“As a young person growing up in school in Britain, one of the things that made me angry – and I guess in some way led to me going to prison, because me being angry led to being on the streets, led me to when a copper confronted me, laying him out, that kind of stuff – was that nobody cared. The teachers probably cared for me, but my history, which I knew a little bit of, was not important.”
Benjamin Zephaniah is 57 years old. We like to tell ourselves that we’ve come a long way in terms of racial equality since he was at school. Yet, talking to the poet, it’s clear that we have not come as far as we think. Our curriculum is still not as inclusive as it should be, he says, and October’s annual Black History Month is a symptom of the problem rather than a solution.
Zephaniah will be familiar to most teachers. He is a professor of poetry and creative writing at Brunel University London, but he is best known for the poetry, plays and novels that have enthralled adults and children since his first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published in 1980 when he was just 22.
His take on Black History Month is an interesting one. For many, BHM is about addressing the very absence that affected Zephaniah so deeply as a young man. First established in the US in 1926 as Negro History Week, to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionists Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, BHM was brought to the UK in 1987 by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo of the Greater London Council. It is now an annual fixture run by many schools aiming to educate children about black history.
A month is not enough
Before talking to Zephaniah, I thought of BHM as a worthy but optional part of a school’s extracurricular offer. After speaking to him, I’ve revised that opinion completely.
“I actually don’t think schools should have a Black History Month,” he says. “[But] we need one now because black history is not an integral part of the history we get taught in schools. If we didn’t have Black History Month, we wouldn’t have any black history.
“People use BHM as an excuse to dump everything there and try and get everything done in a month. It’s not possible. I think the history of black people is a massive thing that’s bigger than African history, that’s bigger than Caribbean history. You could never teach all of it, just like you could never teach all of the history of white people.”
Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman has denounced BHM for another reason. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” he said. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
Zephaniah agrees. “Black history is almost sold as if it’s something to help black kids, to give them self-esteem,” he says. “I can see the point, but it’s just as important for white people, because some people will have a very narrow view of what black history is…When we talk about slavery, we talk about the slaves being given freedom, as if we were born slaves and we didn’t have a long history before slavery; we weren’t human beings.
“Slavery was imposed upon us and even when we talk about slavery, unfortunately it’s still so much about [William] Wilberforce,” says Zephaniah. “It’s never about the great people like Nanny of the Maroons, Paul Bogle, Toussaint L’Ouverture. All these people fought against slavery and actually made people sitting in Hull and all these places know what was going on, telling all their real stories and personal struggles.’’
What school doesn’t tell you
Robbed of access to their own history, black students seek out alternative educational sources, Zephaniah says. “Where did I hear about these people? Reggae records. Bob Marley and stuff like that. That’s why I knew our history wasn’t the one we were being told…it was more than what we were told in school.”
And there is another source of knowledge: supplementary schools. “They’re literally just schools in people’s front rooms where black people go,” he says. “When I left school it was a really big thing because it was people of my generation setting them up, like we’d come from school and we knew nothing about ourselves. And if you were lucky you could rent a community hall, but usually it was people’s front rooms.
“I was talking about this the other day to people who attend them, and they were saying, ‘White kids go as well now, to learn about black history, stuff that you won’t get taught.’ ”
Emerging in the 1960s, supplementary schools were an extracurricular antidote to a white, Eurocentric narrative that celebrated itself at the expense of other stories and cultures. Zephaniah says the impact of the continued absence of black history in the mainstream of education – which, in his opinion, BHM can only partially remedy – cannot be underestimated.
“If you are constantly told that your people haven’t achieved anything – that they need civilising by the white man, and are savages and need Christianity, and some may even say Islam, because in a way they’re both foreign to Africa – then you begin to feel, especially as a young kid, that you can’t achieve. That this is your place.”
History to be proud of
Zephaniah says this has a corrosive effect on black children’s self-image. “I’ve had to talk to gangs of kids, 15 years old, who are sitting there, tooled, guns in their pockets, who are saying, ‘In this country we’re not going to get anywhere.’ Their selfesteem is low. What they think they can achieve is low. They’d love to be rappers. But they know they aren’t all going to be a Dizzee Rascal. So they’re just going to be street rascals.”
The problems need to be taken more seriously and addressed with some urgency, Zephaniah says. He wants a more even pick of the history we choose to teach. And he is not just calling for black history to be threaded into the curriculum, but also the other narratives we need to educate our children about.
“We get the history of the government and the Establishment. Of course I want to know how Parliament came about. But I’m also interested in other things, too: what about the history of the Occupy movement? I know that didn’t come out of nothing.”
It’s crucial to move beyond Black History Month to a broader, fully integrated history curriculum sooner rather than later, Zephaniah says.
‘This is really, really important,” he concludes. “I say this as someone who was an angry young black man, who’s now an angry old black man. When I discovered various aspects about the history of black people, I felt so enlightened. I walked with my head up and it was: ‘Wow.’ ”
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert. Read his column on page 21
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