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'Black History Month'? Not for me, thank you.

Black people have been part of British history from the earliest historical records. Their stories, contributions and tribulations are known through the lives of soldiers, traders, authors, slaves, servants, courtiers, campaigners, princes and kings who came to Britain from the time of the Roman occupation in AD43 through to the courts of the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Victorians and the twentieth century.

Names and events like Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (James Albert), Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), Dido Belle, Ottobah Cugoano (John Stuart), James Somerset, Lord Mansfield & the slave ship Zong, Francis Barber & Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Strong & Granville Sharpe, Bill Richmond, the Sierra Leone African colony & Zachary Macaulay, the West Africa Squadron, Sarah Forbes Bonetta & Queen Victoria, Mary Seacole, William Wilberforce and the Abolitionist Movement, Mary Prince, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Frederick Douglass, the Lancashire Cotton Famine, the service of Commonwealth soldiers in both world wars, Learie Constantine and the Lancashire Cricket League, Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples, Paul Robeson, Black GIs in England, Claudia Jones, the Bristol Bus Boycott, the Empire Windrush, the Notting Hill riots, the Notting Hill Carnival, Johnson Beharry... (and that doesn’t include Asians, other ethnic minorities or people of colour like Dadabhai Naoroji, Manchergee Bhownaggree and Noor Inayat Khan, nor does it include contemporary history).

If you don't know who these people are or what they did, I suggest that if you are going to do Black History Month, then start with these.

But in my view, this is not ‘black history’, it is British history.

This brings me to the notion of how ‘Britishness’ (and perhaps particularly ‘Englishness’) has been historically constructed. All identity (not just historical notions of a British ‘ethnic’ identity) is forged as much by what it is; as much as by what it is not.

For example, how did people throughout history come to know they were a 'Scot'?

By their language, customs and culture and… (throughout history) knowing that they were not English!

How did people know they were British?

By their common language, customs and culture and (throughout history) by knowing they were not ‘French' (the ancient enemy) or a 'Spanish Catholic’ (another ancient, religious enemy and attempted invader) or ‘not a Lutheran German’ etc. et al.

In other words, identity is forged by identifying and defining oneself with and by distinctive characteristics alone - but also by contrast to 'an other’.

Some historians argue that ‘the other’ has had a significant influence in shaping British identity especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century when nationalism was at its height – and this included the particular dimension of ‘the racial other’ too – where, in the case of the British, they began to see themselves as: ‘not Indian’ or ‘not African’ and once again most recently (for some) ‘not European’ either.

Other historians maintain that this process can be traced in most if not all other national identities and particularly those that had empires likes the British, the Dutch, the French, Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed, antithetical attitudes towards ‘Islam’ and ‘Africans’ as 'the other’ have been present in European historical consciousness since antiquity [1]. Similar trends in identifying 'others' are to be found in the histories of other cultures (the Arabs, the Chinese and the Japanese, for example).

Whatever the truth, there can be no moral justification for a national identity that defines itself on the basis of a distinction to a racial 'other’. That cannot be right. A basic knowledge of genetics and DNA tells us how unreliable and unstable 'race' is as a concept.

The way any society remembers and teaches its history is a reflection of its values. Any ‘re-remembering’ of British history and - in the particular case of the British Empire - must embrace all its complexity and not fall foul of historical revisionists and imperial apologists on the one hand, or politically correct and 'decolonising the curriculum' versions that see ‘only white people did terrible things to black people’, on the other.

Teaching history, even contentious history can, should and indeed must be a positive process for forging both a sense of belonging and a sense of identity for children of all ethnic backgrounds. Though the process is fraught with risk, the teaching of something like the British Empire should be taught with confidence and honesty - not with guilt, shame, embarrassment or denial – emotions that are unhelpful to the study of history.

As long as we all are prepared to share fundamental values in honestly examining the past while forging a future together, we should not be afraid of this. Teachers are the perfect people to model and demonstrate this challenge to the rest of society.

Black British history is and should be an integral part of mainstream British history, not a sub-set of it that is targeted at black children because we think their ‘self esteem’ is somehow lacking or that their 'representation' needs bolstering; nor targeted at white children because we think it will ameliorate their ‘white privilege’ or recognise their 'guilt'. Black British history should rightfully be part of this country's collective memory – not as ‘Black history’ but as British history.

[1] For more on this discussion, listen to ‘Legacy of Empire’ in the series: In Our Time (1998) [podcast] BBC Sounds

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on ethics and professionalism in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can also follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk

His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ will be published by Crown House Publishing this summer and can be ordered here.


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