Black British History – “It’s Like Black People Didn’t Even Exist”

In schools all over this country, we celebrate Black History Month with a solid emphasis on African American history – Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are the only prominent black figures we are taught about, and, if you’re lucky, you might do a one -day – only character study on the more radical Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.

Despite its clear unimportance to the British syllabus, black people have in fact played a pivotal role in British history. Slavery in this country was abolished in 1833, 32 years before it was abolished in the US, and the government of the time paid out £20 million in reparations to slave owners – £16.5 billion today. You read that correctly – slave owners were paid reparations for the loss of their ‘property’ when slavery was abolished, despite the fact that Britain allegedly took a far less severe stance on slavery than our cousins across the pond. According to the Independent, “Some of Britain’s most illustrious stately homes were built or bought with money reaped from slavery”, thus proving that this country benefitted from slave labour, as much as it wants to try and forget about it.

Let’s not forget the African and Caribbean soldiers who were obligated to come and fight for Britain during the Second World War, and then invited from their home countries to the ‘Motherland’ to help rebuild the county post – war. They encouraged to come to Britain under the British Nationality Act of 1948, and were promised good homes and secure, well paid jobs in a society grateful for their sacrifices, only to find that they were given the absolute opposite. It’s for this reason, amongst others, why myself and many other people opt to not wear an iconic symbol of Remembrance Day – the red poppy. During the post – war period, black men and women, who, by right, were citizens of Britain as much as everyone else were subjected to horrific racial attacks, despite their efforts alongside their white counterparts, fighting for the freedom of their country. The poppy has become nothing more than a symbol of nationalism and patriotism for a country who refuses to acknowledge the bravery of the people they called on to help defend their country.
The Royal family’s Remembrance Day tributes at the Cenotaph.

I personally just can’t see how a mass – produced paper and plastic poppy (which, in the current environmental situation, isn’t very well – thought out) is symbolic of the lives lost during the First World War, despite the fact that it has now come to signify the troops in both World Wars and every war thereafter. If it is really a way to honour the the troops that served this country, why not go one step further and not send any more to war? Why not acknowledge Britain’s history of colonialism and the fact that the British government exploited the colonies to the fullest extent?

Heart Of The Race: Black Women’s Lives In Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, depicts accurately the plight of black women in Britain during the post – war period. “It is no exaggeration to assert that without our contribution the NHS would not have survived, even in its present besieged and truncated form. Moreover, it was through our labour in the hospitals that many white workers and patients were first forced to question their own prejudices and assumptions about us”.

It is books like these that give us a real insight into black British history, and we can infer the reason as to why we are not taught about it. British culture and society as we know it really was built on the backs of slaves and people from the colonies.

For the Black Youth Project, Habiba Katsha has explained how “A lot of Black Brits also face the struggle of not knowing our own history. In our schools, we’re hardly taught about our past, and when we are it’s almost always centred around African American history and slavery, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks”. I’ll say it again: we have all been brought up in a society built on the backs of slaves, and yet the history of those people has been blatantly – and deliberately – erased.
Habiba Katsha’s post for the Black Youth Project.

I spoke to Year 7 students, Tia and Kai, about their experiences learning about black history in school. Tia told me: “They only teach us about American black people when it’s Black History Month … I don’t know any black people from England that are historical figures”. Kai corroborated this, and said that “it’s like black people didn’t even exist … all they teach us about it slavery”.

“It kind of makes you feel like you can’t be proud of who you are as a black person in England … only Americans can be proud to be black because they are taught their history and we’re not”, Tia continued. 

British Jamaican student, Cory, told me why he thinks black British history isn’t focused on in schools: “It’s because the British don’t want to be exposed for the cruel things they did to innocent people; they want to be the saviours. They’ve now damaged these [African and Caribbean] countries beyond economic and political repair because they’ve exhausted all the natural resources”.

I know from my own childhood how little black British history is valued. Octobers in primary school would revolve around writing an “Africa – inspired poem” or learning about why Rosa Parks is a historical icon. Yet, for the most part, we spent the month learning about the Harvest festival, and why seasonal vegetables are oh so important.

You can see the profound impact that the lack of black British history taught in schools really has on children. According to an anonymous contributor for the National Union of Students ‘Race for Equality’ report, “Minority ethnic group students feel excluded from the educational process and this leads to natural withdrawal from the system. They are perceived to be disinterested, and as a result little effort is made to develop these students”, suggesting that not only does a lack of relevant historical teaching have a negative impact on self – confidence, but it also has a profound impact on how BAME – with an emphasis on black – students perform academically.

If the only thing you learn about your ancestors is that they spent over 300 years in horrifically violent and deprecative captivity, what will it do for your self – perception other than predispose you to low self – confidence and racial trauma passed down from generation to generation?

The National Curriculum needs a complete overhaul: accurate and inclusive history should be taught at the forefront of the syllabus like Maths, English, Religious Studies and the Sciences are, in order to nurture our young black British generation.

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