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Speaker Spotlight: Nafisa Waziri

The Black Cantabs is a historical and research focused society that aims to uncover Cambridge University's lost and forgotten black students by highlighting and sharing their past and present stories, experiences and achievements. From 16-23 October as part of the Festival of Ideas, it is holding an exhibition at St John’s Chapel which highlights the records of distinguished black alumni, many of whom went on to play prominent roles in the sciences, law and politics all over the world and most commonly in Africa, the United States and the West Indies. Nafisa Waziri is President of The Black Cantabs Research Society talks about how the society was founded and what it aims to do.


What inspired the creation of Black Cantabs?

Nafisa Waziri: The Black Cantabs Research Society was created in 2015 and was a culmination of several projects and movements. At its core, it serves as a platform to formally record the achievements of Black Cantab alumni and make this information publicly available to many interested students. Over the years, many students had been interested in finding out about the early Black scholars at their colleges and what they went on to do after leaving the university. These stories are very little known within the university. A major spark that led to founding of the Society was the election of the first black female student to the University’s governing body CUSU in March 2015. Students began to wonder ‘what other black students have studied here?’, ‘who was the first black student in the university?’ and ‘what impact have they had on our societies?’. By August that year, The Black Cantabs Research Society was formally set up to answer these questions. The Black Cantabs Research Society aims to uncover the legacies of Black alumni of the University of Cambridge for two main reasons: first, to contribute to the historical record; and second, to demonstrate to current and prospective Black Cantabs that they share this long and diverse pedigree.


What are its aims?

NW: The Society aims to document the rich and diverse histories of the early (and more contemporary) black students at the University. It involves building an open database of Black Cantab alumni. As our records grow we hope to share these stories through organised exhibitions, run features with the help of our colleges and publish these findings. The Society also aims to shed a light on the lesser-known but equally important accounts of Black Cantabs and the significant contributions they have made. By making these stories more visible, we hope to show exemplary black scholars current students can be proud of and aspire to emulate.


How important are the stories of Black Cantabs and their visibility to Cambridge University's history?

NW: These stories are important because they provide a fuller account of the university’s history of scholarship and achievement. Recognising Cambridge’s Black history can have a profound subliminal effect, encouraging current and prospective students to believe that there is a place for them in these halls. Many Cantabs want to show that their college is a diverse and welcoming community. Sharing these stories is a way of creating a more inclusive and representative space for students of colour.


How have you managed to unearth their stories?

NW: The college archives have been a central resource in uncovering these stories. Matriculation photographs, notes from the senior tutors’ books and clubs/society minutes provide details of the experiences of these students. In some cases, students and senior tutors have kept up a correspondence after leaving Cambridge. These documents offer us some interesting insights into their time here and help us share their stories in more detail.


Have you had support from academics within the university?

NW: We have received a lot of support for this project. The archivists, as well as many senior members of colleges, have shared information and continue to offer suggestions as they come across our work. Students have also expressed interest and we encourage them to actively engage in a number of ways. Both the academic staff and students can add names to our online database, delve into the archives to do research, and write features and articles of interesting Black Cantabs which we can publish on the website.


What is the earlier record you have uncovered so far?

NW: So far, the earliest recorded Black Cantab is the Reverend Edward Cragg Haynes from Barbados. He studied Divinity at Trinity College and matriculated in 1844. There are some mentions of Black students that came to Cambridge in the early 1700s for short courses of study (these are referenced in old newspaper articles and various African student associations’ reports). However, we have not been able to confirm this as their names do not appear in the existing university records.


What was the aim behind the recent Black Cantabs Speakers series?

NW: The Speaker Series aims to critically engage with the works and contributions of Black Cantabs. Beyond recognising the names and faces of historical Black Cantabs, it seeks to encourage discussion about the research the Black Cantabs have carried out and the impact of their work in Cambridge and beyond. On another level, the Speaker Series is a forum for the more social side of the Society. By inviting contemporary Black Cantabs to explore the work of their historical predecessors, they become connected to a stronger network and community.


How have you raised the profile of what you are doing?

NW: During term time, the Society organises exhibitions in the colleges to create features and storyboards of remarkable black Cantabs that have studied in their halls. In addition, we partner with other student societies such as the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU) and the Cambridge University African Caribbean Society (CUACS) during various events to share these stories with students.


What has the response been so far?

NW: The responses have been very inspiring. Many students and staff have expressed interest and shared names and stories they have come across. The colleges in particular have offered support, opening up their archives and providing spaces for the society to run exhibitions and share its findings.


What plans do you have for the future?

NW: Our main priority is to build up the database and engage students to participate in telling these stories. We want the information we are collating (and the stories behind the data) to be readily accessible to everyone. To paraphrase a quote from our colleagues at Oxford: “Black people have made a great contribution to the prestige of Cambridge, and the prestige of Cambridge has been the platform for many great Black people.”