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Black Lives Matter in narrative too: we should look to English not just History in schools

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 June 2020

Gemma Gronland.

In the Victorian novel, The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle, the character Tonga – a native of the then colonised Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal – is portrayed as the embodiment of evil. A murderous savage who shows unwavering devotion to his white quasi-master, Tonga’s character makes a good conduit for pupils to learn about British colonialism and racism.

The description of Tonga as having ‘features so deeply marked with bestiality and cruelty’ offers insight into Britain’s historical relationship with race. Yet, it could also provide a learning opportunity to reckon with racial discriminationand the way the issue of race is evolving with the Black Lives Matter movement now. Pupils could be asked to reflect on race as they experience it, to challenge the Whiteness default setting in the books they study and the curriculum as it stands. It would be amiss to explore Tonga solely as a character representing a moment in history, an attitude of the past, and nothing more.

One teacher I interviewed for my research into how Prevent policy and fundamental British values manifest in the English curriculum, felt similarly. They described how it is left to a teacher’s discretion whether they emphasise the colonial context of a novel over other themes, and even more so if they choose to draw a line from that racist past to now. As someone who marks for the GCSE Literature exam, this interviewee was dismayed to see that when answering a question on justice in the novel, very few candidates engaged with the injustice of shaping Tonga as the silent but deadly savage.

The Black Lives Matter protests here in the UK, in response to the killing of George Floyd in America and to our own homebred systemic racism, have sparked fertile debate about the gaps in our nation’s historical knowledge. Outrage is rightly pointed at a lack of understanding about Britain’s colonial past, collective amnesia over Britain’s role in the slave trade and more generally a dismissal of Black, British experience.

This month a cross-party coalition of more than 30 MPs, along with the social enterprise organisation The Black Curriculum, wrote to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to ask for a reevaluation of the History curriculum in light of recent events. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has called for a review of all London statues to ensure they reflect London’s diversity. History is not being rewritten here, as the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has insinuated, but rather re-appropriated. As a country we are reckoning with our past – as well as our behaviour in the present – and asking, what is our public narrative?

A curriculum works in much the same way. By deciding what is and is not chosen to be studied, educationalists make value judgements. The changes to the English Language and Literature curriculum in 2014 exposed what the government at the time wanted teachers and their students to revere as literary and worthy of study: overwhelmingly male, white British authors.

A lot of my teacher participants are pushing back. They are finding ways to build a curriculum for the lower years of Key Stage 3 which offers an antidote to the compulsory literature canon steeped in empire at Key Stage 4. They explore compelling narratives about refugee children finding ways to belong in the UK; learn from tales of colonised peoples in Australia and study biographical readings of role models like Malala Yousafzai – someone who fights for the rights of girls to receive an education the world over. These diverse authors espouse the cosmopolitan values teachers want their pupils to uphold: that there is more common humanity than difference among us.

The twin pandemics of Covid-19 and racism are exposing the tears in our social fabric. And as my research is revealing, diversity of narrative and author voice is not enough to tackle the systemic racism many teachers and students experience in their communities and schools. It does not suffice to rely only on the way powerful literature emphasises a common humanity. To weed out the root of historical and institutional inequalities, literary study should confront the colonial and racist histories of canonical texts and critically engage with the mechanisms that lead to The Sign of Four, or other Victorian texts, making up a sizeable portion of a Key Stage 4 literature curriculum.

Currently, it is down to individual teachers to decide how explore empire and racism. Some may choose to make this a thematic thrust which runs throughout the study of applicable texts, whilst others might make empire and racism a stand-alone ‘context’ lesson. For my participant who marked the exam scripts, their concern was that teachers buckle under time constraints and default to the latter.

English classrooms cannot avoid letting the outside world in. Pupils analyse texts through the prism of their own lived experiences and, for Black British students currently, that lived experience is Black Lives Matter. As a previous blog post explained with reference to historical knowledge: ‘the history curriculum should play a key role in giving our citizens an understanding of the institutional racism in our society, and thereby clarify the nature of contemporary problems.’ I would extend this to literary study also. Interrogating the racism of many compulsory texts could, in willing hands, provide space to grapple with the fight for racial justice. A fight we are seeing playing out on the streets right now.


Photo: Jenny Salita via Creative Commons

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One Response to “Black Lives Matter in narrative too: we should look to English not just History in schools”

  • 1
    Helena Goodrich wrote on 21 September 2020:

    Hi, I’m a teacher at a school with a majority African Caribbean population.

    Susan Neilson told me about your research and I thought it sounded really interesting.

    I am really interested in the research you are doing and would love to learn more about it/ participate in the research if possible.

    Thanks, Best Helena