By Abby Gilchrist
Due to the outbreak of Black Lives Matter protests, which have been sweeping the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020, the history of black British people and its place in education is under immense scrutiny. Looking back on my time in History classes at school, I have little to no recollection of learning about black British history, apart from the steadfast sub-topic of the slave trade when learning about the Empire. Everyone I talk to knows exactly what I mean when I refer to that diagram of a slave ship packed full of hundreds of slaves bound for the New World. Black History Month was established in 1987, and yet I don’t remember it having any sort of impact in my day to day learning, not just in history but in other subjects as well. All of the books I studied for GCSE English were written by white men; Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) and Lord of the Flies (William Golding) to name just two. I studied History up until A-Levels and now at university, and yet it wasn’t really until the second semester of my third year that I have come across any black British history. I chose an elective called the White Man’s Burden: Race, Gender and the Victorian Empire, and for the first time in my history career, I was being confronted with questions such as ‘Why would this white man write such oppressive things about the black Jamaican people? Why would he call Aboriginals ‘savages’ and infer that they were more animal than human? How did the development of scientific racism help the Empire and colonialism?’
Having researched the Edexcel, OCR and AQA curriculums for GCSE History (introduced in 2016 and first examined on in the summer of 2018), it is clear that topics on race are present, however, due to the vast number of topics for teachers to choose from, these topics can easily be lost. Out of the three main examination boards, I found OCR to be the best, with topics such as Apartheid, the American Civil Rights movement and migration to Britain being included. OCR also developed these topics in conjunction with the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA), whose aim is to ‘disseminate information on the history of Black people in Britain.’ In 2013, they called out the lack of African and Asian history at primary school level and stated that ‘apart from Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano - Africans appear only when enslaved and then disappear until the arrival of ‘the Windrush generation’. The other two examination boards, Edexcel and AQA, focus primarily on America’s history with racism, most notably with the Civil Rights Movement, the Ku Klux Klan and with the Indians in the West. A friend of mine who studied the Civil Rights for her History A-Level told me that, while her school did examine significant black people in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr., she felt that it would have been more insightful if schools moved the focus away from the U.S. Just because race is such a more predominant issue in the States, it doesn’t mean we should ignore our own issues with it as well, both past and present.
Another issue I have found during my research, is the difference between state and private schools and their inclusion of black and minority group history in the curriculum. A friend of mine who attended both state and private schools in London, expressed how having racially diverse classes allowed for greater discussion on the issue of race, as people could speak about their own experiences. Although limited, she learnt about racial history through Black History Month and also in other subjects, such as the study of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in English, and in Geography, where she learnt about the impact of racial inequality in the pop culture of Brazil, despite the fact that more than half its population is black. In my schools in Sussex, however, where the overwhelming majority of students were white, the discussion of race was most certainly not as prevalent, and the lack of black history and the issue of race in subjects, I believe, aided this. I was never challenged on my view by someone who had had a different experience with race, and so it was never something I gave a lot of thought to, not until the Black Lives Matter campaign took off in America after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and Michael Brown in 2014. Having spoken to former teachers about this issue, it is encouraging to see that changes are happening, and that they too see the whitewashing of history, most notably at primary and Common Entrance level, and that they are trying to change that. A petition in the last few days has been flying around my Facebook wall by other former pupils, calling for anti-racism action and demanding the inclusion of black history, black literature and topics of race in all subjects such as Geography and Religious Studies. While I agree that petitioning your old school is a powerful way to demand change in the curriculum, one must remember that they are provided with a range of topics to choose from but that list is ultimately decided on by the examination boards and the Department of Education. It is these people we must appeal to if we want to see real change in the educational system. It is no longer acceptable to leave it up to the individual schools to ‘have the freedom to teach [black history] from primary school age onwards’ - the teaching of black British history should be as impactful and memorable as my being able to recall the six wives of Henry VIII.
Petition to include Black British History in the national education curriculum: