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Memorialising the lives and experiences of Black women at Oxbridge

GCPH11-4a-36-43FirstYear1903 caption
Amy Ida Louisa King's matriculation photo (archive ref: GCPH 11/4a/36/43): the first Black woman to study at Cambridge


Dami Folayan (2020, PhD in Education) shares a glimpse of her justice-centred project which celebrates and memorialises the experiences of Black women at Oxford and Cambridge.

What would we give to be free again? 
To live in these spaces unbound by the clasps of our skin. 
To love and to laugh as though our melanin were the very thing that brought us freedom, 
The thing that taught us to be true and remain within the unbounded nature of Spirit. 
What would we give to be free again? 
Or should we ask, What have we given? 

Poem by Dami Folayan

Dami Folayan - profileMy PhD research project explores the experiences of Black British women in the elite Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) of Oxford and Cambridge. My question is premised on the understanding that coloniality outlasts periods of colonial governance and transcends colonial localities through its pervasive logic. I explore how the histories of Oxbridge are intrinsically linked with colonialism and detail the manifestations of coloniality, like racism, in the present day. 

My research question was greatly influenced by the book Taking Up Space: A Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi, 2019). The book notes that “we should never, as black girls, feel limited by the lack of black academics we are likely to encounter at university” (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi, 2019). Yet, so often, Black-British women are restrained from pursuing studies and research due to fears of not seeing enough faces that look like us. Rarely have the experiences of Black British women at Oxbridge been captured in their own words. My research documents how Black British women navigate Oxbridge and acts as a point of reference for those who would like to understand our experiences. Given the importance of documenting the lives and experiences of Black women in their own words, my research hopes to feed into the development of a Black Women’s Archive at Girton College which will showcase the history of Black women in higher education across the UK. 

My project was inspired by the 2019 publication of Taking Up Space, which occurred at a time when new and significant attention was given to the experiences of Black women at elite universities. This new wave of attention is evidenced through the publication of Lola Ogunfemi’s (2019) A FLY Girl's Guide To University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Elitism and Power and Afua Hirsch’s (2018) Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, which both explore the experiences of Black and mixed heritage women at Oxbridge. As well as being marked by book publications, this new wave was memorialised by media attention. Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, the BBC produced the feature documentary Being Black at Cambridge University (BBC, 2020), and the Guardian produced Young, British and Somali at Cambridge University (The Guardian, 2020). 

My research employs Critical Poetic Inquiry and draws on Black women’s literary trends of breaking from traditional form and prose through storying and poetry writing. Critical Poetic Inquiry is distinct from other forms of qualitative inquiry in that it prioritises justice. Drawing on Black Feminist and Womanist traditions, in a fashion exemplified by Kafayat Okanlawon in her 2019 book This Is Us: Black British Women and Girls, my research and writing becomes “a lament, a war cry, a chant and a belly laugh” they are “a joyful, painful rupture, a disruption, a deliberate transgression, a riff, and a drum beat… a prayer for all we have lost and for all that we can be” (page 6).

Ultimately, my PhD research is a justice-centred project aimed at celebrating and memoralising the lives and experiences of Black women at Oxbridge. 

You can read more about Dami and her work, or listen to some of her poetry by visiting: