“There wouldn’t be an America if it wasn’t for black people”: Programme Review of the University of Nottingham’s Black History Month Events

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In an U.S. Studies Online exclusive University of Nottingham postgraduate Hannah Jeffery reviews the Department of American and Canadian Studies events hosted in honour of the UK’s Black History Month. 

“I’ve never had one of my ancestors owned by another human being,” explains an interviewee in Margaret Wrinkle’s racially charged broken/ground documentary. When examining a country whose societal bedrock advocated owning another human being as property because of skin colour, it’s near impossible to separate the issue of race from further societal tribulations. Ever since the first shackle of slavery was cast and bound around the feet and hands of those in West Africa, racism has plagued and beleaguered America, pervading its communities at every turn throughout history. It seems pertinent therefore, that once a month, every year, nations stop and celebrate the bountiful narration that African Americans have created throughout centuries; although whether this one month is enough is a highly contentious debate. Black History Month is an integral point in the academic calendar where scholars, academics and the general public are invited to feel the pulse of the racial heartbeat that resonates throughout America. This month not only allows us to celebrate, commemorate and educate on the powerfully moving yet explosively exciting African American culture, but also gives us the chance to engage in a dialogue at a grassroots level to assess the current state of racism in America, and the rest of the world.

“Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Human Rights: Remembering Rosa Parks,” 9th October 2014 at King’s Meadow Campus, University of Nottingham

RosaParks_eventAt the University of Nottingham, the month of October has been punctuated by a series of events, lectures and screenings relating to Black History Month. Starting off the string of events was a series of talks on the topic, “Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Human Rights: Remembering Rosa Parks” with guest speakers Celina Dunlop (The Rosa Parks and Raymond Parks Institute), Professor Sharon Monteith (University of Nottingham), Gareth Hughes, (Pocklington School), Dr George Lewis (University of Leicester) and Dr Helen Laville (University of Birmingham). This event highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of Black Studies, bringing to the forefront the intrinsic link between gender and the Civil Rights Movement. Aimed at school children, with an audience of 60, the event functioned as a way of exposing primary school children to issues surrounding Civil Rights Movement. Exploring the issues of gender alongside race this event created an ideal trajectory for award-winning author and documentary maker, Margaret Wrinkle to take the stage for her following event.

Black History Month documentary screening and fiction event with award-winning author Margaret Wrinkle, 15 October 2014 at Waterstones, Nottingham

Being born directly into the movement in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, Wrinkle was able to open a discourse about the temporality of racism, transcending the boundaries of space and time in her 1996 documentary broken/ground and new novel Wash (2014), which was discussed during an ‘in conversation’ event at Waterstones, organised by one of the American Studies PhD students, Katie Hamilton. By prefacing the screening with a small introduction and informing her audience to keep in mind that the documentary was made nearly 20 years ago, Wrinkle automatically allows her audience to draw parallels over time, creating a space and context that opens up a conversation between the racial progress, or lack thereof, between the decades. When watching the documentary, current racial headlines reverberate through the audience’s minds; Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots. These were issues that were alluded to in the Q & A session, resulting in the resounding conclusion that ‘nothing will change until we deal with what’s happened in the past.’ This is the motto that Wrinkle lives by and being a descendent of slave-owners herself, she feels it is her civic duty to knead her way through her racially charged ancestral history, spearheading a cathartic cultural and literary process that she hopes will inspire others to do the same.

Margaret Wrinkle, screen[1]

The documentary opens with the sound bite “It’s bigger than Birmingham.” Jolting theaudience, we are subconsciously issued with a warning- a warning for us not to let the racial plaguing in Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and other southern states slip from the sill of our historical consciousness as we listen to these Birmingham voices narrate their personal experiences of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. The most striking element that was brought out of the documentary however, was the lingering proposition of a racial dialogue. An African American gentleman (the participants remain unnamed throughout the documentary to allow the individual interviews to function as a linear discourse of layered voices) raises the issue of conversation; in order for racial progress to be made, a conversation between the races needs to occur as a dialogue will open up an understanding about the needs, desires and direction for change.  This documentary reflection is microcosmic of the way Black History Month functions. One month of the year is dedicated to an open dialogue that is (hopefully) able to transcend race, class and gender, as people strive for a deeper understanding of what it meant/means to be black in America and how greater racial harmony can be achieved.

