The HA is very aware that black history is not a topic that should be confined to a month and is also aware of the way that Black History Month (and other Months) can help to raise awareness and create discussion of the work that needs to be done to make sure the school curriculum is representative. Thanks to Sharon Aninakwa, leader of the Convent of Jesus and Mary school history department and Secondar Committee member, for this post.
“More of that black history stuff again?”
(Read: ‘more’, too much; ‘black history’, a separate entity; ‘stuff’, not of academic worth; ‘again’, once is enough.)
Black History Month always impresses upon my mind the magnitude and responsibility of our roles as history teachers. What we do (and don’t do) in the classroom has an enduring impact on what our students’ value, understand and appreciate about history and themselves, other peoples. The quote above is a refrain that I have I have been told in various forms throughout my teaching career. Hearing this has been personally vexing and professionally dismaying. Given the findings of Royal Historical Society’s (RHS) 2018 report this has historically also been the figurative response from a significant corner of history teaching community when it comes to black history. A key recommendation from the RHS’s report conclusively affirms what many have long campaigned for:
“The imperative need to widen taught History curriculums in schools and universities to challenge the racial foundations of the discipline and to reflect the full diversity of human histories.”
This Black History Month (BHM) is therefore an apt time to reflect on where we are with diversifying and decolonising history curricula. An understanding of the purpose and activism behind the creation of BHM is necessary in our efforts design history curricular which are a truer reflection of the nation’s past.
Why do we need a Black History Month?
Established in the 1980s; Black History Month in the UK has become an integral part of our national calendar. This year the Convent of Jesus and Mary history department decided that our contribution to the school wide celebration of Black History Month would be that every student studying history from KS3-5 would explore the intellectual history of Black History Month. We want our students to understand the purpose and spirit of Black History Month in order to meaningfully appreciate and value its position necessity. We began with exploring the work of African American historian Carter G Woodson (1875-1950). Woodson committed his career to researching the neglected past of African Americans. He concluded that that black contributions to the past “were overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” This practice took deep root in culture and the academy. Woodson noted that the continued pervasiveness of racism was the “the inevitable outcome” of histories and history education which effectively suggests “that people of African descent have never contributed to the progress of mankind.” With our students we explored the context and implications of Woodson’s findings. In our classrooms we were therefore unpicking the power of history as an academic discipline to denigrate or humanise people. Our students gained a deeper appreciation of history’s relationship and impact on contemporary society.
BHM UK was launched in 1987 in London and was mainly the product of local community activism challenging racism in British society and the absence of black history in the education system. Thirty-two years on, BHM is marked nationally in universities, colleges and schools, libraries, museums, galleries, and media broadcasting every October. With our students we explored the development of BHM in the UK and the struggles that moved activists to turn to history’s potential healing powers as an anti-racist tool. We explored accounts from pioneering activists like Ayakeba Addai Sebo and his concern for the identity crisis of Bback children as young as seven who already understood that whiteness conferred privileges which they were denied because of their blackness. Sebo, who worked for the Greater London Councils in the 1980s also drew inspiration from the work of Carter G Woodson, so we were able to help our students to explore the similarities and the experiences of people in the African diaspora. Their conclusions were insightful and nuanced. One student concluded ‘being a minority is always political.’
The role of Black History Month
As well as being a positive affirmation for Black Britons, Linda Bellos, former leader of Lambeth Borough Council and BHM pioneer critically affirms that Black History Month is also for Britain. She observed that it was clear that most Britons did not understand the intimate connections modern Britain had with the Caribbean and Africa. Black histories are central to the narrative of British history rather than an optional aside. Black History is not a community niche, but a part of the national landscape. The purpose of BHM in the UK is therefore two-fold; a political act to reverse the negative effects of the erasure of the contributions of people of African descent in histories. BHM therefore isn’t simply a benign occasion and shouldn’t be treated as a tokenistic opportunity to pay lip service to the contributions of Black peoples to the human story. This can dangerously reinforce racial stereotypes which dehumanises black people and relegates the history of people of African descent to the status of ‘other’.
Given that racism and racialism have been the toxins in modern Britain, for activists BHM was and is a key tool in the anti-racist struggle. This being so school curricular should engage with the history and development of race and racism with intellectual clarity and complexity. This year I had the privilege of being on the Historical Association’s Fellowship Programme on the teaching of the Trans-Atlantic Slavery and the Slave Trade and its legacies. Learning with a group of incredible history teachers from around the country we had the opportunity to learn from leading historians, pedagogues and history educators. Our conclusions from the group were that a history curriculum that does not meaningfully engage with the construction of race and the creation of whiteness and blackness leaves a huge cavity in historical understanding. Whilst Black History should never be simply reduced to the episode of enslavement, the legacies of Trans-Atlantic Slavery are the key reasons for the necessity of BHM. For BHM to be meaningful and academically grounded, this history needs to be explored.
There are several great examples of scholars, teachers and educators whose work is exemplary and a great support to teachers committed to meaningful change.
For example, Justice to History, develop innovative enquires on histories that have have been consciously or unwittingly ignored. They have downloadable enquiries on their website and work with on curriculum and enquiry development. Dr Tobi Green’s Historical Association’s podcast series on African Kingdom is great for developing subject knowledge. This is often seen as an obstacle to developing black histories in school, so knowledge from an expert in short accessible podcasts is invaluable.
BHM should not be only be confined to October, packed away neatly to be repeated robotically again next year. Its themes and foci should make meaningful connections to other historical episodes on the curriculum, before and after October. BHM should be a hinge or springboard for the rest of the history curriculum. History departments should consider how their celebrations and marking of BHM integrates with their history curriculum. There should be a specific focus or theme each year to ensure that it has a clear academic intent and purpose. The spirit and ethos of BHM should support the development of curricular that humanises and empowers all that encounter it.
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