‘Black History is History’

Black History Month and Education in the UK

This October, the Perlego team are joining the rest of the UK in celebrating Black History Month — an occasion to raise awareness of Black histories, while recognising the contributions of Black people to British society and culture.

In addition to asking for book recommendations for our Black History Month reading list, I interviewed Zoey Dixon and Addie Tadesse about the role of Black history in education.

Zoey is a Community Hub Library Manager and Development Librarian for the London Borough of Lambeth. Addie is Social Media Officer for The Black Curriculum, an organisation founded by young people in 2019 to rectify the underrepresentation of Black British history in the education system.

What does Black History Month mean to you, on both a personal and professional level?

Zoey: As a Black cis woman, I can’t really separate the personal from the professional. I’m in a profession where 97% of library workers identify as white, so I feel an obligation (which I don’t begrudge) to represent Black people; I’m lucky that I am able to do this through my work.

I can make sure our book collection is representative of the Lambeth population, and organise events that inspire and educate people — whatever ethnic background they have. Being able to do this is quite cathartic for me, it allows me to process my own experiences into something constructive and meaningful that I hope will have a positive influence.

Black History Month is also a way for me to further educate myself. There is so much that I don’t know, especially about Black British history, and I learn so much during the month.

Addie: On a personal level, Black History Month isn’t much different from any other month. At school, it meant a recycled 15-minute assembly on Martin Luther King, Jr. However, from age 16 and onwards I took it upon myself to read and learn about global black histories, and this has been a practice I have carried with me until now.

On a professional level, Black History Month is an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with those around me. My position as The Black Curriculum’s Social Media Officer enables me to deliver creative, informative and digestible content on Black British History.

Why is it so critical now, perhaps more than ever, to educate ourselves and our children about Black history?

Zoey: Black history is history - why are we leaving this out of our education? You can’t fully understand the world if you’re ignoring large parts of it, and if we truly don’t want to repeat the worst parts of our history then we need to acknowledge and understand it to make effective changes.

I don’t think people realise just how pervasive racism is, how Black people are still held back and locked out of certain career prospects, or how difficult it can be to go about your everyday life; I have to navigate the world very differently. This is why the call to decolonise the curriculum and increase representation in children’s books is so important: the work needs to begin from when we are children.

Addie: When young people are not taught about their history within Britain, their sense of identity and belonging is negatively impacted and their social relations are hindered.

The events of this year have been a wake-up call for some, and an incredibly sensitive trigger for many. Providing ourselves, and especially our children, with an accessible education that represents British history — inclusive of Black people — will allow for more open discussions on race, society and everyone’s equal place within it.

Do you think it’s important to strike a balance between acknowledging Black and minority struggles and celebrating their achievements?

Zoey: Absolutely! It’s important to learn about Black joy as well as struggle. Too often the focus is on the oppression of Black people, whether it’s in the past or happening now. If you look at the narratives that receive attention in popular culture, they tend to be about slavery, racism and the struggles that Black people experience.

Despite all this, Black people have achieved and contributed so much, and this shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed. It’s important for other Black people to see this and realise what they can accomplish.

Addie: Certainly, it’s vital that a balance is maintained here. For example, the history of the enslavement of black peoples needn’t offset the brilliant contributions made by Black Britons during Tudor England, and vice versa.

From a third angle, I think we need to be careful not to polarise the narratives through which we approach black histories into extreme binaries. The ordinary social histories of Black Britons — their migration patterns, cultural practices and community organisation — are all just as important to our wider understanding of Black British history.

Do you think studying ‘Black’ history separately — within its own month, as opposed to incorporating it into just ‘history’ — creates more or less racial cohesion?

Zoey: I think it probably makes some people uncomfortable. Every year there will be people who ask, ‘What about White History Month?’ but at the same time there will be some people who realise that they just don’t know enough about Black history — it will force them to look beyond what they have been taught and reconsider the books they usually read, the language they use and the media they consume.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a separate month, but we’re not at that point yet. Until people can name ten Black artists, writers, film makers and scientists without having to research them, and until Black history is taught alongside history, we are going to need a separate Black History Month. We can’t create racial cohesion without it.

Addie: Black History Month is what you make it. Generations of people who have already passed through the UK’s education system have not had the opportunity to learn about Black British history, so for many it can be a genuine time for learning and reflection. However, The Black Curriculum’s TBH365 campaign encourages people to embed this into their everyday conversations, reading lists and curriculums — just as they would with any other part of British history.

What part does The Black Curriculum play in redefining historical education in the UK?

Addie: Currently, the national curriculum and exam board specifications are limited in providing Black British history. To remedy this, The Black Curriculum provides a diverse and holistic syllabus, and develops free and licensable resources for schools to teach students about Black history. Ultimately, our goal is to redefine how we understand and participate in historical education by creating space for more accessible, inclusive and contextual learning.

Which books would you recommend as a starting point for learning about (and celebrating!) Black history and culture?

Zoey: These titles (which can all be found on Perlego) offer an excellent insight into the history of Black people and their achievements:

There are also some great books out there for children and teens:

  • Black and British: A Short Essential History, by David Olusoga
  • The History of African and Caribbean Communities in Britain, by Hakim Adi
  • The Story of Windrush, by K. N. Chimbiri
  • Timelines from Black History: Leaders, Legends, Legacies (DK Children)

Lambeth Libraries are celebrating Black History Month with a free online event programme and a Black Writers Challenge.

The Black Curriculum team organise arts programmes, teacher training and youth-focused campaigns. For more information about their mission and services, see The Black Curriculum’s website and Twitter account.

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