October is Black History Month, an opportunity for exploring, discovering and celebrating Black history, heritage and culture. Here, some members of EP have nominated people of African or Caribbean descent who have inspired them personally or because of their contribution to society.
Dr Mamie Phipps Clark
From Mirela Zaneva...
"As a psychology postgrad, I am inspired by the work of Dr Mamie Phipps Clark who has motivated me to carry out socially meaningful work that can have a direct positive impact to people’s lives and to society at large. Many of us will recognise her work and that of her husband, Dr. Kenneth Clark ,in developmental psychology, and in particular their hugely impactful studies on the development of self-consciousness in children, showing that black children become aware of their racial identity significantly before their white peers, at about 3 years old. Mamie is also remembered as the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Psychology from Columbia University and the second African American person to do so (her husband Kenneth being the first).
I find particular inspiration from Dr. Mamie Clark's master’s dissertation, where she worked with black children to study race attitudes and self-identification and how those were impacted by segregation. One of her main findings, that even very young black children preferred to play with white over black dolls, formed a key part of the famous Brown v Board of Education court case. This was the case that overturned racial segregation in schools in 1954.
A longer biographical note about her life is available from Columbia.
For lovers of modern avant-garde jazz, the amazing Sons of Kemet pay homage to Dr Clark in their song ‘My Queen is Mamie Phipps Clark.’ Their entire 2018 album Your Queen Is A Reptile (freely available on Spotify) celebrates the lives of 9 black women and is well worth the listen."
From Mira Dumbalska...
A person who inspires me is Icolyn 'Ma' Smith. Many Oxford locals will be familiar with her name as she is the founder of the Oxford Community Soup Kitchen. She started the Soup Kitchen in 1990 after seeing a young man eating from a bin. This singular event was the catalyst for her to act and not only help the individual in front of her but find a way to help anyone in need. In the 90s, Ma Smith had already retired and she started the Soup Kitchen by using her own pension. She has continued to work in the Soup Kitchen every week in the past 30 years, providing more than 45,000 home-cooked meals and a much needed community lifeline. Ma Smith's longstanding dedication to serving others challenges and inspires me to think of my contributions to society not only as a researcher, but as a citizen with a civic duty. I hope her life and work motivates many of us to think how we can strengthen and support our communities.
More information about Ma Smith and the Soup Kitchen, as well as details how to volunteer or support it can be found here: https://icolynsmithfoundation.co.uk/.
From Kia Nobre...
During this month, when we reflect on Black History, I recall the wisest person I have met. Mestre Didi (or, if you really must know: Deoscoredes Maximiliano dos Santos, 1917-2013) descended from a sacred and noble family in Nigeria that landed in Brazil as slaves. After an adventurous youth, he embraced the challenge of keeping his heritage alive. He left his Catholic roots respectfully and stepped up as a priest of the Nagô religion.
While never disparaging any other set of beliefs or principles, he learned and taught the magic left behind by the slave ships – in culture, religion, rituals, traditions, wisdoms. He married the indefatigable foreign and multi-doctored anthropologist Juana Elbein dos Santos. Together, they founded learning and cultural centres, made documentaries, wrote books, and brought African fables to light.
Quietly and modestly, Mestre Didi also created objects of art that are exposed the world over. I remember running into one of his pieces at the Guggenheim in New York. Each time I had the honour of spending time with him, he changed me with his wisdom and humility, his kindness and positivity, his eyes that saw so many different dimensions and noticed the good in all. Axé Mestre Didi! This month I have you firmly on my mind.
From Meron Haile...
Meaza Ashenafi was elected as the first female President of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia in 2018.© CS Monitor
She was the founder and director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association in the 1990s, aimed at providing legal support to women who couldn't afford it. She has dedicated her life to advocating for women's rights and has been outspoken on the stereotypes that women face in Ethiopian society.
Meaza inspires me because she is a pioneer. She used the rare opportunity she was provided with to attend school during the 60s and 70s in Ethiopia to bring about social change and justice. She continues in her pursuits to use her education and expertise to promote gender equality within the nation. There is an incredible retelling of one of her successful cases in a movie called "Difret" that eventually sparked changes in Ethiopia's laws regarding its age-old tradition of kidnapping for marriage.
From Stephanie Nelli...
There are many reasons that I am going to have to be typical and nominate my mother, Gretchen Nelli. My mother exemplifies the “American dream” – she really defied all odds. As a first generation Haitian-American in a not so nice neighbourhood in Brooklyn NYC, my mother had that special blend of resilience, hard work and a pinch of luck, and now holds degrees from Harvard and Duke Law. I am beyond lucky and thankful she passed her values of education and learning down to me, as clearly they have become central in my own career.
Beyond education and hard work, I am also nominating my mother for her continual support and empathy whenever I have encountered societal barriers to various aspects of my intersectional identity. Unfortunately, many mixed race women face discrimination and harassment that society still doesn’t wholly condemn, but I knew my mother would be on my side. I always had a home in her, even from seemingly small things like not being “black enough” or “white enough” at high school dances, or the surprise in my mathematics professors faces when they handed a high test score back to me. While there is comfort in the boxes and labels we sort ourselves into, I am nominating my mother for encouraging me and my siblings to be fearless in our uniqueness.
The University has put together an extensive series of talks, events, resources and initiatives around Black History Month.