Now, this is a very different blog post to what I normally talk about but it’s something I knew I was going to write about for Black History Month. I suggest you get comfy – make a cup of tea or sit back and relax. This is going to be a long one.
PSA: Another blog post which is just my thoughts and opinions!
Now that I can look back over my history lessons in school. I’ve noticed two things. We either learnt about:
a) White British History
b) Black American History
And I’m starting to question why that was. Why wasn’t Black British history a part of our curriculum at school? Why weren’t we given books to read that focused more on Black British history in general?
I was around 7/8 when my Dad gave me my first Black history lesson. I remember it so clearly because it was very different to what I had been learning about in school. I wasn’t learning about the Great Fire of London or Henry VIII. This was the first time I was learning about history that had actually affected my ancestors.
He sat me down in front of our TV one afternoon and put on a kid’s documentary about The Transatlantic Slave Trade.
It was my very first time being introduced to a horrific part of history.
To this day, I remember how angry I felt. I was only seven. You can argue that I was way too young to be learning about slavery but I don’t think I was. I needed to understand my history and how my ancestors ended up in the Caribbean. My Dad recognised that a part of my education was missing so he filled in the gaps in a way that wouldn’t be constrained or filtered. It was so I could gain all the facts without the ‘white male gaze’ infiltrating my learning.
As I got older my parents didn’t stop there. They introduced me to children’s books that would teach me about Black history. It helped that I began reading at an early age. One of my favourite books was about Martin Luther King talking to a young black boy in America. This was my earliest introduction to the Civil Rights Movement.
Subconsciously, I placed Martin Luther King on a pedestal. He was hero in my eyes. I even dedicated a history project to him during primary school.
Obviously now, I know just how flawed he was – as all people are.
By the time I got to secondary school, I was excited to learn more about Black History. I listened intently to the lessons on The Cold War, World War 1 and 2 (to this day I can tell you the events of both in chronological order) and Henry VIII (again).
So you can imagine my disappointment when we spent two one hour lessons on slavery. When we eventually reached our lessons on Civil Rights, I felt a sense of pride. This was my chance to finally be taught about history that I had been learning about my whole life.
Yet, as we learnt about the Civil Rights Movement I couldn’t help but feel a sense of distance. A distance I never truly understood until I look back on it now.
UK Black History is so Americanised you would think that Black British History didn’t exist.
I think I first realised something was wrong when we were learning about Britain after World War 2. Someone in my class asked my history teacher if Britain were racist at the time and she said no.
To this day, I’m angry I didn’t say anything.
I knew it was a lie. I mean, I’d listened to my Grandma tell me for years about the signs she used to see in the windows when she came over. ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs’. I’d listened to my Granddads stories about being chased by the Teddy Boys when he came over from Jamaica too.
So I should have questioned her. I should have called her out on the lie.
But I didn’t. I stayed quiet. But now that I’m older, I’ve realised I can tell you in detail about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Brown vs Topeka, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock 9, The Detroit Riots and much more.
Because that’s all we were taught about over here.
I don’t even want to touch on the fact that we tend to focus on more passive attempts of resistance. Any parts of history that result in Black people being violent are either overlooked or criticised.
Anyways, my Dad taught me about slavery, the Spanish occupation of Jamaica, the Maroons, Toussaint L’Overture, The Haiti Revolution, the Easter Sunday Revolt and so much more.
My Dad made sure I knew my Jamaican history.
It should have been my history teacher’s job to give me an accurate representation of Black British history.
So why did she lie? Why was there a determination to make it seem like Britain was equal and fair in comparison to the racially segregated US? Why is that narrative still prominent today?
Britain has always had a hard time admitting the truth. It’s almost as if nobody wants to own up to the atrocities this country has participated in because it will taint the image of Britain supposedly being ‘great’.
There’s a determination to keep it all under wraps.
However, once you start questioning our Americanised Black history curriculum, you can’t stop.
We learn about the Tudors. I can tell you all about Henry VIII’s wives. But why didn’t anybody ever mention that there were Black people living in Britain during this time? Black Tudors existed. (And this was before slavery had even began)
Why don’t we learn about the Bristol Bus Boycotts?
Or about those from the Caribbean and Africa that fought for Britain in World War 1 and 2?
Or even about the Windrush generation and how they helped to build the NHS?
Why have we skipped learning about the Notting Hill Riots of 1958 or the New Cross house fire in 1981?
Or especially, the long-standing relationship between the police and Black British citizens? (That’s a whole module in itself)
Why don’t we learn about Stephen Lawrence and how the long wait for justice was a huge insight into structural racism within the UK?
Why is none of this taught in schools over here?
Because then Britain would have to admit what we already knew.
Racism is so integrated into society over here that we all turn a blind eye to the fact our Black History Month neglects the history of our own Black Britishness.
In the US, racism is more open with incidents of police brutality with an American president that is openly racist. It’s easier to pass comment on something that you can visually see in comparison to something that has been built into society.
But the neglect of Black British History can make Black British citizens feel like outsiders in their own country. An identity crisis can form. Have you ever wondered why Black British people are more likely to claim the countries our grandparents and parents came from, then the country we were born in? This is, of course, only a very small insight as to why that could possibly be. However, we never learn about those who had been here before us and have succeeded in making a home over here.
Quite frankly, it’s appalling and more needs to be done.
That being said, I don’t know what the curriculum is like anymore. I’ve been out of the educational system for a year and I stopped learning history once I left sixth form. That’s nearly five years ago and I can only hope things have changed.
Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn about slavery, colonialisation or the civil rights movement. They were crucial parts of history and essentially changed the way of the world. We most definitely should be learning about it in schools. But there should be a module where we learn about Black British history. I shouldn’t be reaching my 20s and only just finding out that England had their own bus boycott.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala was my first insight into Black British history. This was then followed by Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Whilst, I enjoyed reading them. I couldn’t help but think I should have learnt about this sooner.
For those that want to learn more, there’s so many books out there to help us learn about Black British history. If you would like a list of books, please let me know in the comments below!
In the meantime, check out https://theblackcurriculum.com/. The Black Curriculum is a social enterprise founded in 2019 by young people to address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum. I follow them on Instagram and they’re incredible! Their website has so many learning resources!
I’ve made an active decision to teach myself about the history of Black British people in this country so, I can pass the knowledge down to my own children eventually. I want them to feel like Britain is their home. They were born here too. They have a right to learn about Black British history. Also, Black people’s history with Britain didn’t begin and end with slavery.
Black British history is for everyone in Britain, which is why it should be integrated into the school curriculum.
I can only hope something changes by the time I have my own kids.
Everything you said in this post was absolute facts. I found myself saying ‘PERIOD’ after every paragraph. I’ll definitely be checking out the links. The British curriculum needs to change and for that to happen people have to open their eyes, properly, and educate themselves.
Thank you so so much! Please do and honestly, the change is so overdue! I truly hope it does sometime soon because society would be so much better off!
You’re more than welcome and exactly!!!
By the way, if you’re interested, I think you’d really like ‘Taking Up Space’ by Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye.
Ooo yes I’ve read it and absolutely LOVED it!
Ahh yes that’s great to hear! It’s another book which deserve so much more recognition!