BY WANGU MUREITHI
Black History Month (BHM) is celebrated widely in the aim of promoting and highlighting the significant contribution that Black people have made to British culture. Although there are many debates around this month; with some suggesting that 'every day is black history month', it is incredibly important to dedicate an entire month celebrating the successes of Black people that are often left out from mainstream media.
As Brunel's Black and Ethnic Minority officer, it was integral that Union of Brunel Students marked this month as a vast majority of our students are black. As well as celebrating success, this month also invited students to highlight contentious issues within the Black community. Special thanks to Ali Milani (UBS President), Emily-Jade Nelson (Equality and Diversity chair), Brunel Beauty Society, and also African Caribbean Society (ACS) for inputs, support and collaboration in making this month everything that it was.
The theme for this year's BHM was, 'Decolonisation, Liberation and Healing'. It was specifically chosen to start a movement towards 'decoloniality' at Brunel. This term refers to a process of unlearning behaviours and systems of oppression that all members of society may produce consciously and subconsciously such as micro aggressions, misogynoir and racism.
One way that decolonisation can be explored is through music and poetry; the month kicked off with an open mic event showcasing Brunel talent on 1st October.
Decolonize was the first of its kind at Brunel and due to the success of this event similar open mic events with other fantastic performers will follow in the coming months. The night started off with an exhilarating performance from second year Sociology and Media student, and part time Gospel-Rap artist Tolu 'TeeLow' Awojobi from the JC4ME Collective. His enthusiastic performance energised the crowd with his catchy song 'Yeah!'.
The event was also graced by Siana Bangura a fierce, thought provoking talented wordsmith who started off her countrywide Black History Month tour here at Brunel. Siana's poetry left many students with chills down their spine with the eloquence in which she portrayed difficult topics, particularly pertaining to her experiences of navigating the world as a black woman.
We were also fortunate to have former Brunel student Vivienne Isebor perform a 10 minute set with acoustic set of original material and covers of well-known songs such as Bob Marley͛s Redemption Song using her voice to communicate messages of love and liberation that captivated the attention of the entire room with her powerful performance that inspired Brunel students to take the stage and fill up the open mic slots.
On 5th October a panel discussion was held with Dr Karen Salt an academic who has worked on issues to do with race and power for over 20 years. Salt, who teaches at the University of Aberdeen and oversees a number of projects, will be working along with Ahmed Ali a third year International Relations student whose interests lie in East African history, decolonisation and Islam. Both panellists discussed their experiences of being Black in education, focusing on their experiences of higher education. Both Dr Salt and Ahmed noted specifically the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in academic faculties in the UK. Currently, there are 50 black professors and an appalling 17 of them are self-identifying women.
There are many reasons for this shockingly low figure and perhaps one of those reasons might have something to do with Ahmed's talk about academia who passionately articulated his frustrations with the current state of compulsory and higher education, highlighting the damaging effects it has on Black students. He shared that in schools, today throughout the UK, Black history starts with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Ahmed explained the negative impacts of this on the psyche of black students to hear that their history began with genocide, especially as the UK and USA still benefit from the Slave Trade whilst African and Caribbean countries continue to suffer. Ahmed also expressed support towards the national movement of 'Why is my curriculum white?' that started at UCL, calling for a move away from Eurocentric curriculums that are taught at our academic institutions, which reinforce the unequal power structures within our society.
Dr Salt in her candid and unapologetic talk started off with a trip down memory lane that helped us to understand her journey into academia as a black woman; growing up in a neighbourhood riddled with guns and drugs in South Florida, USA. Her talk was followed with experiences and questions around the reality of being a black academic, which included revealing the shortage of black academics in higher education in the UK and unpacked some of the obstacles that can often deter Black academics from staying here in the UK and or even, pursuing a career in academia.
Her talk also emphasised the importance of creating a strong community atmosphere when engaging in challenging tasks such as decolonising the curriculum and other forms of student led activism including the free education movement. The focus on community helps to create a strong and sustainable movement that isn͛t focused on one leader, but is timeless and has lots of people working towards one end goal. Her talk left the intimate audience that included Benjamin Zephaniah energised and excited about potential work to be done at Brunel.
The month's celebrations came to an end on with the boldly titled event You're Pretty for a Black Girl held in collaboration with Brunel Beauty Society and ACS. The aim of this event was to gather self-identifying women of colour into a space for a panel discussion, unpacking issues around colourism, hair and beauty that affect the lived experiences of many women of colour.
The event was opened with spoken word poetry by Eva Mannah expressing the versatility and complexity of Black hair. This was followed by a keynote address on the representation of women of colour in the media, pointing at various historical junctures that have shaped the media. Mannah also shared her own experiences of navigating her identity as being both black and a woman in spaces that try to conceal and separate these two interwoven parts of her identity.
The panellists, Emily-Jade Nelson (Equality and Diversity Chair), Eva Mannah (President Brunel Beauty Society), Priscilla Anyabu (ACS Liaison officer), and Siana Bangura shared their experiences in response to the controversial discussion points that sparked plenty of thrilling discussions around the intersectional identities that women of colour have.
The teachings of Dr Salt on building community were central to the organisers and this was expressed through the reception held after the event; feeding students Cake, Pizza and mocktails to give them the time and space to continue the conversations started earlier that evening.
With December fast approaching and October left behind us, the conversations, poetry, singing and rap celebrating Black History Month and exploring blackness serve as great reminders why it is important to celebrate Black History Month every day and not just for a month in October.
For more information about other events please email Wangu Mureithi on firstname.lastname@example.org or message them on Facebook - Brunel Black and Ethnic Minority Officer.