When the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was launched into the Bristol harbour last week, it propelled a discussion of how Britain regards its imperial and colonial past right into the mainstream and out of the corridors of academia.
About time too, say many BAME writers, artists and academics. They have been calling for an overhaul of the way in which the British imperial legacy has been taught and presented in British schools. Britain’s role in promoting slavery and as a colonial power has been glossed over, if not airbrushed out of the history taught in schools. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have opened up a welcome space for us all to debate and reconsider the era of colonialism and how we want to address it.
There are some good reasons why the time is right for a rigorous appraisal of Britain’s imperial legacy. Joshua Bailey, who has initiated a petition on change.org to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, writes that:
‘By excluding the evils of British Imperialism, along with how members of the African Diaspora contributed to the British nation-state, British children are robbed of understanding how colonialist ideology was implemented.
‘This stunts the growth of racial equality in the UK and hinders the racial esteem of Black British children.’
The view that the narrative of Britain’s glorious role cannot be reappraised in any way no longer holds water. In fact, campaigners argue that a narrow, outdated conception of our past history does not serve the UK well; it perpetuates a perception at odds with our position in the modern world, skews our relations with other states and encourages racism and division in our own country.
For our society to cohere, to find a successful identity in the 21st century with a vision to carry us all forward, we need to shake off some of the shibboleths of the past. Otherwise, our vision will be unbalanced by a false sense of what Britain has been, by omission of the contributions of far too many of our citizens.
It is time to investigate, discuss and debate the history of us all. In one week this petition has gained over 200,000 signatures. The Green Party fully supports the petition and any action we can take to support a revised and inclusive curriculum.
As this movement to analyse Britain's colonial past more critically has engaged national attention, it’s necessary to place colonial Britain as an episode in a greater, more complex story in the narrative of BAME Britons. For children from diverse backgrounds, that knowledge that their British heritage is not solely linked to their status as former slaves or colonial subjects, and that they are not only victims but have ancestors who were active participants in the creation of Britain, is a part of their identity that is essential and has been withheld for too long.
The role that people of colour from the African and Asian diaspora have played in history is woven intricately through the timeline of the four countries of the UK. Africans first arrived and settled in Britain as Roman soldiers, and then from across Africa and Asia they arrived as traders, artisans, freed slaves, allies and foes.
Miranda Kauffman, in her book ‘Black Tudors’, describes the daily lives of ten Africans in Tudor England, and writes: ‘Their stories challenge the traditional narrative that racial slavery was inevitable and that it was imported to colonial Virginia from Tudor England. They force us to re-examine the 17th century to find out what had caused perceptions to change so radically. Introducing Black Tudors means a reassessment of our national story and what it means to be British today. They are just one piece in the diverse jigsaw of migrations that make up our island’s multicultural heritage.’
A new generation of activists is calling on the government to include these histories and make their teaching mandatory across departments and subject areas in British schools. One influential set of activists have formed the Black Curriculum group, and have called on Gavin Williamson to include topics in black history and culture in the national curriculum from Key Stage One in primary through to Key Stage Four when students take their GCSEs, and across subjects including history, citizenship, English and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education). They have called on him to respond by Windrush Day on 22 June.
Lavinya Stennett, founder of The Black Curriculum Group, is campaigning for Black British history to be embedded in the school curriculum. She said: “There’s an appetite for change. People want to see the events of the past weeks lead to lasting change. It’s something we’ve known is important for a long time. Finally people are listening.”
Earlier this month, The Telegraph put together six things you can do now to diversify education:
Write to your local MP, Gavin Williamson or John Swinney (Scotland) – The Black Curriculum website has templates;
Sign petitions, such as this one to make white privilege and systemic racism taught in schools;
Download The Black Curriculum’s learning resources and start educating your children – or yourself – at home: there are free materials, and licensing options for parents and schools on individual topics or the full curriculum. Ask your children’s school to work with them and/or Show Racism the Red Card;
Look at your own bookshelf, and that of your children. How diverse are the protagonists and authors of the books you see there?; and
This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell is a useful tool for discussing racism with children ages five to 15.