A celebration of history: The ACS exhibition

With nearly 30% of all Oxford students identifying as BME (Black and Ethnic Minority), some of the University’s most vibrant societies are equally the most diverse. One of which, incidentally celebrating its 20th-year anniversary is the Oxford African and Caribbean Society (ACS), which held its annual Black History Month (BHM) Showcase on the Saturday, 28 October. In celebrating its birthday, ACS also held an exhibition in recognition of Black History Month which included guest speakers, a talent show, and an African and Caribbean-inspired dinner. Despite not being part of the society, Ashley and I felt very welcome, perhaps due to the fact that just a week or so ago, we had interviewed two officers of ACS on The Oxford Student’s podcast.

While Society membership is reserved for those of African and Caribbean heritage to retain the community feel that prompted its very finding. Non-members can still attend certain events. Fortunately, the BHM celebration and dinner encouraged all-round participation, and its vibrancy certainly shone a warm light on the now rapidly cooling autumnal weather.

The event began by welcoming Peter Obi for a panel on black politics in the diaspora and beyond. Obi is a Nigerian politician who became the Labour Party candidate for President of Nigeria in the 2023 presidential election, after changing from the Peoples Democratic Party. He spoke of channelling resources in effective ways and governing to help people out of poverty. Education, for instance, needs to be invested in because the more educated the country is, the more developed it is. Investments can pull Nigeria out of where it is now.

After you have shouted enough to be heard, speak for those who are still whispering. One foot in the institution, one foot on the ground.

The second panel – “For the culture” – was, in our opinion, the most enjoyable. Four speakers discussed Black culture, contemporary issues and advice for the future. One panellist, writer Athian Akec, spoke, in passing, of “having one foot in the institution and one foot on the ground”. A simple sentiment on remembering where you are from, but not to the detriment of your growth. Indeed now, almost two weeks later, his simple words still ring loudly in my ear. Another panellist was Abi Daré, the author of The Girl with the Louding Voice, explaining her deliberate use of broken English in her novel as being authentic to herself, for that was the culture that she grew up in. “Be authentic to who you are and when you speak loudly, they will listen,” Dare advised. After you have shouted enough to be heard, speak for those who are still whispering. One foot in the institution, one foot on the ground.

Oxford alumna Naomi Kellman then spoke about the society’s history. Having graduated in 2011, Kellman has since co-founded Target Oxbridge: a free programme designed to help students of African and Caribbean heritage access Oxford and Cambridge. In the institution, on the ground. Whilst at Oxford herself, Kellman was ACS’s vice President and Secretary. She took two positions because the society did not have enough people to fill the amount of positions a society technically required. Now, less than 20 years later, the current Society has its largest committee ever, and with more than four thousand followers on Instagram, ACS has long proven itself as one of Oxford’s most diverse, active, and passionate communities. Indeed, from Kellman’s days of little social media and a burgeoning society still seeking membership, ACS has transformed massively. To her, the generations of ACS committees have all built upon each other, “we did what we could in the moment, but you guys have built ACS from there.”

The presentations were followed by an ethereal piano solo and an acoustic rendition of Khalid’s “Location”. This was their talent show, of which the fashion show followed. Students walked down the auditorium modelling their traditional clothing – a diverse range of family-made garments, Somalian diracs, and even a dress from Amazon – a true testament to cultural diversity.

Of course, any society event’s dinner is always something to look forward to. Pembroke isn’t known for good food, so we walked in with little expectations. And to our great surprise and contentment, the food was phenomenal. One member of staff placed a Jamaican pumpkin soup in front of us and, before we could begin, another swept it away. It wasn’t vegan. While others had started digging in, we sat waiting for the vegan option, and when it did come, it was very much enjoyable. Perhaps a tactic from Pembroke: make you believe you are not eating and you long for their food more? Even better tactic: flavour.

Soon, with the final bites of the Jamaican ginger cake being readily consumed, the event came to a wrap. Admittedly, it probably is quite strange to see two people distinctly not part of the African and Caribbean community writing on their experience in such an event. Looking back, we probably stepped into the event with a binary in our head: that it was either an event for us or it wasn’t, but perhaps we should have approached it differently.

Perhaps our unconventional not fitting in was the beauty of it: in the age of globalisation, we’re all encouraged and welcome to celebrate each other’s culture, but, as Athian Akec says, we must remember where our feet are.

Image credit: S Pakhrin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Image description: A performance in celebration of Black History Month