The Failure of the British Education System: Half of Britons can’t name a Black British historical figure

Hafsa Hirsi 

The Guardian article Half of Britons can’t name any Black British historical figure argued that there was a lack of representation and recognition of Black British historical figures in the UK.  According to the article, one of the main reasons for the lack of knowledge about Black British historical figures is the neglect of their lives and experiences in the UK’s curriculum.  I was disappointed, yet not surprised, by the extent to which Britons lack Black British historical knowledge, and I wanted to respond to the statement made and share my personal thoughts on the matter.  This blog post will make the case that the British educational system’s failures bear responsibility for this.  The Guardian piece presented a historical account through emphasising Black British figures’ early arrival in the country.

I wanted to offer an additional perspective on the rationale behind the difference in Britons’ understanding of Black British history versus Black American history.  It got me to thinking: what first comes to mind when you hear the names Mary Fillis, Omoba Aina, Dido (Belle), or Edward Swarthye?  Not much, I assume.  Now, what noteworthy historical events come to mind when you hear the names Nat Turner, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks?

Image: Paul Stephenson, Credits: wiki media  

Like many, I can recall my time as a secondary school student studying history, and my most memorable moments were learning about American History.  For that reason, I could with ease list a handful of notable individuals of the Civil Rights Movement and those who fought for racial equality in America during the 1950s and 1960s.  However, when it came to acknowledging the influential Black figures in British history, I found myself lacking in knowledge.  Many Black British leaders who have made significant contributions to British history, such as Paul Stephenson, the organiser of the Bristol Bus Boycott (EachOther, 2021), are not well known, despite the fact that they have campaigned for equality in Britain.   

There is a noticeable gap in the curriculum when it pertains to educating students about the Black British presence within British history; this certainly is a significant observation amongst many.  According to Cambridge University report Black British Voices, (Cambridge, 2023), the findings revealed that an overwhelming 95% of the participants surveyed believed that the UK’s curriculum overlooks the significance of Black lives and experiences.  Furthermore, a mere fraction, less than 2%, felt that educational institutions genuinely prioritise combating racism. 

Image: British Empire 1921, Credits: Wikimedia 

The British Empire is significant because it is an inseparable part of British history.  When it is not accurately presented to us, it becomes challenging for us to grasp why the world operates the way it does.  Rather, we learn in a selective retelling of British history.  The British Empire tainted my ancestral country of origin, just like those who reside in the UK.  The consequences of colonialism continue to be felt in the present and have had a significant impact.  For this reason, I never fully comprehended why this conversation was left out of the history lessons taught in schools.  For many, like myself, who are the descendants of former colonial countries, this is not such a distant moment in history.

Despite efforts being made to diversify the curriculum, not enough has yet been done, and as a result, many UK students lack fundamental knowledge about Black British history.  The apparent indifference in the nuanced depiction of Black British contributions can be attributed, in large part, to the Eurocentric framing of Black history. There tends to be limited information on the extent of Black Britons’ roles in British society especially when referring to their histories, with little consideration given to their experiences outside of adversity.  The majority of Black history lessons focus primarily on the Civil Rights Movement in America or present a simplified account of the British Empire, neither of which are studied in comprehensive detail. 

It is not shocking in the slightest that the data provided by Bloomsbury publishing supports this analysis and illustrates that 73% (Bloomsbury, 2023) of the British public is uninformed of revolutionary Black British figures.  This does however, raise the question of why Black history receives limited coverage in the curriculum ranging from primary school to well into sixth form. The primary cause for the inadequacy of historical representation in schools is the failure of the educational system.  The lack of diversity serves to further obscure the range of possible historical manifestations of British identity.  One is prone to falling into the idea of not being seen when they are unable to identify with the curriculum.  Removing the historical relevance of Black Britons can indicate that they never existed, when in fact they did; it is just not adequately recorded or taught to pupils in the same manner that students are taught about American history.  It almost seems to be othering the experience of Black Britons. 

My perspective on early history might have changed if I had known about Mary Filis (Refinery29, 2020), a Black seamstress from Morocco who emigrated to Britain in 1583 at the age of six to work as a servant for the Earl of Leicester.  Why is she hidden from my studies of Tudor history?  Recognising someone who, like me, was of African origin and lived during the Regency era of history would have been crucial to that much needed recognition of African Women.  Learning about a Black Tudor like Filis would have been intriguing and empowering.  Black History Month serves as a starting point for overcoming bias in historical education, but aspects of British history that are relevant to the Black British experience should be studied throughout the year. Developing the curriculum’s teaching of Black history can additionally assist our society to progress against negative attitudes and move forward towards more candid conversations concerning racial issues and inequality.

We should all work together to advocate for authentic historical accounts that fairly reflect the societies we all represent. 

 

References  

BBC Newsround. (2019). Windrush Generation: What happened? (online). Available at  Black history: The forgotten history of black people in the UK – BBC Newsround (accessed 27 November 2023).

Bloomsbury. (n.d). New Data Reveals UK Knows Shockingly Little about Black British History online). Available at: New data reveals UK knows “shockingly little” about Black British history (bloomsbury.com)  (accessed 30 November 2023)

Cambridge University. (2023) Black British Voices Report (online). Available at: Black British Voices: the findings (cam.ac.uk) (accessed 23 November 2023).

EachOther. (n.d). Black British Civil Rights Leaders Who fought for Equality (online). Available at Black British Civil Rights Leaders Who Fought For Equality | EachOther  (accessed 27 November 2023).

Fillis, M. (n.d.). Black Tudors. Refinery29. Available at  https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/black-history-month-mary-fillis-black-tudors

FutureLearn n.d, Miranda Kaufman, BlackTudors: The Untold story, Visual stories looking at the portrait (online)  (online). Available at Visual Sources: Looking at Portraits (futurelearn.com) 

Ipsos. (2023). New Ipsos research Black History Month shows appetite for education in Black British history.  (online). Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2023-11/ipsos-black-history-month-survey-2023.pdf (accessed 25 November 2023).

The Black curriculum. (n.d.). Research Review (online). Available at  TBC+2021++Report.pdf (squarespace.com)  (accessed 28 November 2023).

The Guardian. (2023). Half of Britons Can’t name a Black British Historical Figure, Survey Finds(online). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/oct/26/half-of-britons-cant-name-a-black-british-historical-figure-survey-finds (accessed 20 November 2023)

 

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