UK Black History Month IconsOctober 2019
1 November 2019
The month of October hallmarks UK Black History Month, a time for celebrating the nation's longstanding and underrepresented history of black excellence.
The British chapter was first proposed by Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in 1987 and has since become a permanent fixture in schools, museums, political institutions, and local communities. Despite its distance from African-American History Month (celebrated in February), activations for the month have often been criticised for favouring stateside leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. over the likes of British heroes—including but not limited to—Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, and Stuart Hall.
In response, historians such as David Olusoga MBE have openly challenged academic spaces to account for black British people. In recent years, institutions such as Birmingham City University, SOAS, and Goldsmiths have risen to the challenge, introducing study programmes specifically targeting black British histories, literature, and urban landscapes.
In honour of such work, YEOJA Mag has rounded up some of its favourite figures and leaders actively working to produce safe, informed, and creative spaces for black folks in the UK.
London-based filmmaker Jenn Nkiru is regarded as one of Britain’s best contemporary artists. The work is archival, centring black subjects in jubilee-like celebrations with emphasis on movement, community, and perspective. Her films often work with a single-cam, weaving sharp, distinct shots, with loaded consistent, targeted details.
Notable works include En Vogue (2014) and Rebirth Is Necessary (2017). The former makes references to NYC’s underground ballroom culture, while the latter ruminates on Sun Ra, the Black Panther Party, jazz, hip-hop, and the dextrous nature of Afrofuturism. In addition to her shorts, Nkiru has lent her creative eye to music videos, creating visuals for the likes of Kamasi Washington and Neneh Cherry.
“In my films, sound, vision, and music have equal importance; with sound and music often taking on character roles,” she told the British Film Council. Arguably, what matters most is Nkiru’s dedication to creating spaces in which a spectrum of black voices, sounds, and histories are able to co-exist unapologetically.
Melz Owusu is a transmasculine PhD researcher, poet, and activist from London. During their enrollment at the University of Leeds, Owusu stepped up as Education Officer for two years, centring their manifesto on decolonial theory.
Their research tackled institutional whiteness within the western canon, exemplified in their spearheading of the “Why Is My Curriculum White” campaign. The national movement saw students across the UK banner together over dated academic practices which favoured white, cissexual educators.
Post-graduation, Owusu followed up their research with a TEDx talk, examining educational deficits and the importance of decolonial thinking within academic institutions.
Tandem with their research, Owusu serves as a writer, speaker, and educator, exploring non-binary/trans* identities and personal developments via their YouTube channel.
British author Bernardine Evaristo is a tenured figure within the publishing industry. In a career spanning almost 20 years, the writer and critic has gone on to publish eight fictional texts complemented by bylines in The Guardian, The Times, and The New Statesmen.
Her latest novel, Girl, Woman, Other (2019) jointly won the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. The honour makes Evaristo the first black woman to ever win the coveted award. While her tied-win has been criticised for “sabotaging” a historic feat, Evaristo spoke to the contrary on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“A black woman has never won [the Booker before]. Only four black women have ever been shortlisted and there have been about 300 books shortlisted. Hopefully, this signals a new direction for the Booker and the kind of judges they have.” Concluding, “This year there were four women judges and one male. I hope more black women win this prize.”
In her addition to her written work, Evaristo founded several platforms prioritising African writers and theatre practitioners. In the 1980s, she organised Britain’s first black woman theatre company, and in 2012 she went on to found the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, where she currently works as a Professor of Creative Writing.
Tobi Kyeremateng is a producer, writer and practitioner advocating for diversity and inclusivity within the theatre, festival, and performance spaces. In 2011, she worked as a Young Associate Producer at London’s Ovalhouse Theatre, later scoring working credits at Battersea Arts Centre, The Old Vic, Brainchild Festival, and more recently, the Bush Theatre.
For the latter, Kyeremateng produced the week-long BABYLON festival which highlighted the influence of black and brown people on London culture. For her achievements, Kyeremateng was awarded Stage 100’s 2019 ‘Most Influential Figures Working in the UK Theatre and Performing Arts Industry.’
Additionally, Kyeremateng also founded The Black Ticket Project. The initiative provides free and discounted access to London theatre shows for young black people as well as addressing the gap between producers from Black Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and theatre spaces.
Beyond the stage, Kyeremateng also serves as an author, TEDx speaker, and was the 2019 recipient of Stylist Magazine’s ‘Inspiration of the Year’ Award.’
Liv Little is the founder of online and print publication, gal-dem. The magazine caters to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour, with respect to intersectional identities.
Little founded the magazine in 2015, and since its inception, the publication produced a Friday Late Session at the Victoria & Albert museum as well as partnering with The Guardian for a weekend takeover. For her work, she was listed as one of BBC’s 100 Women.
“The feminism I was seeking was one that explored how young millennial women navigated multiple identities,” she wrote in 2016. “One that addressed blatant discrimination and silent oppression, and one that refused to treat women as a homogeneous entity, I felt that only through celebrating and acknowledging difference would emancipation for all women be achieved.
Outside of gal-dem, Little is also an audio producer and a contributing editor for Elle UK. She is currently working on her first book.
Original artwork by Rae Tilly for YEOJA Mag. In case you missed it, check out our previous ‘Icon of the Month,’ Angela Davis.