Black History Month at the University of Bristol

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By Milan Perera, Second Year English and Community Engagement

The relationship between Black history and the city of Bristol throughout history itself has often been tumultuous, from the transatlantic slave trade through to the chaotic bus boycotts in the sixties and to the St. Paul’s Race Riots in the eighties. From time-to-time there were shafts of hope that would appear through the dark clouds of despair such as the monumental Race Relations Act of 1965. To reflect on these matters at length in the wake of the Black History Month, Epigram had the pleasure of interviewing the Chair of the Black Students Network, Ijeoma Egbarin.

The Black Students Network is proud to be taking a leading role in organising a tightly packed schedule of engagements with Black History Month in mind ranging from film nights, drawing sessions to serious debates and historic walks. When asked of the importance of a Black History Month, Egbarin explained that it was about being heard, being seen and to instill a sense of validation among the Black Student community. The last campus-based Black History Month took place some two years ago due to the onset of Covid-19. From then on, some seismic events were triggered with the unlawful murder of George Floyd. The tremors of the devastating events that unfolded in May 2020 in Minneapolis were felt in the streets of Bristol. People took to the city centre and toppled down the monument to the slave trader, Edward Colston, in a powerful symbolic gesture as part of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

In Black and British, the historian David Olusoga traces back the History of Black people in the British Isles to the Roman Occupation and there is a plethora of documents relating to distinguished Black courtiers and musicians who thrived during the Tudor Period. Ijeoma firmly believes in highlighting lesser known facts such as these in order to educate others on the importance and significance of Black history.

Pictured: Ijeoma Egbarin. Source: Milan Perera | Epigram

The Black Students Network has joined forces with the History Society to organise two guided tours of the Bristol Slave Trade Walk on 23rd and 24th of October. This event retraces Bristol’s uneasy connection with one of the most harrowing episodes of recent human history and brings to light the wider ramifications of those tragic events.

After starting the academic year on the back end of a lengthy lockdown, this year’s Black History Month puts an added emphasis on mental health awareness. Events such as mingles have been organised to create a safe space to open up about personal experiences and to receive helpful feedback from a non-judgmental environment. ‘The stigma attached to mental health must be addressed’, Egbarin said, ‘especially among young Black men who unfortunately end up playing into the stereotypes by suffering in silence rather than seeking help.’

The aptly named Self-Care Sunday is another step towards the right direction with heartfelt conversations and affirmations. The Black Students Network acknowledges that there is an increased support for students who are experiencing mental health issues, but further stresses that more resources should be provided as students should never be left without mental health support.

The Draw ‘n’ Sip event held at the newly built Beckford Café, named after the co-founder of the St. Paul’s Carnival, Carmen Beckford, was a resounding success with attendance reaching full capacity. The relaxed space was a great opportunity for students to get to know one another over a pint while completing a painting.

Draw 'n' Sip event at the Beckford Cafe. Source: Milan Perera | Epigram

The Network works in close collaboration with community-based projects and organisations such as the Malcolm X Centre, the Afro-Caribbean Assembly, and the Black Socialists, hoping to bring far-reaching social changes to the Afro-Caribbean community of the city.

Epigram also had the opportunity to speak to Hilary Frank-Ito from the Postgraduate Union. Frank-Ito, who is originally from Nigeria, acknowledges that there has been increased awareness on issues surrounding Black and other Ethnic Minorities, largely due to the concerted efforts of solidarity movements such as Black Lives Matter. He welcomed the reforms that were put in place in many educational and other public sector institutions, but further reiterated that many of these reforms are nothing but face-saving cosmetic solutions that fail to address the heart of the issue. He believes that a coherent strategy to confront the issues ethnic minorities are facing on a day-to-day basis such as housing, good health care, employment and access to education should be implemented.

Be More Empowered (BME) for Success scheme, launched by the University of Bristol, aims to tackle these issues and help celebrate the successes of Bristol students from BAME backgrounds. The scheme employs current BAME students and trains them to work with both staff and students to understand the challenges faced by the BAME community.

The road towards long-term progress certainly has many obstacles along the way, but the future seems bright in moving towards greater education of Black history and inclusivity of all students on campus. The necessity of building on the current success is of paramount importance in order to create long-lasting change.

Featured Images: Milan Perera | Epigram

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