Dr Njoki Wamai: We need to do more to celebrate King’s Black history

Collage of faces. Clockwise from top left: James Frater, Africanus Horton, Onyinye Udokporo, Dr Harold Moody, Professor 'Funmi Olonisakin, Desmond Tutu, Dina Asher-Smith, Professor Kofoworola Abeni Pratt and Imani-Lara Lansiquot

  Dr Njoki Wamai

Clockwise from top left: James Frater (Medicine, 2021), Africanus Horton , Onyinye Udokporo (Religion, Politics and Society, 2019),
Dr Harold Moody, Professor 'Funmi Olonisakin, Desmond Tutu (Theology, 1965; MTh, 1966), Dina Asher-Smith (History, 2017),
Professor Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (Nursing, 1950), Professor Abiodun Alao and Imani-Lara Lansiquot (Psychology)

Dr Njoki Wamai (Conflict, Security and Development, 2012) is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi Kenya. After graduating from King's with distinction, she earned her PhD in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University where she was the co-founder and first president of the Black Cantabs Research Society.

Historically there have been lots of reasons that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) stories have not been told as part of mainstream western histories. There are relatively few ethnic minorities in many of the elite spaces where these stories are discussed, such as in the media, politics and academia. Many white people aren’t happy speaking out of their comfort zone to speak for the ‘other’.

The lack of these stories can impact on the life decisions being made by BAME young people today. Historical bias is propagated as ethnic minority students look for more diverse spaces in which to progress their careers, avoiding careers where they do not see faces like their own. Their decisions are affected by the racism of the past as well as the unconscious bias, everyday racism and microaggressions that still exist.

In recent years, moves have been made to start to counter this problem. Every October, for example, Black History month reminds us about the challenges we have faced, the progress we have made and the efforts needed for a future of inclusiveness. Like many universities, King’s hosts a number of events exploring black history and the black experience, as well as using hashtags like #bhm2019 to share black stories online. Projects like #BlackAcademicsAtKings highlight the impact that black students and academics are having on university culture today.

Notable King's alumni
Left: Africanus Horton
RIght: Kofoworola Abeni Pratt

But we should do more to celebrate our black history. King’s has many black alumni of whom we should be proud. From pioneers in the fight against racism like Africanus Horton, one of the first British trained black doctors and a prominent campaigner for African self-government, and Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, the first black nurse in the NHS; to people making waves in culture like superstar sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and Tobi Oredein, founder of Black Ballad, a news platform focussed on Black female voices. By sharing their stories, we change the narrative for potential students now. A King’s education, and the careers that can open up, should become the norm for BAME students thinking about their futures.

Left: Professor Funmi Olonisakin, Founder of the African Leadership Centre
Right: Professor Abiodun Alao, Director of the African Leadership Centre

We also need to offer additional support to young people from BAME backgrounds and be more open and inclusive to difference. One institution making progress in this area is the African Leadership Centre (ALC). Founded by Professor Funmi Olonisakin who is also the Vice-President and Vice-Principal (International) at King's, the ALC is a joint project between King’s and the University of Nairobi, bringing together a global community of scholars. It is one of the best institutions for mentoring and training the next generation of African academics and policy makers in the field of peace and security. Beyond being an institution, it feels like a home for me and many of its alumni because of the personalized support and mentorship the programme provides to help the Fellows reach their potential.

We shouldn’t take these kinds of initiatives for granted. When I first joined Cambridge in 2012, I realised that there were no black academics to look up to like I had to Prof Funmi and her colleague Prof Charles Alao, Director of the African Leadership Centre, at King’s. I felt I needed to do something for those who came after me, so I co-founded a research society to research into black Cambridge alumni and recover the histories of people like me who had studied there but were not present in representations of the university such as the numerous portraits in the college dining halls and rooms. Through the effort of many dedicated students who joined the Black Cantabs Research Society, and with the support of the University of Cambridge's Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, we held an exhibition celebrating significant Black graduates like Dianne Abbott MP, the actor Naomi Harris, Gloria Cumper, who was the first Jamaican black woman to study at Cambridge and Efua Sutherland, the first African woman from Ghana to study there. The exhibition has inspired more research and commitments from college to increase opportunities for students of African descent, as well as helping current BAME students realise that they are as much a part of Cambridge as anyone else. I would love to see King’s celebrate its Black history by doing something similar.

Dr Njoki Wamai and Surer Mohamed discuss the Black Cantabs Research Project

We need to create more opportunities like the ALC and Black Cantabs and we need to talk about them more as well. Celebrating our diversity will get the message out that Kings values its BAME community members. It will encourage other black and ethnic minority students, faculty and staff to join Kings, and that is something that the whole community will benefit from.

If you’re interested in contributing to the alumni blog, it would be great to hear any specific ideas you have for a post subject/title. Email forever@kcl.ac.uk with ‘alumni blog’ in the subject line.

Discuss this blog