Tackling Racism: Teaching West African History pre-1700 – Benin

Alex Fairlamb (@lamb_heart_tea), member of HA Secondary Committee reflects here on how her department has taken action over the last year to address the problem of lack of ethnic diversity in the history department’s curriculum at her school. Alex makes clear the process of deep engagement with the history community that inspired, encouraged and enabled her to teach herself the knowledge she lacked and then to take action to start the process of making change to the curriculum. Alex finishes with encouragement and tips for other colleagues as they take action. We hope to post more examples of similar curriculum development. Please do share your developing thinking and work with us. Meanwhile, there is more support for curriculum thinking and teaching knowledge development here and here.

The past two years have been an exciting time in curriculum development. Curriculums as progression models, as explained by Counsell, are being crafted in schools. History departments are furthering their efforts to ensure that each child experiences a broad, balanced and DIVERSE history curriculum. Throwing off the constraints of examination driven curriculum models has meant that teachers have greater freedom over the aspects of history that they can weave into their rich tapestry of topics. As architects of the curriculum, this is a really exciting opportunity to create narratives that span the Year 7-13 timeframe and that build both horizontally and vertically, so that knowledge is built upon, extended and results in schema development.

At TMHistoryIcons2019, Sally Thorne delivered a fantastic keynote on ethnic diversity in the curriculum and the issue of current topic choices meaning that that our student and local communities were not represented. As David Olusoga states, “Black History IS British History”, and Sally reflects this in her blog where she outlines that ‘Secondly, I wanted to tackle tokenism by including the stories of minorities in our existing units, rather than dropping in a unit and declaring it solved…….it’s really just a case of shining a light on the full picture, rather than relying on the traditional narratives.’

As someone who is a passionate advocate of ensuring that curriculums are diverse, this was the perfect catalyst for exploring how we could change our curriculum, given our greater freedom over what we include from the wider domain. Further talks at SHP 2019 by Rich Kennett and Christine Counsell helped to provide the framework and questions that would enable a department to really explore what is taught, why it is taught, what is not taught, what order things are taught in, and to question whether the history that we teach is wide and diverse enough – as Counsell stated, “that Britain is a part of the world and not the centre of it.”

Inspired, motivated and equipped with guidance as to how to approach what we might teach, I was able to share these findings with my department. Through curriculum conversations in departmental meetings, we audited our existing topics. We realised that we taught Trans-Atlantic slavery and the British Empire, yet not the history of Africa before this. Similarly, we taught British and Western-centric medieval history, without exploring developments globally, which, thanks to Frankopan’s Silk Roads, we have now addressed. We came to the conclusion that our history was not representative, and that for our students to truly understand the impact of the emergence of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, abolition, and the civil rights movements that they would need to know the wider narrative – essentially, it was like us trying to teach the Cold War, without having studied the seemingly irrepressible rise of communism and the Russian Communist Revolution (again, something we have now rectified thanks to Counsell!). Moreover, we felt it was vital for students to be empowered to be anti-racist and equipped with the knowledge to challenge racist stereotypes and arguments. When creating the scheme of learning, I decided to make sure that the aims of the module were very clear, that Africa HAS history (as Lyndon states in his textbook) and the countries there were incredibly civilised and advanced prior to the arrival of Europeans. By exploring the rich, diverse history of Africa 1000-1700 using case studies of Benin and Mali our intention is to dispel the myth that Africa was not civilised prior to the arrival of the Europeans and that in fact they were highly civilised – trade, administration, culture and urban structures. Additionally, Dr Toby Green highlighted the importance of studying this area as the uptake of African history is limited at university, and further research shows that the numbers of black students who are likely to take History as a subject are lower than other demographic groups. A lack of representation in the curriculum will be a reason behind this.

In terms of situating it in our curriculum as a progression model, we ensured that it built upon the foundations laid in Year 7 through the study of the evolution of the Silk Roads as well as the development of the age of exploration during the Tudor period. As Jamie Byrom outlined at SHP 2019, this enables us to build upon the knowledge learned in Year 7 in a ‘Damascus steel’ layering, where we can retrieve their prior learning and build upon it, making links and connections.

The topic placing below is very much still a work in development and is simplified for this blog to zoom in on and highlight the thread of the history of Africa (in pink) within it (there are multiple other threads!)

