Black History Month at Pembroke

An interview with Maya MacFarlane, Pembroke's BME officer for the JPC.

Throughout October, you arranged a really impressive calendar of events in honour of Black History Month. What was this experience like for you?

Working with our various student societies to put on a programme of Black history month events has been a super rewarding process! After approaching different society heads, I wasn’t sure what the uptake would be like and whether people would want to be involved. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many groups wanted to get involved, and I would like to give a big thank you to everyone who was involved in organising such a wide range of events! I think it’s important to think about how we can use existing structures, like these societies and student groups, to put on events like these, rather than solely relying on individuals to do so. The events proved just how easy it is to spotlight Black voices in a huge array of fields, and I hope that this will encourage more consistent inclusion of Black individuals and ideas within these spaces.

The unveiling of the portrait of Kamau Brathwaite was a major event for the college this year. Why is it particularly important for Black students to see themselves represented in academia?

I think for, many people, art is just art. Portraits are a mere decoration of space. However, when you don’t see yourself reflected in this art, its presence (or absence) begins to take on an entirely different meaning. We talk a lot about ‘representation’ and how important it is, and yes, at a basic level: Black students seeing an inspirational Black figure like Dr Brathwaite tells them that they are valued and wanted within academic spaces. However, representation cannot stop there. We must see ourselves represented among the fellowship, within our departments, and of course, within our cohort. Even once you have formally been accepted into this institution, it is rare that you ever feel socially and intellectually accepted on a day to day level.

As BME officer, a lot of what you do is campaigning for progress forward; examining the ways that the college or university might be failing students of colour. Black History Month, however, is centred on celebration and education about the past and present (as in the Black talent showcase). How important is the balance between these aspects? Can one exist without the other?

It is extremely important to recognise the fluidity between the past and the present. There are lots of ideas around ‘post-coloniality’ which frames these processes of exclusion and othering as mere fragments of the past. I think a more productive way to look at the experiences of Black people is to recognise how experiences of racism and exclusion may not look the same as it did in the 1950s, but still play a very pernicious role in our experiences. In essence, the ‘past’ of Black people is for us to define for ourselves. If we feel that racist experiences and processes still hold great meaning for us in the present, then it is a present problem. I think listening to those individual ideas is really crucial.

What could/should Cambridge colleges be doing to provide better support for BME students?

I’m asked this question quite a lot, and unfortunately, I can’t really provide a straight, neatly packed answer. There are a myriad of ways in which college structures should adapt to meet the needs of ethnic minority students, ranging from welfare, to access, to academic support. There aren’t at all new ideas and suggestions, but have been tirelessly proposed by generations of BME students in Cambridge. I’m aware that I would not possibly be able to list all of these, and would not want to give an incomplete picture/miss anything out. If anyone would like to know more, the SU BME Campaign listed several core areas where Cambridge can improve, which can be seen in our open letter written in June 2020. Paradoxically, although my role as BME officer means that I have to speak on behalf of our ethnic minority student population, I am very aware that I do NOT encapsulate all of the identities which fall under that label. There are so many different cultures and communities which all require slightly different things. I think that starting to deconstruct this label of ‘BME’ is vital in order for colleges to recognise just how much work needs to be done.

Is a Cambridge college an effective space to mobilize people for social change? Why or why not?

In my eyes, Cambridge is as good a space as any to mobilize people for social change. When we think about changing hefty institutions and structures, it can be easy to become pessimistic. However, it’s important to view spaces like Cambridge as not just an impenetrable mass, but as simply a body of people. These people each have their own individual interests and experiences, and its those that we need to be targeting. This form of mobilization is something that everyone can partake in. You do not have to be the ethnic minorities officer, or be part of the BME Campaign, to amplify the voices of students of colour within your day to day interactions. Try to figure out your own unique positionality within these huge structures. Once you figure out those spaces and people you have access to, the ability to enact change begins to seem possible.