Sociology student’s essay wins the Bridgetower Prize

Maya McFarlane

Maya McFarlane

Maya McFarlane

There is a room at Trinity Hall which is like many other rooms at Colleges across Cambridge. It is oak panelled, and has a view looking out over a manicured courtyard. It’s named after George Bridgetower and there is a portrait of the musical prodigy on the wall. There aren’t many portraits of Black people on the walls of Cambridge Colleges. What is more remarkable is that this one dates from the early 19th century.

George Bridgetower was a violinist and composer who befriended Ludwig van Beethoven and came to England to continue his musical education and development. He studied at Trinity Hall and was awarded a music degree from Cambridge in 1811.

Portrait of George Bridgetower

Portrait of George Bridgetower

Portrait of George Bridgetower

This year his name has also been given to an essay writing competition at the University. The competition was established by the Alexander Crummell Fund. Crummell is the first recorded Black graduate of the University having studied here between 1849 and 1853. But really Bridgetower got there first…though he wasn’t here for as long.

Students were invited to address the following subject: “Cambridge prides itself on being a “globally diverse institution” at the forefront of social and political progress. Since Crummell’s graduation, to what extent has the University of Cambridge changed as a space for Black students, and as an institution responsible for transformation?”

Rumbidzai Dube in the gardens at Lucy Cavendish College

Rumbidzai Dube in the gardens at Lucy Cavendish College

Rumbidzai Dube in the gardens at Lucy Cavendish College

Nine essays were submitted. Rumbidzai Dube, who is President of the Black Cantabs Society, was a member of the judging panel. The Society works to catalogue the history of Black graduates from Cambridge and ensure their legacies aren’t forgotten.

“The essays were brilliant! They were bold in their depiction of people’s lived experiences and yet engaging in drawing connections between real life and theory. There was a common understanding among the essayists that, despite the increasing numbers in Black students, Cambridge as a space has not fully transformed in ways that address the quality of the experiences of Black Students here. Although the public expressions of racism of Alexander Crummell’s days are fewer, the ways of marginalising Black students are now embedded in institutional structures, and all the more difficult to dismantle.”

She said the efforts to diversify were long overdue and work still needed to be done to enhance the qualitative experiences of these students.

Maya McFarlane's words of encouragement to other students

Maya McFarlane's words of encouragement to other students

The essay that was selected as the winning entry was written by 20 year old Maya McFarlane, a 3rd year undergraduate from Pembroke College reading HSPS (Human, Social and Political Sciences). Her essay combines a personal account of her own experiences at Cambridge with an academic analysis of social trends. She writes about the sense of alienation some Black students feel because they’re continually reminded of their ‘otherness’. She makes the point that, while Cambridge has certainly changed, in that there are now more Black students than ever before taking up space here, their ability to unapologetically take up that space is yet to materialise.

“It could be a 90% Black student population for all I care but if those Black students don’t feel like they can be themselves and are having to re-package their Blackness in a way that is palatable to the institution then no change has really been achieved at all. And it’s a tough pill to swallow. I think we all want to say that we’ve made loads of progress, and we have, but it’s so important to keep looking forward to what we can do now.”

Person smiling
People chatting
 Maya McFarlane shaking hands with Rumbidzai Dube, others looking on
Rumbidzai Dube
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

From l to r: Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

From l to r: Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

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Person smiling
People chatting
 Maya McFarlane shaking hands with Rumbidzai Dube, others looking on
Rumbidzai Dube
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

From l to r: Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

From l to r: Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kamal Munir, Rumbidzai Dube, Maya McFarlane, Tara Choudhury, SU BME Officer and Dr Ali Meghji, one of the University's Race and Inclusion Champions

Another one of the judges for the competition was Professor Adam Branch, Director of the Centre for African Studies. He is also a Fellow at Trinity Hall:

“This essay competition is part of a process to better understand the concerns of Black students at Cambridge and to ensure that the University is actively addressing both the overt and the more hidden forms of inequality and injustice they face. It’s also an important opportunity to recognize those students who are at the forefront of articulating and analysing these challenges and of illuminating the paths to move beyond them.”

The University of Cambridge has welcomed increasing numbers of Black students over the past 3 years and recognises that this numerical increase should be matched with qualitative improvements in their lived experiences. In its current Access and Participation Plan it establishes a target of closing any attainment gaps between Black and White students. It has also established a Black Advisory Hub with the aim of improving Black students’ outcomes. Organisational change doesn’t come easy, but an important starting point is to listen.

As Maya remarks, in her winning essay: “To transform is to learn, and to learn is to recognise our imperfections, even if it hurts our pride and self-image as champions of change to do so.”

The three runners up in the competition were; Tyra Amofah-Akardom, Jordan Andrew and Grace Desouza.