Before going to university, I read Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye’s Taking Up Space. They are the authors of a book, which encapsulates the experiences of Black girls across the country, navigating through the education system. Ore and Chelsea tell their stories as Cambridge undergraduates but there are quotes from 14 other Black and mixed raced young women.
From mental health to relationships, the book covers all aspects of the university experience. While chapters like #AcademiaSoWhite were insightful and were supported by statistics, I responded best to excerpts about fitting in because of the stage I’m at in my university career.
Despite the positive affirmations throughout the book and the arm over the shoulder it provides, I was still slightly apprehensive about university. It’s was such a big change. Was I ready to take up space?
I am a history undergraduate. History is one of the least popular subjects for students of African and Caribbean descent. Historian, Hakim Adi suggested in 2015, the ‘school history system poorly reflects the population of Britain’ and there’s ‘a narrow view of the careers that a history degree can lead to’.
Although my education story, like many, includes a limited amount of Black history, I never felt deterred from studying it.
The three times I encountered black people in my classes were from a European perspective. My Year 9 teacher emphasising William Wilberforce’s role in the abolition of slavery, instead of the slave rebellions in the Americas. My Year 11 teacher’s Muhammad Ali impression, quoting ‘no Vietcong ever called me a nigger’. My Year 13 coursework assessing the view that European powers decided to leave Africa.
Despite my education at school, I was never taught a single story. At home I was surrounded by books written by Black people, about Black people, for Black people. People like C.L.R James, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Toni Morison always provided me with context for some of my experiences.
But history isn’t so important to everybody. When I told my neighbour I was going to study history, he asked what I would do with the degree – become a history teacher? I didn’t tell him at the time, out of respect, but history opens you up to many careers. The skills you learn can be applied to investment banking, law and journalism. The career path following a history degree may not be as clear cut as vocational subjects, but there are many options beyond becoming a school teacher.
Nevertheless, I acknowledge it can be difficult to study history. All of my teachers are white. Some of them struggle to pronounce my name. One of them seems uncomfortable talking about race. As a result, I am teaching them as much as they’re teaching me.
Season of singleness
The chapter on ‘Desirability and Relationships’ was eye-opening and my favourite chapter of the book. I place great importance on relationships – rather ironic due to my lack of success in that area. However, I came to university hopeful and slightly scared.
For Black women, there are obstacles regarding desirability and fetishisation, when it comes to relationships. There’s also the glaring issue of sexual abuse at university without serious enough action taken against by the institutions.
With that being said, my experience as a Black man is different, and I was thinking about the opportunity for new experiences. From what I read; university sounded like a place where sex was always a topic of conversation. I felt like I was about to be thrown in the deep end of adult life.
The expectation was different from the reality however. The presence of COVID-19 seemed to have changed things slightly. It’s difficult to know what everyone gets up to but from my experience, parties were harder to come by, with people being cautious of fines and the spread of the virus.
After freshers week, I was wondering how much was really going to change. I had become used to periods of solitude with the lockdown, the tier system and isolation, leading to feelings of frustration.
Granted, I have still made some connections but I’ll have to keep searching and building relationships in order to find my Maria from Westside Story.
The idea of black excellence is empowering yet draining. It shows that Black people can achieve despite racism. Simultaneously, it suggests that Black people are only valuable when they’re excellent. It removes the space for us to be mediocre and adds the pressure of representing your race. It can cause you to forget you’re a human being with emotions.
We are already told that we need ‘to work twice as hard to get half as far’ as white counterparts. When ideas like these are internalised, you can start to question to the point of trying. People who represent Black excellence become superheroes, rather than people who worked hard to be excellent and happen to be Black.
Being Black and excellent shouldn’t feel like two separate things. But unfortunately, some people are still the first Blacks to reach certain heights. These achievements should rightly be celebrated and make up for some of the negative portrayals of Black people in the media.
However, sometimes it’s good to have a break. I often find myself taking on too many tasks. So, I take time to look after my mental health. I talk to friends, watch Netflix and repeatedly refer to Taking Up Space.