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‘You’re a history teacher? You don’t look like one’: changing perceptions and actions during Black History Month

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 October 2020

Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud.

Black History Month has featured in England since October 1987, when the Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo led the efforts of the London Strategic Policy Unit to introduce a UK version of the longstanding American experience.  For recent generations it appears as a traditional feature of the autumn landscape and it might be easy for it to lose connection to its activist roots.  But 2020 has seen a sharper edge to the sense of obligation to ‘do something for Black History Month’.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May and the subsequent Black Lives Matter campaigns have stimulated considerable appetite among history teachers for curriculum change that might do justice to the global and British history of peoples of African descent. But what should that look like?

Diane Abbott MP addressing an event at the Houses of Parliament. 1987 saw the first Black and Asian MPs since the 19th Century

As with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in 2020 it appeared to be the United States that was the unequivocally racist society, and some people in England sought solace in the notion that the slaughter of George Floyd could only happen there. After all, ‘we never had segregation, and our police don’t shoot unarmed Black men in the back’, therefore British history should be presented as having a positive profile on race. Notwithstanding the inaccuracy in ignoring the British ‘colour bar’, Amelia Gentleman’s recent tireless efforts to expose the scandals of the British Government’s ‘Windrush Betrayal’ should surely call a halt to British complacency. Moreover, searching contemporary archives exposes accounts of Britain’s own grim police brutality cases.

Seven months before the first Black History Month in London, on 20 February 1987, Clinton McCurbin was killed in an encounter with two police officers in the middle of a Next clothing store in Wolverhampton. Clinton, a 23- year-old Black man, died of asphyxia after being aggressively restrained by the officers, assisted by another customer, on the ground of the store.  A policeman’s neck-hold choked him to death. The coroner’s inquest recorded a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’ but Clinton’s family and supporters have never believed that justice was done.

There were local street protests in the Midlands at the time, but nothing on a national scale, and Clinton’s story does not appear in any of our history texts. Let us be clear that the recent history of racism in Britain has seen events as violent at times as any American judicial murder. The cases of Black men and women like Clinton McCurbin, Colin Roach, and Cynthia Jarrett, should be included in authentic accounts of British History.

The year 1987 saw another landmark in the history of race relations in Britain: the election to Parliament of Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz, our first Black and Asian MPs since the 19th century. Progress in political representation then remained steady until the last decade, when Britain saw a marked increase in the diversity of its elected politicians. In the 2019 General Election 10 per cent of the 650 MPs elected were from non-white backgrounds, reflecting better the thirteen per cent of the UK population who identified as such in the 2011 census.

Representation and identity are important in social cohesion and equality. This was illustrated beautifully in one of the Institute’s partner schools in south London on the eve of this year’s Black History Month. Otis Blaize, an IOE PGCE alumnus from 2018, was just beginning one of the many ‘cover lessons’ made necessary by teachers having to isolate at home because of coronavirus risks.  A Black boy sitting at the front of the year 7 class quizzed him: “You’re a history teacher? You don’t look like one.” It’s unlikely that the young man had absorbed the miserable statistics of Black men and women who go to our universities to study history, and the even lower representation among the ranks of the history teaching profession, but he clearly had absorbed preconceptions and social stereotypes. Perhaps he imagined that Otis must be a PE teacher brought in to cover his history class.

As Otis tweeted later that evening: ‘He smiled in excitement when I confirmed I was. His idea of who teaches history will hopefully change. Representation really does matter.’  Within a week, Otis was appearing in a Sky News podcast about Black history in schools, and other media platforms were taking an interest in the issues. This story is heartening, but we would need to see more widespread change before confidently saying that Britain has ‘crossed the Rubicon’ in a commitment to racial justice in its history education and remembrance.

Black history in our secondary schools has always been dominated by a small cadre of heroic iconic figures:  Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the annual Black History Month assemblies have often offered nothing different. However, the ‘perfect storm’ of national lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 prompted a number of inspiring events that developed teachers’ knowledge in areas of Black and diverse histories, including webinars from Toby Green (King’s College, London), Trevor Getz (San Francisco State), and Nick Dennis (Schools History Project) on pre-colonial African history, supported by a website. We now see the regular appearance of a figure from the glories of Africa’s medieval past in schools: Mansa Musa of Mali. The Mansa’s wealth and his Hajj to Mecca is a new feature of many schools’ history curricula at Key Stage 3.  This is an important milestone. Furthermore, by 2021 all three of England’s examination boards will offer schools a unit of work that includes the long history of migration to Britain, with the opportunity to study key aspects of Black British history from the sixteenth century onwards. Another milestone.

We are half way through the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-24). The year with the same designation back in 2011 bore little fruit. If the decade is to fare any better, we must ensure that the impetus of 2020 is not lost.  The study of migration and racial justice in Britain’s past can cement the relevance and importance of the ideas of Black Lives Matter in the UK for the century ahead. A secure place in our school curriculum for the powerful knowledge of Africa’s longstanding civilisations can undermine stereotypes and prejudices. As our school history curricula are transformed and young people are no longer surprised to see Black history teachers in the classroom, the activism of Addai-Sebo and all the subsequent champions of Black History Month might have done its job.  But then it would be good to keep a celebration each October, lest we forget how significant was the long struggle to do justice to history.

Photo by photographer695 via Creative Commons

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