Another History is Possible


What are you like 2020?

The last seven days have brought up more discussion about the importance of anti-racist education than the last seven years I’ve worked in schools. And there is not doubting who we have to thank.

Take a bow young people.

The fearless Racism in UK Schools twitter account has been unveiling the true nature of schools that have hidden their institutional racism for too long behind OFSTED labels of ‘outstanding’, ‘standards’ and ‘routine’. No More Exclusions have been talking about this for years. But too few listened.

This is one big Student Survey currently being carried out by a generation, many of whom have been kicked out of school since March by Covid.

The wonderful young BLM protesters have found their history and their politics when they take to the streets. And their clear demands to be taught both our colonial history and Black history (not the same thing) properly need to be heard. This is one big Student Survey currently being carried out by a generation, many of whom have been kicked out of school since March by Covid. As a friend brought up in Kenilworth said to me – when the kids of her largely white and working class school are demanding a ‘decolonised curriculum’, you know something special is happening.

But teaching about Slavery and Empire doesn’t necessarily mean teaching it well. As JusticetoHistory so perfectly put it

The history classroom may be the most dangerous classroom not to be anti-racist in

Justice to History · J2H1 Anti-racism and the history classroom: the challenges for knowledge and pedagogy in 2020

As we resolve to do better as a profession – and believe me we’ve only just begun to talk about the whiteness problem in UK history teaching- let’s do it well. And let’s be clear on one of the things we’re trying to do because it’s not easy. This isn’t simply providing a lesson here or there. As Kerry Apps has done brilliantly here, we’re seeking to historicise race in our KS3 classrooms.

In that attempt, I wanted to share here something I wrote a few years back on both the pitfalls and opportunities of teaching race in the History classroom. It was first published in Consented Magazine and still feels pertinent.

Black Lives Matter protestors outside the UK Foreign Office which seeks to present ‘holy trinity’ of Science, Manufacture and Industry. Trouillot would be proud of the roots on show.

“The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2015). “Silencing the Past (20th anniversary edition):

All students in England learn about William the Conqueror. Most study Henry VIII. Some will do the causes of WWI. If you get to GCSE you’ll almost certainly be examined on the Nazis.

As adults, the list of what we remember learning in our history classrooms vary from person to person. People regularly enjoy regaling me with their own memories and experiences at school when they hear of my job. It’s an inexact exercise; some lessons you forget, others you were passing notes in and, dare I say, quite a few probably weren’t taught that well.  

Still the second-most watched series finale in U.S. television history.

However one area that quickly comes up in conversation is the teaching of ‘Slavery’ and the British Empire. Friends either can’t remember learning about it in a meaningful way or they do and have complaints. Again it’s an inexact exercise, but several times I’ve heard experiences that have chimed with my own. 

Roots, produced in 1977 was a revolutionary piece of Television that gave a generation of Black Britons (and Americans) a language and a set of fictional characters to interrogate the horrors of slavery with. Written by Alex Haley it was beamed into houses across the Atlantic and sought to re-interpret the ‘triangular trade’ as a history of empire, kidnap and terror. It’s season finale is still the second-most watched series finale in U.S. television history.

The first time I came across it was in 2002, at the age of 12. On a Tuesday morning it was wheeled into my history classroom on a VHS / TV combo stack. Students at the back had to squint to see what was happening. The volume was turned up to maximum to stop anyone talking. As one of only a couple of white british boys in the class it was an awkward watch (*I can only speculate it was more than a bit ‘awkward’ for the majority of others in the room with family from the Caribbean or West Africa). After 45 minutes he turned it off, we packed away and were dismissed. We got through pretty much the whole series over the next couple of weeks. 

On a Tuesday morning it was wheeled into my history classroom on a VHS / TV combo stack

The conversation continued outside of the classroom, but not in the way I presume our teachers hoped. The next time I heard ‘Kunta Kinte’ being shouted it was as a term of insult. Despite being a mixed comprehensive school, Haley’s 1970s characters had become 21st century tools of insult in the playground. Most disturbingly it was being used by students of all races against those with more direct West African heritage. I discovered last year my school was not alone. Joseph Adenuga, better known as Skepta, rhymed last year about his school days “They tried to show man Roots. They tried to send man loops”. That Tuesday morning a white history teacher had provided the tools for the reproduction of age old racial stereotypes. He’d offered no criticality or space  for structured discussion. For those that argue teaching Slavery or Empire requires no more thought than teaching the Battle of Hastings, this surely proves otherwise. If I was being charitable I’d say my teacher that day was being irresponsible.  

That ‘Roots’ brought up awkward questions in the classroom was not primarily because of the violence of enslavement, the torture and murders on the crackling VHS screen in front of us. Kids are supposed to be ‘desensitised to this’. But the sentiment was still there. The ‘past’ represented in Roots was present in my London classroom in 2002. Today, teaching on the Crusades, the Slave Plantations or the War on Terror, only a tone deaf teacher would not recognise the intimacy the subject takes on in the classroom for my students. When teaching history to teenagers we seek to make all enquiries into the past intimate for our students. This is part of enabling it to ‘make sense’ in some form for all 30 kids. But occasionally we don’t need to seek out such intimacy. These histories persists after the bell goes. These histories structure our students lives outside as well as inside the school and structure their chances in life beyond it. These are the ongoing histories of race.

