Prof Wale Adebanwi (Trinity Hall, 2003)
Homage to Alexander Crummell and Christian Cole
I thank all the members of the Black Cantabs Research Society for the invitation and the honour. I will like to especially that the President of the Black Cantabs, Nafisa Waziri and the Founding President, Njoki Wamai.
One day in 1842, “the springtide was struggling merrily with the May winds of New England,” in Northwestern United States, as W. E. B. Du Bois writes, a young clergyman in a Black church, or Negro church, as it was then called, having been unable to fill the pulpits of his church left the town of Providence, locked the door of the church and went to the Bishop.
“I have failed,” he told the Bishop. “What I need is a larger constituency…. I must go where the field is wider and try again.”
The Bishop gave him a note to another Bishop, a white bishop, in Philadelphia. When he gave the note to the Philadelphia Bishop, the man said: “I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: no Negro priest can sit in my church convention, and no Negro church must ask for representation there.”
The Negro priest responded: “I will never enter your diocese on such terms.” He turned and left for New York. Seven years later, he sailed across the Atlantic and landed in Cambridge. The priest that I am talking about is Alexander Crummell. He is the first Black Cantab to matriculate and graduate from this University. He matriculated in 1849 and graduated in 1853.
According to Du Bois in his acclaimed book, The Souls of the Black Folks, “Restless still, and unsatisfied, [Crummell] turned toward Africa, and for long years, amid the spawn of the slave-smugglers, sought a new heaven and a new earth.”
As your association, Black Cantab, acknowledges, Crummell’s contributions to “education, the field of moral philosophy and intellectual life of Liberia are huge.”
“So the man groped for light…” continues Du Bois, “it was the world-wandering of a soul in search of itself….”
I re-tell the story of this remarkable man, Alexander Crummell, to remind you, dear members of the Black Cantabs Research Society, that you have a long history in this university and that your presence here is a continuation of a certain tradition of restlessness, of un-satisfaction, or a refusal to accept the degradations and the fatal errors of the racialisation of what ought to be our common humanity as exemplified by Crummell here at Cambridge and by Christian Cole at Oxford.
From Waterloo in Sierra Leone, Christian Cole arrived in Oxford in 1873, two decades after Crummell graduated from Cambridge. He was the first known black man to study and graduate from Oxford. Cole graduated in 1876. Two weeks ago, on Saturday, 15 October, 2017, a plague was unveiled to commemorate his pioneering effort.
Again, I am alerting you to the long tradition of which you are now heirs – this tradition includes, Yaba Badoe, the award-winning film-maker, the first female Black Cantab in King’s College, who is also here today. You have to guard this tradition not only jealously, but vigorously. You belong here and you deserve to be here. Let nothing shake that resolve.
However, I recognise that despite the positive changes in Cambridge regarding the admission of black students since more than one and a half centuries ago when Crummell graduated from Cambridge, there are still enduring challenges. In the 2016 cycle, only 50 black students were admitted to Cambridge (45 in Oxford). It is also significant that only 220 applied. This is why the work of Target Oxbridge is significant and you must support it. To encourage more black students from every income level to apply for a place in Cambridge.
When I was admitted to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 2003 on a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship, I recognise the wonderful opportunity that this represented and the challenges that went with it. Against the backdrop of my experience, I will say a few things which might be useful for some of you as current students of the university. These will reflect some of what I was asked to speak about: How I got here, the passions that drive my life and the lessons I learned in Cambridge.
- Recognising, with humility, your own potentials and gifts: Institutions make mistakes in admission, but Cambridge University has a tiny margin of error! And you are not part of that margin of error. So, you have to remember constantly - particularly when you are feeling overwhelmed or insignificant - that you are here because you are gifted, because you have a lot of potentials and great value. You are among what can be called the select of the world. Therefore, like Crummell before you, you should not be in this university under the terms that diminish or devalues you. It is largely in your hands to ensure that. You will not face a greater odd than Crummell did. If he survived in the age of slavery and slave trade as a black Cantab, you can do better in the age of twitter and Facebook. If he could reject indignity in 1842, you will not accept it in 2017.
Your vulnerability as young people will be compounded by the vulnerability that you (will) experience by being “stared at”. Don’t let that get in your way. It was the search for excellence that brought me to Cambridge that also got me through all odds. The same will be true for you. That search, that passion also drives my career. Even if you don’t achieve your goal, as someone said, the very effort towards excellence cannot but be permanently beneficial.
The Value of Persistence or Stick-to-it-veness: Cambridge can be isolating and sometimes, the pressures of its academic and social expectations and constraints can be defeating – particularly if you are from a minority group. However, persistence has never served anyone short. Everyone of your kind who has graduated from here, did so because they persisted.
Someone has described persistence as stick-to-it-veness. Sticking to it without fail, even in the worst of circumstances. You may not do well at some point, or in some class, or in some paper. But not giving up, and marching on with strength and perseverance will make you triumph in the end. Crummell failed as a priest. He had to close his church. But he set for himself a higher task of gaining a degree from one of the best and oldest universities in the world. We will never have heard of him as a failed pastor of a small church in New England. But we know of him as a successful graduate of a great university. And that virtue of perseverance stayed with him in his work and service after he graduated from Cambridge. This virtue must stay with you too when you leave here. They have stayed with me.
