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Rebalancing the History Books: Why Learning About Colonialism Matters

To mark the start of Black History Month 2021, Almaz Ohene meets inspirational leaders in the younger generation fighting back against the Government’s divisive ‘culture war’

Winston Churchill arrives at Church House to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of Westminster. Photo: PA Images

Rebalancing the History BooksWhy Learning About Colonialism Matters

To mark the start of Black History Month 2021, Almaz Ohene meets inspirational leaders in the younger generation fighting back against the Government’s divisive ‘culture war’

The publication of the Government-commissioned Sewell Report into race and ethnic disparities in March saw the politically aware consumed with incredulity and anger at findings, which across 250 pages, appeared to negate pre-existing evidence of institutional racism in Britain.

It came just weeks after the then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’, whose mandate would be to include a warning to bodies and institutions – such as the National Trust, Historic England, and the British Museum – against taking steps to decolonise British history. 

Sadly, it has become abundantly clear that the Government is clamping down on the development of forward-thinking ideas with its confected ‘culture war’. Through the use of propaganda, it is taking steps to entrench the divisive identity politics of establishment mindsets. Appealing to liberal values with concepts such as a free speech is a carefully crafted move that wields the language of democracy as a cunning mechanism of control.

Inadvertently, through these actions, Boris Johnson’s administration has demonstrated its awareness of the power of language, as well as its urgent attempts to make sure it continues to work in their favour.

But the members of Generation Z are working to change this.

Last November, the Petitions and Women and Equalities Committees hosted a meeting on ‘black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum’, which saw a wealth of viewpoints presented regarding approaches to history − viewpoints that argued we need not always centre white Britishness in our teaching.

I spoke to four young women in attendance to hear their thoughts on why learning about colonialism matters.

Cynthia Muthoni is a 23-year-old University of East Anglia student who launched the petition ‘add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums’ last June. She went on to win a Petition Campaign of the Year award this year.

“Being a young black woman who grew up in the UK, I have experienced and witnessed racism throughout my life,” she says. “When I was 15, I became really interested in politics and went on to study it at university. It has provided me with knowledge on the different systems and process, like petitioning, as well as exposing me to more instances of racial inequality and resources.

“The catalyst for my petition was the tragic murder of George Floyd. I wanted to attend a local Black Lives Matter protest, but I’m classified as vulnerable to COVID-19 so I didn’t think it would be wise in the height of the pandemic. My friend said you should start a petition about it, and I did.

“In my school, we studied Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966), which acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre and gives a deeper understanding into Caribbean and Creole culture. The way Jean Rhys was able to take this classic novel and provide a nuanced perspective by making the minor and under-developed character of Bertha (the first Mrs Rochester) the protagonist of her novel, was absolutely inspired.” 

Cynthia Muthoni

Last October, Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equalities, stoked a bitter debate on critical race theory when she asserted that the Government does not want white children being taught about “white privilege and their inherited racial guilt”. 

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan, both 20, are the founders of Impact of Omission, an initiative that campaigns to get the teaching of the British Empire into schools. They are also the duo behind the petition ‘teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum’.

“I think Kemi Badenoch’s comments are interesting, in that most people take huge issue with hypothetical white children feeling hypothetically upset in classrooms, but to date have not spared a thought for the real black children who sit in classrooms every day feeling real sadness, and actually feeling othered, due to the way education, as it currently stands, centres the white child,” says Jikiemi-Pearson.

One example which highlights this is the teaching of wartime narratives. The Allied Forces’ victory in the Second World War is often placed front and centre both within the national curriculum and also in mainstream popular culture at large. But certain historical facts regarding the Commonwealth battalions who also served in the name of ‘Crown and Country’ are repeatedly omitted from the discourse.

Blockbuster movies such as Dunkirk (2017), which claim to be meticulously researched, present a whitewashed interpretation of historical warfare. For many young people, popular culture shapes their perception of the world alongside what they take from school books and history lessons.

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

One of the Sewell report’s recommendations was the ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource, which “looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period”. The report said that it wanted to see “how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain”. Yet, on further investigation, these materials are only available as a companion to the AQA ‘A’ Level history syllabus.

“One of the facts I feel was repeated to me constantly was how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb,” Jikiemi-Pearson says. “And it would be so easy to tell children about Lewis Latimer’s contribution, as he who invented the carbon filament that was used in the light bulb. And to mention James Edward Maceo West, who co-invented the microphone, in the same breath as Alexander Graham Bell. Mary Seacole is starting to get the recognition she deserves, but she should be on the level of Florence Nightingale by now in terms of children knowing her story.”

Nell Bevan is of Caucasian heritage and able to frame her experience of a white-centred education without guilt clouding the strong feelings that she has regarding these complex issues. She disagrees with Badenoch’s comments.

“As a white person, I’m more angry and upset that I wasn’t taught black narratives, history and culture at school, than I am guilty,” she says. “In Germany, the atrocities of the Holocaust are taught to children not to make them feel guilty, but to show them how far we’ve come and, crucially, how far we have to go. How can we urge children to fight racism and be anti-racist if they’re not even taught why it exists?”

The Black Curriculum is a grassroots organisation which was founded as a response to the incontrovertible centring of white Britishness in UK schools. Its founder Lavinya Stennett’s impetus to launch the initiative stemmed from travelling to New Zealand to study. There she admired the New Zealanders’ commitment to engaging with indigenous Māori culture, and she wanted to do something similar once back in Britain.

She set out to create The Black Curriculum a couple of days after she returned in January 2019, with the help of post-graduates Bethany Thomas and Lisa Kennedy. 

Nell Bevan

The Black Curriculum has a YouTube channel that features short, animated educational films spotlighting lesser-known historical figures such as abolitionist Mary Prince; Lilian Bader, who was one of the first black women to join the British armed forces; and Fanny Eaton, who was a model for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. 

Eleshea Williams, a former media and communications manager of The Black Curriculum, says: “All of us, teachers included, are a product of our own education. So, if teachers haven’t been taught black history, then they’re not necessarily going to feel as confident teaching those topics. And I think that by stating that black history – which is an integral part of British history – is optional, it’s teaching our young people that their history isn’t valued, or that they don’t matter.” 

It can often be the case that having lived experience of marginalisation enables politically-minded women to acknowledged other sites of oppression, and, ultimately, work towards exposing complicity through activism, and new ways of working. Each of the young women I spoke to recognised that, due to their place behind men in patriarchal society, they are accustomed to experiencing inequality.

Both the richness and simplicity in the solutions that the young women proposed had me genuinely excited for the next generation of schoolchildren. Seeing themselves, as well as the collective importance of their histories, reflected in the curriculum could raise the self-esteem of so many children. 

The Government’s ongoing culture war and focus on how history is apparently being ‘rewritten’ shows it has recognised the radical significance of a decolonised education system – but Britain’s younger generations are making huge leaps in leading the conversation, and its politicians are on the defensive.

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