For Black History Month, we heard from Shanequa Andell-Gibbons, Consultant in our Accounting & Finance team, about her Caribbean background and what Black History Month means to her.
What has been your experience as a black woman growing up in the UK?
I grew up in a rather large family in London. My mum was born in the UK and my dad was born in Grenada, but most of my wider family are from Jamaica. Growing up, I was so grateful to my family because my siblings and I were immersed in the music, food and clothing of our Caribbean heritage. We listened to Reggae, R&B, Dancehall, Soul, and of course Bob Marley. When I hear that genre of music now, it makes me feel so at home. Mum and Granny used to cook traditional food most nights. Our food would incorporate a lot of spices and herbs from back home, as you 100% can’t get that taste anywhere else! My favourite dish was Barbecue Jerk Chicken, although Curry Goat wasn’t too far behind. Each year we would habitually attended the Notting Hill carnival, and we wore vibrant, colourful traditional Caribbean clothing in the parade. I grew up understanding my heritage as a black woman, but not in the way I understand and appreciate my Jamaican and Grenadian heritage now.
During my younger years, I didn’t have the same grasp of the realities of the world such as racism, prejudice, bias or discrimination; as I grew older, I understood – and unfortunately experienced – a lot more. I remember a particular feeling of doubt associated with starting a new school or a new job. I’d wonder if I’d be the only ethnic minority or black person, or whether I’d fit in with other students because I was a different colour or gender. For the most part there was a mixture of cultures, ethnicities, genders and religions in both school and work, although I believe where you are in the UK can affect this; London is diverse in most aspects of identity.
Although I’ve been privileged not to have had many overt experiences of discrimination, I have definitely experienced covert acts. During a job interview, there were references to both my skin colour and my gender, which were later linked to the ‘capabilities’ of the job. I just couldn’t understand the relevance of either of those in relation to my ability. Unfortunately, young black woman are constantly faced with these obscene experiences and this has become increasingly apparent to me, though every black woman’s experience will differ.
Why is it important we celebrate Black History Month and black history more widely?
Understanding someone’s culture and heritage can be daunting or confusing, but it’s also exciting and refreshing, as well as educational. I recently caught up with a friend who wasn’t even aware it was Black History Month, we had an amazing chat about my heritage and culture, and I learnt a lot about theirs. It was such a simple but effective conversation and allowed for a new way of thinking.
I believe Black History Month shouldn’t be limited to once a year but something we celebrate in our everyday lives. History is foundational, it’s built the world we live in today and serves a great educational purpose. In educational systems we celebrate parts of history that tend to favour particular races, and institutes need to expand their understanding of history to incorporate more black figures and historical events. Sometimes, there is too narrow an idea of what’s important -- black people who protested and worked day and night to build the foundations of this country, as well as other countries, deserve to be known and have their stories represented too.
Who has been an inspiration for you?
Martin Luther King fought so hard and put his life on the line to bring people to an equal state in the world; it wasn’t to elevate a particular community or make the black community superior, it was simply to make things equal. He was also one of only a few people at the time who were fighting for equal rights for men and women; many supporters of his contemporaries weren’t as concerned about gender inequalities, but he wanted every black African American to have the same rights, which also included those experiencing socio-economic disparity. He influenced the change of policies and laws to support equality and I think he’ll be forever commended in the black community as someone who paved the way for so many of our rights.
Is there an unknown story that you think more people should know about?
I stayed behind class one time in secondary school and said to my favourite teacher, ‘We always learn about the same things, can you tell me a new story?’ My teacher, who was herself black, said, ‘I know of one guy who was very famous, but I bet you won’t know him.’ The man was called Frederick Douglass and he was enslaved at a young age in 1811. While he was in slavery, he taught himself to read and write and then taught the entire settlement. He went on to be the leader of an abolitionist movement which travelled the world and freed around sixteen thousand slaves, educating them and allowing them to get safely to New York and find work there.
How great must your heart be to make it your goal to help educate and free as many slaves as you can while you’ve been a slave yourself? This story always stuck with me, I found it so fascinating and heroic. He was a very famous abolition movement writer, so there is a lot of his work available to read.
Which part of history needs a different perspective?
You can’t change what’s happened, but you can change the narrative going forwards. We need to move away from a black-and-white understanding of black history, which views things in terms of hostility and ‘them and us’, for example, in the way that after the Black Lives Matter movement became more prominent, people started reacting against it with ‘All Lives Matter’. We need to become more empathetic regarding what others and their families have been through and have a more collaborative way of discussing how our history can inform our future.
If you could celebrate BHM with any 5 people dead or alive, who would you chose?
Martin Luther King – He was an impeccable man who has done many things for the black community and female community – I would love to shake his hand!
Nelson Mandela – I greatly respect the way he opposed violence and corruption throughout the protests. He was so pure in the way that he handled discrimination and never reciprocated the horrible treatment he received.
Beyonce – She’s such a powerful and influential black woman, fun and thriving! She’s paved the way for black singers, performers and artists. One of her albums was dedicated to her black culture and upbringing, and a lot of people – including me – can resonate and understand. I just love her music.
Frederick Douglass – Again, because he was an excellent person.
Rosa Parks – Mainly to give her a hug! She was treated so unfairly, but that woman knew how to fight for rights. She had such a determination and never stopped trying to get equal rights for black people and black woman. A lot of young women can look back at her as someone to idolise – she was brave, confident and powerful.