Asher Goodenough of OCR gives his impressions of a new exhibition supported by Cambridge Assessment highlighting notable black alumni of Cambridge University, including famous faces and groundbreaking graduates.
Talking about race is not easy. A recent report into race at work suggested just under 50% of employees feel uncomfortable discussing the topic. The same picture is true for students. Research by the Runnymede Trust highlighted the fact that in Bristol, one of the most diverse cities in the country, fewer than 2% of teachers are black. Some Oxbridge colleges admitted no black students between 2012 and 2016.
It is against this backdrop that a wonderful new exhibition opened at the University Library celebrating the lives of pioneering black students across fields ranging from law, politics, acting, writing and the armed forces. The opening of the exhibition showcased the hard work and effort the Black Cantabs Research Society had put in to researching these important but too often overlooked trailblazers, and the skills of the photographers and curators in creating a meaningful journey of discovery of black lives as one walked up and down the hushed and impressive Royal Corridor.
Pictured above: Yosra Osman of Cambridge Assessment English
The Black Cantabs: History Makers exhibition thus manages to achieve several important things. Firstly, it celebrates trailblazing black students. Secondly, it serves as inspiration to younger generations of black students aspiring to prestigious higher education institutions. Thirdly, it demonstrates a commitment on the part of the University of Cambridge to do something about the problems that have been highlighted. The university is committed to broadening access to the public, and is offering free tours of the exhibition to anyone. It was particularly inspiring to see young black students attending the evening and gazing in wonder at the portraits before them - Errollyn Wallen, the first black female composer to have a work featured at the Proms; perhaps the first ever black Cambridge student, Francis Williams, born around 1700 (pictured top of page).
Pictured (left to right) Group Interim HR Director Janet Scotcher, Group CEO Saul Nasse , Asher Goodenough, Yosra Osman
There was a real buzz of excitement at the exhibition launch. For the first time, black alumni of the university had taken their rightful place in the hallowed halls and learning spaces of the university. The library had become a quietly noisy place full of discussions about what young black students can achieve, what doors can be unlocked, what new trailblazers can be photographed and adorn the walls of the university in the future. I hope some of those young black students in Bristol who commented, “If I had a black teacher it would make such a difference, because kids would see that everyone is being represented,” get the chance to come and see this exhibition, wonder as we all did at the sacrifices and achievements of the faces that stared or laughed or gazed down at us from the portraits, and dream of what might be written about them, when one day in the future they sit down for their portrait at an exhibition celebrating Black Cantabs: History Makers.
Subject Advisor, History, OCR and Chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff network at Cambridge Assessment