By erasing Black history, British schools fail everyone

The current education system is built to bury white guilt. Those fighting for it to be reformed tell us why change is vital.

by Douglas Greenwood
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12 June 2020, 4:35pm

Jamaican immigrants arriving at Tibury Docks in Essex, 22 June 1948. Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images.

Lavinya Stennett has spent her life in Britain, but she had to leave it to gain some perspective on how flawed its education system is. During her year abroad in New Zealand, the London-born founder of The Black Curriculum studied Indigenous Land Rights. “I was in lectures, and someone spoke about the way colonialism had erased Māori history from their curriculum,” she says. “I realised the same thing happened in the UK with Black people. It was a global system of erasure, and I knew I had to do something about it.”

When she returned to the UK, Lavinya gathered some friends who were interested in understanding exactly how much Black history and white imperialism had been omitted from the school curriculum in this country. They held focus groups, and realised something: that the stories that form the roots of industrialised Britain had, throughout history, overlooked the vital contributions of Black people and framed the violent acts of white imperialists as something different altogether. Thus, The Black Curriculum was born: an organisation that sets out to educate 8-16 year olds about Black history, and Black peoples’ indelible impact on contemporary society, in schools.

Long campaigned for, this is a subject that gained more attention in the past fortnight, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others at the hands of the US police force. The most common counter-argument for those protesting in the UK was that this was an American issue; that police brutality and systemic racism didn’t exist in Britain quite so callously. “While everyone was pointing the finger to America, I knew the problems originated here,” Joshua Bailey, who launched a petition to have white imperialism and Black history covered more thoroughly in schools says. “If we were going to try and change something, you have to change the root rather than looking at the symptoms and trying to eradicate that. The heart of the problem lies in the UK.”

Any child raised in the British schooling system over the past century or more has learned about their country’s history through rose tinted glasses. We are told stories of nobility: of the entrepreneurial spirit of British men who built prosperous businesses overseas, and brought the “strength” of our own power to places who needed our help.

“People don’t know a lot about it all, and that’s generational,” Lavinya says. “Adults who are twice my age, people my age (18-24), and those younger groups too? They don’t really know anything because the National Curriculum doesn’t have any clear examples of the history of Black people.”

A quick look at educational resources online, like BBC Bitesize, lay out some stark realisations: the names of colonisers are widely documented, the products of their actions framed as positives for Britain without fully contemplating the human sacrifices that came with them. Meanwhile, those enslaved are seen as a collective rather than individual people with important stories to tell. Names like Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who led the Haitian Revolution, are rarely uttered in high school history classes. We hear plenty about Winston Churchill saving Britain from Nazi rule, but little about the genocide he caused by diverting food sources from Bengal to his soldiers, killing between 2-3 million people. When we are taught what happened during Britain’s pillaging of foreign nations, we are seldom told that what happened was wrong.

“There’s been a public outcry that things aren’t right, but because of how rigid the institutional practises are and how much people in power like to uphold them, it’s going to take a fight before we see the consequences,” Joshua says. The institutions are riddled with white guilt; change comes from addressing that, rather than sweeping what makes white people uncomfortable under the rug. “My petition was about changing the curriculum to give a more comprehensive review of the British empire and its imperialist and colonialist history, but after a bit of research, I’ve realised that people have fought to change this many years ago.” In the 1970s, Joshua points out, the Caribbean Education Community Workers Association, based in the North London borough of Haringey, fought for this reform. They even supported the publishing of books that showed how “educationally subnormal” British kids with West Indian heritage were. Change came, but “... there was backlash and attempts to change the curriculum back. [More recently], there was a proposed plan to remove Mary Seacole [a Scottish-Jamaican nurse who helped save soldiers during the Crimean War] from the curriculum in 2012. Something happens, there’s a public outcry, and then things get changed. Then when things die down, there’s an attempt to change them back.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Lavinya adds, “in which we say we’re a multicultural society but don’t really know anything about those cultures.”

Changing the current curriculum should not be a task left solely to Black people when white people in positions of power have been the ones responsible for erasing this history in the first place. How does Lavinya think non-Black allies should help? “By addressing that point of reflection, and asking yourself that very question,” she says. “Often with the intensity of social media, we act fast without thinking where we could be best placed in understanding how structural oppression manifests. Taking the time out to reflect, listen and learn is important. For me, that’s the praxis of change.”

The Black Curriculum also wants to expand the narrative beyond Black peoples’ plight, into their impact on music through Calypso, and cuisine too. They have a near 20-strong team now, with funding raised in the past fortnight -- some thanks to help from Gorillaz -- promising to change that, but their goal remains the same: “To change the national curriculum, and to increase a sense of identity and belonging. For us, there’s no better time to be doing this work. The plan for the year has had to go in the bin, and we’ve had to reanalyse everything in two weeks. We’ll get that meeting [with Gavin Williamson].” What would they like to say to him? “It’s clear to everybody right now that such a change is so necessary. It’s being called for from everywhere; we’ve had hundreds of emails saying this is so welcome. It’s not a case of persuading him, it’s just looking at the evidence. It’s all there.”

There is a phrase that the anti-racist activist Jane Elliott said that rings true here: "People who are racist aren't stupid, they're ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.” Only with a reform of how we learn about Britain’s stained history, and the pivotal part Black people have played in propping up the country -- through culture, and how greatly we are indebted to the Windrush generation -- will we have the opportunity to make that change spread even further.

Support The Black Curriculum by visiting their website here. Sign Joshua’s petition to force Gavin Williamson to change the British school curriculum to address white imperialism and Black history here .

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