Black British history: A study in erasure
Black people are a part of the fabric of Britain, yet pupils are not taught the full story of Black history in schools.
By: Paula Akpan
Growing up in the UK as a black person means that you’re living an existence that is constantly erased, particularly in school. Many will recall the history topics that were covered by the National Curriculum: a look at the infamous timeline of Nazi Germany, explorations of the Vietnam war and an in-depth study of the civil rights movement that took place in the US. The latter is often a young person’s first introduction to issues related to race and blackness.
The common theme running throughout my history studies was the capacity the learning structure had to critique at length the mistakes made by other governments and how that shaped their nation’s narrative, however, that gaze is rarely turned inwardly. The only time I learned anything to do with British history was the establishment of the English parliament and the histories of political factions such as the Whigs and Tories. I learned about Benjamin Disraeli’s hand in shaping the modern Conservative party and his lasting rivalry with William Gladstone but was never taught about how his government attempted to wipe out the Zulu Kingdom through bloody battles – and then cover it up – in order to extend British influence in South Africa. We use the failures of other countries as our teaching aids while still never truly exploring this country’s dark history of imperialism and colonisation.
As a young black person, the struggles faced by African Americans utterly captured my imagination and for the first time, provided me with contemporary role models who looked like me. Rosa Parks’ defiance, and how it sparked a whole boycott, left me stunned. Martin Luther King Jr’s influence and oratory prowess were awe-inspiring. Malcolm X’s casual disregard for white authority, which had him painted as the anti-hero and the “bad” activist in comparison to Martin Luther King, shocked me. While I was learning about struggles that I could relate to, they still felt so far away. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary or framework to articulate what I was feeling but now I know what had been niggling at me – what about the black people in the UK? Where were our history-makers?
But centring America’s relationship with its black people in our lessons, it distracts from the fact that it isn’t ours. While the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 had a huge impact, studying the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott – which resulted in the employment of the first non-white bus conductor – would’ve been more significant. Skimming over the history of the Black Panthers was exciting and showed me a different form of black resistance through building self-sufficient structures for the community. However, what about the black women who led the Black Power movement in Britain? Important figures such as Olive Morris, Altheia Jones Lecointe, and Beverley Bryan headed up key black feminist groups like OWAAD and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. With these organisations, they tackled housing, institutional racism, and immigration. And yet, their contributions to history have been erased. I was looking to the likes of Assata Shakur and Stokely Carmichael when I had role models closer to home that I had no idea existed.
What we are and are not taught at school goes beyond the classroom; it trickles through to the rest of societal workings. When you’re never taught about black peoples’ contributions to history, it affects the way you contextualise yourself and your identity. Your frameworks and references are also impacted as a result and limit the extent to which you can engage with the particular content matter. However, it doesn’t just stop with the individual’s identity. This lack of knowledge around black British contributions and Britain’s horrific relationship with race can serve racist narratives that assert that we need to “go back to where we came from”.
2016 saw the UK vote in a referendum as to whether or not the country should withdraw from the European Union, with campaign groups set up to sway voters. A number of pro-Leave groups used scare-mongering tactics around immigration, urging people to “take back control of our borders”. The Independent reported that the surge in anti-immigrant hate crimes after the referendum was mostly found in areas of the UK that strongly voted to leave. The rhetoric that is often used to try to invalidate the right of black and brown people to exist in the UK is often rooted in beliefs that we have only existed in this country since relatively recently. It is often believed that we only appeared in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation, often neglecting that black people have been part of British society since Roman times, again something that has been omitted from our education.
By never teaching us about Britain’s horrific relationship with race, it suggests that this country has never had a problem with race in the same way that the US has. It means that we get to boast about how multicultural our cities are and how we welcome diversity without ever having to take accountability for how many African and Asian nations have had their resources and cultures pillaged and diluted.
Never learning about the legacies of black people to this country within an institutional framework means that we grow up believing that we are yet to earn our place in the UK.