By Heather Marks
On Thursday 15th December 2016, four women made history – Heather Goodman, Heather Marks, Katherine O’Garro and Andrea Thomas. Remember this date, because these women made *correction* HERSTORY by being the first to graduate from a programme which only came into being in 2015: the Masters in Black British Writing.
The MA in Black British Writing is a new and unique programme which importantly addresses black writing as a continuum, connecting British culture to the migratory, indigenous and global perspectives of those writing it. The MA in Black British Writing enables serious study of the creative and artistic history, and achievement, of black British novelists, poets, short story writers, essayists, and playwrights. The degree programme was founded by Dr. Deirdre Osborne and Professor Joan Anim-Addo. Dr. Deirdre Osborne has dedicated her research to black British writing, and is committed to advocating this work in all areas of her teaching as a matter of social justice. Professor Joan Anim-Addo has long specialised in literatures of the Caribbean, and was recently awarded the Callaloo Lifetime Achievement Award for her invaluable contributions to the field. They have fought long and hard to get the Masters in Black British Writing to take place, and it stands as a rare example in Higher Education as an educative programme committed to decolonizing culture, and the curriculum. Speaking to Dr. Osborne and Professor Anim-Addo at the graduation ceremony, it was clear how immensely proud they were of their graduate class, and of ‘[our] tenacity in engaging with the challenges of the curricula, to produce insightful and original work that gives Black British literature the critical attention it needs in British humanities education.’
Its been a year of incredible insights and life-changing experiences, from Tuesday 22nd September 2015, when these bright students first met each other, to Thursday 15th December 2016, when they crossed the stage in Goldsmiths’ Great Hall to become the world-first graduates of the Masters in Black British Writing. I caught up with a few of my fellow graduates to reflect on that special day, and their time on the Masters programme in Black British Writing.
Heather Marks: What do you remember about starting class that first day, and meeting everyone for the first time by Professor Joan Anim-Addo’s office?
Heather Goodman: I don’t really remember much about the first day except feeling a little overwhelmed by it all, and at a loss. It all felt a little chaotic and I thought, not for the first time in the course, why am I doing this? I noticed that the class was made up entirely of women, and wondered why there were no men interested in the subject? A judgmental thought perhaps, but there it is.
Andrea Thomas: On the first day, I remember how happy everybody was to be starting the MA! As I wasn’t at the meeting at Joan’s office before the term started, I was so eager to meet everybody and I remember everyone being so welcoming and friendly.
HM: And how did you feel by the end of the first term?
HG: By the end of the first term I was feeling overwhelmed, and was questioning myself even more, but I was also invigorated by what I was learning, and the challenge of putting into essays that knowledge.
AT: I was feeling mentally liberated and mentally drained all at the same time! I remember during my undergraduate degree I was grossly under-reading, whereas for my MA I was definitely over-reading. I just wanted to read absolutely everything! Everything we read and discussed was so interesting I just could not get enough, I was reading all the time and loved the fact I was being exposed to new writers and theories.
HM: It was the same for me, I was devouring everything! I think that desire came from finally coming into contact with literature that I related to, and digesting critical thought that provided an alternative historical account than the one fed to us in mainstream education – like The Black Jacobins by C.L.R James. Learning about the Haitian Revolution – Toussaint, Dessalines, and the political intrigue in the different factions – and then comparing that to my previous, pitiful excuse for an education on the slave trade, which solely consisted of the horrors of the transatlantic crossing, I began to realise that this degree programme was even more special than I previously thought. The Masters in Black British Writing consisted of an entirely decolonized curriculum, which in literature – let alone higher education as a whole – is incredibly rare to encounter! So tell me, what were your highlights of the year?
AT: The highlights of my year are reading Incomparable World by S I Martin, Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo, meeting Bernadine Evaristo and attending the “Caribbean and Diasporic Dialogues in the University” conference. Incomparable World really opened my eyes to the history of the black British experience before the more popularised Windrush-era. I loved the fact Martin included Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano in the novel, which, for me, really brought the story to life and encouraged me to think deeply about these more notorious black British figures.
I absolutely loved Mr Loverman for its brilliant humour and less generic protagonist (and character list in general). The fact that the protagonist was Antiguan – a shout out to my Antiguan heritage! Having the opportunity to then meet Evaristo was absolutely amazing, and hearing her read parts of her new novel was equally exciting. The “Caribbean and Diasporic Dialogues in the University” conference was an exceptionally special conference for me, as it is exposed me to the multitude of black academics that are doing wonderful research on such interesting and intriguing topics. Each and every day leaving the conference I had learnt something new and made some great connections, which was very uplifting for a young black academic like myself.
HG: Highlights of the year have to be the books that I read, and the realisation that I knew more about the works/history of African American and African writing than that of my own Caribbean heritage. It was funny that in the module ‘Literature of the Caribbean and its Diasporas’, I said to Joan that I didn’t like the focus on poetry, and then found myself in my essays writing about Aime Cesaire and Kamau Brathwaite, because the depth and quality of their work is breathtaking. Though not the easiest writers to come to grips with (and I still haven’t entirely), engaging with the theoretical underpinnings of their works, and the imagery employed by them in works like Arrivants and Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, is very fulfilling.
