The version of the British Empire I was taught in schools was totally different to what my parents taught me. My dad always said, “we don’t have to be taught our history by the British. Let me teach you.” He told me of the atrocity of the Bengal Famine, Partition, Subhas Chandra Bose, my parents’ family who took part and lost their lives in the struggle for Indian Independence, the Indian soldiers who fought for the British during WW2. It was neither pretty nor forgiving. It was not about how charming Lord Mountbatten and the British rulers were. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have reignited the debate about decolonising education.
The people of Bristol knew all about the slave owner Edward Colston, whose statue was dumped into the Bristol channel by protesters in June. As the Historian David Olusoga noted, Bristolians of African descent who walked past the statue every day were likely to be descendants of the slaves brought to Bristol on one of Colston’s ships. So, the question that has returned to prominence about, especially but not only, history teaching in schools is, in a country with such diverse and multicultural communities, shouldn’t the history that is taught reflect this?
The movement to decolonise education began in the 1950’s during the struggles against colonial rule mostly in Africa and efforts to introduce a more internationalised history have ebbed and flowed since. In 1987, Black History Month began, when Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai Sebo, a special projects officer at the Greater London Council, organised the first celebration, now an annual event. Under pressure to include multicultural elements in curricula, in 2014 as the government remodelled the National Curriculum, then Tory education secretary Michael Gove claimed he wanted to “celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world”.
As a result, specific courses on Black history became an optional subject. In 2015, students from the University of Cape Town started the Rhodes Must Fall movement, more recently picked up by students at Oxford University. This has culminated — thanks to BLM protests during June — in pledges to remove the statue of the arch white supremacist Cecil Rhodes from outside Oriel College in Oxford. Many of the black and minority ethnic students I have worked with are angry by the fact that history frames black people as victims and rarely as the masters of their own fate. Few are taught about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slave rebellion, or of how half a million black soldiers fought for the union army to end slavery in the American Civil War of the 1860s.
Black people as an agency for change is suppressed by bourgeois history. How much richer our understanding of the world would be if the history of the sophisticated cultures in Africa and Asia before the days of European colonialism were taught. The histories of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire are almost compulsory subjects, planting the idea that these “white” civilisations are the birth of modern civilisation, ignoring African and Asian civilisations that pre-date them. Modern history, from the Second World War on, hardly acknowledges the vital contribution to postwar reconstruction made by immigrant populations such as the thousands of workers arriving from the Caribbean, the so-called Windrush generation.
The BLM potentially changes that. Educational establishments, schools, colleges and in some cases communities are being challenged by staff, students and anti-racist activists demanding a far more open and diverse approach to the teaching of British history. We need to know that William Cuffay, a leader of the Chartist movement in the 1840s, was black. We want to hear about the mill workers of Rochdale who stood in solidarity with black slaves fighting to end slavery during the American Civil War. When I first started teaching, maths teachers used a system called SMILE, an initiative taken by progressive maths teachers in the 1970s to make maths a more diverse and inclusive subject. We engaged in collaborative projects with the art department looking at Islamic Art or referencing art from across the world.
English teachers know that teaching literature is made more relevant and powerful by including a more diverse range of writers reflecting the multicultural backgrounds of our students. Education must be about information and knowledge, but equally it must also give students the skills to become critical thinkers and to question everything. Currently, the straight jacket of curricula constrains us from doing this. The calls to decolonise education resulting from the BLM protests gives us the opportunity to break this hold. We need a new discussion about Black History Month in schools. Although this was initially seen as a positive move, many now feel it is not enough. Decolonising the curriculum gives us the opportunity to incorporate black history into every aspect of the curriculum throughout the year.
Students need to feel seen where they were not seen before. Students are already at the head of the climate change movement. Now they can join with teachers to take a lead decolonising education.
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