In conversation: Bryan Knight
Lucy Aylmer, Deputy Editor talks to Bryan Knight about his time at Exeter and the importance of Black history
Bryan Knight is a London-based journalist and oral historian. After graduating from the University of Exeter in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in History, Knight has produced the popular podcast Tell A Friend and written for numerous publications including Al Jazeera, BBC News, The Guardian and Novara Media. In this exclusive interview, Knight recalls his fondest memories at Exeter and how his experiences studying history and writing for Exeposé helped shaped his interest in Black history and broadcast journalism.
What are your best memories of Exeter?
My best memories of Exeter are Exeposé. Even though I had always had an interest in journalism, I initially felt quite daunted to join the student paper and throw myself into a society that already had an established friendship group. It wasn’t until someone from the previous committee, who had read my writing, that suggested that I go for a committee position. It is thanks to Exeposé that I was able to interview a range of public figures like the labour politician Dawn Butler and Nick Davies, the renowned investigative journalist. It was through Exeposé that my writing skills improved as well as shaping my interest in pursuing a career in journalism.
How did Exeter help shape your interest in black history?
I credit my interest in Black history to Simon Heplow, a lecturer in history at the University of Exeter. He conducted a module called ‘Race and Immigration since 1945’. This was my first exposure to Black British history where I learnt about the Black Panther Movement and the Windrush generation. This was prior to it being the hot topic that it is now and before the Windrush scandal too. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. It was Heplow’s enthusiasm that encouraged me to delve deeper into this subject.
In your opinion, when did Black history become such a hot topic?
I think it is being led by the White guilt that was generated from the Windrush scandal because of the home office issue. The problem is that people are paying attention to the scandal but not actually considering why it happened in the first place. It’s one thing reminiscing about the history, but can we talk about what’s going on in the home office and the institutional racism that led to it happening. I’m happy that people are engaging in this history, but I also wish that people would engage with the real issues of why they were falsely deported.
It’s one thing reminiscing about the history, but can we talk about what’s going on in the home office and the institutional racism that led to it happening
Do you think Exeter University are doing enough to support students of marginalised communities?
There is a lot more that needs to be done. The way in which Exeter responded to racist incidents from students that fell victim to racism, were unsatisfactory as these students were not given adequate support. We tried to push the University to take more action but little was done. Historically, Exeter has a reputation for racist incidents, most notably those involving the Bracton Law Society. Therefore, Exeter needs to do a lot more to ensure that ethnic and minority students feel listened to and to rid themselves of that name.
Are there any specific incidents you would like to draw attention to?
No, it is not my position to bring them up as it was nothing that happened directly to me, but there were incidents that happened to friends of mine.
What were you up to over lockdown?
I’ve always considered myself to be a lazy person, so I was pleasantly surprised that over lockdown I didn’t want to sit down or watch TV. I felt agitated by being at home and so became project orientated. I had started by podcast, Tell A Friend in 2018 and used lockdown as an opportunity to keep going with that and to keep me sane. I took advantage of the fact that people were staying at home and knew that people would be available to interview. This was the one time that people couldn’t tell me that they were busy! The podcast grew and then I began writing for national papers. It worked out well.
I feel weird when companies approach me for Black History Month as it feels tokenistic
You have written extensively about Black history for range of publications, so in your opinion, why is Black History Month so important?
In some ways Black History Month is good because it it shines a light on people and moments of history for marginalised communities that often don’t get recognition. Equally, it can feel conflicting as why is there only a month to commemorate this? I feel weird when companies approach me for Black History Month as it feels tokenistic. It is becoming apparent that Black people are refusing to work over Black History Month. Similarly, I have been turning down work opportunities this month because of the conflicting values that Black History Month creates. Of course, these work opportunities would help my career, but equally it feels fake. Instead of calling me in October, try calling me in January and then we’ll see what we can do.
What would you recommend others do if they are interested in learning more about Black history, and commemorating the month accordingly?
As an oral historian, I believe people should engage in oral history. People should actively talk to people and find out the history themselves- don’t wait for people to write the history out in a book for it to be presented to you. There are so many easily accessible online resources so it’s not a question of accessibility, its more about people taking the initiative to research it for themselves.
Could you discuss your speaker event: ‘The Black Power Movement’ hosted with Exeter university?
I spoke about The Black Power Movement and black radicalism in the UK. I wanted to highlight key people that I think everyone should know about such as Altheia Jones- LeCointe and Leila Hassan Howe. These people made a huge difference through their activism, and they deserve credit for that. I also discussed key campaigns like the Mangrove Nine Campaign which was is of the most significant legal trials in history that everyone should know about.
Currently there is a trend to place Black and Brown faces in positions of power with the assumption that what they say is Gospel
What are your opinions on the conclusions from The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report? Why do you think the conclusions came as they did?
I must be a bit careful here. Obviously, I did not agree with conclusions of the report. In fact, I think that a lot of Black people were hurt by the report. The report downplayed the institutional racism and barriers felt by black communities in society. Currently there is a trend to place Black and Brown faces in positions of power with the assumption that what they say is Gospel. But it is not. Just because a Black person says it, it doesn’t make it true. I believe that Tony Sewell who chaired the report, was used for this specific reason.
I notice that you have been writing about institutional racism within the police force. Do you think Cressida Dick should resign given the controversy surrounding stop and search?
I don’t see how she can remain in that position. Dick has been presented with countless facts as evidence for institutional racism but has tried to downplay it. In a time where the public are calling for drastic change in how the police force operates, I don’t know how you someone like Cressida Dick can remain in that position. She is not receptive to what the public at large are saying. People have lost confidence in her, and once you lose the public’s confidence, I don’t see how you can remain in a position of authority.
Lastly, what are your future projects for the year ahead?
For me it is less about journalism and writing, but rather meeting people, sharing people’s stories and teaching others about underrepresented topics. In the long term, I am hoping to become involved in TV work.