By Hanna Suliman-Nicol
Black History Month presents us with a unique opportunity to celebrate those who have in the past contributed to our current national, social, and cultural state, but have often been marginalised and discounted from the larger British narrative due to the colour of their skin.
One of the criticisms commonly levelled at Black History Month is that it is redundant, a ‘token’ event if you will. Yet, when we live in a society where the majority of black men and women are still systematically held back from opportunities as a result of their historic socio-economic circumstances, it is impossible to deny the fact that these historical inequalities are still relevant. BHM provides a time for reflection: a chance to see how far we have come as a society, but also to note that there are still changes to be made.
Perhaps part of the reason why there is such uncertainty regarding the need for Black History Month in the UK stems from the fact that, in recent years, the story of Black-Westerners has been dominated by the African-American narrative. As stories of police brutality and oppression at every level in the US fills our newsfeeds, it is easy to neglect the problems faced by black people in the UK.
I alone represent 25% of my year’s black population in college
Culturally, the UK is far more integrated than the US. This summer, the Tate Modern put on an exhibition celebrating black art in the US from the 1950s to the 1980s. Such an exhibition would never – and has never – happened at a major US museum. Yet there are still significant problems within the UK. Black people, for one, still find themselves underrepresented in high ranking positions across the country.
A large part of this is down to our education system, which tends to hinder those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, of course, often tends to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. It is why I alone represent 25% of my year’s black population in college.
It is true that in the past Durham University has not been explicitly connected with black British history; indeed, its story thus far has been largely concerned with privileged white men. This is understandable given the context of the university, but it is no longer acceptable in the 21st century for an institution that strives to be one of the leading global centres of education. It is this image that perpetuates the stereotype of Durham being a place exclusively for privately-educated students. It is also the image that drives away not only BME students, but also those of other ethnicities and even individuals from state schools.
In an ideal world, Black History Month would be redundant
This was something I was very conscious of when I made my decision to take up my place at Durham. I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in a great hall adorned with paintings of past college members. Every figure is a white male. There is not a single woman or person of colour.
Yet at the same time, the Senior Student at University College this year is a black woman.
At the start of term, during his opening speech, the Chaplain looked around the hall and noted the lack of diversity. He said that this was something that needed to change. And while I have been at Durham, I have noticed an effort to diversify syllabi in humanities subjects, to create outreach programmes, and to partake in schemes that seek to broaden the student body and experience.
In an ideal world, Black History Month would be redundant, because black people would be adequately recognised and given equal opportunities on a daily basis.
In my college’s great hall adorned with paintings, every figure is a white male
Maybe that will be the case one day, when we reach a point where the dominant narrative is inclusive and reflective of the diverse society we actually are. But until that day comes, we must continue to actively celebrate people of colour and recognise their place in the past, the present, and the future to come.
Photograph: Alan Nicol