How much do you know about black history? If you wanted to learn about it, I wouldn’t recommend looking to this country’s history curriculum.
I studied history at both GCSE and A level at my local state comprehensive in the south east of England. My school was classified as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and our history teachers were dedicated, interested individuals; we were lucky. And yet in Year 8, I found myself teaching my class about the Transatlantic Slave Trade because I knew more than my teacher did. I grew up in the Caribbean, which is why I knew what I did, but still, at 12 years of age I only knew the basics. I distinctly remember being shocked by the simplicity of our lessons and how few of them we had. Even more importantly, they felt incredibly impersonal.
It’s all very well and good talking to a class of predominantly white 12 year olds from the rural home counties about what a slave ship looked like and how many slaves it could fit, but facts and figures don’t cut it because they go in one ear and out the other. We were never read first-hand accounts written by slaves, we never considered how it must have felt to be taken from your home and everything you know, trafficked halfway around the world and brutally treated. We never put faces and feelings to facts and figures.
But what happens when you get to A Level? One of the topics we studied at A Level briefly touched on black British history (a problem of its own) when we covered decolonisation. As part of this we learnt about the Mau Mau rebellion. Typically, not once was the violent suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion discussed head on. Sure, we were roughly told that the British didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, but our textbooks hardly went into detail. Truth be told, I had no idea about the extent of the brutality until I read a Guardian article recently on ‘Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya’ by Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian. Though her historiographical methods are somewhat controversial, her book highlighted the extent of the imperial violence in Kenya. This is only one example of the failing of the A level history curriculum to actively engage with black history.
You have likely seen the recent petitions to change GCSE reading lists and to update and diversify curriculums, including Oxford’s own. I cannot stress strongly enough how important this is. Understanding where someone comes from, in terms of the experiences of their family and community, is an important step in understanding what makes them who they are. Often, we are shaped by the stories that we’re told growing up about our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents which are passed down through generations and these form part of our sense of identity.
Learning about black history in particular is a crucial part in understanding where the structural biases in this country come from and why. Truly understanding the history of this country and its treatment of black people will allow us to clearly identify where the problems in our current society lies. Often the problems are deep rooted and subtle because they have evolved over time, and without examining that past we will struggle to create the best possible future.
I’m sure I need not mention too that one of history’s greatest advantages as a subject is that it gets us to consider events from a different point of view, we have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Seeing this country and its developments from another perspective, not simply that of imperialism, is crucial. Not to learn about black history is simply negligent and is a disservice to the wonderful diversity that exists in the United Kingdom today.
Education is an incredibly important aspect of changing the world for the better. If we want to truly create long-lasting change, one of the first steps is in better educating ourselves and our children about black history. In the words of Michelle Alexander, author of ‘The New Jim Crow’, “No matter your race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexual orientation or background, you have much to gain by deepening your understanding of how we got to this place”.