Black History Month has come to an end. The month, having been imported from the USA, started in the UK in 1987 in part in response to the narrow history that was taught in schools and the lack of wider public awareness about the contribution of black people to British history. As one, no longer active, Black History Month website put it, “In an ideal world, the month would not be necessary, because educational establishments and the national curriculum would fully recognise and appreciate the contribution of black people throughout history. Sadly that is not the case.” It’s the best publicised year I’ve come across for Black History Month, with national corporations, public bodies and sports teams showing support in a way they have not in previous years. My local Sainsbury’s was replete with bandanas celebrating the month and a stall with books of recommend reading, some of which bore a resemblance to black British history. But just because something has grown in stature does not mean the goal is closer to being realised and custom is not a sufficient justification to continue something.
An issue with Black History Month is takes it learning outside the classroom of an expert history teacher. Isolated, one-off assemblies or tutor time sessions on black British history in October, with random gobbets of information about black British history, can easily be forgotten. If an assembly or celebration event occurs has any impact at all, it will most likely generate episodic memories where students remember how they felt rather than remembering what they learned. Teaching about black history in a classroom with a history expert generates semantic memories that are based on content that students remember. Learning is based on a schema — learning should fit into a wider curriculum where students are directed to relate new learning about black British history to other parts of British history.
There has been a growing appreciation of the importance of curriculum in the last few years, with bodies like Ofsted giving it greater priority, schools reviewing curriculum and a reem of books being published on the topic. Adults looking back at what they learned in schools, bemoaning “only learning about the Tudors and the Nazis” is testament to the primacy of the classroom in shaping our understanding of British history. What is taught about in the curriculum is selected because it demonstrates its importance. What is omitted from the core curriculum is, by its very omission, implied to be less important. It’s the cumulative, unglamorous hours of classroom experience that shape student understanding of the past, not one-off events.
It undermines the seriousness of studying black history if is is seen as somehow separate to the history learned about day to day in the classroom, something that is spoken about in October, forgotten about by November, and rehashed in the following year. As the African American actor Morgan Freeman queried: “you’re going to relegate my history to a month…black history is American history…which month is Jewish history month?” The Holocaust is the only part of the history curriculum that is compulsory at Key Stage 3. Teaching about it in the classroom gives it the learning environment it deserves, rather than learning about it through an imaginary Jewish History month.
It might be said that it’s not a case of either/or. Do the celebratory month and broaden the curriculum. But in school environments where time is the most precious yet finite resource, time would be better spent thinking about and implementing revised curriculums. With celebratory months, there can be a social pressure to do something, and be seen to be doing something in a public way, as opposed to doing the hard graft behind the scenes to think about how to maximise classroom time. When teaching about the Tudors, there’s been a welcome growth in schools to consider black Tudors, in part based on the book Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann. Or Edexcel at GCSE have recently released a new paper option on immigration into Britain through time.
Often history in schools can be excessively focused on the white political elite in British history. One of the reasons we should learn about the experience of minorities is their story is Britain’s story, and to neglect it is to mean an incomplete understanding of British history. But if there is Black history month, why not Asian history month: another significant ethnic minority that’s contribution to British history is neglected? Earlier this year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission acknowledged that between 116,000 and 350,000 black and Asian First World War casualties have not had their names commemorated, with “pervasive racism” being a factor behind the neglect. David Olusoga described it as “one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as a historian”. Black British make up 25% of ethnic minorities in Britain with Asian British making up over double that. It’s not as if British Asian history is embedded in public understanding nor is it often taught at schools. Rather than creating an Asian History month in the arbitrarily selected month, introduce more of in in the curriculum.
Broadening the lens from race and ethnicity, there is also a lack of focus on schools of the typical person in British history, their daily lives and what they cared about, and how many in this group went on to become a an industrial working class, then a politicised group, agitating for political rights a lineage that might be said to link back to the 1644 Putney debates, where Thomas Gainsborough argued: “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he…every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under the government.” Thinking too about women, while the Suffragettes and Suffragists are commonly taught in schools, far more could be done to consider the distinct histories of women proceeding the 20th century. There is only a limited amount of curriculum time to cover all British history in, alongside global history, so careful thought needs to go into thinking about where to maximise impact, and where to balance the need to consider the distinct experience of groups, with building a sense of awareness about a shared national past.
Considering the glorious variety of groups in Britain, and appreciating that individuals are pluralistic, belonging to many groups and not just one, can mean a greater awareness of gaps in our collective understanding of Britain’s history. Addressing these gaps is best done through the daily grind of the classroom rather than one off months in the year.