Black History Month in the UK is often accused of being a clichéd exercise. While teachers on this side of the Atlantic are increasingly moving away from topics like US civil rights to those of black Tudors and the Bristol bus boycott, there are still lots of questions about how we conceptualise and deliver our black history in Britain.
Black History Month as taught in the UK has something of a branding problem. Like the activist movement Black Lives Matter, it really does not do what it says on the tin. Black History Month is billed as a celebration of past black contributions to British society, but one resource pack supplied by Reklaw Education includes posters of recent black movers and shakers. As one of my students objected, “this really doesn’t seem about history.” While we are in some sense always living in history, what we are doing with Black History Month is as much a PR campaign for black folks as it is history per se.
How necessary you think such a PR campaign is depends on your view on how conspicuous black success is within our culture. At any rate, if images of successful contemporary black Britons are to adorn our classrooms, Black British Pride Month or, as David Olusoga suggested in 2015, Black Heroes Month might be just as fitting a title.
Once one realises that Black History Month is as much an exercise in social recognition as it is a dispassionate reckoning with a once neglected history—and this it makes no bones about—then what counts as its appropriate subject matter becomes a highly contentious question. As Olusoga has pointed out, the establishment line of promoting black first timers has taken precedence over the history of exploitation under slavery and colonial rule. In so far as the white British population are invested in a notion of British pride, any reference to the uglier side of Britain’s history will be met with resistance. That is one reason why this concept of group belonging is problematic.
Things become even more complicated when we acknowledge that some black people are also tired of their history being framed in relation to systems of exploitation. Educator Funmilola Stewart writes in the Guardian, “We should also be teaching about all the positive aspects of black history.” Quite right. But this presents something of a challenge: if we want to segue our black history with our British history we will not necessarily find things as positive as we might hope and certainly not as unifying—notwithstanding the triumphs along the way.
David Olusoga hopes that young minds can grapple with Britain’s place in a global network of slavery and empire. Perhaps I was fortunate in my teachers, but as a child in the 90s, I studied the transatlantic slave trade. It remains a non-statutory but popular key stage 3 topic but with so many electives and such scant time allocated to history on the school timetable, it could easily get ignored. GCSE history seems the optimal forum to tackle such complex questions in terms of student maturity, but history is only an optional GCSE, so many students would miss out.
Either way, while I would support a drive to make the study of slavery and empire a statutory year 9 topic, I understand why some people may not be entirely sold on delivering David Olusoga’s big but somewhat depressing themes during a Black History Month also charged with the task of racial uplift.
As Olusoga states, “This year, the attack line has been that Black History Month and black history itself is divisive. The same government that officially supports Black History Month has warned schools not to teach what it characterises as ‘victim narratives’ that are supposedly ‘harmful to British society.’”
To make history subservient to ideology—the ideology of a Conservative government—is a worrying proposition. Yet to some degree Black History Month is already in the ideology game. Therefore, questions as to what attitudes such history inculcates are very much already on the table. David Olusoga is not worried by the idea that Black History Month could encourage divisiveness, but is it really such a stretch? In an age of renewed identity politics, young minds seem quite capable of developing deep resentment toward British society and white people in general. In his part-autobiographical, part-historical book Natives, public intellectual and musician Akala describes how this kind of psychology evolves, as the author is exposed—alongside everyday racism—to a pan-African education rich in themes of slavery and empire. Things have hopefully improved since Akala’s upbringing in 1980s Camden, but anger—whether ultimately justified in today’s generation—seems very much a live option. The weighing of historic truth and social harmony is a delicate task.
So where do we go from here? A black history that tries to probe deeper into the past, while taking a break from the depressing features of anti-black racism, might reasonably look beyond British shores to Africa. As the cradle of the diaspora, Africa has a fascinating history that is increasingly garnering attention in the west. Mansa Musa of the Mali empire, the ruins of great Zimbabwe and the Dahomey Amazons are iconic and fascinating topics.
However, moving away from an exclusive focus on black British history would not be without challenges of its own. First, it makes black history overly broad and potentially unwieldy. Second, it invites powerful questions about conceptualisation and branding. Parcelling a broad history under a racial heading is problematic. Why don’t we study white history? is a question asked not just by reactionary white adults: it is a question I encounter from multiracial cohorts of learners every October. And indeed, when white history is just history, this enforces a normativity in which white history is subtly coded as the default and preferred mode—a process that in leftist spaces might be referred to as centring whiteness.
The concepts of race we are using to classify chunks of history are largely of eighteenth-century contrivance and by packaging our history in this way we risk doubling down on these racial categories. Labelling pre-eighteenth-century African history as black history also invites a charge of anachronism. Such history is the history of people who today would be racialized as black and that’s what people mean when they call African history black history, but racecraft would have been a foreign concept to much of medieval Africa.
Thrusting modern schemas and the modern baggage of race relations into the past can lead to confusion in the classroom, even when studying periods in which racial concepts were ascendant. Some students’ simplified racial schemas lure them into the crudest us vs. them thinking on this topic, as evidenced by two recent student questions: Why would whites sell guns to African kingdoms if whites and blacks were enemies?; and Why would Africans sell their brothers into slavery to whites? A good teacher knows how to answer these questions, but they provide a taste of the binary thinking that black and white classifications encourage.
In so far as black is a racial category, black history really does begin with sustained white contact—with the development of plantation economies in the New World and of scientific racism. But this is also when white history began. White history and black history are two sides of the same coin. To conceive of slavery and colonialism and civil right as quintessentially black history, as many students do, is to miss the point that these struggles involved two sides.
The history of slavery and colonialism is no more distinctly black history than it is white history. However, to brand the history of racialised exploitation in the Age of Discovery black and white history will not do either. Such a bifurcation masks the complexity of race relations and attributes too much conformity of thought and action to both racial groups, glossing over finer-grained ethnic distinctions and excluding other racial groups, whose histories intersect with the expanding machinery of European imperialism.
So, while deft educators should not fear the delivery of a rounded exploration of slavery and empire within their classrooms, organising around this as the core idea of Black History Month is problematic. Personally, I would be tempted to label the big themes of New World slavery, the European scramble for Africa and the subsequent struggles of the diaspora as something more like the history of racial exploitation, resistance and reconciliation. That doesn’t seem likely to replace Black History Month or cover all of Black History Month’s bases, but so long as such a field of study is embedded in our broader history curriculum, alongside a history of the kingdoms and empires of sub-Saharan Africa, Black History Month would find itself increasingly without a rationale—and what an achievement that would be.
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