Why UK schools should be teaching Black history and British colonialism

Robert Wilcox

The video footage of the killing of George Floyd was horrific to witness. The image of a white police officer placing his knee on the neck of a black man in order to pin him to the ground was itself symbolic of centuries of oppression, and acted as the catalyst for anti-racism protests across the globe on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Police officers resorting to disproportionate violence to detain black suspects with lethal consequences is an all-too-frequent occurrence, but it is just one symptom of the global pandemic that is racism. What became clear in the aftermath of Floyd’s death was just how much we still have to learn when it comes to racism in modern society. Most children are brought up thinking that racism simply means using certain words to describe a black person. Therefore, they fail to appreciate the scale of the injustice done to black people. This is unsurprising given that Black history is largely absent from the curriculum.

Black history should be taught in schools. Why? Because, quite simply, black history is our history. It is the history of how one group of human beings has systematically oppressed another group of human beings simply because of the colour of their skin. This history has as much to tell us about white people as it does about black people. It explains certain facets of our current, shared reality – a reality in which black people are not only faced with racial abuse but also lower life expectancy, lower incomes, worse health, educational inequalities and longer sentences for committing the same crime as a white person. It is a history which we ignore to our shame.

This disregard for history extends to the history of our own country. There is this notion that the UK is a country with no equal, that the “great” in Great Britain has been rightfully earned and that our country and its people are, and always have been, somehow inherently superior to other nations and their peoples. This is an extremely dangerous fallacy and one which is frequently invoked by demagogues to stoke, and appeal to, nationalistic tendencies. When viewing the world through this lens, it is little wonder that there are people in the UK who think only in terms of “them” and “us”. It is not difficult to see the temptation; simply by possessing a British passport, they are, by association, better than those who don’t possess one. Denying them the comfort of that myth means that they have to face their own insecurities about their place in the world and, perhaps more significantly to them, in British society. Our curriculum fails to provide the antidote to the ignorance surrounding our own history. The upshot is that we are left with the idea that the UK is the sole occupant of the world’s moral high ground.

The truth, however, is very different. The UK has many dark chapters in its history. For around 250 years, it played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade and, even after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, it continued to import sugar from plantations which made use of slave labour. Approximately one million people died in the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s; it is still fiercely debated whether sheer incompetence or deliberate policy on the part of the British government contributed to the deaths of one-eighth of the Irish population. During the Second Boer War, fought between Britain and the Boer Republics from 1899 to 1902, the British forcibly detained civilians in concentration camps. Such were the conditions in these camps that over 26,000 Boers died, the vast majority being women and children. Separate camps were set up for black Africans. It is estimated, according to official figures, that around 15,000 died but questions over the completeness of British records mean that the actual death toll is likely to have been much higher. There were no less than 12 famines during the British Occupation of India. When, in 1919, civilians gathered to peacefully protest British colonial rule, they were sealed within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh and gunned down by the British Indian Army; as many as 1,000 were killed and many more were injured. During the Mau Mau Uprising, which took place between 1952 and 1960, the British placed tens of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps in which they were routinely subjected to torture and the most horrific forms of sexual assault.

The fact is that British colonialism has a long and bloody history. Unfortunately, the direction that public discourse has taken means that one feels bound to point out that acknowledging this fact does not make one a traitor to their country. Nor does it somehow involve dismissing the significant contributions that the UK has made to defending human rights, such as standing against the evil of Nazism and the role the UK played in the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights. What is being advocated here is a curriculum which encourages balanced and critical reflection on our history, and which does not shirk from posing difficult questions to students about the reality in which we find ourselves.

Without understanding the injustices of our past, we cannot hope to confront the injustices of our present. Please write to your MP and/or sign a petition, advocating that Black history and British colonialism be made compulsory parts of the national curriculum.

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