Feature for Black History Month – Online Exclusive Extended Version
Foreword by Adonay Berhe
Being black in Bath? Being black in Brexit Britain? Am I Black enough? Am I the right type of Black? What does Black even mean?
I’ve let these questions rumble in my mind before; colliding were feelings of insecurity and pride. A negotiation between different identities – Black and British – gripped me through my teenage years. I am not alone in that respect.
Four distinct and necessary voices have given their own answers on Black identity: as part of a collaboration between BathTime and the African and Caribbean Society. These contributors demonstrate the diversity within Bath’s own Black community.
“A negotiation between different identities – Black and British – gripped me through my teenage years.”
No matter where we’ve come from, Black students in Bath face difficulties with social inclusion. I could quote you the statistics but here, instead, we’ll give you our stories.
I write as the son of Eritrean refugees from inner-city London, the first of my family to attend University. Some five years after dropping my bags at John Wood Court, I feel at home here.
These years saw turmoil, growth and adaptation – gone are the rough tones of my London accent; my tastes in music and literature are unrecognisable.Is this maturity? Or was I compromising my authentic Black self? As some friends and family posited, was I acting ‘white’?
Now in a committee position of the African and Caribbean Society, I’ve come to realise that these were the wrong questions. The peace comes within. The respectability politics of trying to distance yourself from your own community does exist but the real issues are more institutional.
Black students tend to not apply to be Academic Reps or engage with Peer Mentors; we tend to not access Student Services at the same rate. Being emboldened as a Black student involves being unapologetically ourselves and taking full advantage of our opportunities.
It involves taking up space – so we are represented in student media and committees. Creating visibility by having student excellence celebrated. Taking a seat at the table so there’s minority representation involved in the University’s decision-making process!
“Being emboldened as a Black student involves being unapologetically ourselves and taking full advantage of our opportunities.”
The answer should never be abandoning your culture at the University of Bath’s door.
It took me a couple of years in silencing these doubts and answering questions of identity.
Views from the African and Caribbean Society
(Daniel Ashitey, Ghana, Home Student, Third Year)
I’ve lived in England all my life, but ask me where I’m from and I’d say Ghana.
Why? I’m not even fluent in Ga, (spoken in the South East) and I hadn’t been there for about 15 years. So, when my family booked tickets for us to go back for a month without asking, I was apprehensive, but there was also relief.
Having had to conform in various ways to the new environment of university, I didn’t feel accepted at Bath. I felt like I was losing my identity. There’s been plenty of times where I didn’t feel like I could fully express my ‘blackness’, but now for once I could be in a country and be myself fully.
During the trip, my family was quite concerned for how anti-social I was, but it was honestly a confusing mixture of emotions and embarrassment. Especially meeting my long-lost cousins. It’s strange not being able to relate to your own blood relatives, unless when continents have separated you, maybe it makes sense. Part of me blames my parents? Part of me wonders if I made enough of an effort? Maybe I’ve been too westernised? Not having a solid sense of culture makes explaining who I am a frustrating process.
Every time my uncle used to ring me, I’d be tempted to end the call as quickly as possible, instead of dealing with the guilt of not being able to speak my own native language. But after this holiday, able to immerse myself into all the homeland culture, I finally could say to myself that I was Ghanaian and that meant a lot.
(Monique McPherson, Jamaica, Home Student, Fourth Year)
The University of Bath is my second home, my skin fits well here. I can be who I wish and will to be. I can construct and deconstruct myself without fear. I am a building that is both a worksite and a grand design.
I have made beautiful friends that now hold status as family. My wall of arms. They carry me and they protect me. Being a Black Woman means it is not enough to be born to, but you must also find, family.
I am proud of the woman I am, for I am proud of the women I know. If I am the average of my friends, I am not average. I exceed and excel in all the ways I was told I could not by eyes that stare and mouths that mime. I am grateful, so grateful. My gratitude could not be measured by any scale. Even so, more must be done; Bath may be home, but home can bring hurt too.