But occasionally we don’t need to seek out such intimacy. These histories persists after the bell goes.

Only relatively recently have elements of the past that touch explicitly upon the history of race even got through most school gates. In 1992 ‘The Black Peoples of America’ was published as a KS3 textbook and became a popular blueprint for the teaching of Slavery and/or Civil Rights by motivated teachers across the country. Friends who say they didn’t even learn about slavery at school will likely have missed this particular boat. It soon became a staple to be taught in Year 8, alongside early Modern Histories of the Civil War, Suffragettes or the Industrial Revolution. By 2007, amid great fanfare over the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade* within the British Empire, many more resources were available for teachers to use. In the 2009 History Curriculum update, the Slave Trade was added as a statutory requirement to be taught in all schools. Only four years later, Gove’s highly controversial reforms removed any such mention. 

You may recognise this if you went to school in the UK after 1993.

But over the decades how did this translate into the classroom teaching of Slavery? Teachers, through either ignorance of it or too much intelligence for it, rarely follow the directives of the Department for Education in the intended ways. This makes it difficult to really understand what’s going on in any real depth. But a spectrum of quality is possible to sketch. 

A more fortunate student may learn one lesson on ‘pre-colonial Africa’ that is largely a superficial look at the wealth and trade of vast regions of West Africa. They will then masticate on the horrors of the middle passage and ultimately end up focusing on the causes of emancipation – with a usual focus on Wilberforce / Thomas Clarkson and some cursory mention of slave resistance if you’re lucky. Slavery then really becomes about it’s abolition. The sensitivity with which these are approached will vary from classroom to classroom. 

For the less fortunate 12-13 year old, they may be asked to take part in ‘middle-passage’ and ‘slave-auction’ role plays, or even complete essay questions, posters and debates on the ‘positives and negatives’ of Slavery for the enslaved African. At a recent conference organised on the state of teaching Slavery by JusticetoHistory one of the organisers remarked to me that many “really don’t know how bad it is out there’. It doesn’t take much to imagine. Uncritical teachers (ourselves products of a racist world) with squeezed time and budgets produce lesson plans late on a monday evening to be taught on a Tuesday morning. Or worse they take wholesale from what is on TES or the school hard drive, and leave the criticality to the lesson, if at all. Against this, my experience of Roots on VHS doesn’t look so bad. Neither is good enough. 

Brought to light by the work of Racism in UK Schools

So what should we do as history teachers?

Within the history classroom the challenge is to historicise race (alongside class, gender, sexuality). As someone committed to change, it can be tempting to think of this systematically. A scheme of work on each, neatly tied up with an essay before the winter holidays. But the precise point is to contextualise and interweave these structures. Understanding their structural importance requires an approach rather than just a ‘topic’.

This means a focus as much on the social history that drove the industrial revolutions as on the machines that enabled them. To teach the significance (or as fascinating the contemporary commonplace nature) of John Blanke at the Tudor Court. To examine and enquire into the role of African women like Mary Prince in the abolitionist movement in Britain. For historians it also means recognising that the evidential footprints of the past that remain are necessarily scant. Absence of evidence by no means confirms evidence of absence. Grappling with this in classroom is just good history. 

What is surely clear from my experience as a student is that it isn’t even enough to play the updated 2017 version of Roots*, press pause, perform some hand wringing white guilt and pack away. Without proper attention such a laissez-faire approach, no matter how well intentioned, can be damaging. 

But actually these uncomfortable histories offer so much more than that. Students can come away with new tools for understanding the world today as well as ‘the past’ in all its contested forms. I’ve seen this process in real time as a year 10 sat with a pen and two peers and developed their understanding of mutually enforcing causes by drawing a chicken and egg diagram of racism and colonialism. I’ve seen it when dozens of my Year 9s have interrogated Partition and then learned why their ‘home country’ was named Bangla-desh. It’s happened when my sixth formers became engrossed in a 1990s documentary on Bengali teenage boys and discussed for half an hour what had changed since then for British Muslim populations. We owe our young people these moments.

The Holocaust Educational Trust have done some brilliant work on what education on the Shoah should look like, including an intensive list of historical principles. Some history teachers, such as JusticetoHistory have been seeking to use such a model for the teaching of Slavery. In fact they are about to publish an updated version.

Their removal have made them so much more visible.

This is well needed in the UK today. As Haitian theorist Michel-Rolph Trouillot said of the role of power in the histories we remember, its ultimate mark is its invisibility. The last few weeks have removed some of their invisibility cloaks. Indeed the irony is that their removal has made them so much more visible. A nationwide, honest and awkward conversation about the principles required in teaching Slavery and Empire are beginning to expose some roots that remain hidden decades after the introduction of these topics into the history classroom. That process may well be uncomfortable for the vast majority of history teachers who are White. It should be. 

This original piece was amended in 2020 in reaction to the BLM protests





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