8th November 2018 by

Black History Month at the University

Throughout October the University commemorated Black History Month. First celebrated in the UK in 1987, the month acts as a period to reflect on and remember important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora.

At the University, colleges and departments host their own events throughout the month by inviting guest speakers, screening films, creating art installations, and hosting competitions. An example of the breadth of events hosted by the University can be found on the Black History Month 2018 section of the website; however this doesn’t come close to covering the breadth of events hosted by departments throughout October. In light of this, the Cultural Calendar have teamed up with the American and Canadian Studies Centre to highlight one of the many events which they hosted in commemoration of the month: a film screening of Babylon (1980). Below is a report made on the event–and the film–by Joshua Heathcote, a BA Student in English Literature and American and Canadian Studies.

“In celebration of Black History Month, Dr Michell Chresfield of the Department of History and the Centre for American and Canadian Studies hosted a screening of the 1980 film Babylon. Babylon, directed by Franco Rosso, explores race relations in late 1970s Britain through the experiences of a reggae sound system group. The film is in equal parts a joy to watch for its obvious and infectious love of reggae as a genre, and horrifying in its depictions of police brutality and the societal racism infecting areas of London. Babylon, though relatively little known, rightfully holds a place as a definitive piece of Black British cinema.

Babylon is dedicated to showing the struggle of the Black British community around this time. In addition to police brutality and the stop and search culture the law allowed, there is a lot of thought given to the way the characters react to racism and harassment. There is a deep understanding of the inability to engage with violence within a system so clearly biased towards one side. The only recourse the characters we follow have is proud engagement with their own cultures or, in one case, guerrilla-like brutality against isolated white men. The film also strikes a highly pessimistic tone. The primary white character is a childhood friend of the protagonist Blue, but these ties of friendship are strained by acts of racism perpetrated against the group by the local white community. This character is ultimately cast out by the group because of his race. The message here is clear, relationships in an uneven society are fragile, and we have to deal with institutional racism before we can stand a chance of building lasting friendship.

Following the screening, Dr Rob Waters, Dr Sadiah Qureshi and Prof. Gavin Schaffer led the group in a spirited discussion of the film and the issues it raised. The level of engagement with the film stands as a testament to why events like this are so important, and why Black cinema should be showcased. A striking aspect of this discussion is the extent to which this kind of structural racism has impacted deeply upon a relatively young audience over 30 years later. Whilst the audience were mostly too young to have memories of this time and place, there were many who had stories passed down by relatives or told within peer groups. What was shown on screen thus resonated with many present. The discussion concluded with a collective call for more such events in the future.”

We would like to thank Josh for writing this report on what sounds like a gripping look into the presence of structural racism within the UK, and would also like to use this post as an opportunity to invite other student contributions surrounding Black History Month. If there was an event you attended, and would like to write about in more detail for the Cultural Calendar, please contact: n.f.gallen@bham.ac.uk.

Joshua Heathcote is from Newnham, and is currently studying English Literature and American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham, and also briefly at the University of Western Ontario. His ambition is to work for the BBC producing either television or radio shows.

The American and Canadian Studies Centre aims to develop and promote the study of Canada and the United States in Birmingham, and the wider United Kingdom, from a transnational perspective. The centre aims to engage in, and support, innovative and collaborative research practice both within academia and beyond. More details about their work, as well as upcoming events, can be found here.

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