Screenshot (145)Excited by the evolution of our curriculum, I asked to focus on the African history Scheme of Learning. Having no prior knowledge of African history from any of my formative years as a school, university or PGCE student and worryingly none from my teaching career, this presented a challenge in terms of how do I (within five lessons) narrow down which country/case study to focus upon.  Africa is a vast continent full of countries with many wonderful histories and 1000-1700 is a vast expanse of time, as I discovered the more that I read ‘A Fistful of Shells’.  I’ll be honest, I felt that I was in the middle of a sea of wonderful history but was drowning in it! Thankfully, the History community on Twitter is a wonderful source of support and expertise. I sent a tweet out as a call for help to help me to find out more about potential areas to study, possible approaches and books to read. Nick Dennis, Sally Thorne and Dan Lyndon (as well as others!) responded with suggestions as to literature and possible areas.  Interestingly, this seemed to be an area that others were also interested in knowing about more. Thanks to Nick, who organised and hosted a fantastic series for CPD on Africa with Dr Toby Green and Professor Trevor Getz, many of us were able to learn more about a range of country’s histories, how we might approach teaching these topics, as well as providing resources and further reading. This training was invaluable, and helped me to determine which country’s history we should focus upon and how I could focus my enquiry.

With this training, a Fistful of Shells and Dan Lyndon’s African Empires. I felt ready to explore further the history of Benin and determine the enquiry question: ‘How far are the developments in Mali and Benin evidence of the West  African ‘booms’ of the fifteenth century?’ (Green)  This enquiry question would enable us to study:

  • The emergence of Benin as a country
  • Benin’s development as a kingdom and empire
  • Life and culture in Benin
  • Benin’s ‘Golden Age’
  • The Benin Bronzes and the surrounding debate about whether they should be repatriated or not.

Additionally, Equiano’s origin is said to be Benin and he writes about this in his The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, 1789. This would allow for us to make connections in the later study of slavery and abolition, as well as link this to local history by creating a ‘Meanwhile, Nearby’ homework sheet on the impact of slavery in Newcastle, including Equiano’s visit to deliver speeches in the area.

I’ll put my hands up.  Before this, I knew very little about Africa pre-1700.  However, don’t let that daunt you.  Africa’s history is incredibly rich and interesting, and it is so pertinent to teach this period in order to students to be able to grasp the wider narrative of later developments post-1700 and for them to be able to challenge stereotypes and critically engage in debates.  The murder of George Floyd and the spark of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of have brought to the fore for many more people the reality that there is still endemic and systemic racism, and also overtly racist attitudes amongst areas of society. As the statue of Colston fell, the chasm of differing opinions was thrust into the public eye once again, fuelled by the presence of social media. Racist attitudes are often borne from lurking colonialist attitudes, media influence and a lack of diversity within curriculums (amongst other factors). Education has been cited as one of the ways to address this, empowering our students with the historical knowledge to be able to challenge racism in all its forms and to do so with authority. In short, as Maya Angelou argued, we want our students to know better, so that they can do better. Studying African history pre-1700 certainly contributes towards this.


  1. Start reading. The HA podcasts and website and Dan Lyndon’s textbook help you to grasp an overview knowledge of the period.
  2. Start talking. Talk with your department – why include it, where to include it, how does it fit with the sequence and narrative of your curriculum.
  3. Start searching and asking. Many have begun to develop schemes of learning on this area.  Ask and you will receive so much support and help.
  4. Wider reading. Enhance your knowledge once grounded in the overview.
  5. Start planning. Choose your enquiry, narrow it down and plan to embed within the curriculum in a blended, not tokenistic way.

Essential sources of information:

http://africankingdoms.co.uk  – this site contains information, resources from the training and teaching resources (such as mine)

A Fistful of Shells, Dr Toby Green

African Empires, Dan Lyndon

Black and British, David Olusoga

Black and British (documentary series), BBC 2 Series

A Level History A: African Kingdoms (OCR), Dr Toby Green available at: https://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/208299-african-kingdoms-ebook-.pdf


https://sallythorne.com/2019/03/27/tmhistoryicons-illuminating-the-whole-picture/, Sally Thorne, TMHistoryIcons: Illuminating the Whole Picture, 2019

Alex Fairlamb, Associate Assistant Headteacher (Teaching and Learning), HA Secondary Committee, TMHistoryIcons Coordinator.

Follow the HA on Facebook and @histassoc. Please send blogpost ideas to enquiries@history.org.uk


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