Oct 08 2021

Recent alumna Renee Lewis graduated earlier this year after completing a joint honours degree in Music and English. During her final year, Renee won a Mary McPherson Essay Prize. We caught up with Renee to find out how she felt about receiving the award, and what her essay was about.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you study at Royal Holloway? 

Hi, I’m Renée and have just completed the final year of my joint BA Music and English degree at Royal Holloway.  

2. You recently won the ‘Mary McPherson Essay Prize’, can you tell us about your essay?  

The essay I submitted for the prize is called “Black British History is Just as Important as African American History.” After realising that a lot of the black history I’d learned in school was very focused on America, I researched and wrote about a selection of black British historical figures and events that have previously gone unrecognised in the school curriculum. I mention John Blanke, a black trumpeter in Henry VIII’s court, which shows that the presence of black people in Britain did not start with the slave trade; Charles Ignatius Sancho, a composer and writer born on a slave ship who is thought to be the first black man to vote in a British general election; the presence of Commonwealth soldiers fighting with Britain in WWI (including those from the Caribbean); and the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, inspired by Rosa Parks’s defiance in America, which protested against the discrimination of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds in bus driver and bus conductor roles. 

3. How did it feel to know you’d won? 

It came as a lovely surprise and felt incredibly rewarding! I had submitted my article and not expected anything, but I’m so glad that the judging panel enjoyed it.  

4. What inspired you to write your essay on your chosen topic? 

The aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020 made me reflect on my own personal experiences as a black British person. I feel like I know more about the history of racism in America and what black Americans have contributed to American history than I do about the history of people like me in the country I was born in. I chose my essay topic because I wanted to show that black British history is part of British history too, and the achievements of those from other ethnically diverse backgrounds in Britain are just as important.  

5. What has been your favourite thing about studying at Royal Holloway? 

I’ve loved the feeling of a community at Royal Holloway and enjoyed all of the modules that have been on offer when completing my joint degree. There are also so many opportunities to get involved with university life outside of studies, including the RH100 student panel and student media outlets.  

6. How do you like to spend your time outside of study? 

As well as writing articles for The Founder and Orbital, I’m also a violinist and spend my time practicing outside of study and participating in the Royal Holloway orchestras during term time. I also picked up cross stitching during quarantine last year – with the help of YouTube tutorials – and have continued to complete kits during my free time.