Trumpeter John Blanke

Failing Black history

Attempts to “decolonise” school history ignore academic rigour in favour of mere tokenism

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Last April, the Labour MP Claudia Webbe tweeted a link to a petition demanding that Black British history be made compulsory in schools. The petition has nearly 300,000 signatures. One of the signatories, Kaydeann Young, gave this as his reason for signing: “I want to know my history and I don’t wanna to learn things that are useless to me like king Henry and his 6 wives.” 

Next, Webbe posted a map of the African colonies after the Berlin Conference of 1884, together with the message: “This map has been hidden from you all your life. This is how they carved up Africa.” In fact, the scramble for Africa is already taught in schools as part of Key Stage Three and Black History already has a place in the National Curriculum. This is not enough, say campaigners, who have produced two recent reports on the subject. Neither is authored by an historian.

Jason Arday, author of Black British History in the National Curriculum (Report, 2021), is an associate professor in Durham University’s sociology department; and inasmuch as he can be described as an historian at all it is on the strength of a slim volume (108 pages) of oral history, Cool Britannia and Multi-Ethnic Britain: Uncorking the Champagne Supernova (2019) about popular culture and race in the Blair years.

A lot of people have been excited to discover that there was a black trumpeter at Henry VIII’s court

Arday’s report is very poorly written, being engorged with sociological jargon. In advocating “mandatory and continuous Black History” in schools, he favours “generating cultures and curricula that is [sic] cognisant of increasingly diverse classroom spaces, is pivotal in re-imagining a more inclusive history curriculum”; and he wants textbooks to “move beyond anecdotal and factually altered accounts of Black History within the British context, one that traditionally centres a dominant European canon”. For anyone who loves history, the report makes for a depressing read.

In Wales, Professor Charlotte Williams was appointed by the Welsh Government to be Chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, Contributions and Cynefin in the New Curriculum Working Group. Professor Williams wrote a memoir called Sugar and Slate (2002) about negotiating her Welsh and Afro-Caribbean identities, but she too is not an historian, having been Professor of Social Work at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

The Williams report contains 51 recommendations, but only one talks about lesson content, when it asks for background papers for teachers to include “a narrative guide to the history of diversity in Wales; a narrative guide to Wales’ role in British colonialism; biographies of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals from a variety of backgrounds that explore their contributions to Welsh, British and international life; writings by Welsh Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals; a narrative guide to the history of racism and anti-racism in Wales”.

Needless to say, our old friend “lived experience” takes a bow, in reference to what the report says pupils want to learn about (though no empirical evidence about this is offered). At school level, there are recommendations about Strategic Equality Plans (SEPs), self-evaluation reviews and creative audits, diversity champions, and anti-racism training. There are also friendly references to “the Unions” (note that capital letter).

The report regrets that “while learning about diversity, identity and belonging, justice and equality, rights and social action will be mandatory in schools’ curricula, there is no statutory requirement to teach specific topics of central understanding to the histories of racism and diversity, such as the histories of Slavery, Empire, or the Holocaust”. 

The report goes on to say that some members of the working group “believe a degree of mandatory content or more specific guidance is necessary to ensuring more attention to the histories of diversity and racism”. When the report was published in mid-March, the Welsh Education Secretary said that “the teaching of BAME histories will be mandatory” so as to help pupils become “informed citizens of the world”.

According to the 2010 Census, 5.5 per cent of Wales’s population was BAME, though the percentage is higher in urban areas, particularly Cardiff. While there were outliers — for instance black slaves formed the backbone of the Welsh copper mining industry in the eighteenth century — to all intents and purposes black history in Wales means history since the beginning of the twentieth century.

A list of 100 “Brilliant, Black and Welsh” published by Wales Online in 2018 included just a couple who had arrived in the country prior to 1945: John Ystumllyn, a freed slave who entered into the first mixed marriage in Wales in 1768, and Leonard Hinds, born in Barbados in 1887, who became a merchant seaman and settled in Barry. The list also included the black American singer Paul Robeson on the spurious grounds that he made a film set in Wales and had spoken up in support of Welsh miners during the 1930s.

Although there were no substantial communities, there had been black Britons as far back as Roman times, and others arrived in the following centuries. After the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834, the black population of Victorian Britain shrank considerably and was mainly confined to port towns. In 1948 the UK’s black population was less than 20,000, out of a total British population of 49.4 million — less than 0.05 per cent. Even in 1961, Britons of African or Caribbean origin constituted a mere 0.4 per cent of the total population. 

What would all those diversity champions say if they knew Mary Seacole used racist language in her memoirs?

Black History Month was an American invention and import. It was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, who became the second African-American to obtain a PhD in history from Harvard University in 1912 (the first was W.E.B. Du Bois). Three years later, on the occasion of the Lincoln Jubilee and the National Half-Century Anniversary Exposition of Negro Freedom, Woodson chose to make it his life’s mission to demonstrate that there was such a thing as Negro history. Accordingly, he founded The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and launched Negro History Week in 1926. Fifty years later, this became Black History Month.

Last October, the House of Commons held a debate about Black History Month at the request of Labour MP Abbena Oppong-Asare, who is of British Ghanaian descent. She asked the government “to implement a race equality strategy plan” and “to really diversify the curriculum”. She also complained that “the biggest exam board does not include a single book by a black author in English literature specifications”. That may be a regrettable oversight when it comes to English literature, but when it comes to books by black British historians, as we have seen, there are very few published works available.

