Thirty-one days of tokenism

History provides an insight into who we are within the context of the world we live in, and an understanding of key events and trends that have shaped humanity helps us develop a greater appreciation for the present, and more importantly we can prevent a repetition of previous misdeeds. However, knowledge is a source of power and as seen in most academic disciplines, the voices and contributions of the oppressed are often marginalised and omitted from public knowledge, which ultimately paints a subjective, ethnocentric picture of human history. This is a problematic projection of society’s unequal distribution of social status, and until there is reform (particularly in the way in which black history is taught and portrayed), the systems which perpetuate racism will continue to thrive unchallenged.

Growing up under the English education system, I remember the curriculum being inflated with knowledge published by, and about the achievements and discoveries made by white, middle class, European males in the arts, sciences and humanities. For many years I passively absorbed the racist colonial assertion raised by some of the most respected academics such as David Hume (1711 – 1776) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), that European countries are inherently the most civilised, and they helped facilitate the enlightenment and modernisation of the supposedly inferior, uncultured and barbaric masses from around the world. Therefore, any global history prior to European intervention was deemed trivial, and the curriculum was distorted to the extent whereby the truth about the violent and incriminating atrocities committed by the Imperial British Empire such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India (1919), or the Mau Mau concentration camps in 1950s/60s Kenya were deliberately concealed, which is presently still the case.

Romanticising colonialism, by portraying “Britain as a beacon of liberty for others to emulate” (as expressed by former education secretary, Michael Gove), undermines it’s destructive force, which has resulted in countless deaths, and a devastating displacement of entire cultural histories and practices. Furthermore, emphasis is commonly placed on the observable physical impacts of colonialism, but seldom on the psychopathological trauma, which has consistently rippled for centuries, and continues to systematically pervade every social sphere. In a process which Frantz Fanon (1952) defined as ‘Cultural Assimilation’, generations of black lives have collectively and individually been victims of an internalised negative self-perception, whereby blackness is equated to sub-human status. Therefore, this creates a sense of alienation and erosion of identity because black people (particularly youth) are unable to recognise and celebrate their cultural heritage or achieve equality, but instead negate and reject their blackness, whilst aspiring to achieve an unreachable sense of whiteness. The struggle of conforming to a white world view (embedded in negative beliefs about blackness) results in harmful repercussions on psychological development, which in turn undermines mental wellbeing and other life chances as illustrated by the Race Disparity Audit (2018).

In my experience of education, it was rare to celebrate and learn about any accomplishments made by civilisations as well as historical figures and academics who do not fit the idealised architype, and the only time emphasis and importance was placed on black history was during Black History Month. The formal acknowledgement and celebration of black history in the United Kingdom (UK) has been taking place since 1987 as a result of initiation by Greater London Council (GLC), Special Projects Coordinator Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. After gaining an insight into the pervasive impact of systematic and interpersonal racism on the self-esteem and self-worth of black children, he felt there needed to be a permanent way in which black people could promote and celebrate Africa’s contribution to global civilisation. Rigorous campaigning and collaboration with numerous stakeholders from academics, artists, local authorities, to politicians resulted in the institutionalisation of October as Black History Month in the UK, which over the decades has contributed to improved race relations and the advancement of black people in the UK.

From memory, Black History Month was always a time of solidarity, joy and celebration, where I felt represented, and proud to be black because I would learn and appreciate numerous stories about the lives, achievements and contributions made by people who look like me. Additionally, Black History Month was also a time to reflect, and acknowledge how I would not be in the privileged position in which I find myself, if it was not for the sacrifices, resilience and activism demonstrated by the black community against racial injustice. However, solely perceiving black people’s existence as a response and struggle against racism is reductionist and problematic because it gives rise to stereotypical thinking, and it reinforces a narrative whereby black people can never be more than just the colour of their skin. Although it is important to understand the numerous hurdles crossed by black people (around the world) for equal human rights, a brief classroom crash course on the transatlantic slave trade and the US civil rights movement is an inadequate, and woefully ignorant tick-box summary of black history, and that is unfortunately the current problem with British curricula.

The teaching of history in the UK is evidently still a devolved issue due to whitewashing of the curriculum, which has resulted in vast accounts of black British history (spanning as far as the Roman empire) being erased from textbooks. Since Gove’s intentional removal of the curriculum’s explicit focus on racial and ethnic diversity (particularly in the UK) in 2014, teaching of black history became othered, and a matter of choice. As a result, fewer schools are teaching black history, which is reflected by the fact that, only up to 11% of GCSE students are studying modules that refer to black people’s contribution to Britain. Additionally, out of the 59 GCSE history modules available from the three biggest exam boards (Edexcel, AQA and OCR), only 12 explicitly mention black history, and within that minority, only 5 cover the history of black people in a British context. As a consequence, black and non-black children (equally) are misinformed and denied essential aspects of their history. Moreover, this exclusivist manner of teaching maintains white racial prestige, and disseminates a damaging notion that black people have never belonged or contributed anything to the UK.

Despite the Macpherson report (1999) highlighting the importance of cultural diversity in education, as a means for combating racism, it is a farce to think that 20 years later there are still active campaigns to reform the curriculum’s implicit racial bias. Having a Black History Month is an enormous milestone, but it is wholly unjustifiable that teaching of black history is only relegated to a month, and cherry picked to solely focus on the palatable aspects which glorify the empire. In an ideal reality, the curriculum should be decolonised to reflect the truth about the empire, and rather than just focusing on isolated biographies of individual black characters, blackness should be more consistently visible within mainstream history, because black history is British history! To conclude, now that Black History Month has ended, rather than returning to the status quo, we must continue to critically appraise the journey from where we once were, where we are, and where we are headed as a society, and every effort against racism is still crucial for achieving noticeable change in how black lives are perceived, treated and valued.