Black at Sussex

Learn more about our five year project, developed to enhance the recruitment, retention and experiences of Black students and staff.

University of Sussex students at a Black at Sussex event on campus.

Photo credit: Diensen Pamben

About Black at Sussex 

The Black at Sussex project launched in 2022. It aims to improve the experience of Black students and staff at Sussex, through ongoing research and initiatives. We want to celebrate Black alumni and build collaborative relationships with local and national Black-owned businesses.

The project kicked off in September 2022 with an event at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, involving members of the University of Sussex, Black Cultural Archives and notable figures from arts and culture. The Black Cultural Archives was founded by Sussex alumnus and curator of Black British history, the late Len Garrison: the event recognised and celebrated his life and work, and marked the beginning of the University’s collaboration with the UK’s home of Black British History.

Since the launch event, Black at Sussex has continued to grow, with more notable Black British figures contributing to the project. The project has hosted a series of events celebrating Black staff, students, and alumni in conjunction with a range of Black-owned businesses in Brighton.

Black at Sussex is driven by a steering group that includes researchers and race equity leads in academic schools, students and staff who work across the University of Sussex.

Showcasing the wonderful and varied legacies… enhances that sense of belonging, providing inspiring examples of what can be achieved by Black Sussex graduates.” Valerie Kporye
Literature and Philosophy alumna

Read more testimonials.

60 years of Sussex: Black at Sussex

  • Video transcript

    Claudia Hammond: We’re going to hear about a new programme at Sussex which celebrates the achievements of Black alumni from the University, and it’s called Black at Sussex. And we’re going to hear from Gavin Mensah-Coker and from Valerie Kporye, and I will introduce them.

    Gavin is a lecturer in English language and a Co-Deputy Race Equality Director in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities. And he was a history student in AFRAS, so we’ve been exchanging memories earlier. And he’s researching opportunities and barriers for Black and minority ethnic students with specific learning differences.

    And Valerie is a student at Sussex. She is about to go into the third year studying English literature and philosophy in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities again. And she’s undertaking something called the Junior Research Associate Scheme, where she’s unveiling the journeys of Black alumni at Sussex and mapping them with their social contexts, to better understand what it feels like to be a Black individual through time. And so both of them are going to tell us some more about that.

    Gavin Mensah-Coker: Thanks again. Thank you. Why study at Sussex? What is the pull and what is the draw? These are the questions that many of our students will have been asking themselves at some point, our incoming students this year. And it’s a question I asked myself about 30 years ago as I attempted for the second time to complete a bachelor’s degree.

    Two factors informed the young mixed-race gay man that I was. Brighton for its gay scene and Sussex for the School of African and Asian Studies, AFRAS as it is better known.

    Here, I was introduced to pre-colonial African history, to the confessional conflict in Lebanon, to the making of apartheid in South Africa, and to the mellifluous tones of Homie Baba, who opened my eyes to postcolonial literature and critical theory. And while I went to go on and finish my degree in Russian history, the books that I studied at the time, such as The Lonely Londoners, which is still pride of place in my house, changed my way of thinking about the world.

    I hope you’ll forgive that personal preamble to my introduction to what is a key programme here at at Sussex University, Black at Sussex. But that’s because AFRAS gave me a sense of belonging. And while I had some of that as a gay man in Brighton, being a Black gay man in Brighton was and is a very different thing in terms of inclusivity and connectedness. And it’s that slow dawning of disconnect that many of our Black students feel after some time at Sussex, that this project is in part designed to address.

    So, what is it like to be Black at Sussex? Forgive me, but it might not be a question that many of the audience have had to ask themselves. But I’m here not just as an alumni, but more pertinently as a representative of a team of people led by Professor Martin Evans and Karina H Maynard, the curator, educator and producer, with colleagues from the Alumni office, from the Library, from The Keep and from the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

    And we worked tirelessly for the last couple of years to arrive at a point where I’m delighted to say, based on the announcement yesterday by Pro-Vice-Chancellor David Ruebain, that we’ve secured University support for a five-year programme of activities. The first programme of its kind, supported by the University for a particular cohort. And as David has said, the programme is designed in part to improve the experience and support recruitment of Black students to the University. Now the events will sit alongside a programme of internal institutional reflection involving both staff and current students, and former students I hope, and should support our Race Equity Action Plan.

    Black at Sussex was catalysed by a comment made by the author Paul Gilroy, also a Sussex alumni, asking why Sussex did not profile its notable Black alumni more visibly. Paul Gilroy cites research he undertook here at Sussex as pivotal in the development of his publication, “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack” published 35 years ago.

    This programme has partnered with the Black Cultural Archives, founded by another alumni, Len Garrison, whose image you can see here. And the Black Cultural Archives, BCA, is the UK’s premier institution documenting the lives of Black African and Caribbean people here in Britain.

    So, our own institution’s anniversary coincides with the 40th anniversary institution of the BCA, but it also takes place at a time which is the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking publication, “How the West Indian Child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system”, crafted by Bernard Coard who is a Sussex alumni.

    This tracked, lifted the lid on the failings of the system whilst empowering parents to challenge the status quo. And all of this is visibly, vividly captured in both the Steve McQueen directed film “Education” and the BBC documentary SUBNORMAL, which I encourage you to watch.

