The social climate in which we approach Black History Month this year is different from previous years’. The Black Lives Matter protests have thrown a spotlight on the systemic racism and racial inequality that blights the opportunities of black people.
The protests have encouraged many in the UK not only to confront the country’s past and the racial discrimination in modern society, but also to reflect on how we engage with black history.
Countless protests have been organised around the country, calls to decolonise the curriculum have intensified and young people have actively challenged their educational institutions to diversify what they teach.
While anticolonial and antiracist activism is not new, there is no doubt that the events of this summer have given such activism renewed momentum. It is important that we reflect on this as we engage with Black History Month this year.
Black history is British history
Black History Month was started in the UK in 1987 by Ghanian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. Addai-Sebo, inspired by a similar initiative in the US, wanted to spur others to celebrate black identity and the achievements of African countries.
Over the years, having this designated month has ensured that many of us acknowledge, learn and celebrate black history. However, some might argue that specifying a month for black history not only prevents us from diversifying the curriculum, but also reinforces a misconception that black history is somehow different and separate from our collective history.
Divorcing black history from the rest of Britain’s history is both misleading and disingenuous: it leads us to have a blinkered understanding of British history at large.
Black people and white Britons were interacting long before colonialism, before race was a concept and stories of Africans as “uncivilised” peoples were circulated to justify the slave trade.
Whitewashing black stories from the curriculum
In fact, black people have been living in Britain for more than 1,700 years – before the Germanic tribes the Angles and the Saxons, from whom the English were originally descended, arrived.
People of African heritage were living across Britain during the Roman times: the Beachy Head Lady, who is thought to have died in the third century AD, is believed to have been of sub-Saharan African heritage. And a community of North Africans are known to have guarded a section of Hadrian’s Wall, also in the third century AD.
These were not isolated examples of immigration: there have been many black Britons since. Indeed, black people have contributed to all aspects of our society, from science to the arts, from democracy to religion. But, in all too many cases, their stories have been whitewashed from our curriculum, as a result of systemic racism, which sprang from Britain’s role as a colonial power.
When we engage with black history, we cannot ignore Britain’s role in colonialism and the kidnapping, displacement and enslavement of more than 3 million Africans. We cannot ignore how this plunder and inhumanity has entwined British history with that of Africa and of the descendants of those who were enslaved and displaced: their lives have been shaped by our collective history.
And we cannot ignore how the Britain we now know, its buildings and institutions, were created with money from the slave trade. Indeed, much of our society today is built on the legacy of the slave-trading era – our financial and societal infrastructure continues to benefit from the profits made from African lives, and retains the systemic elements that assume the superiority of the white person.
Redefining our relationship with the past
When we are thinking about black history and how to approach Black History Month, we need to begin by acknowledging that black history is not separate from British history.
British history contains the stories of white people and black people, all of whom have had their paths shaped by the actions of our ancestors. Drawing our history along race lines keeps us stuck in a paradigm of division, separateness and othering.
To move forward, we need to reexamine and redefine our relationship with our past. As with so many things, how we educate ourselves and our young people is critical to this journey. While we continue to celebrate Black History Month to ensure that black voices are not silenced and achievements are not ignored – reducing the risk of these stories being forgotten – we can simultaneously find ways to embed black history into our curriculum throughout the year.
Schools across the country are planning events, assemblies and lessons that foreground the achievements of black Britons. The question for all of us now is how to use Black History Month as a platform to drive sustainable change in the curriculum.
This isn’t just the work of the history department. Sciences, the arts, languages, every subject educator has a responsibility to both diversify and decolonise what they teach, to think about the stories that are traditionally told and those that are ignored.
This means considering where the curriculum can be enriched by including the contributions of black people, as well as reflecting on how colonisation and our telling of it has continued to sideline and negate the black experience.
Decolonisation will be hard to achieve. But, if we are willing to take on this challenge, perhaps we can now collectively work to ensure our curriculum tells a fuller version of our history, so that future generations understand the story of the past, and recognise the value of an inclusive, more just society.
Beki Martin is executive director of Facing History and Ourselves UK, a charity that uses lessons from history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. Resources for teachers – including a recent webinar on Black History Month – are available here