There's far more to black history than Mary Seacole and the Windrush, says John T Gilmore
Black History Month, 1-31 October
The Big Draw, 1-31 October
In the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a portrait of a black man in the typical costume of upper-class Europeans of the early 18th century. He wears a long coat and waistcoat, knee-breeches, stockings, buckled shoes, and his white neck-cloth and long white wig make a striking contrast to the darkness of his features.
Some have criticised the proportions and suggested the picture is a racist caricature. But perhaps the artist was simply not very good at his trade. Or the picture may have been commissioned by the subject as a prestige item: it is clear, as he stands before several shelves crammed with books - his hand resting on an open volume, Newton's Principia, in Latin - that the man is a gentleman and a scholar.
This is Francis Williams of Jamaica, probably the first black writer in the British empire. In the early years of George I's reign he described himself as a merchant of London, and was a member of Lincoln's Inn. He returned to Jamaica in the early 1720s and died there in 1762, but his fondness for writing Latin verses brought him considerable fame later in the century, when his talents became part of the debate on the intellectual accomplishments and humanity of black people. Williams has attracted much attention from writers in academic articles in recent years, but he is probably not the first figure who would spring to mind for most people when asked to think about black history.
As half of an interracial marriage, I am also concerned about what my mixed-race children learn - or don't learn - in school. We live in Coventry, which is a multicultural city, but the only experience of black history my daughters can recall is the same lesson on Mary Seacole. She was not simply a nurse - a black version of Florence Nightingale - but a businesswoman and international entrepreneur, following a worldwide tradition of black women seeking economic independence and success.
At the nearby National Trust property at Charlecote, we can admire the magnificent pietra dura table which belonged to William Beckford, but I have to supply details about how the money which enabled the author of Vathek and creator of Fonthill Abbey to be an art collector came from plantations in Jamaica where sugar was cultivated by enslaved Africans.
Since the opening of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool in 2007, there is rather more public recognition of the importance of the transatlantic slave trade and of slavery in the Caribbean in shaping British history. But it still seems necessary to remind many people that the history of black people in Britain does not begin in the 1950s - there were black soldiers here with the Roman army.
It is also important to be aware of the sheer variety of the black experience. Many people are interested in the histories of sport and of popular entertainment, and the rediscovery of figures like Arthur Wharton (whose appearances for a number of clubs in the 1880s and 1890s make him probably the first black professional footballer) and Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson (the celebrated 1920s and 30s cabaret artiste) is welcome.
But we also need to remember writers - 18th-century ones like Francis Williams and Olaudah Equiano, as well as contemporary literary figures. Historical reference to black music should not neglect major black contributions to classical music, such as the work of composers Joseph de Bologne (the Chevalier de St George) and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
It is also important to see black history in a worldwide context. A "Great Kings of Africa" approach can be unduly simplistic. British schoolchildren of all cultural backgrounds ought to be taught that founders of European culture like the Roman playwright Terence and the great Doctor of the Church, St Augustine of Hippo, were Africans, and to be given some knowledge of pre-colonial African history.
The name of Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali in the 14th century, deserves to be as familiar as that of Charlemagne.
It is good to know about Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement, but how often do we recognise that among the greatest glories of baroque art are the sculptures of the 18th-century mixed-race Brazilian, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as O Aleijadinho ("the little cripple") because his tools had to be strapped to hands deformed by the ravages of leprosy?
Two final points. First, black history, like any other sort of history, should not be just about a selection of great names. We need to remember the millions of victims of the slave trade who remain anonymous; those who remain on the margins of history, like the 18th-century black Londoners in Hogarth's prints. We need to remember that much of the work on that great marvel of modern engineering, the Panama Canal, was done by black men from the British Caribbean colonies. One of my children's great-great- grandfathers was Hinksy Williams, from Church Village, St Philip, one of the thousands of Barbadians who went to Panama and never came back.
Finally, we need to see black people as agents in control of their own destiny. In the Pantheon in Paris, with its dedication "Aux grands hommes la Patrie reconnaissante", the French state has in recent years placed an inscription honouring Toussaint L'Ouverture, the hero of Haiti's war of independence.
By contrast, in this country, there is a tendency to think the ending of the slave trade was the work solely of white abolitionists. But we also need to remember - not just in the International Slavery Museum, but in our classrooms - the resistance to slavery by the enslaved themselves, people like Bussa in Barbados and Sam Sharpe in Jamaica, and their many followers who died in struggles for freedom.
John T Gilmore is an associate professor in the department of English and comparative literary studies at Warwick University, where he is also director of the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies. He is an editor of `The Oxford Companion to Black British History', and a contributor to `African Athena: New Agendas', OUP, published in December.
Black History Month
The Discussion Toolkit is a much-loved teaching tool on TES Resources, which can be adapted for pupils of all ages to structure and encourage lively debate in the classroom.
Visit Liverpool's International Slavery Museum to hear the untold stories of enslaved people and learn about historical and contemporary slavery. liverpoolmuseums.org.ukism
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Slave Rebellions is a historical puzzle about the resistance of enslaved Africans, and calls upon mathematical skills.
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