Visibility and voices: Durham’s forgotten Black alumni

By Rapha Matonga

Last month marked the 34th time the UK has celebrated Black History Month. In the weeks that have followed, I have found myself pondering upon its personal significance to me. 

As a Black child in the UK, I harboured feelings of frustration towards it; October was always a time in which I would be inundated with a plethora of complaints regarding what is meant to be a celebration of Black history. Chief among them was the grievance that there is not a ‘White History Month’. 

The irony was never lost on me: the weekly curriculum involves learning about the white Tudors, the white Victorians. Every history lesson consisted of detailing the achievements of white (primarily male) historical figures. Yet, for the four weeks in October, in which pupils would learn about Black historic figures like William Wilberforce and John Newton, there would be objections. Indeed, my early experiences of Black History Month were not only marred by constant displays of white fragility, but also by the fact that it was often used as a time to exalt white saviours; creating the illusion that black people were not instrumental to the UK’s history. 

There is a ‘sweeping under the rug’ tradition in Britain

The truth, of course, is that there are many Black figures in British history but acknowledging them would inevitably mean forcing white people to acknowledge their ancestors’ typically poor treatment of black people. This in turn desecrates the UK’s longstanding tradition of sweeping (the extent of) its racism under the rug. This is the nation that managed to be both one of the biggest players in the slave trade and convince people that they abolished slavery. More recently, the Government went as far as releasing a highly condemned report, which concluded that there is no systemic racism in the UK. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that so regularly gaslights us! 

This ‘sweeping under the rug’ tradition is one that many British institutions still observe, and to a certain extent Durham University is also guilty of this. As preparation for a recent job interview, I wanted to find the name of the first Black student at University College. The search yielded no result. I also found a lack of information when widening the search to find the first non-white student at the University of Durham. 

Who was this person? What did they study? What did they go on to do afterwards? Could they still be alive? 

And perhaps now more than ever, it’s essential to reflect upon what the “Black Experience” looked like for them: how were they received? Did they deal with the same microaggressions as Black students today? What advice, if any, would they have for a Black student or staff member at Durham? 

The fact that it’s not clear who they, or many other notable Black alumni, are adds to my feeling of alienation at an institution such as Durham. 

The University’s theme for last month’s Black History Month was “visibility and voices” ironically its Black alumni appear invisible and seemingly silent

White students at Durham can find portraits of the white people (men, really) that came before them on every wall in every hall. In comparison, Black students are given the impression that not a single Black alum is noteworthy. Resultantly, the University continues to perpetuate the idea that academically educated Black people are flukes. This is simply not true: we are here, we have been here, and we will undoubtedly continue to be here. 

The University’s theme for last month’s Black History Month was “visibility and voices.” Ironically, its Black alumni appear invisible and seemingly silent. It is incredibly hard to believe that Durham University does not have a rich (albeit potentially painful and tainted) Black history, and it is undeniably true that its Black alumni and students are currently contributing to Black history in remarkable ways. So why did Durham outsource figures and speakers, instead of finding and inviting back these Black alumni and students? It would have been entirely possible for the University to have focused its approach to Black History Month on the University’s Black history. 

Whilst sifting through copious archived documents, pictures, etc. would unquestionably require a lot of effort, that is absolutely the point. Whilst the practice of using Black History Month to discuss white saviours is fortunately now less common, there is a new practice of using this month for concentrated virtue signalling. It is all well and good to flaunt their “allyship” in October but what about the rest of the year? 

As long as institutions continue to only address Black history in October, they will forever preserve the notion that Black History belongs in the “other” category. This is far from the truth. 

The University’s Black History simply is a part of the University’s history. In which case, spending November to September to find out who and where its Black alumni were (or are) isn’t just about allyship: it’s ultimately a journey of self-discovery, and it’s one that invests time and effort in Black alumni in the way that they deserve. 

In doing this, a new tradition ensues; one that requires the University to not let the brilliance of its past, current, and future Black students go unnoticed. 

Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

One thought on “Visibility and voices: Durham’s forgotten Black alumni

  • What a brilliantly written piece, black alumni should have a seat at the table that their white peers tend to freely have; black/mixed /brown children should see that in prestigious universities there are people like them and be inspired by them. Great work Rapha

    Reply

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