Black History Month – The Great Debate

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There’s a fair amount of controversy surrounding Black History Month. Morgan Freeman, in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” show in December 2005, stated that “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” Yet the event, held every October since 1987 in the UK, continues to promote examination of black history annually.

For the first time in Loughborough, we are celebrating Black History Month with a “Black History Week,” similar to the original “Negro Histories Week” set up in America by Carter G Woodson. “The week has been a lot of different takes on different aspects of Black History,” says Georgie Court, VP of Welfare and Diversity, who helped to organise and set up the event, something she says she has pushed for. “[We have] tried to approach Black History from all different ways.”

Previous events this week have included a talk by various representatives, including poet Anthony Anaxagorou on Monday, and Wednesdays open interview with Akala, the rapper and singer. Tonight, however, is an open debate, as part of the Great Debates tour.

The Great Debates tour is organised by the Elevation Network and the YBS (Young Black and Successful group), in conjunction with Afro/ Caribbean society’s from across the country. The aim is to collate a collection of opinions and then combine them into a manifesto, which will then be presented to the government in 2015. The tour so far has had 30 dates this year at various universities, which is the longest run they’ve had so far. According to Claud Williams, Ex President of the Afro-Caribbean Society (ACS) here at Loughborough and a Media Consultant with YBS who helped to organise the event, the tour so far has “worked really well”: in fact, they have just had to add extra dates in February.

The debate itself is not held in a conventional fashion. The room is split into two sides, and allowed ten to fifteen minutes to discuss their side of a topic. Questions include “Are educational inequalities about social background more than they are about race?” and “Where do we get our sense of beauty?” Each side then elect two spokespeople each, who get ten minutes to make their points. They can then receive questions and support from their teammates, before a summation is given. 

I am told by Mr Williams that this is not usually how the Great Debates work: normally a panel of pre-selected people sit for questions and opinions, a system modelled on Question Time. However, due to cancellations reducing the panel to one person, the university had to put this last minute system in place.  “This one is a bad example of the debates, but an OK event.” He states, mentioning Nottingham as one of the universities where the original system worked well.

The debate itself is lively, with repeated needs for intervention by the chair, a Mr Samson Osun, President of the Goldsmiths students union, who has been invited for the event. Nevertheless, he says it “Worked very well”, and indeed, the topics are well explored, with arguments veering into culture, politics, art and psychology. Students themselves seemed to enjoy the evening: One student says it “went well”, while another described it as “Pretty good. Interesting and engaging.” Jermaine Akomolafe, President of the Afro/Caribbean society at Loughborough, stated that he “Really liked the informal environment”

And what of the controversy that surrounds Black History Month itself? “Studying Black History is very important,” Mr Williams replies, but then goes on to rue the focus on the Civil Rights movement and the slave trade. He suggests we should “take the time to explore as many cultures as possible, in as much depth as possible.” Mr Akomolafe agrees, saying that, though he likes the idea that it’s celebrated, “The concept of it seems to indicate that black history is only worth a month, which, obviously, it isn’t.”

There are many things to be taken from this event: however, one thing it demonstrated was the ability to showcase opinions from all sorts of skill levels in debating, and that not being a politics student doesn’t necessarily mean weak opinions. Whether or not the manifesto itself will have any impact on the government is debatable: one would hope so, and yet there’s still strong doubt among the student population as to political parties integrity in regards to these sorts of dealings: remember the Liberal Democrats and the end of Tuition fees? Still, Legacy notwithstanding, tonight’s debate was enjoyable and thought provoking.

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