Black History Month: a collaborative perspective

We asked members of the profession to tell us what Black History Month means to them and what it represents.

Barbara Mensah

They also shared with us who inspires them. It’s important that we, as a profession, continue to highlight those that are role models to prospective solicitors and colleagues alike.

One of the many purposes of this month is to celebrate individuals, achievements and diversity in equal measure.

Barbara Mensah 

Barbara Mensah is a British judge of Ghanaian descent. She became the first circuit judge of African origin in England and Wales when she was appointed to the South Eastern Circuit in 2005. As of October 2016 she sits in the Crown Court at Luton, England.

What does BHM mean to you?

Black History Month for me is an opportunity to remember, to celebrate and a time to reflect on the achievements of black (of all ethnic minorities) people through history.

Ethnic minority men were joining the Inns of Court and being called to the Bar as long ago as the mid-1800s. Ganendar Mohan Tagore, an Indian, joined Lincoln’s Inn in 1859, he was subsequently called to the Bar in June 1862. Thomas Chester, a black American, who was admitted to Middle Temple in 1867 was called in 1870.

Whilst I stop to celebrate their achievements, I also stop to wonder how much more we have, could or should have achieved in the 150 years or so since.

Sadly, many of these early achievers do not even pass through history books with an acknowledgement. There are other black achievers in other professions who are almost forgotten – black sportsmen and women, black people in the medical profession, black classical musicians as a recent television programme by Lenny Henry and Suzy KIein showed.

Recently, a new journalism award was created, named after the UK’s first black TV reporter. How many people in the country remember Barbara Blake Hannah who was the first black reporter on our screens in 1968 but whose career was cut short by racist complaints from viewers which had swayed her TV bosses?

She went on to achieve more as an author and film maker in Jamaica.

BHM is for me also a time of reflection, looking at the most recent government diversity figures in the legal profession, it is a matter of some disappointment that we do not have more ethnic minorities reflected in senior judicial posts.

Without more visible black faces there is less for individuals to strive for in the sense of fewer role models in your own image to look up to, there is a (mis)perception that justice is administered by those who, to take a phrase from the American poet and academic Claudia Rankin, enjoy “white living”.

It is in part that lack of visible diversity that enabled individuals (apparently three in one day) to ask barrister Alexandra Wilson earlier this month if she was a defendant and to tell her to leave a court room until her case was called on.

BHM is a chance to reflect that the pace of change has been too slow and to consider ways in which we can hasten it.

Who inspires you within the profession?

The pool of ethnically diverse judges is too small for me to single out an individual – all those who have made it to the levels of the High Court and Court of Appeal are inspirational.

All those who work tirelessly to increase the diversity within the profession are inspirational. But most of all I am inspired by the many black and ethnic minority men and women, boys and girls who chose to make a career at the bar and who persevere with that dream.

As I have said before, this is a wonderful profession – let us inspire it with more colour.

Karl Brown

Karl BrownKarl Brown is a commercial property partner in the Bristol office of national law firm Clarke Willmott LLP.

Karl is also a Social Mobility Ambassador for the Law Society, founded the Bristol Property Inclusion Charter (to promote diversity and inclusion in the Bristol Property sector) in November 2019 and is chair of the Bristol Property Inclusion Commission.

What does BHM mean to you?

As I write this article, I think I should make a confession. As much as I love law and have wanted to be a lawyer since I was at secondary school there is a subject which I loved before law and still love to this day.

This subject was actually one of the things which first got me interested in becoming a lawyer. The subject is history which is why I am thrilled to write about what Black History Month (BHM) means to me and why I think it is important.

My background is that both my parents were immigrants from Jamaica in the 1960s. My parents came from modest beginnings in life but their hard work (my dad was a plasterer and my mum was a nurse) not only gave me and my sister a good start in life but also instilled in us a strong work ethic.

Another thing instilled in me and my sister was a strong pride in our background and history and the importance of knowing where you have come from in order to know who you are and what path you want to take in life.

BHM to me is important not only to ensure young black people know their true background but it is important for the whole population to know a full and accurate picture of history. For example, knowing that it was having a diverse population and immigrants such as the Windrush generation which helped build the UK to the country it is today. Such immigrants in particular have played a key role in national institutions and treasures such as the NHS.

BHM is a reminder that the true and diverse nature of history should be taught to young people throughout the year. It is only by knowing the true and accurate context for the present that we will be able to all come together in union and resolve the problems and issues in the present world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Who inspires you within the profession?

History has also played an important part for me in providing role models and heroes and I think this is another great purpose for BHM. It was reading for example about Thurgood Marshall (the first black US Supreme Court Justice) and his work in the civil rights movement that enthused my interest in law.

Another famous example of course is Nelson Mandela who before being imprisoned had set up the first black run law firm in South Africa.

I do of course also look to modern day positive examples from law such as Sandra Wallace who as well as being a leader in her specialist area of law, is also part of the top management of her law firm and is interim chair of the government Social Mobility Commission.

Olu Dansu

Olu Dansu, DAC Beachcroft LLPOlu Dansu is a partner in the global insurance team at DAC Beachcroft LLP.

He is British Nigerian, and heads ACCESS, DAC Beachcroft’s staff network for supporting and promoting the racial diversity of its employees.

What does BHM mean to you?

There is hardly a time when society has a conversation about the ‘black experience’ without the conversation being generated by a negative incident – be it an unarmed black person being killed by law enforcement, a black person being stopped and searched for no apparent reason other than his/her skin complexion, a black footballer having to endure racist insults, or the lamentable lack of black representation in the higher echelons of government and professional life.

It is an unfortunate fact that the discourse is always preceded by negative experience.

BHM, however, is the only time in the year when black issues take centre stage in mainstream society without such negative precursors, and attention is focused on the unique challenges facing black people (as opposed to ethnic minorities generally).

I therefore see BHM as an opportunity for black people to seize the initiative and shape the topics of conversation, from educating people (including the younger black generation) about sensitive issues such as colonialism and slavery and its enduring impact on present day race relations, to highlighting and promoting black role models whose sacrifices have made positive impact on society as a whole.

In short, BHM to me means celebrating all things blackness – warts and all! DAC Beachcroft’s ACCESS group is planning to do just that during October.

We are planning a series of initiatives throughout BHM to educate and inform our colleagues and encourage them to celebrate along with us, and it has really been interesting to hear our colleagues’ views on their black role models or black-inspired books/movies that had an impact on them.

Who inspires you within the profession?

There are quite a few black people in the profession who I respect and admire, but if I had to mention one it would be Sandie Okoro, general counsel and senior vice president at the World Bank.

She is the first black woman to hold the World Bank position and has previously held senior positions at various financial organisations in the UK.

For a black woman to have risen through the ranks in such a white and male dominated industry, despite her colour and gender, is truly impressive and should be an inspiration to young black people (both male and female) that aspire for a career in the professional sector.