The buzz in Redhills on the evening of December 9th made it clear how pleased the audience felt that David Olusoga’s lecture had been successfully rescheduled, after being postponed from its original date during Black History Month. However, as Olusoga rightly pointed out, perhaps its new date was even more poignant; taking place days before the UK’s general election, his speech stressed the necessity of looking to our past in order to inform the present and future.
The event itself was an exciting collaboration, marking the first time Ustinov College has co-hosted with the Durham Miners’ Association. Katie Stobbs, who is Assistant Principal of Ustinov College, introduced the evening by briefly reflecting on the college’s motto ‘Strength in Diversity’, and how diversity plays a particularly significant role in Ustinov’s entirely postgraduate community, with its high proportion of international students. Ross Forbes then spoke on behalf of the Miners’ Association, giving the audience an insight into the history of the Miners Hall, and revealing that it was Olusoga himself who chose the building to be added to Historic England’s list of Top 100 ‘Irreplaceable’ Places.
Finally, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge took the opportunity to note Durham University’s less ethnically diverse student and staff population when compared with other universities in the country, emphasising the current efforts the university is making to address its colonial history and decolonise the curriculum. But while all three speakers were well-received, it was clear that David Olusoga was the man of the evening, stepping onto the stage to a huge and enthusiastic round of applause.
Olusoga began with his own history, describing himself as ‘as much White working class as Black British’, born in Nigeria but brought up in nearby Gateshead before leaving the North East to forge a career as a broadcaster and filmmaker, He then moved onto the main topic of the evening – the Windrush scandal – which he went on to perceptively unpack, describing its history as ‘full of echoes, patterns, and reverberations’. It was possible to see Olusoga’s background in film and TV combine with his experience lecturing at Manchester University as he moved between historical recount and his own witty interjections, seamlessly transporting the audience from wry laughter to shock and indignation as he brought to life the realities of the Windrush victims.
Olusoga took time to highlight the extreme ironies demonstrated by the British government from 1948 onwards, taking his listeners through the British Nationality Act, which allowed and even encouraged inhabitants of British Colonies to the UK in order to rectify the labour shortage which followed the Second World War, emphasising that ‘Britain had no business being anything other than grateful for the arrival of these people’, and not shying away from his conclusion: ‘What made it a problem was one thing – race’. Continually moving between past and present, he clearly outlined the view shared by so many that both the scandal, and the wider struggle that it represents, are ongoing.
The concluding question and answer session was possibly my favourite part of an all-round enlightening evening, with many members of the audience bringing Olusoga’s lecture into the context of the current political situation to further explore his standpoint. He certainly made his political leanings very clear; when jokingly asked by one audience member what he would do if Boris Johnson offered him a job under the new government, Olusoga solemnly replied: ‘I would refuse to serve under him’, to raucous applause and cheers. And while his political views may be up for debate, it was certain that Olusoga’s words stemmed from a great sense of injustice in the world and a determination to correct this, which he no doubt passed onto his audience in the historical Miners Hall that evening.