I am foremost a person – my body is occupied by different parts, though equally whole. I am a Black Queer Woman. This means University has not been an easy ride. Understandably it is not a seamless experience for anyone, I can only speak on my behalf, but I have felt frayed due to impositions placed on my body. Even from those who look like me.
There are narratives you cannot escape here. People see folklore when they see me in the flesh. I am rarely seen in person. But I have the luck others do not: I am petite and how ‘intimidating’ can I really be standing at 5’4 and barely reaching a healthy BMI? It is easy for me to be straight passing because I do not look like “man hating expletive”, it is best to use your imagination here. It is easy for me to make up for my stern face with big inviting eyes. People rarely tell me to “smile more”. But when they do, I do. For I do not wish to feed the narrative, yet it is still fed because the narrative is not mine (yet).
But my wall of arms, my army, they warm me.
(Kush Patel, Zimbabwe, International Student, Final Year)
Stranger – “Hey where you from?”
Me – “Umm short story or long story?”
Stranger – *stares blankly* “What?!”
As an Indian ethnic born and raised in Zimbabwe, this is a reaction I’ve received numerous times upon meeting someone new. Many struggle to relate my brown (Indian) skin and (apparently) British sounding accent to anything remotely Zimbabwean, let alone African.
I had always identified most with Zimbabwe over my Indian ethnicity or British citizenship. However, since coming to university (and the UK) I’ve come to realise that that is no longer the case. Perhaps Ijeoma Umebinyuo – the acclaimed Nigerian poet – best describes my current feelings towards identity: “so, here you are. Too foreign for home, too foreign for here. never enough for both.”
Whilst exploring this sense of self I was fortunate enough to have visited Robben Island in South Africa. I was immediately drawn to the story of Nelson Mandela, a man who needs no introduction. What amazed me about Mandela was that although he bore the scars of the past, he consciously chose to try to heal and move forward with the same people that created those scars. He encouraged forgiveness and remembrance, to learn about their troubled past. Ultimately, it allowed people to reconcile their differences. At its core, it was a true embodiment of Ubuntu and enabled many to find the truth within.
That understanding led me to realise that it was not my skin colour that determined what I was, but how I felt. So, I am Zimbabwean, just as I am British and Indian, because that’s who I want to be. At its heart, I believe Black History Month has the potential to mean something for everyone. Learning Black history has the potential to initiate dialogue and encourage people to embrace Black culture regardless of their background, resulting in a more inclusive and multicultural population. More importantly though, a population that, using the lessons of the past, can move forward together.
What does this mean for me?
Well, I am Indian. I am British. I am Zimbabwean.
(Ahmed Osman, Sudanese, International Student, Second Year)
Black History Month to me, and I hate to say this, has never meant very much to me Living in Switzerland and attending an international school, meant I was the only black kid at my school, I didn’t get the opportunity to celebrate the achievements or acknowledge the battles of my predecessors.
It wasn’t until university that I was properly introduced to the concept of black history month and what it means to so many people around me. As the treasurer of the ACS, I am actively learning about black history and culture every day from the people around me, answering questions such as: where did Jollof Rice come from?
What I miss most about Sudan is its togetherness and strong sense of community. Most people in Sudan lived in full with their immediate and even extended family. Social events and meetups were basically daily occurrences. Whenever I’m eating my plain pasta in front of my laptop, I reminisce about the times when we used to gather around the dining table in groups of 10-20 people and have dinner together, making endless jokes or singing beautiful songs.
One person that continues to inspire me is LeBron James, a basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. Against all odds, Lebron is one of the most successful and influential athletes of all time. He has found success in business, media, sports, and other avenues. Coming from an inner-city neighbourhood and a single-parent household, society had expected him to become a statistic – dead or in jail. His dedication and self-belief are qualities that I appreciate and strive to attain every day.
Being black in Bath has been quite an interesting experience. I remember arriving in Bath with the culture shock of feeling like the only black person within a mile’s radius. I remember gravitating toward some of my current black friends. Over time I have been introduced to many other black students whom I’ve shared similar experiences with. We’re now a growing, if small, community.
(Eunice Neto, Angolan, Second Year)
Another year. Another Black History Month has come and gone for the minority students at the University of Bath.
