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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).


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 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 ‘a French' or a 'Spanish Catholic’ or not a Lutheran German’ etc. et al.


In other words, identity is forged by identifying and defining oneself with, and by, distinctive characteristics - but also in 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 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 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.

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 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 – all 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’ depends on it; nor targeted at white children because we think it will ameliorate their ‘white privilege’. Black British history should rightfully be part of the nation’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


Watch this sample of the video-module 'Can you teach British values? Yes, and here's how...' and subscribe to the newteacherstalk website to continue the discussion.


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