Decolonising the curriculum one step at a time: lessons on race in the early British Empire

In this blogpost, Jen Thornton (@jen_a_thornton), Head of History at Loreto Grammar School, shares her recent work to improve the history curriculum. Jen started by listening to students, she has gone back to the scholarship to gain the knowledge she needs, she has consulted and worked with colleagues, and she is clear that this is work in progress. Her description of this work and her generous sharing of resources will be encouraging and helpful to colleagues planning to make changes too.

I’ll probably always remember walking down the stairs in my house, scrolling the news on 7th June 2020. It was pretty much peak lockdown in my house- glorious weather, wrestling with our online learning platform, juggling kids who wanted me to come and play in the garden. A notification pinged up. The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol had been toppled. My overwhelming immediate reaction? How is it that I can’t be in school discussing this with my students?!

In the wake of the events of that summer, I invited a few students to discuss our history curriculum with me. One Year 13 soon snowballed into around 30 students via a Teams meeting. Plenty of these students were unknown to me- with a lot of sixth form on my timetable and two fairly recent maternity leaves, there were a lot of unfamiliar faces in the meeting. All were calm, articulate and passionate about how Black history is taught in schools. Some were pretty unhappy. It was a tough hour and I just listened. The hardest part was that some of the elements of the curriculum I was really proud of, like a unit on migration for Year 7, just weren’t landing right. It was clear that having diverse stories in our curriculum wasn’t enough. Students said they wanted to understand where racism came from.

I went away and tried to do some reading and research. Hannah Cusworth’s Curricularium talk was inspiring and Kerry Apps’ blog helped me understand better how race operated as a construct in the early modern world. A lightbulb moment was early on in reading Akala’s Natives, where he briefly discussed the impact of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1675. In the aftermath of a rebellion where black and white together had briefly overthrown the colonial government of Jamestown, Virginia, those same authorities then gradually started to change the laws. More power and privileges were given to white settlers: for example, it was forbidden to whip a white indentured servant. Simultaneously, more draconian laws were introduced for those of African heritage, allowing enslavement for life and for black children to be born into slavery. By the 1700s, most people of African descent in Virginia were in a state of chattel enslavement.

I put down the book. My brain shrieked at me: ‘WAIT! You’ve been getting it all wrong!’ When students say, ‘Miss, why was it Africans who were enslaved’, I used to say sadly, ‘Because, very sadly, in the past, people held racist ideas.’ What I’d read, and learned, made me realise that I’d been getting my cause and consequence pretty mixed up. Did racism actually develop and solidify as a justification for slavery? For the need for labour in the New World? I’m highly conscious that I still have a lot to learn about this material and that there is still a lot of work to do. I’m still reading and still learning.

Overhauling our transatlantic slave trade unit will be a big job- I want more focus on the British colonies not mainland USA, and more on the legacy of the slave trade, especially in our local area of the north west. Due to the unique circumstances of 2020-1, I’m holding off on this massive task. But I had to respond to these students from the summer- I had listened and I needed to show them that I ‘got’ it, even just at a basic level.

I’ve therefore re-planned 2 lessons from the start of our unit. While we used to focus on exploration, now there are two lessons which look at attitudes towards race in the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. I borrowed heavily from Hannah’s Oak lessons on ‘Who lived in British America’, and she really kindly gave up some time to look over my resources, giving them a gentle prod in a better direction by including the Barbados slave codes of 1661.

I’m sharing these lessons in the hopes that they might be useful for other departments who are on a similar journey from diversifying to decolonising their curriculum. They are not an answer to anything, but I hope they are a little step.

One final word… I’ve been really wrestling with how to approach racially offensive language in sources. In the classroom, my instinct is always to leave the language in and be able to contextualise it and explain that why this language is so offensive today is because of its historical roots. But I’m starting to think about this more carefully after listening to our students and the problems that can emerge in the classroom and playground after such language is used. For these lessons, which are being delivered remotely, I decided to edit the extract from the Barbados slave codes, replacing ‘Negroes’ with ‘enslaved Africans.’ The challenge of what to do with that language in the long term is just one more thing to work out when we are back in the classroom face to face with our young people.

Jen’s resources are here:

slave trade intro lesson 1 2021

slave trade intro lesson 2 2021

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