Black History Month – BHM – is a chance to the celebration of Black British excellence from our community in Bath to the whole of the UK.
Universities all over the UK have been praising the unsung Black British academics that studied at their institutions and have made remarkable contributions to their fields. So, what about the University of Bath?
We’ve all heard the same old fact that former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had a house in Bath; that aside, I would argue resoundingly that the University has done very little.
Are you surprised? As a black student studying at this institution, I cannot pretend to be. Think back to the miniscule banner advertising Black History Month on the railings near the library. Or consider the lack of acknowledgement of the attainment gap at University (one study estimates that there is a 15.6% attainment gap with Black students), this is certainly not a shock to the black students experience.
The University of Bath enjoying throwing the word ‘diversity’ around, but do they truly understand what it means? To question diversity in Bath, one ignites the same old reaction of ‘we host a wealth of international students at the University’. Yet, that statement alone further corroborates my point: it seems to me that the University does not care for the BME student community.
The very framework of the institution is built upon Eurocentric ideas within the lectures we are being taught right down to student admissions. If you are white, European and middle class; congratulations! You are at least 70% already accepted in the University. To place that into perspective, in the intake of POLIS 2018/2019, there was only one black female student.
Furthermore, we can identify these same parallels within the ethnic makeup of staff across a multitude of departments. In my opinion, this simply reflects that the University of Bath doesn’t cater for it’s BME students and I don’t think they ever will.
In October 2018, Bath Spa University hired the UK’s first black women history professor. This was a momentous moment for Black students in Bath looking to get into academia and not once has the University of Bath thought to even invite her to talk or teach a lecture.
So, as Black History Month is upon us, we must ask the university, what has changed? What has truly changed in Bath that separates Bath from the likes of Oxford or Cambridge in these regards. The answer; nothing.
Until the University of Bath can get off their high horse and admit this problem, then I guess we’ll be stuck in time.
(Joelle Boakye-Poku, Angola, Home Student, First Year)
Black is unique
Back is proud
Black is beautiful
Black is different
Black is cultural
Black is enough
Being black for me is more than to have a dark skin, it is my heritage and it is my culture. Being black is the feeling of support, encouragement and empowerment we get from each other. Being black is to have a difficult history yet come out the other side proud, strong, powerful and successful.
In the spirit of sharing our stories for black history month, I must be honest and say I have struggled with appreciating my skin colour, my hair, and my bodily features. I have wanted to be someone else, to look differently and sound differently. And that is not okay. I should be happy with who I am. I should be proud of my skin colour, of my hair and of my cultural heritage. I should aspire to be me, to be more and not worried about what makes me.
I believe that in black history month it is important to know and talk about slavery and the civil rights age. Nevertheless, our predominantly negative past is not the only thing we celebrate in black history month. Black history month is also the recognition of the blood, sweat and tears of those who have fought and sacrificed so much for us to be able to have the opportunities we have today.
Black history is Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Mae Jemison, Aretha Franklin and Harriet Tubman. It is also those incredibly influential people who are hardly mentioned; Lewis Latimer, Mary Prince, Mary Seacole, Garret Morgan, Ignatius Sancho, Kwame Nkrumah and many others.
Black history month is an opportunity to learn and educate others about our past and present. It is honouring our diversity and the people who have and are still making it possible for us to be more than the colour of our skin.
I am proud to be black and I am enough.
A Poem by Daniel Ashitey (@bighomiedan_)
Black is brilliant, black is magnificent
Black is being followed because they think a threat is imminent
Black is feeling like you’re rushed to be a grown man
And make money quickly to give back to the homeland
Black is feeling overly eager
To reverse the damage done by our country’s leaders
Feeling like a periphery and our heritage is a mystery
Because they made attempts to eradicate our history
Black is growing up adolescent in the barber to fill the void left by our absent fathers
Black is assimilating into a new nation and then getting a knock on the door from immigration.
And every time October comes around there’s pain in me
to accept the horrible nature of slavery
But our history is more than that
We’re black but our shades are more than black.