Black History Month

Guest blog by Doyin Ogunmilua (RUSU Part-Time BME Students’ Officer)

[Please join us (and hear more from Doyin Ogunmilua) for a Black History Month Moment of Silence, Monday 2nd October at 1pm, by the flagpole between Whiteknights House and the Library. For other events planned during October see www.reading.ac.uk/diversity/diversity-events-news.aspx]

[Update added 2 October 2017. Please see the end of this blog for the text of the poem Free at Last, a Slavery Remembrance Day poem, which was written and read by Doyin Ogunmilua at today’s Black History Month Moment of Silence ceremony, at 1pm at the University flagpole.]

Introduction: Black History Month in a Summary

Black History Month is a month dedicated to those of black, Caribbean and Asian descent. During the month there is typically a uniting from those of minority backgrounds to celebrate shared histories, differences, traditions and to raise awareness of pressing racial issues. Black History Month is a specific period where people of similar backgrounds can hold events which highlight their talents and achievements while simultaneously pushing political, social and academic agendas. This is often done through a variety of different mediums such as art, film, dance, theatre, radio and social media.

Black History Month is vital in the further learning and education of a new generation of ethnic minorities in Britain. This education acts as a beacon of light on the past, present and future struggles of minorities in the fight for equality and justice.

The History of Black History Month

The event was created in the United States by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 in the hopes of acknowledging black achievements, which is still a priority to this day. It was initially a weekly campaign; “Negro History Week.” While Black History Month is celebrated in the US in February to acknowledge historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, the UK typically marks the event in October in correspondence to the start of a new academic year.

Inevitable questions in the run-up
As Black History Month approaches there are inevitable questions that will be raised such as why it is only celebrated in a month and not a year and why there is no white history month. I have been asked this question in the past and it still intrigues me as to why this is such an issue for some. In response I say, why should there be a celebration of a race and a culture which has been so overly idolised and praised for as long as I can remember? In my mind, there has been a white-washing when it comes to African history, grounded in a deception which runs deep and spans centuries. Black History Month was created specifically for the minority and not for the past-times of those who have never been and so cannot begin to relate.

The relevance
So, as UK Black History Month celebrates 30 years in existence, the question some may ask is if it is still relevant and if it should continue. Black History Walks in an organisation directed by Tony Walker. It provides monthly films and educational walking tours on London’s 2000-year African history. Walker explains that Black History Month was created to “correct the deliberate destruction done to African memories by European misrepresentation.” It is an important month as it prioritises re-informing and re-focusing minds on the true story of minority peoples. It teaches, in particular young people, that we must at times step away from what we are taught on a daily basis and start to question and challenge a status quo which aims to oppress and divide the marginalised.
Amid the increased racial attacks in the wake of Brexit and the ever-present figure of white supremacy in politics, academia and beyond, it is very much a justified campaign of strength and unity which must continue if we are to see further progress.

Conclusion
In conclusion, Black History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate each other as well as acknowledging what divides us. This year’s Black History Month, as well as the ones to come, should not falter in promoting equality and justice and the fight against the deprivation and appropriation of an identity which is rightfully ours.

Postscript: a Slavery Remembrance Day Poem

As read by Doyin at 1pm, today, 2/10/2017, at the Black History Month Moment of Silence event at the University flagpole.

Free at last
by Doyin Ogunmilua

Hands and feet once bound by heavy chains
Black bodies once a white man’s claim
Now-a-days it’s minds in shackles
No rest for the wicked in this superiority game

My enslaved ancestors long dead and gone
Yet their cries still go on
Wringing in my ears, I see their tears
How can I play a game that’s already been won?

I sense their expectation
To fulfil a dream they could not touch
To see a promise come to pass
I admit the weight of expectation is much

And so, the victimisation of minds and bodies prevail
When will they stop killing our young black males?
Herded up like sheep and shot
When once herded up on a ship to rot

Haunted by the blood and tears of my ancestors
They stain the back pages of history
A dirty secret in which they are ashamed
Ashamed of my erased family tree

We were supposed to be strong and free
According to that particular act in 1833
Yet bound and gagged we still stand
Appropriated bodies in high demand

Untold stories hidden in the depths of a cotton field
In the depths of the soul of a young man killed
When will I see that promise come to pass?
So I can finally say I am free at last.

“Biggest Fight of my Life”: Frank Bruno and Mental Health

By Claire Gregor and Suzanne James  (Student Wellbeing) with an introduction by Ellie Highwood

Sometimes my role as Dean for Diversity and Inclusion feels like doing a giant dot-to-dot picture. There are great ideas and initiatives going on across campus that just need that little extra help to shine. ONe way we do this is by using some funds originally given by the Vice Chancellor, to support projects proposed by staff and students. We recently asked for applications and funded 7 very different activities of which you will hear more over the next few months as they progress. However, I am delighted to be able to share here a review of the first activity, designed and delivered by Student Wellbeing in March 2017.

Frank Bruno MBE visit and University Mental Health Week Activities

This project, organised and run by Student Wellbeing, used a national event, University Mental Health Day – whose theme was ‘Active in sport’ – to raise awareness among students of the links between mental and physical health. The theme had a positive message that appealed cross-gender, to all ages and ethnicities and resonated with a general ‘look after yourself’ message.

