Talking about diversity is ‘scary’ – that was the message from Sir Lenny Henry when he shared his view on equality and inclusion as part of Black History Month at the University of Hull.
Black History Month is celebrated in October every year. It focuses on the history and heritage of Asian, African and African Caribbean peoples.
As Sir Lenny addressed an audience of nearly 400 students, staff, school pupils and members of the community at Middleton Hall, he called for more discussion about under-representation of minorities in film and TV, more outreach in schools to promote aspirational careers, and more commitment from society as a whole to challenge discrimination.
“If you see injustice – call it out,” he said. “Take a leaf out of Greta’s (Thunberg’s) book.”
Sir Lenny, who has built a high-profile career as a stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer and television presenter and is known for co-founding the charity Comic Relief, said that this was the first time he was delivering this speech as he rallied the audience to take a stand:
“Every time I speak, I do want to instigate change.
“We must all take a stand if we want a more diverse society. We are all activists now and together we can make a better world.”
While he admitted that: “talking about diversity is scary”’ he encouraged everyone to take action and go beyond simply supporting and sharing content on social media.
Asking the audience for a round of applause for BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty whose recent comments and treatment by the BBC hit the headlines, Sir Lenny then went on to describe lowpoints in his life when he was ‘racially abused’ and the ways he learnt to counter racism.
After paying tribute to his mum, who encouraged him to ‘h-integrate’, he shared stories of how he overcame bullying at school through humour and developed the skills as an impressionist and comic which inspired his career in television.
The event, which was co-presented by local BBC reporter/presenter Kofi Smiles and first-year University of Hull English and Drama student Amy Ashwell, also featured an informal discussion and questions from the audience. After the event, other students were given the opportunity to meet Sir Lenny and ask questions of their own.
Amy said: "I thoroughly enjoyed working with both Sir Lenny Henry and Kofi Smiles to present Lenny Henry in Conversation. By discussing the topics of diversity and equality – as well as what we can do to further inclusion – I feel we effectively contributed to Black History Month.”
PhD student Phininder Balaghan said: “It was an inspirational speech from Sir Lenny Henry. We need to stand up when we see injustice, wherever we are – in the same way that Lenny Henry is doing now. Hearing about his personal experiences in countering racism is sadly relevant today. I am really lucky to have heard his speech and it will stick with me for a long time."
Here at the University, Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to promote knowledge of black history, culture and heritage, and to disseminate information on positive black contributions to British society. It celebrates this contribution through a series of events taking place throughout the month which help us to think and value the role that Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) people have played in shaping Britain’s history.
The University of Hull recognises this contribution across all aspects of modern Britain such as academia, medicine, science, sport, art, film, politics and services.
You can find the video of our Sir Lenny Henry in Conversation event on You Tube and details of further Black History Month events on Culturenet.
Sir Lenny Henry shares some of his other stories from his early life in his new autobiography “Who Am I, Again?” published by Faber & Faber.