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Society and communities

Black History Month: reflecting on Roots/Routes

Black History Month (BHM) can be a time of reflection. I frequently contrast my experiences of growing up in a majority Black area of London with the transition to my undergraduate studies where some of my flatmates had never met Black people before. This created tensions in our flat and was amplified by the fact that the three of us, Black or of mixed Black heritage, were also anomalous on our degree courses.

The distinction between our different senses of belonging and experiences becomes stark during BHM because of who these celebrations are aimed at, and why. For me, this year, I want to celebrate Black history but also to talk about why Black History Month programmes are often repetitive, featuring the same histories (often anti-Black ones), and can serve people who are not Black first.

As part of that reflection, I look at the work that the Centre for Black Studies has done so far and what work it can safely and viably support in the next 12 months. In this, I am drawn to a brilliant collaboration with Nottingham Contemporary, a local but world-renowned art gallery and education provider. The project, named Roots/Routes, is a series of reflections by Black researchers based in Nottingham. These discussions are presented as films, curated and directed by Patricia Francis, who helped to take this from a conversation on Teams into meaningful contributions from different people in our research community. The featured speakers are: Maxwell A. Ayamba, Panya Banjoko, Bo Olawoye, Jagdish Patel and Saziso Phiri. The soundtrack is provided by the collective Space Afrika.

When I proposed Roots/Routes in December 2020, I wanted to make sure that Black researchers at, and working with, the University of Nottingham are seen and heard on their own terms. Black Studies is not only a discipline led by Black scholars about Black life, but it also encourages innovative ways of thinking about research, narratives, and belonging across the diaspora.

Therefore, it felt important for our students and colleagues to be able to express themselves and to highlight what is important to them. The project is built around a series of questions about what it means to be Black and to conduct Black-centred research or be part of a Black Studies community.

"I wanted to make sure that Black researchers at, and working with, the University of Nottingham are seen and heard on their own terms."
Dr Hannah Robins

Our director, Patricia, who is conducting her own research about Black women’s voices, was able to shape this into a series of mini episodes, including discussions of objects that are important to our participants and why Black Studies matters. The films had a soft launch in July, with an in-person event likely to come. The response has been warm, and I am excited for future collaborations with our guest speakers building on these films.

As I hinted earlier, Black History Month can feel monolithic. We see repetitive events and the same few stories told over and over. I hope that these films disrupt the idea of linear and uncomplex representations of Black researchers and their research. It’s not that well-heard stories should be abandoned, it’s that Black history and Black-led research is still unequal in the British education system and therefore, the need to go beyond what is easily reported feels imperative.

In Roots/Routes, our exploration balances the academic with the personal so that we see the specific connections between person and topic that are not always so common in other disciplines. I hope that, through these films, and enjoying the words of each of the contributors you can see the need for our work and the enjoyment it can bring.

Similarly, in Black History Month, we are caught between looking back and thinking forward and I hope that Roots/Routes capture the nuances of researchers sitting in these spaces. It is imperative that our Black students, staff, and other Black people interacting with the university feel seen and that the methodologies developed by Black scholars to document and analyse our histories are allowed to thrive.

In order for that to happen, we must have a voice and Roots/Roots is a modest step in the direction of ensuring Black researchers are heard on their own terms. As the Centre begins its first full year of activity, I invite you to reach out whether you are a student, a member of the public, or a member of staff to talk to us about our work, and to help us create a meaningful network of people amplifying and contributing to this vital area of research activity. We are at the beginning of recognising contribution and research that has been carried out a long time and it is vital for all the people involved in the production and consumption of this research to be seen.

Dr Hannah Robbins

Dr Hannah Robbins is an Assistant Professor in Popular Music and Director of Black Studies, Faculty of Arts

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