Most of us go to school on autopilot: attending lessons, polishing off assignments and sitting exams till we’re no longer obliged to. You implicitly trust the curriculum – it’s school, right? – and what your teachers drip feed into your malleable little mind. But it’s not often till adulthood that you’re able to grasp the extent to which the classroom can steer your life’s trajectory.
Take me, for instance: In secondary school history, I learnt about the slave plantations in America’s deep south. But I didn’t know just how much my class wasn’t being taught. As I remember it, every effort was made to omit anything that would reflect unfavourably on Britain — including the empire’s focal role in the transatlantic enslavement of millions of Africans.
I’ve known for longer than I’d like to admit that there were tonnes of gaps in the Black history that I was taught in school. Regrettably, it’s only in recent years that I’ve made any meaningful effort to remedy this miseducation beyond headlines, social media chatter and interactions with people who were equally, if not more, misinformed than I was.
I’m not the only one. More and more Black British people are looking to relearn their own history. Just look at some of the popular book releases we’ve had in recent years, like Akala’s bestseller Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, or the appetite for David Olusoga's hard-hitting Black history documentaries. And don’t forget the social media creators like Black British Archives and Black History Studies serving up informative and nostalgic race-related content, amassing huge followings along the way.
As the old adage goes, knowledge is power, and the notion is especially poignant for Black people. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the way Black history is taught in schools feeds into the racial hierarchy entrenched in our society.
“Fundamentally what we have is a very anglicised, Eurocentric curriculum that is situated within the British context, particularly empire,” explains Professor Jason Arday, who teaches sociology of education at the University of Glasgow. “And so really the only time you engage in Black histories within the school environment is either through a subordinated position or an enslaved one. So it doesn’t ever lend itself to Black people with some sort of agency, autonomy, power or independence. It’s always from the point of view of being enslaved, under the narrative of colonial rule.
“But there are other narratives around being Black. And Black history now, post-George Floyd, has been confined to ‘let’s talk about Stormzy’. It’s the same caricatures and stereotypes but in a more sophisticated way. So if we engage with Stormzy, we’re saying that he’s a fantastic musician or whatever, but it still leads into stereotypes that the only thing Black people are good at is music and sport.”
Beyond the clichés, there’s a rich, complex and diverse history that too few Black people are ever really exposed to. That’s something that cultural commentator and UK Black history educator Kayne Kawasaki wants to change. “In my household and my family we’ve always had an awareness, a pan-African-ness, which was attached to my upbringing,” he says. “I remember hearing about Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey and Ghana and Ethiopia which really benefited me. I remember the adults around me saying ‘these things won’t be taught to you at school’ and using that as a reason to tell me about it. For a very long time I was just regurgitating what I was being told, and it took a while for me to then start researching and digging a bit deeper.”
At his school, lessons focussing on Black history were minimal. “The only figure I remember vividly being taught about was Harriet Tubman. There wasn’t anything else.” Kayne, who eventually went on to become a teacher himself, was around 14 years old when he was introduced to Akala’s music, which led him to embark on his own educational journey. “That changed the trajectory of my life when I latched on to Akala and the kinds of things he was talking about in his music.” Today he creates TikToks that centre Black British history for his 27,000 followers and has just launched his Black History and Me collection which features colourful portraits of notable Black figures.
While people like Kayne are able to build on a foundation of historic teachings that are instilled in them from childhood, others have to make sense of and relearn their Black history without any familial reinforcement. Photographer Gifty Dzenyo, who has Ghanaian heritage, was raised by her white foster mum while maintaining contact with her biological parents. “My [foster] mum tried to do the best that she could in raising me but obviously she’s not Black,” says Gifty. “My birth parents tried to educate me a little bit about Ghana but nothing really too deep.
“Now that I’m older I’m trying to explore my identity, and I guess my Blackness, because I wasn’t raised within the Black community until I was in college. I’m just trying to find out more about my identity and I think in doing that I’m learning more about Black history.” She has almost no recollection of Black history being taught at school, and admits she often finds it difficult to teach herself things she feels she should already know. “It’s hard in the sense that a lot of my friends were raised within Black communities so I guess this is like a journey I’m doing by myself.
“But learning about these things is important because you know where you’re coming from. You know the struggles that your people have been through and how you can then navigate to make a better future for not just yourself, but for our kids, our grandkids and our great grandkids. It’s just a sense of identity and knowing that we were and always have been present.”
That presence has been felt in a whole range of places throughout the ages. It’s something that former teacher Yvette Reinfor discovered when learning about Black people who lived in Tudor times. She was so fascinated by this history that she now works with Open House to deliver a free walking tour which explores the lives of five Black Tudors. “We want to change the narrative because it’s always about enslavement, but there’s a before and after,” she says. “I find it enlightening because when I do my walks, unfortunately I don’t attract a lot of Black people. It’s mostly middle class [white] people who want to learn about history because they now realise that things have been missed out.”
According to Arday, there’s much more to be done in order to rebrand Black history education as a necessity for all, as opposed to a need exclusively reserved for Black people. “What kind of curriculum is going out [to students]? How do we better prepare teachers? How do we make the very important point that understanding Black history isn’t for the benefit of just Black people, it’s for the benefit of all citizens in Britain. Because if you’re a white kid and you have an understanding of Black British history, that means you’ll better be able to navigate a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society.
“So this idea that it’s for the Black kids and they need to know their history, yeah that’s a part of it. But a bigger part of it is that we all need to know this history because it’s not history just for Black people – it’s everyone’s history.”