When I think back to being in school, I struggle to remember more than a handful of instances when Black people, British or not, were mentioned in class. In English, we read John Agard’s poem "Half-caste", and Mary Seacole was mentioned once in passing when we studied Florence Nightingale. We spent maybe a lesson or two in history watching Roots.
Sadly, Britain's national curriculum has remained relatively unchanged from when I started secondary school. Recently, a family friend sent me a photo of their Year Eight child’s history homework sheet. It was on slavery, and showed an illustration published in the US in the 1800s. It depicted a white slave owner standing over a Black man holding a whip. The task for students was to "debate" and "discuss" whether the actions of the slave owner were justifiable.
As people continue to argue that throwing the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour is erasing history, accurately teaching Britain's history of colonialism, empire and racism is more important than ever.
Of course, this is nothing new. Activists have been fighting for a more inclusive national curriculum for years. Last year, Fill in the Blanks, a group started by sixth form students, campaigned for the history of British colonialism to be taught in schools, and a recent petition to make colonial history part of the compulsory curriculum has received over 200,000 signatures. Placards at Black Lives Matter protests in London echo this sentiment, with statements such as: “Teach the reality of Britain's colonial past” and "The UK is not innocent".
So, what would a decolonised national curriculum look like? I spoke to Black educators and activists about the importance of teaching history that encompasses Britain's imperialist past, as well as the contributions of Black British people to our society.
"We can cover the impact of slavery, colonialism and the Empire, but we also need to talk about what happened before that"
Aisha Thomas is a co-founder of the One Bristol Curriculum, a Bristol-based organisation that connects local arts practitioners and historians with schools to create a curriculum that teaches the city's connection to slavery, and the wider role of Britain in the slave trade.
"Children should have a better understanding of Black British history, one that doesn’t solely centre around slavery, civil activism or sport which is a very distorted view of the Black community. We want to ensure that Black history isn’t this tokenistic, once-a-year curriculum thing, but instead have a curriculum that is reflective of the community that it serves.
Instead, [The One Bristol Curriculum] aims to be cross-curricular and also have a wider reflection of society and a Bristol lens to it, especially as Bristol has been a significant place in history for many reasons. Look at current times: many of the children don’t know who Colston was. So, if you’re asking children why they think [that the statue was pulled down], many of them couldn’t answer. Or you’ve got children who don’t know about Roy Hackett, Dr. Paul Stephenson and the bus boycott, and yet we live in Bristol.
In a broader sense, we can cover the impact of slavery, colonialism and the Empire but we also need to talk about what happened before that – the African Kingdom. There are countries in Africa where the influence of slavery was different, but colonialism still had an impact. For example, Kenya’s experience of colonialism is going to be very different to somewhere like Ghana and Nigeria where slaves were taken from. The training that I deliver is about telling staff to think outside of the box. It’s a drip-feed process of getting this information to become the norm. If you’re going to talk about business and finance, why don’t you talk about the richest Black man that ever lived? That can happen. That can be a normal bit of conversation you have when you’re having a business studies lesson. It doesn’t have to be, 'This lesson is going to be about Black people'.
If you just tell children these things in and amongst their usual lessons, it won’t seem like a big deal, it will seem like the norm. I’m trying to challenge people’s ideologies about curriculum. [Black history] should be totally woven into everyone’s everyday thinking, but the current system needs to be dismantled. Most parents are all for it. In fact, they’re saying, ‘How much of the story are you going to tell? If you want to empower my child, empower them across the board’.”
"We can talk to children about the beheading of Henry VIII’s wives but we can’t talk about the violence inflicted on colonial states"
Joycelyn Longdon is a PhD student at Cambridge studying the applications of AI to climate change. She also runs the Instagram page Climate in Colour, which works to make conversations about the environment more inclusive.
“In general, even without the colonisation aspect, climate isn’t taught that well in schools. One thing we lack in education is linking things and actually teaching children how history affects the present.
We don’t talk about things like climate migration, we don’t talk about how people won’t be allowed to move to other countries when they’re being forced out of their country due to drought because of the increasing temperatures, or low-lying islands being flooded because the sea rises. There are so many things that are interlinked which stem from colonialism and industrialisation, which in school are taught as the two pride and joys of Britain. But they are also the sources of so much violence, destruction and death, suffering and oppression in the Global South.
It's very important for children of immigrant families to understand what has actually happened to their people. It’s interesting that we can talk to children about the beheading of Henry VIII’s wives, or the hanging of Guy Fawkes, but we can’t talk about the violence inflicted on colonial states.
For example, places like Kew Gardens have taken so many seeds from around the world under the colonial thought of, 'We’re the only people who can look after these plants, other countries aren’t capable of it in the interest of historical preservation'.
The reason colonialism started from a climate point of view is because Europeans found their land too hard to work and the climate not warm enough or conducive to any fertile land. In the Tropics, the land was really fertile. [Colonisers saw it as] their god-given right to access these lands and grow things like coffee that they wanted but weren’t able to trade with. It’s an economic motivation to colonise those lands.”
"The current national curriculum doesn’t build thematically on the achievements of Black British people"
Michelle Mangal is an educator and part of The Black Curriculum team, an organisation that teaches Black British history to young people around the UK.
“I think there’s a huge support for people wanting change. There are several petitions out there saying that people want Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant to be part of the national curriculum. People are keen for change. In the next ten years, I think it’s foreseeable that the curriculum could reflect a more post-colonial dialogue and also reflect the diversity that we find in the UK today.
The current national curriculum doesn’t build thematically on the achievements of Black British people. What we’ve attempted to do with The Black Curriculum is recognise the achievements that Black British people have had in a variety of different spheres, with a focus on the environment, politics and the legal system and art history. There is that multiplicity and you can see the connection between them, which I think is really important.
It’s important that Black students are given a fuller, more accurate version of history because what they’re seeing at the moment doesn’t reflect them. It’s very negative and that doesn’t help with self-esteem and aspiration. Even for non-Black children, it’s important to see the truth of the matter and how colonialism affected many countries around the world and how that led to empire, and how that empire led to why England is so diverse today. I think a lot of young people and even British adults don’t even realise how England became as diverse as it is.
My dad came over to the UK on a British passport because at the time, St. Lucia was a British colony. They came with offers of work and being a part of the motherland. It was like propaganda, in a way. If a country says, 'You are part of us now, this is your mother country and we want you to come here and work,' you’re not going to say no, are you? Britain is one of the richest countries in the world, of course you're going to come. You’re being invited to come. A lot of miseducation has been happening.
It’s really important for young Black people to understand that there were Black soldiers and nurses and the auxiliary team for women. There were lots of contributions to both World War One and Two from African and Caribbean countries too. But do kids know that when they’re being taught about the World Wars? It looks like it was a big white war.
It’s a thing about the victor being able to write the story and it really has minimised the contributions that other countries had.”