On-line odyssey

7th February 1997 at 00:00
A history of the 'Black Holocaust' in the British colonies is about to hit our television screens. In a tie-up with the BBC, The TES's Web site will be backing the series by carrying support material and offering viewers a platform on which to debate the issues it raises. Maureen McTaggart sets the scene

In his short life Peter Dalton has heard many stories of his grandfather's life "back home" in Jamaica. But the 13-year-old from Nottingham knows his ancestry goes back much further, and that many of his forebears were slaves who were transported from West Africa to the West Indies.

So, following in the tradition of his ancient cousins, he calls on Ameena, a griot, to tell him the story of his people. But unlike the griots, aged historians who used to go from one village to another with their stories, this 20th-century raconteur uses multimedia technology and the Internet.

Ameena, played by Yvonne Brewster, director of Talawa Theatre, is all-seeing, all-dancing, completely tooled up, on-line and hip. She has been created by the BBC education department to star in a new five-part series on black history that concentrates on black historical figures originally from British colonies.

Karen Johnson, who is producing the Black Peoples of the Americas series, which is designed to link with the national curriculum non-European history study unit, says: "We wanted to create a file mostly based on people black children in this country could identify with. A lot of them have heard of Martin Luther King but they don't identify with him. They want to hear about the exploits of other West Indians."

To coincide with the launch of the series, the BBC has also created a History File Web site on the Internet, with interactive exercises that include detective work about one of the key characters in the series, Olaudah Equiano.

Researchers discovered that the portrait always used to depict Equiano - a writer and one of the major players in the abolitionist movement in Britain - might not be of him at all. They are now challenging pupils to prove or disprove their theory by studying the portrait, painted by Gainsborough, and comparing it with the clothes that would have been worn at the time he was alive (the 18th century) and where he actually was in the world.

For the next month, The Times Educational Supplement will also be offering an on-line tie-up with the series. A section of The TES's Internet site will feature support material for the series and links to relevant on-line resources around the world. This will include an archive of articles about black history, to be published in The TES. If readers or viewers want to discuss issues related to teaching black history, they can use the Internet Staffroom, an electronic noticeboard on The TES's site. It is hoped this discussion will include international contributions, as The TES on-line edition now has readers in 88 countries.

One of the most interesting links is with the National Portrait Gallery's Web site. The gallery is running a series of biographical exhibitions (until May), one of whose subjects is Ignatius Sancho, a slave who rose to become one of the 18th century's best-selling writers and composers.

Reyahn King, curator of the Sancho exhibition, says: "If children are going to be looking at a Web site on black history, it's good for them to know there is a place they can go to right now in London and look at images of the black presence in later 18th-century England."

Chris Durbin, education officer at the BBC, says: "We hope to encourage teachers to get involved in discussions about issues and practices and perhaps suggest constructive ways in which the programmes can be used."

The USA has a strong tradition of black historiography, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to give up her seat in the blacks-only section of a bus to make room for white passengers, thus sparking the landmark Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

But what of black people in British history? We know that slaves were sold in 18th-century England, but textbooks don't mention the part played by black people in the abolition of slavery, from the Jamaican Maroons, who gave the plantation owners merry hell, to Olaudah Equiano.

"We have been aware of the black British men and women who helped shape this country and risked their lives to end slavery, but unfortunately their achievements have been overshadowed by the American experience," says Karen Johnson. "All we were left with was the picture of colonial independence where rights were conferred on non-white peoples by white activists."

In Black Peoples of the Americas, Ameena leads Peter on a journey that begins in 1747, the year Olaudah Equiano was born. After a brief chat with the young Equiano, who tells him about his capture at the age of 10 and how he successfully bought his freedom for Pounds 40 at the end of the century, Peter joins Betty, a field hand on a plantation in Jamaica, and Mary Prince, the militant slave woman who seems to have spent most of her life trying to escape captivity. His journey ends with the abolition of slavery and the emergence in the 19th century of Marcus Garvey, Jamaica's first national hero.

The 20-minute programmes for key stage 3 history are intended to give a glimpse of what many black people refer to as the "Other Holocaust" and to expose the murkier side of Britain's industrial revolution; for example, the fact that the cotton spun in Blake's "Satanic mills" was picked by slaves.

"The programmes are all about people remembering their links with another continent," says Karen Johnson. "When Peter asks the question 'How far have we come?' it is for teachers to take on that discussion and engage children in talking about how relevant the history of slavery is to Britain today."

Harnessing the power of the global networks of the Internet through The TES's and other Web sites opens up the debate in new and exciting ways and creates possibilities for unearthing new material. Hook up and get browsing.

* The BBC Education Web site is at http:www.bbc.co.uk.education The TES Web site is at http:www. tes.co.uk

The National Portrait Gallery Web page for Ignatius Sancho is at http:www. npg.org.uksancho. htm

* Black Peoples of the Americas, Mondays, 1pm, BBC2, February 10-March 17

* "Raising Achievement: Combating Racial Inequality", a one-day conference co-sponsored by The TES, takes place on February 25. See page 28 for details

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