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"I just got an email from Lenny Henry. You know, casual, that happens every day," laughs Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon. She's talking about her involvement in a new book, Black British Lives Matter, edited by Henry and Marcus Ryder. The collection boasts essays from some of Britain's most prominent Black voices, including David Olusoga, Dawn Butler MP, Kit de Waal, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baroness Doreen Lawrence.
"They approached me about contributing an essay on technology, maths and engineering. It was a great opportunity to talk about something I am obviously passionate about - not only women in tech, but Black British involvement in tech," she explains.
Imafidon is, of course, the founder of Stemettes; a beloved social initiative dedicated to encouraging young women in the STEM sectors. It has had an extraordinary track record. In the eight years since its inception, it has worked with more than 50,000 girls across Europe in order to create a more diverse and balanced science and tech community, and has landed Imafidon an MBE in the process.
It was the just the latest in a long line of accomplishments for Imafidon, who, aged 11, became the youngest girl ever to pass A-level computing. She was just 20 years old when she received her master’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Oxford before a glittering CV began, and Stemettes was born. The opportunity to speak about her life's passion - for Lenny Henry no less - was too tantalising.
"When folks think about the Black experience, maybe now technology is a part of that, and quite an important part of that," she says. "And so it was an honour to make it a core part of this discussion in a book like this, where it might not have been or it hasn't been previously."
"And you know why Black British tech matters?" she continues. "Because technology is just a tool. And you can either create problems with that tool or solve problems with that tool. And there are a lot of problems that we have in society that affect Black British people, and so you need that perspective in using the tool, otherwise, you will create harm, and create danger. And you will reinforce existing societal inequalities."
The title of the book is very clearly a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and the editors have noted their intent to ensure that the distinctness of the Black British experience was not lost in the events of 2020. After all, many may have found it easy to assume, erroneously, in light of the murder of George Floyd, that this was an American problem. Refreshingly, Imafidon says she was encouraged by how many people were quick to point out the immediate connection between what was happening in the States and in the UK.
"It was remarkable how quickly that was made," she remembers. "People said, 'No, this is this is how it translates here. This is the local equivalent. This is local example. Don't you dare think that it's just over there, and we're perfect here.'"
2020 was hardly an easy year for anyone, least of all the Black community; forced to not only endure the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more, but to then be drawn upon to 'explain' racism and see black squares on Instagram as some sort of salve for a systemic malaise.
"It was exhausting. I mean, I'll be honest, I didn't really want to engage with it. Besides anything else, I don't really want to watch a human being die for nine minutes," she says. "I think the other side of it was that I'd seen it for 30 years and now that everyone else can see it, I didn't feel like playing out 30 years of life for entertainment purposes or to explain racism to someone who has only just realised it exists. Unless I know there's something that's going to come from it, unless I know there's going to be action, unless I know there's going to be change, I'd rather just continue living through the trauma and keep it in that box."
She voices her frustration at the performative aspects of last year and says none of it felt encouraging. "I feel like admitting you have a problem is definitely the first step in putting together a solution. But have I seen action?" She shakes her head: "I feel like we should have seen some if people really understood what's going on and really understood systemically how all kinds of factors play into the Black British experience."
For Imafidon, Henry and Ryder's book is just a small part in enriching education around Black British history - something she sees as one of the cornerstones of true progression.
"We need to really look at our relationship with our history, and recognising the role that lots of people have played in this; immigrants, the empire that we've now decided to call the Commonwealth," she says. "I think there's there's quite a lot, culturally, historically, that actually, if we unravel that, it will be fairly easy for us to release ourselves from that bondage of only seeing the Disney version of history, whereas actually, it's quite violent, it's quite uncomfortable, quite exploitative."
It is why she loves Black History Month and, though she expresses frustration that too many people only think about Black history for 31 calendar days a year, she sees the value of it and understands the work and effort that went into its founding. Understanding Black British history in particular is, of course, not only of significance for other Black Britons, but for everyone to understanding their part in systems of oppression, however uninformed or unintentional.
"Once you know these things, you start to think, OK I have all the privileges that I have but how were those privileges gained? How did we come to be in possession of this estate, or whatever it is?" She sighs and says: "I don't want people to feel guilt. But if you have the right information, what would you then do as a result? You can't go back in time, but now you have the information - what would you change going forward?"
Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call for Equality (£16.99, Faber) will be published on 18 November 2021. PRE-ORDER NOW
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