Race, ‘Britishness’, and History in Schools: reflections on another Black History Month in Cheltenham

This October marked the third consecutive year that myself and the University have collaborated with other organisations in order to celebrate Black History Month in Cheltenham. This local partnership, which includes the University’s History, and Equality and Diversity departments, the African Community Foundation in Gloucestershire, and the Borough Council, helps to organise a range of events throughout the month with the aim of promoting diversity and provoking reflection on contemporary issues of race and identity. As well as events involving food, music, dance and drama, there have been public talks organised by the Gloucestershire branch of the Historical Association (see this year’s program here). My role has been to support the organisation of public lectures and the visits of public speakers. With the likes of dramatist and broadcaster Bonnie Greer, editor of The Guardian Gary Younge, and the reporter for Channel 4’s Unreported World Seyi Rhodes visiting in recent years, we are beginning to build quite a tradition of engaging public events.

F5503874-2BC4-4D2D-81C2-EC771E23B530
David Olusoga, speaking at FCH Campus on Wednesday 25th October 2017.

This year we were very fortunate to have the BAFTA Award-winning broadcaster and historian David Olusoga, presenter of the 2016 BBC 2 series Black and British: A Forgotten History, and author of the book by the same name. In a very well attended event, Olusoga sought to dispel the imagined boundaries separating black and British history by discussing the many faceted stories and global connections that make these two categories inseparable. Drawing on examples from the evidence of Africans in Roman Britain, free blacks in Britain from the Tudor to the Victorian eras, the immortalized figure of the black sailor on the south-facing plinth of Nelson’s column, to the networks created by the transatlantic slave trade and the British Empire, Olusoga challenged what he referred to as ‘our collective willingness to forget’ and our reliance on narrow historical narratives.

black sailor
The image of the black sailor on the plinth on Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square in London. For Olusoga, this is one of the many signs that highlights the inseparable nature of black and British history. 

How is it possible, he asked, that we can look at a wealthy 18th century British merchant who is described as a ‘West India planter’ and not acknowledge what that really meant? Conversely, why do we not reflect on the fact some of the things we hold up as symbols of our national culture – from tea to battered fish – actually do not actually originate from the British Isles? These sorts of questions are indicative of Olusoga’s ability to do something which many academics aspire to, that is, deal with a thorough and rigorous historical argument in an accessible way, what is often termed ‘public engagement’ in the HE sector.

One of the ways in which Olusoga related his argument to the audience was by referring to his experience of studying history at school. He discussed the total absence of material that bore any relevance to his British-Nigerian identity as an example of the way in which histories of different people are compartmentalized. His experience of history at school was very familiar: the wives of Henry VIII, Florence Nightingale, and the Second World War. This was something I’d heard before. I was actually asked to step in for Olusoga at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival on a panel which discussed the way history should be taught at GCSE (see p. 29 of this year’s program).

Chelt Lit Fest BHM
Louisa Adjoa-Parker, David Olusoga, and Martin Spafford, as advertised for this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival.

One of the other panellists, the historian and writer Louisa Adjoa-Parker, echoed Olusoga’s sentiments. Her experience of history at school was all about old white men – what did that mean to a mixed race girl growing up in Britain? The panel discussion, which included former teacher Martin Spafford (who successfully managed to get the theme of global migrations included as an option on the GCSE curriculum), revolved around the problems of a limited interpretation of history formed on the back of a simplistic assumption of national narratives, i.e. ‘British’ history, something at the heart of school curriculum reform under former Education Minister Michael Gove. We discussed the lack of attention paid to Britain’s colonial past, and how school children are not encouraged to reflect on the effects or legacies of colonialism. While the panel discussion was limited by time, the other panellists and I discussed the ways in which the lack of reflection on such issues can be extremely problematic. Essentially, it is through subjects like history, the way they are taught as well as what they cover, that children are taught to think about who they are (and who they are not), and subjects like history, therefore become ideological and political tools.

The question ‘what kind of history should be taught in school?’ does not invite a simple answer, but it an intriguing one. What do we want young children to learn about the past? What is the point? If it is simply to indoctrinate young people about the merits of their own country and instil a sense of pride, I cannot help but feel we are doing them and wider society a disservice. As Olusoga proposed so eloquently, how can young people ever fully understand why Britain is so multicultural if their knowledge of the past stops at our national borders? We should not be afraid of dealing with the darker aspects of our past. All nations have some form of reckoning to do with their own histories, and doing so is sign of a healthy, reflective and socially responsible society. I am however encouraged by the fact that events such as these are provoking these discussions. Therefore, while Black History Month should not really exist (because it is all history), let’s continue to utilize it, alongside other important ‘months’ such Women’s History Month in March, to deal with important and difficult questions.

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