‘This year arguably marks one of the most important Black History Months since their inception in 1987. In 2020 the world finally began to openly discuss ‘Black Lives Matter’, and the UK has started conversations discussing our shared history and its link to the vast inequalities that impact Black people today.’
These words introduce an online SOAS roundtable talk, Furthering Black Women in Higher Education and Careers, which takes place on 15 October 2020, in Black History Month. It brings together four women; Zeinab Badawi, Lavinya Stennett, Mx Busisiwe Deyi – who are all SOAS alumni – and Dr Emilia Onyema, the current Pro-Director for teaching and learning.
One of the Roundtable speakers, Lavinya Stennet, is founder and CEO of The Black Curriculum, motivated by the fact that “Young people learning general ‘Black history’ in the lone month of October was simply not good enough.” Its campaign #TBH365 ‘called to teach Black British history 365 days of the year’, an initiative picked up on 8 January 2020, by The Guardian’s Sally Weale, Education Correspondent: Black British history ‘missing from school curricula in England’: Former SOAS student seeks to embed black history in education system as alternative to Black History Month.
If education is at the heart of change, museums play a role. In the US, for example, The National Museum of African American History & Culture, part of The Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. (founded in 1846 ‘for the increase and diffusion of knowledge’), holds archival material about Maggie Lena Walker amongst its collections. ‘Born into poverty in 1864, pioneering entrepreneur and civil rights activist reached national prominence in 1903 as the nation’s first African American female bank president.’ Crystal Marie Moten writes: ‘Maggie Lena Walker was one of the most important Black businesswomen in the nation, and today too few people have heard of her.’
She outlines Maggie Lena Walker’s achievements, and notes:
‘In addition to long hours, Walker required that workers adhere to a dress code, a white blouse and a long dark skirt, and encouraged them to save 5 percent of their wages. Not all workers appreciated these impositions or the heavy workload and a few submitted complaints to Walker, which she seems to have handled individually.’
Elsewhere, it is possible to take a virtual tour of Maggie Lena Walker’s opulently-decorated home. The curator states: ‘Though she only taught school for three years, Walker remained an educator for life.’
Modern-day educators send out ripples, whether it is a roundtable conversation in the UK on Furthering Black Women in Higher Education and Careers; The Black Curriculum initiative; or a US online blog highlighting ‘one of the most important Black businesswomen in the nation’.
The 45.8k followers of ‘ablackhistoryofart’, an Instagram account set up by Alayo Akinkugbe (University of Cambridge) in February 2020 – ‘halfway through my Bachelor’s in History of Art, out of a frustration at the lack of black figures being discussed in my degree’ – speaks volumes.
Dr Emilia Onyema, SOAS Pro-Director for teaching and learning writes: ‘SOAS is very proud of the role some of her alumni are playing in this discourse and their concrete actions to lead change and embed a different narrative of Black people, not only our history but our present. Our decolonisation of our curriculum agenda will continue to enlighten our students and prepare them to actively contribute to the change we all want to see and experience in our lifetime.’
Register to join the event: Furthering Black Women in Higher Education and Careers