Funding was provided by a grant from Diversity and Inclusion Deans to pay for a high profile speaker (Frank Bruno, MBE), who is a strong and positive role model coming as he does from a BME background and who has publicly spoken about his own personal mental health struggles. Frank was invited to address the students at a specially organised ‘A conversation with’ lunchtime event.  An additional activity was developed so that Frank appeared for a Super Circuits event at the Sportspark prior to this, to maximise the publicity opportunities that his visit afforded.

 

Using this speaker opened up conversations among students about the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing. It inspired students to put steps in place to include activity in their lives, to support their mental and physical health.  It increased awareness of mental health difficulties and provided social contact activities that were open to all. The ‘In Conversation with ‘event also provided a high profile positive focus for the University of Reading’s Mental Health Day, during which a number of other planned activities took place.

Project Highlights:

  1. 230 staff and students attended ‘In Conversation’ in Van Emden lecture theatre
  2. 140 students and staff attended Super Circuits event at Sportspark
  3. Over 800 YouTube hits on ‘Biggest Fight of my Life’ Video uploaded on 2/03/2017
  4. 111 views of full interview and q and a session in 5 days
  5. 75 entries to Instagram competition: some individual images receiving in excess of 400 ‘likes’
  6. In Conversation Event Livestreamed via Facebook
  7. Multiple positive publicity opportunities generated promoting Reading as a university concerned about mental health issues
  8. Nearly £500 raised in 2 days for two charities: Sport in Mind and the Cameron Grant Memorial Trust

Legacy

  1. Visible presence on campus to show that the University ‘cares’ about student and staff mental well-being.
  2. Promotion of Student Wellbeing to hard-to-reach target groups.
  3. Professionally produced Counselling & Wellbeing video clip which can be uploaded to provide permanent resource via web pages and Blackboard

 

Engaging UofR students in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies, Department of English Literature (SLL)

At an International Women’s Day event I organised this week, colleagues and students listened, learned and debated as our inspiring colleagues delivered talks on a range of topics. Our large room was filled almost to capacity and there was laughter, solidarity and reflection as Professor Clare Furneaux, Dr Brian Feltham, Dr Orla Kennedy, Professor Rachel McCrindle and Dr Mary Morrissey delivered passionate, research based speeches on topics including Women in Engineering, gendered relationships with language, women and weight, the meanings embedded in Hillary Clinton’s ‘likability’ issues, and the relevance of Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon in relation to discriminatory mechanisms.

This is an annual event and every year I am staggered and impressed by our students’ level of engagement with issues of equality. Since the Noughties, there has been a persistent narrative around the political apathy of the younger generations; journalists have mourned the gap between politically engaged parents and their politically disengaged offspring. The problem with this position is that it too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: because we expect apathy, we cease to try to engage, and we then create the very ‘apathy’ of which we complain. The consequences of this were seen in the Brexit referendum and are felt also in a too easy acceptance of unequal pay, unequal status within the workplace, and unequal parliamentary representation (we should not be distracted by the fact of a female PM when 455 male MPs significantly outnumber 195 female MPs).

The student-facing UofR International Women’s Day event challenges this narrative of assumed apathy and political disengagement. It reveals that we only need to use our creativity to tap into our students’ deeply-felt commitment to issues of justice and fairness. This generation of students is more nuanced, less thoughtlessly discriminatory, and more reflective than we probably were ourselves at their age. In ‘Writing, Gender and Identity’ seminars, for example, my Part 2 students interrogate binary positions with skill and sensitivity, and in their activities in equality, diversity and inclusion campaigns, they take direct action. Some of our students in English Literature have gone on to manage new education networks in developing areas of Africa; they have worked for penal reform organisations; they have become the leader of the Women’s Equality Party (Sophie Walker is a graduate of French and English); they have held banners at Women’s Marches bearing the legend, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel – not a template!’. I am proud to say that our graduates practice what we preach: we must make sure that we do the same.

At a fascinating CQSD training event yesterday, there was much discussion about how we could develop our students’ capacity for critical thinking. As I listened to our students debating at the IWD event, I understood that they have the ability and the desire to think critically, particularly about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. It is up to us to connect with them in workshops, lectures, student forums, and extra-curricular events as we work to develop the next generation of citizens and professionals who may finally be able to produce that most elusive goal, a more equal world.

 

How would you describe our students?

At the Curriculum framework conference on 25th January 2017, it was a delight to present with Sed Joshi, Diversity and Inclusion Sabbatical officer from RUSU on the topic of “How well do we know our students?” We gave staff a quiz, presented facts and figures about our students from the Annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, and discussed what we are doing to try to make our staff body look more like our student body. Video testimonies from students told us why this was important and also what made them feel included.

But it’s always good to try new technology, and we decided to adopt something I learnt from the Association of Science Educations conference – an evolving word cloud. So, we asked 73 participants for 3 words they would use to describe our students, and via Mentimeter, got this (Size of words indicates how many times that response was made):

 

Perhaps given that we were primed by being in a session about diversity it is not a surprise that the largest word is diverse! What would you add?