    So, we had a launch event a year or so ago with the Black Cultural Archives. Members of Len’s family came to the event, as well as photographers Charlie Phillips and Eddie Otchere, renowned photographers who were taking portraits of our Black alumni who’ve made a significant impact on the cultural fabric of our country.

    And whilst the first year’s programme will focus on the creative industries and journalism, in future the programme could focus on different sectors, for example business, science, engineering, the charity sector as well. So, this introduction is also a request for any ideas you may have.

    Why is this important? Well, in recent history, Sussex has fared fairly badly when it comes to the awarding gap between Black and minority ethnic students and their white counterparts. In achieving good degrees, that is 2:1s and firsts.

    There is some good news. Recent data indicates that the gap has narrowed so that the white and BAME awarding gap is now 6.7% compared to a national average of 8.5%. The gap between white and Black African-Caribbean students is still 16.6%. Slightly lower than the national average of 17.4%. Data from 2021.

    So although there is some good news, I’d be wary of complacency. I know that there are colleagues disaggregating some of those figures to look at whether there is a divergence between the awarding gap closing for 2:1s but widening for firsts. Other colleagues are looking at how efforts to decolonise the curriculum are actually having an impact or not.

    I must stay my own work is looking at specific learning differences in that intersectionality. But at Sussex we are sleepwalking to some extent. We have no statues of slavers. We rely on the perception of Brighton as a liberal welcoming town. But we continue to be an institution which has failed our Black students, many of our Black students.

    We continue to have a staff profile which does not meet the students we have, nor the students we hope to have. For a university only 50 minutes from the multicultural, multilingual hub that is London, that is unacceptable. I hope this project will play a part in addressing that.

    On the 22nd of this month we’ll be holding a joint event with the BCA in Brixton. I hope you’ll support that endeavour and this programme so that the question Black students, students of colour and indeed all students ask will be why wouldn’t I study here at Sussex?

    Valerie Kporye: Thank you. So, I started Sussex in the heart of a global pandemic, and when I first came here, I wanted an escape. A space to understand new identities, new ideas, and really explore the landscape of making friends. But when I joined it was a socially anxious landscape coming out of the pandemic.

    And I can only honestly say that the concept of, sorry, something is clicking, the concept of identity was really an internal and external confusing discourse with hardly any mediating spaces. I think it’s one thing to be anxious about going to university and another thing to be anxious and and feel the discomfort of being incessantly visible.

    As a Black person in academic spaces, you can often feel as though you’re first seen as an object, and then a subject. And as a Black female, you have further questions about this. So, I went straight to academics because I didn’t feel I had the social space or community to help me understand this.

    And through incredible professors and two-hour lectures and three-hour workshops, I engaged in texts like Fanons and Edward Said and Dubois and Simone de Beauvoir and Derrida and Foucault and they really understood the difference and how it unfolds in our lives.

    And I thought, that’s incredible. But the thing I desire more than anything else is a community. A community of people I can share these ideas with. And I didn’t find that so much until I joined the Black at Sussex project.

    I was very hesitant at the beginning because I realised that being Black is a lived experience. I didn’t choose to be Black. I was born this way. And as such, having to participate and be the pioneer of everything is very overwhelming.

    But having those first conversations with Martin was so incredible because I recognised there was a community before me that had already paved the way in the School of AFRAS, and they made products like the AFRAS revues which talked about these subjects in such detail, and they understood their differences and challenged it and created spaces to really vocalise what that difference made.

    So I joined the project and then I fast forwarded onto the JRA, which is a research programme for undergraduates, where I explored this a bit more. I interviewed some of the alumni that went here including Paul Gilroy, Topher Campbell, and Michael McMillan, and they talked about their journeys here at Sussex and what that meant for them in creating their identities.

    Even as minorities, they had a space to be themselves and express that. And I think when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, it’s incredibly important to recognise that without a culture that supports it, nothing else matters. You can employ loads of Black academics or intellectuals and you could have loads of students that are Black come into the schools. But if you don’t feel a sense of belonging, there’s not much that you can actually do in that space.

    And so, when we’re thinking about the effects of this project, it’s not just talking about history, but its talking about a sense of belonging in a community that can help others see themselves and actually make a difference in the spaces they occupy.

    Thank you so much.


We want to celebrate our Black alumni, and encourage and welcome alumni returning to engage with our current Sussex students.

Sussex alumni have been involved with Black at Sussex since the launch. We’ve commissioned a series of portraits of some of our Black alumni, taken by Charlie Philipps and Eddie Otchere. The first five portraits were exhibited in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in autumn 2023 and visited by staff, students, alumni and members of the public.

Read more about the project and see some of the photography in a blog for the ‘Writing Race’ series by Sussex alumna Valerie Kporye.

Inclusion at Sussex

Find out what we are doing at Sussex towards race equality as part of our Antiracist Pledge, including our Race Equality Charter Institutional Bronze Award.

We’re working to make sure members of our community have equal access to opportunities, can achieve their potential and contribute to the success of the University. Find out more about Inclusive Sussex.

Get involved

Would you like to get involved with the Black at Sussex project, or do you have an idea that you think would help us achieve our goals? Get in touch by emailing

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