Sir, what about us?
Teaching Black History Month – A critical reflection.
”Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” – Booker T. Washington
On a cold day in October 2005, a group of Year 9 lads hurried into History class. As pencil cases and planners began to be pulled out, Mr M walked in and said, “It is Black history month. Every lesson this month we will be learning about an element of Black history.” I was ecstatic! This was my chance to learn about my childhood hero, Malcolm X. After every lesson I darted to the library to find out more and fill the gaps in my curious 13-year-old mind. Mr M had us! He got us engaged and History was the only lesson I wanted go to. In English too, Mrs W began to teach us about the poetry from the South African Apartheid by Tatamkhulu Afrika and introduced Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackmore. The pride this induced was so overwhelming.
These four weeks were enlightening both spiritually and academically. Yet, by November, we were back to textbook learning and it was like Groundhog Day. On repeat, History lessons focused on pre-19th Century ideas and English went back to Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I love all histories and all Shakespeare but it could not capture our social experiences as young BAME children the way, say, Benjamin Zephaniah or the case of Stephen Lawrence could. Every single lesson I would put my hand up and say “Sir/Miss, what about us?” This disconnect I felt from the curriculum was so painful and alienating that I opted out of taking History at GCSE and disengaged from my love of poetry. A real opportunity was lost.
Indeed, Malcolm was right.
In 2020, it does feel like since the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that it has been Black History Month for almost six months. Rightly so, conversations and dialogues about: privilege, power, race, inequalities and unity are on the public agenda. As the momentum for the Black Lives Matter winds down and Critical Race Theory remains under attack under the false pretence that everyone who believes Black Lives Matter blindly follows CRT. Black History Month could not have come at a better time. However, in my own planning and focus, I am conscious of including all BAME cultural ideas into this month of celebrating Black History. Each group, culture, race and religion deserves time and space in the curriculum to enrich our learners with a broad and balanced view of the world.
Teaching Black History
From my own experiences as BAME Humanities teacher, I have taught and deeply reflected on how I teach all elements of the curriculum. Black History Month has been such an important part of my own educational experience too. Following my conversation with Audrey Pantelis on #antismalltalk and articles Nothing New, Open Letter to Educators, White Noise and Dark Clouds, it remains important to use this very sensitive time appropriately to support our teachers in the classroom. I have three non-exhaustive precautions ahead of Black History month from personal experience.
1. Time and Space
We set a very dangerous precedence when we pigeon-hole thousands of years of history into a month, a PowerPoint or an assembly. The idea of celebrating the achievements as well as learning about the atrocities deserves time and space. What type of precedence do we set by, often out of unconscious tokenism, to relegate history to a 30-day segment of the academic calendar? I remember learning about Civil Rights at school and this monumental epoch was streamlined into two weeks but we spent over a term on World War Two. If history is to be taught accurately, teachers must give it time and space. The message given to our young people when, say, Colonial India is taught in a matter of days but Ancient Egypt is a term-long fixture in our schemes of work, this message is misleading. No history should be considered as greater importance to any other but the consistent allocation of time will allow teachers to remove this misconception. If the history of your ancestors is demoted and neatly compartmentalised into a calendar month, it creates the feeling of worthlessness and a lack of belonging. A view that any contributions our ancestors have made to the world should and may not be celebrated beyond this month. A slide on a daily staff briefing really do not provide these histories the time and space they deserve.
2. Embedding and Infusing
Black History Month should not be a haphazard peripheral token knee-jerk reaction to new Ofsted guidelines or what is trending on Twitter. Any movement about diversity, inclusion or equity must begin at the very grassroots and within our daily interactions. Analysing the wider school curriculum and considering where we can include, for example: the contributions of Black Scientists, Sociologists, Musicians, Sports people and Academics. Any efforts to reshape the curriculum need to be done with reflective practice and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For me, learning about successful BAME people was at the heart setting higher aspirations for myself. When I was introduced to the case of Stephen Lawrence by Mr P, it struck such a chord in my life and made me realise the importance of representation and inclusion in the public sector. A few years later I found myself training to become a teacher. By presenting intellectual ideas of BAME academics, it does raise aspirations. Also, when completed in a non-tokenistic manner and inclusion is the ethos of the school, everyone thrives and every child is enriched. Just imagine going through school having no idea about the contributions of Black people to the world we live in today. Frederick Douglas, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, George Carruthers, Anna Julia Cooper, Stokely Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Olaudah Equiano and I could go on and on. These are all Black people who I only gained knowledge of by completing a Social Science degree. Their contributions were hidden from history and until such incredible people are celebrated and given time and space, the curriculum remains an inaccurate reflection of the history and the world around us. Embedding and infusing the ideals of inclusion and diversity into the curriculum is a cultural change that I hope we all can embrace for our students and the future.
3. Heroes and histories that are rendered invisible
I knew little about slavery in Britain or the fact that Black people lived in Britain before the Windrush generation! It took a conversation with the incredible Audrey Pantelis and reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni-Eddo Lodge for me to realise this. Britain has its own uncomfortable history with race and to continue to project light onto the USA downplays the tragedies and victories for BAME people here in Britain. How many times have I read a book, article or podcast and thought “why did they never teach me that at school?” So much history and the contributions to history are lost and it is the role of schools to accurately inform our learners. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela but what about Fatima Bernawi? Bernawi is an incredible activist and many Black feminists like bell hooks have argued how BAME women in virtually rendered invisible in mainstream academia. What about Patrice Lumumba? The man was the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Black History Month alone cannot conceptualise the rich history of Black people. I still remember as an NQT picking up a Black History Month folder from 1995 and it had gathered dust. Alarmingly, twenty years on, the school were still teaching the same four or five components of Black history. Year after year, students were taught about Civil Rights, featuring the same actors and heroes with little or no room for maneuver. This is not reflective practice and the dangers of failing to teach histories and about relatively unknown historical figures is also frightening. There should ne no ‘go to’ figures or epochs we slide into October to fill a quota or tick a diversity box. Teaching about hidden histories is also helps create a deeper understanding of the world as it is today.
There is some absolutely incredible practice going on in our schools. The reflection and work so many educators have put in to understanding inclusion, diversity and representation is unbelievable. Black History Month is a time for us to showcase how far we are willing to take these principles.
This is the year of difficult conversations, let’s hold them together and empower our students with knowledge and understanding of the world around them. So, whenever a child say “Sir/Miss, what about us?” in relation to the curriculum, we can give them a authentic, non-tokenistic and inclusive education. Finally, to any teacher that is struggling to embed anti-racism and/or Black History Month into their planning – please just ask. Your BAME colleagues are more than willing to offer a helping hand. No one is asking you to move mountains but rather to consider how those mountains got there in the first place. Love and solidarity to all.
Black Lives Matter.
Thank you for reading,
#antismalltalk – A Conversation about Inequality with Audrey Pantelis – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/antismalltalk-by-shuaib-khan/id1518310026?i=1000489317456