‘Black History is British History’! This is something that I heard from my mentor, Martin Spafford during my teacher training session on diversity at the Institute of Education during my training year in 2014. I remember listening eagerly to the sessions because I could not understand the link between Black history and British History. For me, Black history had never really existed. I did not study it during my A-levels and I was not fortunate enough to be chosen to study the only module on US civil rights during my undergraduate year. History had always been something that I had a bittersweet relationship with. I remember coming across the infamous figure of Henry VIII in year 4, and I found him so interesting! I guess my love for History was truly birthed at this point. However, my relationship with this subject remained tainted because the first and only time I encountered someone like me in the grand narrative of History was during the Transatlantic slave trade. I remember looking through the textbook whilst I was in year 8. I saw the famous picture of Frederick Douglass with the wounds on his back. I remember seeing Thomas Clarkson’s illustration of dimensions of the slave ships. I remember looking around the classroom with embarrassment. A harrowing feeling in my chest.
You see, I tended to always come across kings and queens in the classroom. If not members of royal families, I would come across significant individuals who are remembered today and resulted in major change. But the problem was that all these individuals were white. None of them looked like me. The people who did look like me were people without agency. Without names. I was presented a history of a people to which nothing was offered to me that I could truly be proud of. Truly claim to be my own. It would have been great to know that these pictures actually helped in the abolition process. It would have been amazing to have encountered individuals such as John Blanke, Diego and Jacques Francis whilst studying the Tudors. Now I do not tell my story to criticise my teachers or to come across as preachy. I truly believe that my teachers were instrumental to whatever success I have achieved. And ultimately, a person only knows what they know. There was no conclusive evidence to prove the suspicion held by Peter Fryer that “Africans were here (in Britain) before the English came”. So I hold no negativity towards anyone. I don’t want to blame people and I recognise that change is a process, rather than an event. However, I hope that I have painted a picture that reflects the educational experiences of some black children and parents.
You see, it is important to teach Black history for a number of reasons. Though I am hesitant to say that the experiences that I encountered were ubiquitous, they certainly have long term effects. In 2015 History was the third most unpopular subject for undergraduates of African and Caribbean descent. In that year also, there were only three black teachers who qualified. This is incredibly interesting because I have found that History is very much respected and valued at a community level. I regularly have conversations with people who are my age and older, and I also find that they are fascinated by History. The moment I mention that I am a History teacher in my local barber’s the whole shop goes quiet and eagerly listens to stories that I have to tell about the past. However, when I ask people for the reasons why they do not study history beyond GCSE, they often tell that it is because they struggle to identify with the characters that they are presented with from the past and so are not interested in it. Therefore, a major reason to teach history is to inspire more people from African and Caribbean backgrounds to study the subject at undergraduate level and hopefully pursue careers in teaching and academia. In this way, we are more likely to unearth and come across more stories that paint a truly reflective picture of our country’s story.
Also, for me the teaching of Black history is also important because it allows teachers to present an interpretation of History that I find is more historically accurate to this country. The concept of ‘Britishness’ being linked to whiteness is firmly challenged when looking back at the past. Individuals like ‘Cheddar Man’ show that being British was not white. Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood presents the argument that immigration was a massive issue in the 1960s. A Tory MP famously used the slogan “if you want a nigger as a neighbour, vote Labour”. These toxic and hostile views towards immigration and immigrant communities can truly be challenged and address through the teaching of Black history. Students can learn that immigration has always been a major theme in British History. I believe that it would be important to teach subjects like this as it would help to challenge negative views around immigration.
The teaching of Black history will benefit everyone from all backgrounds in my opinion. It could foster people from all demographics to research their own communities. It will also help to dispel negative stereotypes that some people hold towards people of colour. If more work can be done around amazing civilisations such as the Kingdom of Benin and Kongo, there will be a better understanding of Britain’s place in the world and the impact that the Transatlantic slave trade and subsequent British Empire had on Britain and the other countries in the world.
I firmly believe that more work should be done around Black history and the teaching of the British Empire. However, I recognise that this can go wrong without support and training. There is currently a big push for more Black history to be taught. I am of course a supporter of this, but I would firstly like to see a centre of teacher training and excellence created, similar to the one created for the Holocaust. This will help to quality assure the teaching and resources to equip teachers in delivering topics of a sensitive nature. It will also increase subject knowledge around different areas and hopefully build a level of confidence that allows teachers to engage in tough conversations like those around race.