A promotional video advertising Wrinkle’s Waterstones appearance with Nottingham postgraduate Katie Hamilton (featured)

“Exploring Martin Luther King: A Social Justice Journey,” a series of talks by Professor Peter Ling, Head of the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. The four talks took place from the 19th to the 26th of October at the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic Centre, Nottingham.

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This method was put into practice with a series of talks given by Professor Peter Ling (University of Nottingham). Ling’s lectures, titled “Exploring Martin Luther King: A Social Justice Journey,” were held at the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic Centre in Nottingham’s city centre. Taking the talks directly into the community, Ling spoke to an enthused audience about the early life of Martin Luther King Jr., alluding to elements of his personality that are often omitted from history textbooks. The audience received these anecdotes with laughter followed by a series of questions, keen to learn more about this alter ego. Ling also peppered his talks with the ‘unsung’ heroes of the Civil Rights Movement; individuals like E.D. Nixon and Ella Baker who are usually vacant from the pages of history textbooks.

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Professor Peter Ling (right) and Chairman of the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic Centre in St. Anns, Nottingham. October 19th, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham.

Memorialising figures like Nixon and Baker and educating the public about these figures is fundamental and essential to the point of Black History Month. The educational aspect of the event is equally as important as the celebratory and commemorative element, and the Black History Month events at the University of Nottingham have created the perfect balance between the two. Individuals at Ling’s talk were noting down specific names such as Ella Baker, Stokley Carmichael and E.D. Nixon for further personal reading. Furthermore, Ling’s talks were brought to the grassroots and therefore sparked an intriguing Q & A session that brought a new perspective to the dialogue. The conversation firstly brought to the forefront the issue of ‘whiteness studies,’ a term that has recently gained momentum in scholarly research. An intrigued audience asked Ling to unpack the term of ‘whiteness,’ as he highlighted the notion of race as an invention to deny a common humanity of certain rights. The topic of conversation moved onto the broader question of the value of human life today. As with the response to Margaret Wrinkle’s talks, people were keen to contextualise their newly received information and apply it to today’s society, and therefore the Ebola Crisis was brought up when analysing the responses to the crisis in different countries, assessing the dichotomy of human value.

The first of Professor Peter Ling’s recorded talks. All four can be found on Nottingham’s American and Canadian Studies YouTube account. 

“Malcolm X in Britain: Race, Immigration and the Transatlantic Civil Rights Movement,” a talk by Dr. Stephen Tuck in conversation with Professor Zoe Trodd, 29th October at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham. 

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Ling wasn’t the only scholar to bridge the gap between academia and the community. With an introduction from Professor Zoe Trodd (University of Nottingham) stating the importance of community engagement for events such as these, guest speaker Stephen Tuck (University of Oxford) delivered an insightful and well-received lecture titled “Malcolm X in Britain: Race, Immigration and the Transatlantic Civil Rights Movement” at the New Art Exchange. Approaching African American history from a global, transatlantic stance, Tuck was able to manoeuvre his way through the legacy of Malcolm X from a widely accessible angle. Focusing primarily on Malcolm X’s time in Britain, and more specifically his speech at the Oxford Union Debate (1964), Tuck drew parallels between the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement in America and the Civil Rights issues in Britain. His talk was interspersed with British appropriations of African American racial politics; the Leicester Black Power movement, the Bristol Bus Boycotts, colour barring on student housing throughout Britain and the Mr James Crow esq. laws. This inextricable racial link between African American history and British history would surely result in education on the British Civil Rights Movement, yet Tuck highlighted the omission of said movement from school curriculums and textbooks, lamenting the fact that Black History Month in schools pertains primarily to the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King alone.

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Stephen Tuck at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham. October 28th, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham.

This was an integral dispute that emerged from the Q & A session; championing the education of Martin Luther King over equally prolific and arguably more catalytic figures like Malcolm X. However, general consensus from the audience appeared to seek allegiance with the less saturated figure of Malcolm X, deeming him a more relatable character today. This was abundantly evident also from the enthusiasm in which his talk was received.

Stressing the importance of globalism in African history, Tuck suggests it’s “actually a global story” as opposed to an American one. Diasporic and pan-African studies, he argues, is a vital yet underrepresented platform for deeper analysis during Black History Month. Focusing on the global aspect of race relations allows us to draw parallels between the racial turbulence in America and the rest of the world; in conjunction with re-evaluating the contentious issue of a ‘whitewash’ history that is promulgated throughout education.  Arising from the Q & A session, an individual in the audience felt that ‘historians weren’t writing enough.’ Black history needs to be made visible as opposed to peripheral, and examples were used of black Romans and black Tudors who have been widely overlooked throughout history. Comments such as these invigorated a passionate debate regarding the reductive nature of history, further emphasising the necessity of a Black History Month to not only open up a discussion about African American history, but also African history in general.

The Distinguished Annual American Studies lecture: “The American Mind: Race, Slavery and Liberty,” a talk by Pulitzer-prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed in conversation with Professor Sharon Monteith, 29th October at University Park, University of Nottingham

The greatly successful Black History Month at the University of Nottingham culminated with the American Studies Annual Lecture, given by Pulitzer Prize winner in History, Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard University), drawing an audience of 232 people. Introduced by Professor Sharon Monteith (University of Nottingham,) who stressed the interdisciplinary nature of Gordon-Reeds scholarship, she delivered a talk at University Park campus titled “The American Mind: Race, Slavery and Liberty.” Having such a broad, open title allowed Gordon-Reed to weave her way through African American history from slavery to the present day, delving into contemporary issues whilst alluding to the iconic figures of Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings and Monticello at the same time. She prefaced her talk by admitting she was unaware Britain celebrated Black History Month, especially in October (it’s celebrated in February in America, the month of Lincoln’s birthday).

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Whilst her talk was initially anchored in slavery, she drew upon the current racial turbulence in America by heavily weighing in on the issue of police brutality and the Ferguson riots. Seamlessly transcending historical time frames, Gordon-Reed threaded the foundational writing of America, the Declaration of Independence, with 2014 racial animosity by underling how police counteract the notion that African Americans are citizens, thus invoking the paradox of liberty. In America today “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites” whilst “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate.” (For more information of this read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). The dichotomy between what the Declaration of Independence espouses and what occurs in America today was further brought to light when Gordon-Reed admitted her concerns over her 21-year-old son walking around Manhattan at night with strict stop-and-frisk laws in place. Her honesty over such relevant issues, in conjunction with Jeffersonian links, brought to light the historical lineage of racism in America. Whilst Gordon-Reed remains optimistic about racial progress throughout the centuries, she still asserted to her audience that more must be done.

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Pulitzer Prize winner of History, Annette Gordon-Reed at the University of Nottingham campus, October 30th, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham.

The Q & A section from the Annual Lecture was evocative and rich. Starting off the dialogue with a Jeffersonian basis, the focus soon shifted to broader racial questions allowing the audience to critically engage in questions relating to the African diaspora.  When asked by an audience member whether she preferred the term ‘African American’ or ‘black,’ Gordon-Reed expressed her allegiance with the term ‘black’ due to its all-encompassing nature, stressing the need for unity within the diaspora. She further went on to state the importance of Black History Month, believing every month should have the same focus. This is a common point that arose from majority of the Q & A sessions around Nottingham. Audiences felt that whilst the month of October was a wonderful celebration of Black History, it should not stop there. If a healthy, progressive dialogue can be opened for a month of the year, which the University of Nottingham’s events proved that it could, such conversations should be continued throughout the grassroots after the month is over. Many audience members believed in a constant black history educational experience.

