Our history subject advisor Asher Goodenough reflects on the human stories which embody the meaning of Black History Month for him.
Black History month is a great opportunity to reflect on the contribution made by people of colour to shaping the history of our nation. I feel privileged that I get to think, write and talk about history as part of my job, and that it is helping diversify the curriculum students get taught in schools. Moreover, one of the highlights of my time at OCR has been chairing the BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) Staff Network for the whole group, listening and responding to the needs and wants of our colleagues across the country. These twin roles have uncovered some surprising and inspiring stories of people of colour that I briefly want to share with you now.
Two human stories stick out for me from the Black Cantabs: History Makers exhibition (which I am pictured at above), which Cambridge Assessment sponsored and hosted at our Cambridge and Coventry offices last year.
Firstly, Lt. David Louis Clemetson, who was one of the only black officers serving in the British Army during the First World War. Born in Jamaica, Clemetson studied Law at Trinity before enlisting in the army during World War 1. He is thought to be the only black man to reach the rank of full lieutenant during the war, but was tragically killed in action in 1918, less than two months before the Armistice.
Errollyn Wallen is a Belize-born British composer. Raised in London by an aunt and uncle after her parents moved away, she graduated from Cambridge, and went on to be the first black woman to have her work performed at the Proms. The fact that this was not until 1998 speaks volumes about the contemporary challenges women of colour in particular face in our supposedly-progressive society.
In both these stories, of which I was unaware before helping to bring the exhibition to Cambridge Assessment, I found reminders that in the past (and not so distant past) people have overcome such significant challenges and barriers to their success, but they persevered, and in their own ways became inspiring figures for all people.
From my work as a history subject advisor, two more lives caused me to pause and reflect with wonder at the challenges faced and overcome by individuals in our past. These stories come from the OCR GCSE History B unit Migrants to Britain c.1250-present, supported by Hodder’s OCR endorsed textbook.
A mixed race, four feet eleven son of a former slave, William Cuffay rose from apprentice tailor to lead one of the most significant political movements in nineteenth century Britain, the Chartists. Betrayed by a government spy and convicted of ‘conspiring to levy war’ against Queen Victoria, he was transported to Tasmania, where until his death at the age of 82 he continued to fight for more democracy, shorter working days, and the rights of workers.
Jayaben Desai migrated to Britain in the 1960s, taking up low paid work as a sewing machinist and later a film processor. After being ordered to work overtime, she initiated a strike among the mostly female Asian workforce. The strike lasted for two years and railed against working conditions, pay inequality, and institutionalised racism. Her colourful personality and skilful use of the media contributed to the strike’s popularity, and the involvement of white, working class men in supporting striking female Asian workers is a turning point in race relations in the UK.
The stories of Cuffay and Desai largely faded from popular consciousness, but are now being brought back. Desai was selected by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for their 2016 Power List, and statues and memorials to Cuffay are planned in Australia. At OCR we are very proud that thousands of students are now re-discovering the important contributions made to British society by people of colour.
Lastly, three colleagues from Cambridge Assessment continue to inspire, challenge, represent and help me as an employee who is mixed race. I want to take this opportunity to thank Antonio Graham, Yozzie Osman, and Fav Iqbal for the work they do as co-chairs of the BAME network. Since I stepped down, they have taken the network forward in so many ways, from bringing colleagues to share their personal experiences of Ramadan, to organising coffee meets and diversity discos that bring people from all walks of life together.
I’m immensely grateful that I have the time and space to be able to reflect on these stories, and the countless millions of other lives that have made such enormous and often undocumented contributions to our human story. I hope you can find some time to think, read and reflect about this too.
History Subject Advisor History, OCR