Labour’s Dawn Butler, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, declared that “at the moment, history is taught to make one group of people feel inferior and another group of people feel superior, which has to stop”, an assertion which was repudiated by the Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, whose parents are of Nigerian origin. 

I watched some of the TV programmes produced for Black History Month last October. Two names kept cropping up: John Blanke and Mary Seacole. A lot of people have been excited to discover that there was a black trumpeter at Henry VIII’s court named John Blanke, believed to have come here as one of Catherine of Aragon’s retinue when she married Henry’s brother. We know that he lobbied Henry, successfully, for a pay rise. But beyond these two bare facts he is not a figure of any significance to historical inquiry. 

Mary Seacole, a Scotch-Creole nurse from Jamaica, has become a near sacred figure for Black History advocates. Seacole was turned down by the War Office when she wanted to go and help British soldiers in the Crimea, but she raised the funds to go there anyway without official support. 

She was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004 and the Mary Seacole Trust exists to preserve and promote her name. A statue was unveiled outside St. Thomas’s Hospital in 2016; there are Mary Seacole housing associations, and the first NHS Seacole Centre was opened in May 2020 to provide rehabilitation services for Covid sufferers. This year will see the production of the biopic, Seacole, with our heroine being played by the improbably beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw. 

Seacole published a lively ghosted autobiography, which became a bestseller, and she was immensely popular among the soldiers she had cared for, 80,000 of whom are said to have turned out to greet her when she returned from the Crimea.

Florence Eshalomi, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, wants to ensure that Seacole’s “history and contributions are recognised in our history books”. But what exactly was that contribution? Primary school pupils already learn about her alongside Florence Nightingale.

Black History Month is an American invention and import

To challenge the claims made on Seacole’s behalf is to invite the charge of bad faith if not outright racism. Yet, compared to Nightingale, Seacole was a fundamentally insignificant figure. As demonstrated in Lynn McDonald’s scholarly article “Mary Seacole and claims of evidence-based practice and global influence” in the journal Nursing Open (January 2016), Nightingale was not only the founding practitioner of global nursing, but she also championed refugee relief for Bosnia and Yugoslavia, and published scholarly articles about hospital organisation, native colonial hospitals and schools, Indian irrigation and famine relief, Indian tenancy reform, and woman slavery. To top it off, she was the inspiration behind the Geneva Convention. 

And what would all those diversity champions say if they knew that Seacole had herself used racist language in her memoirs. She self-identified as a Creole and attributed her “energy and activity”, qualities which she said were “not always found in the Creole race”, to her “Scotch blood”. Despite being a quarter African, she referred somewhat dismissively to her servants as “blacks”. She also spoke of “good-for-nothing black cooks” and “excited nigger cooks”. People have been cancelled for less but Seacole is revered as a black “shero”.

So what Black History should feature in the curriculum? In the Commons debate, Badenoch suggested many MPs seemed ignorant of what is already on it. “Our curriculum does not need to be decolonised,” she said, “for the simple reason that it is not colonised. We should not apologise for the fact that British children primarily study the history of these islands … The curriculum, by its very nature, is limited; there are a finite number of hours to teach any subject. What we have not heard in this debate, from hon. Members on both sides of the House who want more added to it, is what must necessarily be taken out.”

Academic history does not consist merely of general knowledge about things that happened in the past, or about individual change-makers, nor is it an exercise in role-model awareness. It is about acquiring understanding of chronological narrative, of concepts such as causation, continuity and change, methods of research and enquiry, and of perspectives gained from comparisons and contrasts. It might include study of a non-European society, such as Mughal India or the medieval African kingdom of Benin or an early civilisation, such as Sumeria or the Chinese Shang Dynasty. 

Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg), the renowned German-Jewish Cambridge constitutional historian of Tudor England whose parents fled Germany in the 1930s, did not advocate the mandatory teaching of the Holocaust. During the 1960s, the so-called “new historians”, as epitomised by Geoffrey Barraclough, who had expressed pro-Soviet opinions during World War II, became advocates for contemporary and comparative history. 

This inter-disciplinary approach worried Professor Elton. In 1990 he joined with other lions of academic history such as Lord Beloff, Lord Bullock, Lord Thomas, and young guns Robert Skidelsky, Norman Stone, and John Vincent, to produce a Campaign for Real Education report called G.C.S.E. History: An Alternative Approach. Its main concern was to restate the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum. 

The model GCSE syllabus endorsed by the committee and created by Christopher McGovern and the History Department of Lewes Priory School was divided into four parts: “Making a United Kingdom” and “The Development of Liberty, Equality before the Law, and Parliamentary Democracy”, could be compulsory, while students could choose to study one of the other two parts, “Creating the People” and “Britain and the World”. 

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board offered a special subject paper at A level called “Emancipation and its results in the British West Indies, 1833-1860”, although this was for Caribbean centres only. To offer such a paper in select British secondary schools where there is a significant number of pupils of Caribbean origin would be a comparatively easy task, but making such a subject mandatory in all schools would be just as absurd as insisting that all British schoolchildren should study a special paper about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. 

The authors of this year’s reports are primarily obsessed with process and the professional advancement of teachers rather than syllabus content. Neither grapples with the morally serious task of how to make history of value to pupils and students.

If it is odd that we don’t discuss the contributions of black sporting heroes in history lessons, as some Labour MPs argue we ought, then it is also odd that we don’t discuss the contributions of white sporting heroes either. But surely, there is a difference between what Black History Month should do in educating the general public about black “heroes and sheroes”, through events, exhibitions, and broadcasting, on the one hand, and the stewardship of our National Curriculum on the other.

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