Why School History lessons are letting us down

Mikael shares how secondary school history lessons were pivotal in his perception of self, investigating the link between racist ideologies and curriculum

Flashback. It’s year eight. It’s second period history. I’m twelve years old and I’m learning about the history of my people – black people. Great, right? What’s not to love about empowering black youth with a knowledge of self? Well, what if I told you I and many other black people did not learn our history in those secondary school history lessons? And that instead, we learned our place in a white society? Allow me to elaborate.

When our history is taught to us through a white lens, we only get a sliver of the full picture

Like the majority of other black youths, I found my introduction to black history pivotal to my perception of myself. At twelve years old my impressionable mind digested the ‘Roots’ TV box set and images of white saviours such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, drawing the same conclusion as many of my black classmates: “so before white people came and took us from Africa we were just living in huts doing nothing?” This utterly misguided viewpoint is far too often replicated. When our history is taught to us through a white lens, we only get a sliver of the full picture. Nevertheless, many of us accepted this newfound knowledge as the whole truth, only seeing ourselves as relevant from white people’s involvement onwards.

When our taught history begins with slavery, we subconsciously learn that we are lesser

When our taught history begins with slavery, we subconsciously learn that we are lesser. According to my lessons, only when the white man laid eyes on us did we become internationally established, technologically advanced and “civilised”. This could not be further from the truth. The cradle of civilisation spans all people for hundreds of millions of years, so the notion that four hundred years of hardship is all my people and Africa have to offer is extremely misleading and damaging. This, coupled with the Western media representation of Africa being corrupt, plus the endless charity adverts and famine appeals, cements the faux knowledge that we are inferior.

While it is true that Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, the bus boycott, South African apartheid and Rosa Parks were all covered in my secondary school, aspects of each were cherry-picked at best. As children we regularly accept knowledge as fact, especially when it’s taught to us in schools. Conversing with fellow black people and white peers, I found lack of knowledge to be a recurring theme. The Dogon people of Mali, West Africa were ethnographically versed in cosmology, astronomy and astrology. Early pioneers of Western philosophy like Plato studied under Egyptian elders in Heliopolis, Egypt for thirteen years. The North African Muslim Moors conquered much of Spain in the Middle Ages, heavily influencing Europe’s future. These facts are just snippets of the timeline of African history but show that black history does not begin with white people.

To say current history lessons are lacking is an understatement. In fact, I think aspects of Martin Luther King Jr’s and Malcolm X’s teachings are taught in such a way (if at all) that breeds a passive  state of mind. To truly understand history, the full picture must always be presented. We learned of Hitler’s unthinkable atrocities, but, we also learned of the technological and psychological advancements made by Nazi researchers, due to their lack of morality. When this theory is applied to black history, in particular, Malcolm X’s advocation of economic separation – giving black people the opportunity to become self-reliant (as was previously and consistently repressed through acts like the White supremacy attacks on “Black Wall Street” in 1921), rather than allow systematic and economic segregation to keep them inferior – has been ignored in history lessons in the UK. Similarly, MLK Jr came to the realisation (soon before his murder at the hands of the US government in 1968) that the long fight for equality would never truly be won if integration did not allow for equal opportunity economically. Yet we are only reminded of his “I have a dream” speech, which is always heralded as the height of black social and political empowerment. While it is true it was a turning point for Western society, does that mean it was the best result? In comparison, MLK Jr’s “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.” Statement was far more potent as it highlighted how far we still have to go. Yet these facts are purposefully left out in Key Stage 3 history, with the Department for Education even going so far as to include ‘Britain’s transatlantic slave trade: its affects and its eventual abolition’ as a non-statutory subject that schools are not required by law to teach.

Speaking to my fellow black co-worker Ella Brandt, it became apparent to me that while I had some form of black history taught to me during my secondary school years, not all of us were so fortunate. Ella’s recollection of black history at her private school in Romsey, South East England consisted of one year ten assembly where the students were asked if they knew who Mary Seacole was. When Ella was the only student to put her hand up she was asked to tell the assembly who Mary Seacole was – sparking the teachers brief deliverance of Mary Seacole’s life (to the less than ecstatic audience to say the least). Had Mary Seacole’s associate, Florence Nightingale previously not lived in the house, now Ella’s school – It’s unlikely they would have summarised her at all.

…whoever controls history controls society’s perceptions, structures and power systems

History is a powerful tool. Depending on who controls it, it can completely change the contemporary social and political landscape. Look no further than Christopher Columbus and his portrayal in history as a pioneering explorer and discoverer of the new world. Notice how the parts where, raping and hunting the Native American indigenous with his band of marauding European outlaws is conveniently left unmentioned. In modern day America he is celebrated annually during Thanksgiving, only solidifying my point that whoever controls history controls society’s perceptions, structures and power systems. When we think of things in terms of Key Stage 3 History, it is no wonder I and the majority of other black students saw ourselves as inferior and reliant on the white power structures that be. Knowledge of self is empowerment, and without an accurate representation of ourselves we will never truly be empowered as one people, much to the satisfaction of a systematically oppressive government.

When our history is glossed over it isn’t just black people who are negatively affected

When our history is glossed over it isn’t just black people who are negatively affected. The current resurgence in white supremacy, Nazi fascism and white nationalism in America and England (particularly after the vote to leave the EU) shows that now is as important a time as ever to see the humanity in each other. Going to a college where many of the students were from non-central parts of Bristol, it became apparent to me that there was a recurring theme of emerging far-right and white nationalist ideals embedded in more students than I was comfortable with. The typical notion that immigrants were dirty, job ‘thieves,’ uneducated and dangerous not only contradicts itself on a near-humorous level, but shows that a lack of insight and knowledge is one of the main driving forces in the development of said views. I’m not saying secondary school history lessons are the only cause of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. That would be wild. I’m merely stating that on some levels, having a lack of knowledge can allow these ideals to manifest into more than ‘locker room banter.’ When your main source of knowledge on non-white members of society comes from that openly racist uncle and not from a classroom environment designed to aid in the consumption of real world historical evidence and facts, it’s no wonder these mindsets are persisting through the generations.

In a recent #RifeMeets interview with Lord Mayor Cleo Lake, Cleo says, “I like to get to know people, get an insight into what they do, what they offer and to get a balanced view. I wouldn’t have got where I was without the diversity around me growing up. And of course, if we’re building a better Bristol, we can’t do that in segregation and in isolation. I need to learn about your history, you need to learn about my history – so that we can have a collective history.” Whether it be knowledge of self or learning the whole truth, history is something we all share, and in the battle for unity and racial harmony, the place for dropping truth bombs is less in the streets but more in the classrooms.

What do you think of the history curriculum? Does school do enough for POC history? Let us know on FacebookInstagram or Twitter