I spoke to various members of University of Birmingham’s African Caribbean Society and their Black Ethnic Minority Association, including VP of the ACS, Jezelle Smith-Thomas and Michael Obasanya, committee member of the BEMA, on what their university has been doing to celebrate Black History Month, and asked them for their advice on how other universities can take a leaf out of Birmingham’s book to really celebrate Black History Month properly.
First of all, I’ve seen all of your hashtags on social media #BigBirmsBHM and seen all of the snapchats of the events, it really does look amazing! What kind of things have you done for Black History Month?
A lot of the members on the ACS and BEMA committee were very passionate about making Black History Month special this year as nothing was really done last year on our campus. We decided to collaborate on the month and created #BigBirmsBHM, our Black History Month campaign. Our events included:
- A panel discussion on art, identity and activism with photographer Neil Kenlock who was involved in the British Black Panther Movement, digital illustrator Kirsty Latoya and Jojo Sonubi and Tania who are involved in the archive Black In the Day.
- Two discussions in collaboration with Woke Weekly UK, a movement focused on faciliating hard conversations at University. We covered the topics ‘Is the Black British identity London-centric’ and the second discussion was about ‘Blackness and Gender’.
- A Hidden Histories event, which focused solely on British history where we welcomed Leslie Palmer, the creator of Notting Hill Carnival and Winston White, a member of the British Military to speak about their experiences.
- ‘Under your nose’ documentary screening about the Black LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s.
- Black with a BANG: Cultural showcase featuring societies spanning from the Afrodance Society which launched this month, to Speak Out society, which is the University of Birmingham’s spoken word society, here we raised £800 for Shelterbox, a charity that the ACS chose to raise money for, for the entire year.
- Annual Black hair and beauty event with guest speakers Curlture UK who have been featured on BET.
And we’re not even done! We plan to hold more events throughout the year because Black History is not just limited to one month, it’s an everyday thing. We are black and proud of it every single day.
What are your opinions on cliche events for Black History Month, are they better than nothing? How can universities avoid cliches and put on more serious, relevant events?
Most Black History Month events tend to revolve around African-American history, and it can become really cliche, so with #BigBirmsBHM, we tried to focus more on the history of black people in the UK, and our home countries. I’m not really a fan of focusing primarily on cliche Black History Month Events, because it ignores the rich history that we have as Black British people of African and West Indian heritage. However, I do think they’re better than nothing and it shows that there is at least some regard for Black History there.
I agree, it’s better to have something subpar than nothing at all. The UK has already done a thorough job of erasing Black History Month so I think it’s important for black students to do what they can to celebrate it, even if the events aren’t the most innovative.
I personally don’t like cliché events, I know at some universities they may be struggling for ideas and doing something is better than nothing, but for me personally, sometimes I find some events low-key insulting as if organisers haven’t taken the time to actually get correct information and they’re just doing it to fill a quota or to appear ‘non-racist’. To avoid clichés I think you need to look at Black History Month in a different way, it’s not all about focusing on the horrible past and wallowing in it, and only hearing negatives or just talking about African Americans because most of the time I don’t feel connected to that. We should start recognising how far we have come *since* slavery etc and how black people especially people in our generation in the UK, have tried to make change and flourished, and to celebrate them.
What would your advice be to black/ethnic students studying at a university with a large white student population?
My advice would be, to be open to friendships of all races but to also reach out, engage and connect with black societies like ACS/BEMA. There’s nothing quite like having a tight knit black community around you.
I would say never feel pressured to change yourself just because you feel like you’ve been thrust into a majority white environment. Being black is so special and powerful so don’t erase your blackness because you feel like you must act a certain way to fit in with white people. At the end of the day, real friends will always accept you the way you are.
My advice is for you to acknowledge that your blackness should never stop you from doing anything. Join societies, engage with your course, make friends and branch out of your comfort zone. Don’t ever limit yourself because of notions of what you should and should not do as a black person.
I’d say, go into everything with an open mind. Firstly, don’t be afraid to meet new people whom you wouldn’t normally talk to, as you can meet so many new groups of people at university. But also, go to your ACS and BME events! They’re a great way to socialise, network, and find like-minded people, especially being away from home.
What can an ACS society do in terms of engagement if their university is mainly white, or if the society is not that big?
ACS’ should always be aware of what the black community at their university wants, and try to cater to it as best as they can. I think it’s difficult to engage with students when assumptions are made about what they want. ACS should do surveys, talk to students, engage with the students and see what they want. Also make events as diverse as possible with a healthy mix of social and educational events.
I think firstly you need to make use of Fresher’s Fayre and keep in regular contact with members. Also you have to mould the ACS to suit the members.
Make sure you start to know the first years from summer (around results day). Use social media, set up group chats, start getting an idea of what they would like their ACS to do for them. Make sure you consider this throughout the year, and get regular feedback from members. Most importantly, make sure the events are diverse enough to appeal to both first years and older years, because more often than not they have completely different expectations of ACS. It’s important to make sure every year group is heard.
Should white people care/get involved in Black History Month events? Or should it be an exclusively black thing?
University is all about gaining an understanding of different people. It’s not about whether white people should care about Black History Month, it’s more about everyone caring about the culture, heritage and even struggles of their friends and classmates that don’t look like them. Through this we have a better understanding of one another and are able to develop great respectful friendships. Some universities seem to be sprinkled with a very ‘us and them’ mentality, it appears to be split racially, and in such a diverse space everyone should seek to get to know others. Through doing this we avoid a lot of issues such as blackface and micro aggressions which can create a lot of disharmony. With everyone of every race engaging with Black History Month, a more harmonious university environment is created.
Black History Month and black history in general shouldn’t be exclusively for black people; people of all races have the potential to learn from our history, which is inextricably connected to British History. People don’t realise that Black History Month is actually government-recognised, but because the curriculum surpasses it, so many non-black people don’t even know about its existence, which is bad, but unsurprising. At the same time, I don’t think there is anything wrong with black students discussing our history in majority black spaces. As important as education is, a big part of Black History Month is also just about we as black people, recognising and celebrating our cultures and histories, regardless of whether or not non-black people recognise it.
I don’t believe that Black History Month should be an exclusively black thing mainly because I think it’s important that everyone tries to at least have some understanding of other people’s culture and heritage, which I believe creates a more cohesive university environment. Also I really do believe that ignorance is at the root of many issues between races and it’s very unsurprising when many white people don’t even know that Black History Month is in October or even that it exists. But when you educate people, ignorance can no longer be an excuse for racist behaviour and there can be accountability. And at the end of the day, our culture and history is so rich and beautiful why wouldn’t we want to teach people about it? By doing that we’re saying we’re black, we’re proud and we’re here. That sounds pretty cool to me.
Black history shouldn’t be contained to just one month. History is history regardless of colour. Everyone should know, be taught or at least be aware of all history. What we are taught in schools and at university is very whitewashed, so I think it is important for white people to be educated about black history. Although at the same time, I wouldn’t expect them to go out of their way to educate themselves and attend Black History events etc. Black History Month is about black people but not exclusively FOR black people. Anyone can listen.