There are many teachers who have been delivering quality resources on Black history and I would urge people to follow them. Most of my resources are not original and have come from the excellent minds of such as Martin Spafford, Justice 2 History and Dan Lyndon.
There are many ways to approach Black history and I do not believe that there is one way to do it. However, I have seen approaches that I greatly admire. I would urge people to resist the temptation of only teaching Black history during Black History Month. I recognise for some regions this is the only option. However, if you are able to, I would really recommend weaving it in with your overall enquires. This prevents it from appearing as merely tokenism. Hannah Cusworth has created an amazing curriculum at her school and has managed to ensure that the students’ education is historically rigorous, grounded in scholarship, substantive knowledge and the second order concepts that drive the discipline as teachers.
One of the enquiries that I love from Hannah explores what students can learn about the Africans in Tudor Britain from the evidence left behind! This allows students to draw complex judgments from the evidential thinking, but it also allows them to understand that the stain of racism in terms of blackness and whiteness was not a fixed mark in British History. Rather, race as we know it today is inextricably linked to the Transatlantic slave trade.
This links to the enquiry that I design with a friend, Thabo Stuck as part of my fellowship with the Historical Association, Justice 2 History, Kate Donnington, Nick Draper and Toby Green. Our enquiry was entitled “How far did the transatlantic slave trade underdevelop west Africa?”. This enquiry was inspired by Walter Rodney’s seminal book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” and Toby Green’s “A Fistful of Shells”. Our aim in creating this enquiry was firstly to explore African civilisations prior to the slave trade. Students were able to understand how advanced kingdoms within west Africa were at the time, but also the relationship that Africa had with Europeans. This was a relationship in which the African Kingdoms were at the start very much the ones with the power. As Europeans often died as a result of tropical diseases they also often had to seek protection from rival kingdoms within west Africa and they needed the permission of the local chiefs at the time to start trading. The enquiry takes the students along this journey where they are able to not only see how Africa was underdeveloped, but also how major European industries grew as a result of the work of the enslaved Africans and the resources that were produced. The hope is that it allows students to make more nuanced judgements about the past.
It’s difficult to conclude as I could probably write a book on the importance of Black history. What I will say is that it is important for all students to recognise the contributions of people of colour to this island and for them to know that ‘Britishness’ is not inextricably linked to ‘whiteness’. Hopefully in the delivery of more Black history, more students will decide to study the subject at undergraduate level and this will hopefully filter down into our classrooms.
About the Author
Josh is former beneficiary and now long serving volunteer for Reaching Higher. He first studied a Bachelor of Arts degree in History at Queen Mary University of London, after which he embarked on his teaching journey at The Institute of Education University College London. He is the Deputy Head of the History Department at a prestigious London school. He was previously the International Co-ordinator, and led an A-level module on African American Civil Rights in his former school. Josh has played a key role in developing a Key Stage 3 curriculum that reflects the backgrounds of his student body. His work embeds Black British History, Medieval African Kingdoms and the US Civil Rights struggle.
Josh has worked on a number of inspirational projects with respected individuals within the Black History field. He has worked with Professor Hakim Adi and contributed to the Young Historians project, focusing on raising the awareness of the contributions of Black people in Britain and educating schoolteachers on the same. He also chaired a conference on the progress of Black British Education and was fortunate enough to introduce historian Onyeka Nubia as a key speaker. Josh worked on a project with Miranda Kaufmann and Jason Todd in teaching the story of Black Tudors in the classroom, and also carried out collaborative work focused on developing several lessons and presentations at both the Historical Association and Schools History Project annual CPD conferences – the two biggest history teacher-training conferences in the country. He has also worked with leading teachers in the field such as Martin Spafford, Dan Lyndon, Dr Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud in raising the awareness of the importance of Black History in schools.
Josh’s most recent attainment is obtaining a Fellowship from the Historical Association by working with Justice 2 History and Dr Toby Green from King’s College London to complete the Fellowship course on the British Transatlantic Slave Trade. He then created an enquiry that examined the extent to which the Slave Trade underdeveloped Africa. The enquiry was based on Walter Rodney’s book and acted as a resource for future teachers to use when approaching this topic within the classroom.