By Eleshea Williams
When I think back to history lessons from secondary school, one particular rhyme always sticks out: ‘Divorced, beheaded, died / divorced, beheaded, survived.’ This was how we were to remember the story of Henry VIII and his less-than-lucky wives.
Years later, I find myself asking, why was such considerable attention given to one monarch’s sex life? Why weren’t we taught about the black Tudors or the role that black and colonized people played in the industrial revolution?
I grew up as one of two black people in my year group and often found myself facing the brunt of ignorant stereotypes and racist remarks. As a child, I assumed that either there were no black people present in historical Britain. In turn, I often felt like I didn’t belong. Whilst I could not change my circumstances of growing up in a majority white area, it is clear now that I would have felt less alone if I had learnt about the role of black people in British history.
There are crucial histories missing from our curriculums in Britain and their absence has consequences far beyond the significant feelings of invisibility experienced by black school children. For the most part, the presence of black people in British history lessons extends solely to their capacity as slaves. In its exclusion of black people, the current curriculum implicitly teaches that black people were never valued in Britain other than as commodities. While white students see themselves reflected in the positions of kings and queens, war heroes, scientists, martyrs (the list goes on); black students are lucky if they receive one lesson about Martin Luther King.
It was only when I went to university that I learnt that there was a black British civil rights movement and that black people had a long history in Britain. It is essential that British schoolchildren learn about the black Tudors, who could be wealthy and sophisticated members of the royal courts of Henry VIII amongst others. It is equally important for pupils to learn about how the industrial revolution was powered by both colonial resources and slave labour and involved the active decimation by the British of industries in colonized countries such as the textile industry in India. Moreover, it is crucial that children are taught that prior to becoming part of the British empire, Africa and Asia were themselves populated by vast empires that were wealthier than Britain in the middle ages. Learning these histories is critical as they reveal the truth about British history and decentre the idea that black British history begins and ends with slavery and discrimination.
Learning black history is equally important for both white and black students. When the principle inclusion of black history in the school system is that Britain abolished the slave trade, it negatively skews the way black and white students perceive black identity and belonging in Britain. Our current curriculum perpetuates a Eurocentric, whitewashed version of history that reinforces a false narrative of Britain as a benevolent saviour that came to global prominence naturally. Ultimately, the strongest reason for teaching black and colonial history in British schools is that it is the truth. A British history that erases the presence of black people in Britain, the crimes of the British empire, the anticolonial struggle, the fight for civil rights in Britain, and the Windrush generation is a false history.
Ignorance stems from a lack of education, and can be unlearned by implementing black history lessons from a young age. In doing this we can enable productive conversations on race that are otherwise overlooked. It is an issue particular to the UK that race is perceived as a taboo topic. We claim to be ‘colour blind’ but this inevitably ends up meaning that we become blind to the presence of black people both historical and present.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I had a few teachers that had a huge impact on my life. They recognised my ability and passion for education and I wanted to empower the next generation similarly. At university, I met English lecturers and professors that had a genuine and impassioned interest in black history irrespective of their own race, which enabled me to further connect with my ancestral history, which had been overlooked in my primary and secondary school years. As I became more aware of the hypocrisy of the UK, I began to wonder if I would ever feel comfortable teaching the same curriculum that made my younger self believe that none of my ancestors had ever done something worthy of being in a history book. At university, students can learn about Black and colonial history through optional modules. However, true history should not be something you opt into, it should be taught in primary and secondary institutions. I realised that it was the institution of education in the UK and not necessarily the educators that had failed me in my formative years. With this in mind, I went about looking for something (I had no idea what) that vocally acknowledged these issues and set about to change them so that I could better teach the next generation.
Consequently, I began working for The Black Curriculum just as my final year of university finished. The Black Curriculum campaigns for the mandatory inclusion of black British history in all curriculums and all schools across the UK. We have designed a 12-topic curriculum that includes the evolution of music genres, migrations and activism.
Since I joined The Black Curriculum in April 2020, and in the weeks following global Black Lives Matter protests, we have had floods of messages from teachers saying they are changing the way they teach, celebrities offering words of support, but, most importantly, students thanking us for helping them to better understand their and their classmates’ history. The rise in our profile is bittersweet; it took the death of a man for people to finally wake up to the issues that a rife throughout the US and western Europe. It may be too optimistic to believe that change is finally happening – my parents’ generation (and their parents’ generation) have been fighting this battle for a lot longer than I have, and have subsequently been met with refusal and rebuttal many more times. However, this time feels somewhat different. Ultimately, to make nationwide change, it needs to be from a government decision, which is why we campaign towards the department of education.
The Black Curriculum campaigns to finally put governmental curriculum reform in place. Discounting the clear academic advantage that this would bring, learning about Black history affords young people (of all races) tools to take into society. For young black children, it boosts a sense of identity and belonging. Not learning about your own history or failing to see yourself reflected in the curriculum is damaging to self-esteem, not to mention if this is only in the capacity of slavery. For their non-black counterparts, learning about black history enables those conversations that, too often, happen too late.
Featured Image: The Engagement of St Ursula and Prince Etherius, c.1520. Photograph: theguardian.com