Teaching Our Hidden History

man and woman sitting on chairs

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May was the catalyst for a discussion about race which has reached around the world. But this isn’t new and the subject of race hasn’t suddenly become important in the past week. Racism has been established for centuries and white privilege has enabled it to become utterly entrenched in our lives. It’s three decades since I grew up with news headlines about the brutal beating of Rodney King, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Systematic racism has continued to be at the centre of countless news stories including, most recently, the Windrush Scandal, the Grenfell tragedy, and now the fact that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the Black and ethnic minority communities. George Floyd’s name is just one on a shockingly long list of lives that have been lost because society is balanced so disproportionately against those who are not white. The only way we can change this is not just to disagree with it, but to openly fight against it.

One of the ways that we can engage with that fight is by making sure that our education system shares a complete view of our history, even the parts that we are ashamed to admit. I’m going to focus in this post on the ways that we can actively participate in making a change and widening the history curriculum to which British children are exposed.

Slaves cutting the sugar cane on the Island of Antigua, 1823
Photo by British Library / Unsplash

Earlier this week the writer and broadcaster Emma Dabiri tweeted “The history of how the English created race in the colonial Caribbean is as much British history as the Tudors. Its legacy is arguably far longer reaching.” And yet, in spite of its importance, this crucial part of our history is far less known and understood than that of the Tudors, or the Victorians, or even the Great Fire of London.

A couple of days before Dabiri’s tweet, the Impact of Omission survey had also appeared on my Twitter thread. This had been set up to ask those who had grown up in the UK school system what they had been taught in their history classes.

Today, just four days later, more than 50,000 people had responded and that number is still growing. You can contribute by filling the survey in here. The results are available for everyone to see on their website here.

Their findings are very clear. 72.1% of people claim to have been taught about the Battle of Hastings but only 9.9% to have learnt about the role of slavery in the Industrial Revolution. 86.2% were taught about the Tudors and only 36.6% were taught about the Transatlantic slave trade. Those are shameful statistics. And it’s not just an accidental omission. As the Impact of Omission website says, the history of British colonisation and slavery has not been a compulsory part of our curriculum since 2013 thanks to then Education Secretary Michael Gove. By not making these subjects a part of the current curriculum, those who benefit from their privilege are actively hiding history from those who could learn from it and bring about deep cultural change.

The aim of the Impact of Omission project is to petition Parliament to bring about change in the history which is taught in British schools. Their petition reached its target in less that 48 hours and will now be considered for debate in Parliament.

They’re also not the first people to address the issue of the lack of diversity in the school history curriculum. In 2018 The Black Curriculum was formally established to actively bring Black history programmes into schools without waiting for a change in the law. From art history to migration to the legal system their syllabus is available to all schools. You can find out more about their brilliant work here.

So, what can you do? There are numerous ways that you can affect change and support your family in being a part of that change too.

We can’t just rely on our schools to tackle the history of colonialism and slavery. We have to be willing to teach it at home as well. Educate yourself. Put yourself in a position where you can talk to your children about why race is such an important issue. Children are seeing the shocking brutality which protesters are being met with in America at the moment; it’s on the news and all-over social media. We need to be able to have these discussions, especially those of us who are white and benefit from the privileges which our skin colour affords us. Black Lives Matters have a brilliant list of information about how you can educate yourself and a huge list of education resources. You can find them here along with details of other ways you can help and where you can make donations.

And we also have to be prepared to have awkward conversations with friends and family members who might use racial slurs because they’re ‘only words’, or who might dismiss slavery as ‘something everybody did back then’, or who refuse to watch a period drama because a black cast member ‘just doesn’t seem plausible’ to them. It isn’t good enough for our kids to see us let that be OK even if they know we don’t agree.

Widen your horizons and support BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) creators by reading different books and watching different films. And that doesn’t mean that you should only support slavery narratives. It means you should show up when David Oyelowo is cast as the lead in Les Miserables (one of Napoleon’s generals was the son a Haitian woman so, if anyone tells you a black policeman is historically inaccurate, tell them about Thomas Alexandre Dumas), or when Crystal Clarke plays a character in a Jane Austen adaptation for ITV. Read about black history and support those publishers who create those books. David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair, and Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story are all great places to start.

You can write letters to local schools, to your MP and to the current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson. Both Impact of Omission and The Black Curriculum have provided template letters that you can use. These are available on their websites here and here.

Writing with a fountain pen
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

You can also sign petitions whenever possible. A petition calling for black history to be taught in Welsh schools has already received enough signatures that it will now be debated in Senedd. A change.org petition calling for British children to be taught about the realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism can be found here. And, as I mentioned above, Impact of Omission are also about to launch their own petition for change.

According to the often-Instagrammed Angela J. Davis quote, ‘In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.’ There is so much work to do before we reach a permanent change but we have a responsibility to ensure that our children are fully informed of the history which has shaped their culture. We owe it to them to give them the tools to be anti-racist as much as we need to equip ourselves with them.