Embrace the world: Studying in Cambridge provides you a stage in the world. Indeed, Cambridge itself is a stage in the world. Make yourself a subject on that stage, an actor, and not an object. You have to embrace that world in all of its dimensions while you are here. Seek the knowledge for which you are here in all its fullness, not in the narrowness of your own discipline or your research. Also, while you are here, breath! Take full advantage of the multiplicity of academic, cultural and social opportunities in Cambridge – and beyond. Your education here is happening in the classrooms, libraries and laboratories, as much as on the streets, in the museums and in the botanical gardens – and in the pubs and the nightclubs too! Embrace Cambridge in all its dimensions.
Finally, let me say that your desire for high quality knowledge in Cambridge, must become the basis of your desire for life. What that means is that you recognise yourself as an agent of change, of the possibilities of the creation of a better world. Our world will not be better without you.
The sacrifices made by our pioneers such as the likes of Alexander Crummell and Christian Cole in Oxbridge demand that we extend the frontiers of knowledge, of the Enlightenment, for generations after us. I urge you to always remember that.
I thank you for your attention.
Yaba Badoe (King's College, 1973)
Notes for Black Cantab Speech – Downing College
Thank you very much for inviting me to be a guest speaker this evening. It’s a tremendous honour to be here.
First of all I want to say how much I value the work the Black Cantab Research Project is doing in fleshing out the lives and contributions of Black Alumni at Cambridge University. As a British/Ghanaian graduate of King’s, I’m happy to add other Ghanaians to your list.
David Acquah – I suspect that his time at Cambridge most probably overlapped with that Efua Sutherland – poet 7 dramatist.
David helped establish the Quakers in Ghana, was chairman of Ghana’s Anti-Apartheid Committee and ended up as a mover and shaker at the Ministry of Social Welfare in Ghana.
Katherine Acquah, his daughter – an architect, who, while she was here researched and wrote a thesis on indigenous forms of Ghanaian architecture in Northern Ghana.
Henry Van Hien Sekyi – an illustrious diplomat, who I was lucky enough to work with during my early days as a Foreign Service Officer in Accra.
Professor Alex Kwapong – internationally acclaimed academic.
Kwame Anthony Appiah - ditto
Kojo Tando – a Selwyn man – a surgeon and paediatrician
Moses Anafu – a historian and political analyst at the Commonwealth Secretariat
… to name but a few Ghanaian Cambridge Alumni I can mention off the top of my head.
My concern this evening isn’t to name names that some of you may already be familiar with. I want to commend you for the incredible work your doing. It’s a powerful validation of Black African, Caribbean and British experiences of Cambridge and beyond. It’s a valuable archival enterprise - because if we don’t acknowledge the significance of those who’ve been here before us - if we don’t sing their praises and applaud our different histories, no one else is going to do so.
To make sense of where we are today, we have to reclaim the past and remember it.
And yet, my primary task this evening – is to draw your attention to a statement by Toni Morrison that means a lot to me.
I’m a great fan of Toni Morrison’s writings and one of the best gigs of my life was when, in 2003, I was asked by BBC 4 to make a documentary about her for the launch of her novel, Love, which was published in autumn 2003.
This is the Morrison statement that I find intriguing. It’s about racism.
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Toni Morrison, “Black Studies Center public dialogue,” Portland State University, May 30, 1975
When I read this statement several years ago, it made me think - because much of the work I’ve been engaged in in film and television has been in response to racism –
Black and White 1988 – Bristol two journalists one white, the other black. Jobs, accommodation, using hidden video cameras. We demonstrated that racism wasn’t a figment of our imaginations – it’s a lived experience, which gave advantages to the white journalist – Tim Marshall – to the detriment of the black journalist, Geoff Small. We showed racism in action - and yet the institution I worked for - the BBC – all these years later – is still struggling to reflect and represent today’s UK in its content and services.
And we can’t talk about the state of Britain’s institutions without taking note of what happened last year in the EU Referendum. Reported hate crimes increased by 29% in the past year.
Police forces across England and Wales recorded almost 80,400 hate crimes in 2016-2017. This is the largest recorded rise in the six years since records began. This unprecedented surge correlates with the Brexit vote and an increase in terrorist attacks in the UK.
The poisonous, racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric from sections of the leave campaign emboldened people to spew racist views in ways I haven’t seen in decades. I thought all that nonsense was behind us. It isn’t. And yet my aunts – my dear beloved aunts – voted for Brexit - as did many black and brown people. We’re so easily manipulated when we’re on the look out for scapegoats. In the past year - anyone deemed as “other” – from eastern Europeans, black people and minorities to Muslims, refugees, LGBTI and disabled people – has been subjected to unprecedented levels of open bigotry.
Europeans are leaving Britain because the atmosphere has become toxic.
We know this - because in the age of Trump and Brexit we’re living in a period of multiple distractions - as well as attacks on race, gender and our common, cooperative humanity.
So how can we concentrate on our creativity – our work – in a season of such huge upheaval? We don’t really have a choice in the matter – we have to – because this too shall pass. Moreover, the only thing we leave behind when we die - is what we’ve been able to create.
So don’t be distracted. Do your work.
After I finished my last film – The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo – a feature length documentary about the iconic Ghanaian feminist, playwright, poet and novelist – I decided to concentrate on writing fiction again. I’ve written whenever I’ve been able to throughout my career. I’ve had a novel and short stories published – this autumn, however two more of my books were published – A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars - & a collection of fairy stories – The Secret of the Purple Lake. If you’ll indulge me – I’ll finish off by reading from A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars.
Don’t be distracted – do your work!