Reading this book at the age of 28, as a black woman, was an extremely surreal and emotional experience. To be perfectly honest, it’s one I wish I’d had as an 18-year-old before embarking on my university journey. As such, I’d strongly encourage current university students and those applying, to read Taking Up Space.
Why is this the case? The authors, Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, give us the privilege of accessing a reflective and intimate insight into the lives and struggles of different black women trying to manoeuvre through predominately white institutions. And I truly mean privilege. The narrative follows the two authors in their time spent at Cambridge University and is supported by accounts from other black women, highlighting that although the experiences of black individuals are heterogenous, the battle is collective and widespread. The discussions are thought-provoking and rich with personal anecdotes but also strengthened by statistical data.
Each chapter goes beyond “buzzword” driven dialogues and explores the wide range of challenges black students face at a key time in their social and emotional development. 'This includes political activism, mental health and - from access to higher education to issues surrounding Eurocentric dominant curricula -disparities in education. Aside from this, the book also navigates dating and relationships as a black female - the ordeal of which is often either left untold or restricted to the privileged few within your close circle. The authors voices are reaching and resonant, discussing emotions that we as black women know all too well: “It is clear that university is a trying time for most black girls and non-binary people when it comes to beauty, desirability and relationships. University can mean rejection, self-doubt and hopelessness.” They also evoke real feeling and a sense of self-love and emotional resilience in the reader: “It can also mean recognising your worth in its purest sense - not compromising for anyone and ultimately, knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you, but something bigger with society.”
Taking Up Space was an outlet for me to reflect on my own transition through to the present day from my school years and university. Consistently being the only black female in a predominantly white space is nothing new for me, however it’s had its challenges, particularly when I went to university. Finding other women, as Chelsea and Ore explain, who “understood what I was going through without me having to explain” was not something I had the luxury of regularly having to hand. And so, it was refreshing to hear the many accounts of other women who look like me instilling a sense of solidarity and belonging to a wider community.