A personal account: Black History Month Formal
written by Theola Ojo
We asked Homerton undergraduate Theola Ojo to write about her experience of attending the Black History Month dinner at Homerton in October. Theola served as BME rep on the Homerton Union of Students executive committee for 2021/22.
“I am black because I come from the earth’s inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light” - Audre Lorde, Coal
I’ve always felt pretty stifled in formals. It’s the same feeling of sudden corporeal awareness that dawns when I enter the porters’ lodges of certain colleges or attend specific events. I become Black in these moments, in the sense that I become the Other, the object, the negation of all that is around me. These moments are always accompanied by subtle whispers: “Do you belong here?” “Can I say that here?”. I might change how I move, talk and navigate in this space. Be less expressive, more palatable, less political, less Black.
I think this constant self-modulation begun from a young age. To an extent, my life has been a series of shifts from one predominantly white educational institution to the next. In Year 1, I was the “rude girl” made to stand up and face the wall during lessons and break times because I talked once. Of course, I was the only Black girl in that class and my equally talkative white friends were let out to play. In secondary school, durags (but not MAGA hats) were enough to warrant expulsion and hanging out with “too many" Black people was equated by teachers to gangs. I found myself in Set 1, where everyone except the three Black and Asian students were chosen for a "gifted and talented" group to be funnelled into Oxbridge. Sixth Form came, and the Oxbridge co-ordinator stared with shock when I said I wanted to apply to Cambridge, indicating that I didn’t “look” like my (decent) grades. He said the same to my Black peers.
I learnt from primary school to tone it down slightly, keep my head down in school and let exam results show what teachers would not see. It worked, but it definitely feels like I snuck into Cambridge rather than being awarded a place. It still feels like I’m sneaking into formals, into supervisions, and into my college. However, the Black History Month formal came, and instead of sneaking, I belonged. Although, this is really a shift that begun when Simon Woolley became Principal in 2021; when I joined BME committee roles; gave up trying to discipline my Blackness and learn the lyrics to Mr Brightside.
In a room filled with people who I see myself in, and see these people in myself, the steely, painted eyes of Homerton’s former Principals in the Great Hall had no power over me. Our joy, our communion, our Black presence, was so much more powerful. I think of the images Lorde evokes in Coal of a “diamond com[ing] into a knot of flame” and “sound com[ing] into a word, coloured”. Black diamonds were everywhere in that room, from Diane Abbott to Sonita Alleyne. And myself, and you.
This formal affirmed what Black excellence means to me now. Far from being the quantifiable tokens of success in a neoliberal hustle-culture: the number of connections on your LinkedIn, your grade percentages, the amount of money in your account, Black excellence in Cambridge is Black joy. A joy that presses against the bounds of white institutions and makes itself known. Black excellence is breaking bread with your friends and the deep belly laughter that erupts when the menu is brought out and the “plantain/ plantin” debate inevitably begins. Whilst on the night I joked about embracing “#BlackAverage”, I think it’s true that Black excellence is also simply existing. An existence that is defiant from its inception.
The ACS remarked that history has been made. It has, and we must keep making it. Every October, I say a silent prayer that we don’t just have a month, a year, a decade or a century. I pray for an eternity of Black joy, that laughs, and sings, and makes itself known to the world long after we gathered in Homerton on the 26th of October.