THE UNIVERSITY experience for a black student is incomparable to that of a white one’s.
This harsh reality is one that falls close to home for Melz Owusu, a University of Leeds alumni soon-to-be University of Cambridge PhD student.
“Universities are layered with racism and colonialism; it exists in the curriculum,” the 25-year-old told The Voice.
“Learning from that knowledge system, one that is based on subjugation, has an unspoken effect on mental health.”
Added to this, the lack of diversity in staff and on campus leads many black students to feel like “outsiders occupying colonial space”, Owusu said.
They are the founder of the Free Black University, a new initiative that aims to decolonise higher education with a curriculum centred around black students and history.
Through online lectures and spaces, it will offer a creative hub for radical, transformative knowledge among black people.
“A few people believe anything that says the word ‘black’ is taking away their freedom”
Despite the initiative going public at the beginning of this year, the concept of the Free Black University is not a recent one.
Owusu has been shaping the idea over the past five years, whilst tirelessly campaigning against racism in higher education and pushing a decolonial agenda.
However it got to a point where they realised how little change was being implemented within institutions, and further action was needed.
Owusu said: “Institutions are inherently colonial, and the capacity in which they have for change is extremely limited.
“We wanted to bring back the idea of the transformational power of education, and how much it can transform the people and the world.”
And so Owusu gathered a group of people passionate about the cause, consisting of around seven people ranging from student activists, LGBT campaigners and education figures, all black individuals.
Together they launched a GoFundMe page which, at the time of writing, has raised over £100,000.
Holding onto inequalities
The Free Black University has been met with enthusiasm, for the most part.
Universities are keen to help make the vision a reality, and Owusu has been engaged in talks with a university director who is interested in supporting the project financially.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=TheVoiceNews&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1268914519360835584&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.voice-online.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fuk-news%2F2020%2F07%2F24%2Fthe-free-black-university-is-here-to-change-higher-education-as-we-know-it%2F&siteScreenName=TheVoiceNews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=219d021%3A1598982042171&width=500px
The only real challenge faced was from a handful of internet trolls who insisted on tweeting disparaging messages on social media.
“A few people believe anything that says the word ‘black’ is taking away their freedom,” Owusu said.
“It shows the inconsistency in the nation, and shows we can exist in a system where whiteness can be at the centre of everything, and as soon as you say ‘we’re going to de-centre whiteness’ it immediately becomes a problem.
“People want to hold on to inequalities in the system.”
Radical black imagination
Black history has been erased from the curriculum, one that centres around colonialism.
Colonisation is washed over, and when it is addressed, it is often celebrated.
“I don’t think we know what a society that is free of racism and injustices looks like”
“Someone called it ‘collective amnesia’,” Owusu said.
“It’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that exists in the UK, people are so afraid of challenging it.”
The Free Black University will welcome conversations on colonialism, and offer a space in which people can challenge it.
Many may feel powerless to confront the past, believing they are invisible cogs within a racially discriminative system.
“That’s why we need projects like this, allowing people to have these conversations and let them know they are not alone.”
The curriculum for the Free Black University is still being developed but rather than taking a disciplinary route it will be based around imagination.
The team is determined to avoid tedious lectures, and instead invite people to come together, and push the boundaries of their thoughts.
Owusu said: “The teachings could be anything – from philosophy to history to individuality – but the ethic of transforming society with radical black imagination essentially at heart.”
There will also be a healing aspect to the curriculum, with programmes that envelope ‘Western’ approaches to mental health with culturally specific ones.
Everything will be done with an LGBT frame in mind, Owusu added: “Sometimes when we talk about black liberation, different genders and sexual orientation are removed from conversation. That further entrenches pain.”
Society free of racism
The pain of the black community is one that is being heard loud and clear through ongoing protests across the world.
While Owusu believes the Black Lives Matter movement is an incredibly powerful concept and call to action, more needs to be done to tackle the issue of systemic racism.
Owusu said: “Whilst it’s really important to look at statues and street names, it’s more than aesthetic things that need to change; it’s attitudes, laws and the whole system.
“England needs to take a long, hard look at itself. It is incredibly culpable of crimes against black people throughout history and today. It has been a long-held struggle.
“I don’t think we know what a society that is free of racism and injustices looks like.”