Have you ever heard of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo? Probably not. How about Carter Goodwin Woodson? Is this a name you’ve encountered in your studies? No, not one known to us either.
What about Gerald Ford? The man who resided in the White House after Nixon was kicked out in disgrace.
Whilst these other names didn’t hold tremendous power, they have shaped the lives of millions of children and young people throughout the world and yet their names don’t trip off the tongue in the way the 38th President of the United States of America does.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo introduced Black History Month to the UK whilst an employee of the Greater London Council in the late 1980s. He’s deemed so irrelevant that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page and yet his influence on the education of our nation’s children is significant and considerable.
Carter Goodwin Woodson was an American historian who introduced “Negro History Week” to the USA in 1926. It took a further 50 years to be incorporated into a regular month of black history by the President of the US in 1976 – one Gerald Ford. The reason for Ford’s intervention was to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens” and to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
Looking back to this aim in 1976, has Ford’s vision been achieved?
Ignatius Sancho? Who is this musician that Google deem so significant to place on the first page of their search engine today – October 1st?
Who is Phillis Wheatley?
All of these people are significant and yet unheard of by so many. Our lives are indeed enhanced by the array of people we could have studied, had we been afforded the opportunity. We might also have learned more about slavery, of impoverishment, of cruelty and racism, of gross stereotyping, of shameless victimisation of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) lives in the past and now, and of the richness of BAME culture, of music, art, literature.
Our children and young people may have heard of Stephen Lawrence – but could they name any of the other 96 young people killed in the UK between 1993 and 2011?
Do our children know that the Notting Hill carnival, established in 1959, emerged as a response to the 1958 riots in the area where a white woman was attacked because she had the audacity to be married to a black Jamaican?
Our young people may have heard of Windrush but do they know the extent of the damage to peoples’ lives caused by the appalling and degrading manner in which so many were treated?
Yet none of these feature particularly prominently, or indeed at all, in the National Curriculum for History in England. Instead there’s a focus on “the development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745” or “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901” – the latter including the study of Darwin, undoubtedly without reference to his teacher, John Edmonstone.
The palpably inept two-page music programme of study for KS3 in England doesn’t have space to mention any specific composers but one can imagine the study of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were prevalent in Gove’s mind rather than that of Ignatius Sancho when he proclaimed “pupils should be taught to listen with increasing discrimination to a wide range of music from great composers and musicians”.
The work that Carter Goodwin Woodson and, in the UK, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo did to highlight the value of Black History in the curriculum should rightly be applauded. That a Republican President chose to profile Black History nearly 20 years after the Civil Rights Act gave US black citizens the right to vote should also be praised, whilst simultaneously recognising it should have happened prior to this. And yet, 30 years after Addai-Sebo introduced Black History month to the UK, we still don’t have black history as an integral part of our national curriculum.
33 years on, Black History month is beginning to look symbolic where it should be integral.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the uneducated “all lives matter” response demonstrates the absolute need to make the study of black history, culture and influence an integral part of a planned curriculum that resonates with the life and times of our youngsters now. It’s no longer good enough to deem a month of lessons satisfactory. What’s more, the very nature of sub-sectioning a significant part of history into one autumnal study period gives the impression of difference, of separation, of a lack of integration – the very opposite of how we want our BAME population to feel in 21st century Britain.
It seems others agree with us.
On Twitter today, Sir Keir Starmer said
“Black history should be taught all year round as part of a diverse school curriculum that inspires young people and aids a full understanding of the struggle for equality.”
See more in this article in The Guardian.
David Lammy, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice also said on Twitter,
“Black history is British history. It must be taught in our schools so it is understood in our society.”
The need to prioritise Black History in 1976 (in the USA) and 1987 (in the UK) was completely correct – at that time. Generations of children have passed through our schools since then, many under the misguided belief that Black history isn’t important enough to be part of British historical studies.
Black History month should have served its purpose. Sadly, this is far from the truth but to perpetuate it additionally, controversially, even accidentally perpetuates a greater lack of integration.
Instead, all schools – be they in mainly white rural settings or in the heartlands of multicultural cities – should look at the entirety of their curriculum offer to ensure it reflects the cultural and ethnic make-up of the country at large. Anything less than this does a huge disservice to the memory of people who have strived so painfully to make their black lives not only matter but be recognised without reference to the colour of their skin.
Until this goal is on offer, then we have to rely on the expansive and excellent work that is carried out throughout the nations to prioritise Black history in this month of October.
We leave you with the words of David Olusoga, the historian who wrote five years ago and continues today to campaign for a more integrated approach to learning about black lives.
“There’s no doubt that black British history, as celebrated during Black History Month, has helped thousands of black children understand their place within the British story. . . . . but the problem is that biography, especially heroic biography, can at times displace and obscure history rather than explain or deepen it. . . . . . black British history needs to be more than just the history of the black experience. It is the history of a relationship between Britain and people of African descent. It is a centuries-long epic of trade, mutual fascination, inter-marriage, exploitation, exoticism, eroticism, confusion, misunderstanding and tragedy . . . . . Black British history is our joint history and it should be much more than the search for and the defence of black heroes.”