Historians' Watch

Why We Need Black History in UK Schools

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept through the United Kingdom, calls for improved education have been amplified by activists, educators and parliamentarians. The appetite for such endeavour resides in the potential for anti-racist education to truly reflect our multi-cultural society through diverse and inclusive canons of knowledge. In the UK, the current education system remains an enduring symbol of British imperialism, underpinned by a dominant White Eurocentric curriculum which has often omitted and nullified Black history.

Black People’s Day of Action, 2 March 1981. Organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, set up to seek justice for 13 young people killed in the New Cross Fire.

The historical amnesia that ensues throughout British society is produced by careful erasure of the shameful past of an Empire that persecuted and victimised Black people. The residual effects of that persecution are still keenly felt today by Black communities who consistently encounter institutional racism in all its insidious manifestations. Often, the charge levelled at nostalgic Britons, longing for a return to the oppressive past, has been that discriminatory ignorance tends to be held by older citizens. Sadly, racist thinking has cascaded down to younger generations via a global wave of right-wing populism. This very much dispels the notion that the ownership and enactment of overt and covert ‘racism’ has historically been maintained by the older generation. For many young people – disenfranchised by broader social inequalities – their angst has coincided with the rise of populism, a global shift towards exclusionary and decisive right-wing politics and finally, the abandonment of political correctness.  Consequently, this has contributed towards more acts of racial discrimination and a rejection of multi-culturalism as a tool for social harmony and commonality.

Education will always remain a key instrument in disarming ignorance and bigotry. However, the selective filtering of British history within our education system remains a mode of exclusion for Black learners. For instance, in 2013, then Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove, attempted (unsuccessfully) to reform the history curriculum to foster valorising and ‘memorising the feats of imperial ‘heroes’’. More recently, the exclusionary curriculum has been defended by the current incumbent of the role, Gavin Williamson, who has recently rejected nationwide calls for the history curriculum to be more diverse and include Black British history.  This omission of knowledge within our curriculum ill-equips individuals of all ethnicities to traverse a society comprising different nationalities and heritages. The reluctance of Britain’s education system has been notably reluctant to acknowledge the historical contribution and sustained excellence of Black people in this country, as well as  the historical role White people have played in sustaining exploitation and violence against people of colour via slavery and colonialism. To this end, anti-racist education must involve examining how Whiteness was been historically constructed at the expense of celebrating Black contributions to society.

The distorted and inaccurate version of British history that occupies our curriculum continues to be a significant contributor towards intergenerational trauma. Interweaving Black history into our curriculum paves the way for a more consistent and informed approach towards addressing structural and institutional racism. The much-needed reconceptualization of British history requires dismantling the normative orthodoxy. Globally – and particularly in the UK – collective avocation by educators, activists and parliamentarians for a curriculum that reflects multiple histories of Black and indigenous populations is vital to decentring a White Eurocentric knowledge canon. It also supports the development of values and belief systems that identify with societal egalitarianism.

The absence of a diverse curriculum that reflects Black learners’ rich history is a significant contributing factor in the attainment outcomes of young ethnic minority people in the UK, as recently reported in the Runnymede Trust’s Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools report. The racial bias within the curriculum situates Black learners as educational nomads, robbed of identity and unable to establish a sense of belonging within a British historical and societal context. One of the inevitable consequences for all learners deprived of Black history is the absence of tolerance, acceptance of difference and cultural awareness. We must also examine the hierarchical ways in which historical narratives are delivered and implicit discourses about which bodies of knowledge are identified as authentically British. Why is Black history in the UK confined to a single month and why is the contribution of Black individuals so often reduced to subordination, slavery and the US civil rights movement? Framing the seminal contribution of Black people as their enslavement and exploitation at the hands of celebrated White oppressors – allowing Europe and America to prosper – reduces the historical efforts of this diaspora to survival and production.

The proliferation of dominant discourses of empire, saturated in nostalgia and nationalism, has been a central tenet in the mobilization of the Hostile Environment policy in Britain since 2012. The Hostile Environment aims to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants living in the UK without leave to remain. One notable result of this policy was the Windrush Scandal. From 2013, people of the Windrush generation started to receive letters claiming that they had no right to be in the UK. Consequently, jobs and homes were lost, as were benefits and access to the NHS. Many were placed in immigration detention centres, deported, or refused the right to return from abroad.

Investigating the Windrush Scandal, the recent Windrush Review (2020) strongly recommended that Black history occupies a more integral place in school syllabuses. This recommendation echoed those made in the Macpherson Report some twenty years earlier, produced in the wake of the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. Earlier generations of anti-racism activists campaigned for the inclusion of Black historical contexts within education. Activists such as Professor Gus John, Diane Abbott, Olive Morris, Stuart Hall and many others were pivotal in pushing for a more diverse curriculum. Sadly, 20 years on from the Macpherson Report there have been no significant advances in integrating Black history within the UK education system. New educational interventions such as The Black Curriculum are crucial to ensuring that Black history occupies the political centre rather than residing on the political margins, as has historically been the case. The project – launched in January 2019 – attempts to re-imagine the future of Black British history in schools by providing arts-focused Black history programmes and teacher training.

First and foremost, an inclusive curriculum that embraces Black history must decentre Whiteness and the Eurocentric canon. Mobilisation cannot remain the sole responsibility of anti-racist activists. White teachers must recognise the hereditary privilege that they occupy and how this impacts Black learners’ experiences and the pedagogical learning environment. However, the onus must not solely be placed upon schools already facing severe budget cuts as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Centralised government support is required in implementing these changes. Parliamentarians and policy-makers tasked with overseeing the education system must become more cognizant of the impact of Whiteness and White privilege on our historically exclusionary curriculum. Teachers must be professionally supported to engage with Black historical content and deliver these syllabuses. The promise of a more diverse and inclusive curriculum is paramount in attempting to transform strained race relations nationally and globally. Our past and present history informs our sense of belonging and socialization. The acknowledgement of Black communities in shaping this narrative is essential in truly reflecting a multi-cultural British society.

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