Black Tudors – part 1

On the 29th September a group of us met to discuss ways in which we might develop Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors for classroom use. We are really keen to share this work with everyone to help provide useful resources.

BLACK TUDORS tells the stories of ten Africans. The book traces their paths through the Tudor era revealing rich detail about their daily lives and showing how they are integrated into all aspects of Tudor society. The stories are both ordinary and extraordinary because, unlike the majority of Africans across the rest of the Atlantic world, in England they were free. Following a lecture given at the Historical Association Conference, and with Miranda’s enthusiasm, a group of us wanted to meet to pursue ways of bringing the stories, and their provocations, into the classroom.

Before looking at specific classroom applications we discussed a range of questions.[i]

This blog will outline the outcomes of our discussion focused on 3 questions before, in the next blog, indicating ways in which we have developed this for the classroom.

  1. Why and for what purpose should we include Black Tudors in our teaching?

It is important to recognise that what might be characterised as black history is relevant to students of all backgrounds. Broadly its inclusion presents a fuller more complex, complete picture of the past, as Mohammed and Whitburn (2016) argue doing justice to history involves ‘challenging the serious omission and and distortion of historical narratives’.

If one of the purposes of history is to help illuminate the present then it is especially important that our teaching accounts for the long black presence in this country. Paul Gilroy has argued that “Racism rests on the ability to contain blacks in the present, to repress and to deny the past.” The persistence of issues of race in discourses around Windrush shows the need to be vigilant. Racism is a concern for us all, so why wouldn’t we want to help young people historicise the present?

We discussed, drawing on the work of Michel Trouillot (1995), how history is silenced at four critical moments. There is a silencing in the making of sources – not everything gets remembered or recorded. There is a silencing in the creation of archives – judgments made, and some evidence is lost or omitted. Narrators silence parts of their stories – personal memory. Finally not all historical evidence is included in the general version of “accepted past”. Indeed as sources fill the historical landscape with their facts, they reduce the room available for other facts.

Black Tudors is a work that seeks to articulate these silences, getting students to engage with it in the classroom gets at the heart of what it means to do history, revealing it at its vibrant contingent best. Black Tudors offers a way of exploring the process of how we tell the stories of voices previously silenced.[ii]

Black Tudors is a testimony to the challenges of evidential work; Kaufmann has to work really hard to reclaim these voices from the evidence, in the case of Mary Fillis she works from the memorandum books of the ironmonger Thomas Harridance who was also the parish clerk. Using Black Tudors offers students a vivid insight into the historian craft and graft, working in the archives but having to draw on broader contextual knowledge to make sense of what they are working with. This powerfully support Aikens (TH168,2017) call to spend more time on the historical situation of the sources see figure 1 below. The interplay of the substantive, conceptual and procedural knowledge are all at play to reveal how truly ‘satisfyingly difficult’ history can be.


A final rationale is the way Black Tudors offers interesting ways into common themes associated with the period but in such a way that combats the dangers of a single story: England’s emergent interaction with the wider world, the role of religion in Tudor life, the history of ordinary lives, and a longer history of race. This last theme might support clearer curriculum coherence, imagine how rich teaching the transatlantic slave trade might be with this longer context on race?

This is structuring knowledge that will resonate in later learning, but critically knowledge embedded in rich narratives of individual people and with scope for students to take up the baton themselves by accessing the processes at play in the telling of history (TH171, 2018).

  1. What do we want students to learn from Black Tudors in terms of: a) historical knowledge and understanding b) second order concepts c) wider moral and social education

The discussion related to question 1 above, already offers some ways of thinking about this question. We could look at change and continuity in relation to attitudes to race, similarity and difference in exploring the range of ‘ordinary’ but agential lives, how the present ascribes or denies significance, the book as an interpretation, or how the book offers a way into learning about historical method.

More broadly it offers a ‘360’ view of history, the sort of substantive knowledge that could powerful challenge contemporary racism by offering a longer and agential presence of black people in this country, to offer historical specificity to the idea of prejudice but showing that it isn’t fixed or inevitable.

  1. How might we include Black Tudors in our teaching?

The next blog will deal with this in more detail, the picture below gives an indication of how we worked with the evidential approach inspired by Counsell enquiry question (TH 99) we considered asking “why is it hard to know about Black Tudors?” to get students thinking about the sorts of evidential problems that Trouillet outlines.

Black Tudors


[i] Having clarity about what you are teaching is critically important. Haydn & Harris (2008) have shown teachers are not always clear about the rationale for teaching particular topics. Yet Barton & Levstik (2004) argue that clarity of purpose is a major lever for improving the quality of history teaching.

[ii] For example, if one way that history is silenced is by countering it with generalities of an opposing view Kaufmann shows how, “A heavy evidential burden has been placed on the quasi-mythical character of ‘Lucy Negro’ (associated with the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets) even though there is no concrete archival proof that she ever existed”. Following Trouillot we see how this focus on the likes of Lucy Negro helps to neglect the ordinaries of Cattelena one of Kaufmann’s central individuals.

Thanks to @JJtodd1966 for this blog on behalf of the group. The resources will be available soon and look out for more useful sequences of lesson resources from @histassoc.


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