History… Whose story?

Est. read time: 8 min

One does not to drill down too deeply to find the connection between the racist and most brutal murder of Anthony Walker in 2005 and the central thrust of Benjamin Zephaniah (pictured) ’s lecture in his home city of Birmingham on Friday 19 October 2012. History teaching in British schools does a disservice to children of African and Asian heritage no less than to white British children.

Anthony was murdered by white young men in a manner reminiscent of the gratuitous hounding, lynching and killing of Africans in the southern states of America. What is more, the instrument of their murderous savagery was an axe, that most powerful metaphor of white domination of Africans whom colonialism and imperialism defined as sub-human and less worthy of honour, dignity and respect than the horse that ‘massa’ and his slave-drivers rode.

The use of the axe to routinely punish enslaved Africans for daring to seek freedom from bondage or to protest against the inhumane treatment that characterised their daily living is part of the story of what connects African heritage children with their white counterparts in British schooling and education.

So, what narrative informed the consciousness and identity construction of Anthony Walker’s murderers? How did they connect with the history of Liverpool as a city of sea faring and of merchant traders, a history of slave traders, a history of migration and immigration, a history of the racialization of immigration, a history of ethnic cleansing and race riots, a history of the exclusion of African people and their descendants from opportunities and places which had the notional signpost ‘Keep Britain white’.

Chris McGovern, spokesperson of the History Curriculum Association is quoted as saying that black pupils want to study traditional British history because they are “fed up with a diet of slavery and deprivation” and preferred some of “the more traditional diet of schools like Eton”. For his part, Education Secretary Michael Gove, not unlike some of his predecessors, wants schools to focus on a traditional narrative of British history.

In 1968, Enoch Powell alerted the nation to his doomsday vision of the streets of Britain flowing with blood like the River Tiber. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher warned the nation of an enemy within, growing in size and with the capacity to ‘swamp the British culture’. Two years later, her government passed the most draconian piece of anti-government legislation to date, the 1981 Immigration Act. In May 2000, David Blunkett, then Labour Secretary of State for Education, declared in a BBC Radio 4 broadcast that: ‘I’ve made it clear several times that as well as teaching about religions across the world, we should be teaching about our own culture’.

That ‘traditional diet’ and ‘traditional narrative’ is presumably to do with the story of Tudors and Stuarts, of the Kings and Queens of England, the Romans in Britain, the Norman Conquest and ‘Magna Carta’, told as if they are fairy tales, as if they are earlier versions of, if considerably less dull than, Harry Potter.

Chris McGovern contrasts traditional British history and ‘the more traditional diet of schools like Eton’ with ‘a diet of slavery and deprivation’, thus unwittingly underscoring Zephaniah’s very point.

Any sanitised view of traditional British history that does not tell the story of British imperialism and colonialism; that does not illustrate the fundamental point that throughout history, empires and barbarism travelled hand in hand and that the British Empire was no different in that respect from the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire; that does not tell the story of Welsh children in my lifetime who were made to wear a ‘collar of shame’ for speaking Welsh, or of generations of white working class British who were made to endure child labour, workhouses and were maltreated and discriminated against because of their class origins…, while at the same time propounding notions of ‘a shared British identity’ and homogeneous British culture…, any such view of traditional British history is a phenomenal falsehood and a disservice to all children.

The history of the people of the world is the story of human evolution and of human inter-relation and interdependence. It is the story of humankind’s adaptability, creativity, inventiveness and resilience. It is the story of humankind’s capacity for self-expression and for nurturing the spirit through art, through interaction with the forces of nature, through seeking balance with the Universe, through caring, compassion and looking after one another’s basic needs.

But it is also, perennially, the story of human destructiveness, barbarism, inhumanity, oppression, greed, hypocrisy, and all the rest of it. It is the story of cultures of oppression giving rise to cultures of resistance and to culture as resistance.

All governments in Britain since the Second World War and long before have failed to structure and operate a schooling and education system that is fit for a nation that has the urgent and longitudinal task of dealing with the legacy of Empire, the most toxic element of which must surely be racism and the concept of Britishness which is at the core of “the more traditional diet of schools like Eton”. The demography of Britain today and the fact that black British no less than white have the exciting task of working together to make the future they face in this nation the future they want for themselves and their children are very much part of the legacy of Empire. Above all, it fills me with hope.

That is why I argue constantly that it is time to reclaim schooling and education. It is time for school students and parents who, thankfully, are more enlightened than the likes of Michael Gove and his predecessors, to insist upon the writing and teaching of British social history and the history that connects them with themselves and with one another, irrespective of their ethnic origin. It is time that they demand that the schooling and education system prepares them to manage multi-ethnic Britain and build a society that bears the hallmark of Equity, Justice and Inclusion.

In October 2008, at the London headquarters of the National Union of Teachers I delivered the Second Anthony Walker Memorial Lecture, the first having been presented by Mrs Gee Walker, Anthony’s mother, one year earlier. In my lecture I said the following:

Rather than structuring and mandating schooling and education to lay the foundations for human liberation, successive governments have set educational goals, structured schools and the governance of them on the basis of a toxic mix of neo-liberal ideologies, including: market forces, rampant individualism, materialism and the survival of the fittest.

Where and how is British social history taught in schools, such that school students gain an understanding of the evolution of today’s social systems; working practices; of the day notionally divided into 8 hours for employed labour, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for sleep; health and safety regulations; mobilising for better housing and health care; against police brutality and for decent youth services?

This lecture is being delivered during Black History Month. When will we stop dusting off the icons of history one month in the year and parading them to young people and the nation at large in a manner that allows for no connection to be made between the significance of what those iconic figures did in their time, and what we should be doing about our current condition and the state of the world today?

Contrary to what Michael Gove believes and wants to see schools do, the teaching of history is not about handing down an accepted or validated corpus of historical ‘facts’ as defined by those with the power to so validate a version of events as ‘facts’. The ‘traditional narrative of British history’ that he wants schools to teach is in precisely that mode and as such is hugely irrelevant if not downright insulting to masses of school students, white and black.

The teaching of history is primarily geared to equipping students with knowledge of how historical events are recorded, in context, by people who write from a particular perspective, and helping them to develop the skills of inquiry, analysis and interrogation of ‘facts’ such that they could determine the context in which those ‘facts’ arise and the angle from which they are recorded.

Small wonder that many black university students have had the experience of being admonished by their history lecturers for ‘relying too heavily’ on the work of the late Walter RodneyHow Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, characterising it as ‘too polemical’ and presumably as straying too far from the traditional narrative of European history.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower is absolutely right: ‘we need to celebrate the diversity of modern Britain and work together to raise children who are proud of themselves and their communities’. We also need to support them in rooting their identity upon their communities’ historical struggles for human liberation and for social justice rather than on chauvinism and notions of racial superiority and cultural supremacy.

Picture (home): “Benjamin Zephaniah” by David Michael Morris (Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

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