Then there are the women: Jackie Kay, Bernadine Evaristo, Helen Oyeyemi and debbie tucker green. The satisfaction garnered through reading their work is emotional, rather than theoretical and intellectual. Which is not to say that there isn’t technical virtuosity on display as with Cesaire and Brathwaite, but somehow what, and how they write engages viscerally first, and intellectually second – the reverse effect of Cesaire and Brathwaite, at least for me. Then there are the honourable mentions: Fred D’Aguiar, Cush Jumbo, Sam Selvon, Derek Walcott, Patience Agbabi … the list goes on and on! And finally, the discovery of S.I. Martin’s Incomparable World – the historical relevance of that story to the presence in Britain of people of African descent, to me, makes it imperative it is more widely known.
HM: Incomparable World is probably my highlight text of the course as well. An eighteenth century romp through the streets of London, with black ex-servicemen who fought for the British in the War of Independence – never would I have expected to come across that, and it was an absolute joy to read! Incomparable World has had such a lasting effect on me; it gave me a foundation as a black woman specializing in literature, and expanded my horizons in imagining an historical literary landscape in Britain, with black characters, that exceeds beyond slavery and Windrush. Anyone who says black people can’t be in period dramas/novels needs to sit down and read that book! Apart from your book recommendations, is there anything you would like to tell the next cohort of students?
HG: What would I tell the next cohort? Buckle in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride! But at the end of it, you will feel nourished and expanded in ways you probably didn’t know you were missing.
AT: Never doubt yourself! This will most probably be one of the most challenging years in education (especially if you are doing it full time), and sometimes you may feel grossly out of your depth, but you are surrounded by professors and peers that want you to do well and succeed. Do not ever be afraid to ask questions in and out of class until you are satisfied with the answer. Most importantly – you WILL get through it and when you have handed in your dissertation, knowing you did your absolute best, it is the best feeling in the world and you will sleep like a baby!
HM: Wise words! And its true, we made it. Crossing the stage on graduation filled me with so much pride and joy, not just for myself, but for seeing all of us walk the stage, and have our place – our work – recognised in that hall.It was a great moment to see four black women recognized as academics, in black British writing, an art form which is so underrated in this country. How did you feel during the ceremony? What were your highlights?
HG: For those of us whose hearing is waning, I’d say fix the sound system in the great hall, or give the presenters mike technique lessons! Can’t say I felt anything other than pleased to see and spend time with my fellow class graduates (missed you girls).
HM & AT: We missed you too Heather!
AT: I felt on a high from the very moment I woke up on the day of my graduation. I felt this was a special moment, not only for me graduating, but for my family and friends who had supported and prayed for me whilst I was studying. It was wonderful to have the support of the part-time students on the day also, as we all started the course together and for me it was an achievement for ALL the first cohorts. It had been such a challenge to actually get the course established, so when I walked across the stage getting my Masters Degree in Black British Writing, I was just overwhelmed with joy. Then hearing my mum shout from the balcony, “THAT’S MY GIRL”, I could not help but have the biggest smile on my face for the rest of the day.
HM: That was an amazing moment! There was such a cheer squad rooting for us during the graduation ceremony, in our families, friends and tutors. It was really great to see Prof. Joan Anim-Addo and Dr. Deirdre Osborne’s joy in our success – they mentored and supported us on a course which was so important to them. For you personally, why has this course been important?
HG: The course has been important because I realised that I had ignored a large part of my cultural heritage, and that there is a lot that it has to give to me and the wider cultural arena. To say I enjoyed the MA process is probably inaccurate, as I spent a lot of time doubting myself and my ability to write with intellectual rigour, but that’s my fault not the course’s. However, I can thank the course for opening my eyes and putting a fire in my belly to advance my study in this area and add, hopefully, to the literature about, and knowledge of writing, from the wider diaspora.
AT: The course has been so important to me not just because of the qualification, but the wealth of knowledge that I have acquired throughout. I have said from the beginning that it is not just me learning, but my family and friends also, as I always strive to share the knowledge I acquire to educate and uplift those around me. I wish everybody could do this degree, but unfortunately the reality is that not everyone will be able to, so I feel it is my, and the other students, responsibility to share what we have learnt and spread the knowledge acquired through this brilliant degree. Being able to learn so much about the black British experience, surrounded by predominantly black British peers, has been such a refreshing academic experience and one which I will always cherish.
HM: Hear, hear. It was the rarest of times to go to a class, surrounded by black peers, discuss black British literature, history, and culture, and to be supported every step of the way by Dr. Deirdre Osborne, who has been such a staunch advocate for black British writing. When do you ever experience that in education? Never! I was not expecting that, and it was so special. What were you not expecting from this course?
HG: I wasn’t expecting to want to continue my studies to PhD level!
AT: I can honestly say I do not know what I was expecting! I just know I was so excited to be studying a course which was a better reflection of myself and my experiences.
HM: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the MA, and your experience of it?
AT: My hope is that eventually the black British experience will not be condensed to a single MA course, but will be disseminated from primary education all the way up, so that each and every child will interact and be aware of the wealth of contributions from the black British population. This MA is a fantastic start into bringing black Britishness to the forefront of education, and I am so glad that I was privileged enough to be a part of it.
HM: Thank you so much for sharing Heather and Andrea.
For more information on the Masters in Black British Writing, visit http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-black-british-writing/. Alternatively, contact:
Heather Marks, Administrative Assistant: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Deirdre Osborne, Convener: D.Osborne@gold.ac.uk