It would be erroneous to suggest the University of Nottingham’s Black History Month was anything short of a success, drawing in a collective audience of around 600 people across the city. Being a highly successful public engagement venture, the events catalysed public engagement with external non-academic audiences. This led to rich, informed conversations across race, gender and background; conversations that would not have happened had the events only been open to university students on campus. It was the relaxed ‘in conversation’ tactic employed by the University that created an open space for people to comfortably voice their opinion without the worry of sparking greatly controversial debates. Whilst Black History Month provided a wonderful public engagement on figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, which evidently draw the audiences in, it is also greatly important to mention the unsung heroes of the Black Freedom Struggle. It was evident in Ling’s talks that people were highly interested in such figures, and he did a wonderful job of weaving these unsung heroes into a dialogue about Martin Luther King. A perfect method for introducing unheard of characters in an accessible context. Perhaps in future months, more can be made of these figures that are usually omitted from the curriculum; people like Medgar Evers, Huey P. Newton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey, Dianne Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer. Unheard of names may not draw audiences, but if their names can punctuate lectures and events, much like they did during Peter Ling’s talk, people have the option to self-educate as they receive these heroes of the struggle. What does need to be brought to light however is the careful planning and care that the University of Nottingham put into organising Black History Month; liaising with external venues, creating publicity for each event, ensuring the lecture content was accessible to everyone, and also making sure there was no event overlap. Topics ranged from slavery and the Jeffersonian period to the image of Martin Luther King Jr., from Malcolm X in Britain to a novel about slavery, and from Rosa Parks and the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement to 1996 Birmingham Alabama. Every topic was received with enthusiasm, interest and the desire to learn more; an integral aim of Black History Month.

Black History Month is imperative. A sound bite from the Wrinkle documentary demonstrates the steps that need to be taken in order for a richer, more progressive conversation to happen about race; “the truth to you may not be the truth to me.” Differing perceptions of race and race relations are abundant and will always be present in society, yet what can be altered is the knowledge and education around these perceptions. Opening up an extensive, informative dialogue, like the ones that have been brought into several public spaces across Nottingham over Black History Month, can assist in exposing these differing truths, helping us work together towards a more united stance about race as well as giving us the perfect platform to commemorate and celebrate black culture. What does need to be lingered on however is the issue of a time frame. Whilst designating a month specifically to the celebration of Black History is a wonderful tradition, generating rich, detailed events that educate the masses, the main issue that rose from the Q & A dialogues was that education should not simply commence on October 1st and close on October 31st.  The general consensus amongst audiences felt that Black History Months needs to turn into Black History Year and Black History Year needs to permeate the pages of all history textbooks, enveloping and paralleling the ‘whitewash’ historical narratives that pervade the educational systems, and more broadly speaking communal conversations throughout society. African American history is indispensable. It is musical, artistic, loud, creative and vibrant. It is the foundation of America and is internationally reaching, as well as being ever-present and ever-powerful. Abiodun Oyewole of the Black Nationalist musical group The Last Poets summed it up perfectly on The Black Power Mixtape 1967- 1975 when he suggested that “There wouldn’t be an America if it wasn’t for black people.”[1]


[1] Black Power Mixtape: 1965- 1975, dir. By Göran Hugo Olsson (Scoda Picures Ltd., 2011)

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About Hannah Jeffery

Hannah Jeffery has recently completed an MRes at the University of Nottingham that examines how African American grassroots communities respond to the narrative marginalisation of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Hannah analysed both familial and societal responses that seek to anchor Hampton’s memory and legacy in African American locales. Her PhD project. also at Nottingham, seeks to understand how Black Power advocates used the memory and legacy of abolitionists, aesthetically, ideologically and intellectually, in order to further their own goal of achieving black self-determination via revolutionary, violent self-defense protest.
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