the group on their heritage, and what it means to them. Powell said “my heritage means acceptance. Not a lot of people know the racial make-up of Trinidad but it’s around 49% east Indian, and about 45 per cent African so my culture taught me to be more accepting. When I hear people talk about racism and black issues I’m at a loss because in Trinidad it’s not the same. It’s like all these other cultures are my own and I appreciate them as much as my own culture.”
Dowding added “I was born in Jamaica but because I don’t speak Patois I feel different. They ask me why I’m acting white. From the way I dress to the way I talk, they’ll laugh because it sounds funny”.
Finally, we reflected on the current level of teaching in British schools. On this, they were uniform and concise. “It’s awful” they said, “stop teaching about just slavery. The history that’s taught is white history and then there’s one little segment for black people. You can’t cover our whole history in one month and I’m tired of watching Roots. We learned about Hitler for a whole year so I’m sure we can learn about black history for a year too.”
The lack of depth and honesty was a recurring theme as many committee members noted that the current curriculum is biased. Subair and Riley-Bennett agreed “they don’t include enough British involvement and they erase the actions of the Empire”. Whilst Dowding continued “in secondary school I didn’t even really realise Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. A lot of the black history I know is things I sought out for myself. All you get is black people being kidnapped in Africa and taken to America, and then it skips to the civil rights. It’s like we didn’t exist for 30 years until Martin Luther King showed up”. We all agreed that this is something that needs to change.
The group can be found at @ACSManUni on twitter.