Image Credit: Steve Eason
We're now a few days into October, which is also known for being Black History Month. However, black history is too rich to be taught for only one month, and the curriculum must give it the same treatment as the rest of history. We cannot repeat the same few basic facts every October and call it enough black history for the year.
History is written by the victors, meaning we are unequally educated about Britain’s past. Schools teach us about our triumphs yet gloss over our atrocities. Personifying this is ex-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who rejected teaching more about colonialism, instead emphasising celebrating our contributions to the world. Before the Second World War, Britain could get away with views like Williamson’s, but since then Britain has become a multicultural society.
"If we are better educated on racism and its continuing impact, people will be more empathetic and understanding to the importance of being anti-racist, not just non-racist, in kicking racism out of our society."
Black history must be acknowledged so that black children understand that they have a history to be proud of just like their white classmates. Presenting British history in its totality means we can understand Europe’s role in why black history is not better understood. History lessons can and should be used to right the wrongs of our past. After the recent appointment of refugee Nadhim Zahawi as Williamson’s replacement, it will be interesting to see whether his same views are echoed, or if Zahawi brings a new perspective on the importance of diversifying the curriculum.
European powers committed a cultural genocide in Africa, erasing its traditions, values and architecture. This creates the narrative that black people have no history or achievements to celebrate. Therefore, it is vital we are taught black people have a rich history which restores a sense of pride in their heritage, inspiring them to embrace their culture. When asked what the largest structure ever made was, many people say the Great Wall of China. However, not many people know that the Walls of Benin, in Nigeria, were 10,000 miles long, four times the length of the Great Wall of China. Most likely because the British destroyed it in 1897. Also, not many people will know that Africans may have crossed the Atlantic centuries before the Europeans, with the Olmec Colossal Heads in Mexico undeniably possessing black peoples facial features.
African history isn’t just found outside of Britain however. Despite the ‘Windrush Myth’ that black Brit-ish history starts with the immigration from the Caribbean after World War Two, black British history can be traced back to the Romans, with the African born Emperor Septimius Severus helping to build Hadrian’s Wall and dying in York. Another significant era of black British history often untaught is the black abolitionists of the 18th Century. While most of us have heard about the prominent abolitionist William Wilberforce, not many will have heard of Olaudah Equiano, who brought his freedom from slavery before settling in Britain and played a significant role in abolishing slavery, largely through his literature highlighting its horrors.
Teaching black history also combats prejudice and discrimination. Even here in York, black students are still affected by ignorant and racist remarks. The lack of diversity is hard to miss for any student from non-white backgrounds, and this unknowingly creates a safe climate for racists, who feel free to use racist language. I myself am from a mixed British and Caribbean background and I am sure I am not the only person from multi-ethnic or black backgrounds who is familiar with the question “where are you from?”. People are not always satisfied when I respond with “London”, as if black people cannot originate from there. White people have openly said the N-word around me, and even tell me that I should not be offended by it.
YUSU BAME Network asked black students for any incidents of racism they have faced in York. One student was called a “little monkey” by their flatmate, while others have been patronised by people complimenting their ability to speak English. A student nurse had a patient refuse their care, was asked if they had ever worn socks in Africa before coming to York and if they knew a witchdoctor. Another student was singled out by their landlord for lacking the “Yorkshire personality” despite other housemates also not being from Yorkshire. When telling the estate agents about the incident, the estate agents refused to accept it was over their skin colour, adding further salt to the wound.
Ignorant comments like these can be tackled by creating a curriculum that embraces black history as teaching the full history of black people destroys narrative that they were less educated and uncivilised. If we are better educated on racism and its continuing impact, people will become more empathetic and understanding to the importance of being anti-racist, not just non-racist, in kicking racism out of our society.
So, why has there not been any major shifts in our curriculum since Black History Month was first celebrated here 34 years ago? If people understand the lasting impact of our past on modern-day countries, they will demand change. Seemingly, it is not in the government's interest to educate people on black history. People will hold the government accountable for ensuring they live up to their responsibility to the people who for centuries were told that they were British. However, as the handling of the Windrush Scandal shows, the government does not want to accept that responsibility. The government is fearful of the result that teaching more black history will have, as it will mean people will demand more meaningful actions from them which jeopardises the status quo.
Currently history classes tell us how much of a global superpower we were. Since we lost that status decades ago, it is time that schools catch up. The sooner the government relinquishes control of how we view our history, the sooner we can make this country better for everyone and make a Britain which is truly Great.