Celebrating Black History Month at the University

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A range of events to mark Black History Month across the University celebrated the individuals and events which have shaped African and Caribbean communities, as well as addressing the ongoing challenges facing Black communities in Britain and around the world.

Black History Month is celebrated in October every year, giving Black staff and students at the University the opportunity to explore and articulate their own experiences, and a focus for the whole University community to discuss and address the ongoing challenges facing Black communities. 

On October 24, the University’s Library and University Collections department heard from academics and commentators who shared thoughts on the theme Black History Month in the UK – Views from Home and the Diaspora. 

Black History Month in the UK – Views from Home and the Diaspora 

Dr Elizabeth M Williams, Head of Library Academic Support, specialises in the area of British South African relations as well as the history of Africa and the Diaspora.

After chairing the event, she said: “Black History Month is important for many reasons. I will suggest a few from my own perspective: the fact that the histories and narratives of the Black experience are still very much opaque in the society in which we live, what is out there is not as multi-layered as it could be, therefore still so many people do not know and need illumination and sharing in as many public forums as possible to push back against the ignorance and apathy.

“The greatest compliment was when an audience member described the time spent listening to all the speakers and the Q&A afterwards as ‘healing’!”

Dr Williams continues: “Archives only tell part of the story, but one thing you cannot fault colonial individuals for and their contact networks, is their attention to keeping records and their perspectives where they made no bones about what they thought. This illuminates the motivation and intent of contemporaries at the time, so today’s apologists have the rug pulled from under their feet or are left with egg on their faces! I would encourage people to never stop asking questions, familiarise yourself with the history and get comfortable with being uncomfortable to enable your intellectual growth.”

Omolabake Fakunle, Chancellor’s Fellow and Director of EDI at Moray House School of Education and Co-Convenor of the Race and Inclusivity in Global Education Network (RIGEN), is carrying out research which examines inclusivity in internationalisation policies, processes and practices. 

She says the event was “an opportunity to bring to the forefront conversations on what Blackness might mean to different people”. 

“I think the biggest challenge I face in my research is trying to make sense of the inequities that I inevitably encounter when conducting research on minoritized ethnic persons, and which is also my lived experience sometimes,” she adds. “There are times when I have many questions. I try to see these challenges as opportunities to learn and to grow – easier said! I consider myself to be very fortunate to have great friends and colleagues who are understanding and are pillars of support through these moments.” 

Simon Buck, who is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), also spoke at the event. He is working on the University’s Decolonised Transformations Project which was formed to move beyond description and deliberation of racial inequality towards action and institutional transformation. 

He says: “My research investigates the University of Edinburgh’s historical links to Atlantic slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — from the slavery-derived wealth which came into the University via philanthropy to the University’s many intellectual connections to racial enslavement, especially its Medical School.” 

Buck says the biggest challenge of his research is confronting the University’s legacies of slavery and colonialism: “It can be difficult to centre the experiences and humanity of enslaved people when the archives we use to investigate their lives were created, shaped, and preserved by the same racist and violent systems of colonial rule which interpreted them as property.” 

Decolonised Transformations 

The Black History Month in the UK – Views from Home and the Diaspora event was held at the University library Photograph by Chris Close

Sharon Boateng is the programme manager for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the University which provides on-campus and online postgraduate scholarships to talented young individuals from across the African continent. 

She says her favourite part of Black History Month is “celebrating the contributions Black people have made in the UK”.   

“It is not only a time to celebrate those who have influenced British society in a public way, but to respect the richly diverse histories and day-to-day experiences of Black people. Black History Month provides opportunities to learn more about the complex realities of Blackness… that ideally should spark continued learning and curiosity beyond the month itself!” 

Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program | The University of Edinburgh 

Other speakers at the event included Dr Nicola Frith, a Senior Lecturer whose research focuses on grassroots activism linked to the legacies of Afrikan enslavement within the French Republic and Dr Gwenetta Curry, a Reader in Race, Ethnicity, and Health at the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine whose research interests are racial and ethnic health disparities, maternal health, and Black family studies.

Elsewhere in the University, Dr Miron Clay-Gilmore has become the first Black philosopher to earn a doctorate on Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies in the University’s history. 

He studied an undergraduate degree at University Missouri-St Louis where Tommy Curry, Professor of Philosophy at Edinburgh, suggested he come to the University to study his doctorate on Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies.  

The prospect of studying so far away from home was daunting for Dr Gilmore, particularly having to leave his wife and young children behind, but his experience at the University of Edinburgh was a positive one. 

“I could tell just right away the intellectual environment and climate was completely different,” he explains. “It was the first time I was in a classroom setting and I didn’t feel like I was being micromanaged.   

“It was great being around different people from different countries at such an international School and being able to contribute and develop intellectually.” 

Since completing his studies at the University this year, Dr Gilmore has started a position as Postdoctoral Research Associate at the world-renowned Purdue University. 

Photograph by Paul Dodds

Professor Curry says: “Dr Gilmore’s dissertation combines the historical, sociological, and conceptual foundations of Black philosophy to understand an under-researched and largely ignored aspect of racial domination. 

 “His work in Black Male Studies and Africana Philosophy represents a shift towards a more rigorous anti-colonial philosophy in Scotland and signals the seriousness of producing scholarship against the racist legacies of Enlightenment thinking seeking to codify Black inferiority and white supremacism at the close of the 18th century.” 

Find out more 

Dr Fakunle has developed a storytelling event on 10 November to introduce her inclusivity research to non-academic audiences as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities programme. 

Being Human Festival event – Decolonising Identity: Pakora or Victoria Sponge? 

Black Studies