Skip to main content

Corpus hosts successful Black Men on the Couch Event

Last night Corpus hosted a unique event in the McCrum Theatre.

Black Men on the Couch was jointly organised by the University Counselling Service and Corpus Christi College. During the evening, Counsellor Rotimi Akinsete interviewed three Black men associated with the University of Cambridge: Lord Simon Woolley, Master of Homerton College; George the Poet, spoken-word poet, podcaster and King's College alumnus; and Jason Arday, Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education. The discussion ranged from family influences, professional and academic experiences, and the challenges and successes they have faced in their lives. The event lasted for three hours and, unusually, the audience was more full at the end of the evening than the beginning - a testament to the quality of the conversation and the shared insights of the panelists.

After an introduction by Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Bhaskar Vira, Senior Tutor Dr Marina Frasca-Spada welcomed the audience to Corpus, describing the College's passionate commitment to education since its founding and as as place that is "fully devoted to offering educational opportunities to people from different backgrounds." Angela Ike from the University Counselling Service  then spoke of the importance of conversation about mental health for all, regardless of social group, but "for Black men in particularly the messages they receive about vulnerability, strength and shame makes this conversation especially pertinent."

Black men on the couch

All three of the panellists grew up on council estates and have gone on to become successful in different endeavours. Lord Woolley spoke with Rotimi about his background as a foster child and then as an adoptee growing up in a white family, how he responded to incidents of racism he experienced, and how he is committed to using his position as the first Black Head of House at Cambridge to bring along the next generation of Black thinkers. In the Q&A that followed the interviews he was asked whether he framed anger and trauma as a potential driver of his work as an activist. He responded, "It's okay to be angry, to be frustrated, but how you channel that is a gift, and sometimes you see the fruits of your labour. Tonight, I am seeing the fruits."

Reflecting on his time at Cambridge, George the Poet described how he made efforts to confound expectations of him as the only Black person in his college. Encouraged to perform as a rapper, he made the decision to tone down his delivery from harder, percussive rap to a more acoustic, stripped-back sound in order not to alienate his audience. "That was my new conception of how I was going to present myself and became the foundation of everything that I have done since." Regarding the pressure that Black men often feel to improve their communities, he said "There need to be waves of consciousness through generations that shift society and rectify injustice. There needs to be group reflection and group transformation. In advocating for that, I have to demonstrate what I am talking about, my responsibility to my community, my responsibility to demonstrate to a younger audience how to navigate some of the cultural and intellectual minefields that I faced to get here, and faced when I was here."

The final conversation between Rotimi and Jason Arday began with Jason drawing a card with the word 'nature' on it. Jason did not speak until he was 11 years old and he said that the word nature called to mind how living in the absence of speech made him an observer of people and "how beautiful and wonderful the world is when you're silent." Jason spoke of faith and hope, and how having a feminist, Ghanaian mother contributed to his view of the world and sense of himself. "I don't believe in imposter syndrome because I walk in faith, and my faith teaches me that God places people where they are supposed to be." Having this faith has helped him deal with the scrutiny and the pressure of being the youngest professor at Cambridge.

The men described their shared and differing experiences, expertly guided by Rotimi whose skilful questioning allowed each one to speak freely, yet carefully drew out the men's emotional responses and different ways of coping with challenges they faced.

The full event can be viewed on YouTube. Photos of the event are on our Flickr account.

Photos by Natalie Glasberg. Many thanks to Paul Seagrove.