Reflections on a life addressing the lack of Black History teaching

Marika Sherwood, an immigrant to the Mother Country, on a life dedicated to addressing the lack of Black History teaching in the UK.

As an immigrant child in schools and then university in Australia I learned about the glories of the Mother Country’. In his Autobiography Trevor McDonald (2019) tells us that that is also what he was taught in schools in Trinidad. So obviously this was government policy.

I arrived in London in 1965. Though not trained to teach, I got a job primary school. As this was my first experience of even seeing ‘black’ children I asked my fellow teachers about them. ‘They are from the West Indies, and a real problem.’ What, where were ‘West Indies’? The teachers knew nothing, so I went to the local libraries. Nothing. So all I could do was talk with the parents. They were very kind to this curious and very ignorant teacher and taught me so much! Thank you!

I moved to a ‘comprehensive’ high school in north London. All my classes would be the ‘bottom stream’ – just had to be kept quiet as they were ‘negroes/black’ and ‘white’ pupils who lived in East London post-codes; all were too stupid to learn.

That was all the pupils expected of me – but not what I expected of them. I taught; they learned. I didn’t last long….the Inner London Education Authority (ILEU) was obviously not very pleased with me.

Mother Country?
So definitely not the Mother Country I had hoped for. I went travelling, worked here and there, returned to London, worked as a student advisor at a London polytechnic. There were many Black students, and I learned much about the racial discrimination they experienced constantly. I continued searching libraries and then archives for information, on the history of the West Indies, of Africa, and on peoples on African and Indian
origins/descent in the UK. Nothing. What could I do about this omission?

Though nowhere to go for advice and support, I did some research. In 1980 I emigrated to New York; taught in schools, a prison and a little at a college, all in Harlem. I rented a flat very near Harlem, so many of my neighbours, not just my students, were Black. I learned much. This stimulated me to write up my research findings: two small books and two articles were published in England.

For various reasons I returned to England in Was it due to these publications and the ILEU that I found it almost impossible to get a job?

Peter Fryer’s superb book, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain, published in 1984, outlined this omitted history from the time of the Romans! Very excited, I attended every possibly relevant meeting, lecture, talk, conference; made new contacts. From 23 October 1990 until 1992 The Voice, the weekly Black newspaper, published history articles by me on the ‘Black presence’

National Curriculum
The National Curriculum now included an optional course for KS3, ‘Black Peoples in the Americas, 1600-1910’. The sources of material for teachers was grossly insufficient, so, with the help of colleagues for the research and my brother and my son for publication, I self-published Black Peoples in the Americas: A
handbook for teachers (Savannah Press, 1992).

I had many discussions with helpful colleagues: we agreed that much needed to be done. Racism was endemic. There were no ‘Black Studies Departments’ in our universities. Teachers were as ignorant of the histories of colonisation, as they were of the presence and contributions of Black peoples here. Their only ‘early civilizations’ were Greek and Roman – there were no civilizations in Africa. Yes, there was Egypt, but in the school texts I looked at Egypt was not in Africa: the maps were of the Mediterranean, of Europeans countries there, and just a little of the coast of Africa, barely extending West from Egypt. There was no African continent.

We formed the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) (1), held meetings and conferences all over the UK; published a monthly newsletter; encouraged research. Regarding the curriculum, we had years of correspondence and even meetings with the Department of Education and Ofsted, including their heads. And we published Whose Freedom were Africans, Caribbeans and Indians defending in World War II? to add to the the curriculum.

As there were no courses at universities, I asked all those attending the monthly seminars I organised to fill in a questionnaire asking if they would be interested in a part-time/full-time MA course on Black British History. Interest was high, but none of the universities we contacted were interested!

We were also concerned about museum exhibitions, so contacted many, including the Imperial War Museum; we also attended some meetings regarding new museums – for example, the Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the Migration Museum in London. We contacted the National Archives on its World War I project; the BBC regarding its ‘The Making of Modern Britain’ programme, in which no ‘Black’ people existed.

We set up committees to work with/help local activists, archives, and to work on education issues.

To learn about all we did, please read the BASA Newsletters.

Trevor McDonald concludes that ‘sometimes a single voice is all that it takes to express …without flourish the pent-up emotions of a multitude’. But expression is insufficient – as it does not necessarily result in the required changes. BASA ‘expressed’, but ‘died’ some years ago. Of course, a variety of protests on a variety of issues continues. For example, on the police. Why?

Some reasons:
-‘In the year to March 2021, black people were seven times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, with the vast majority of stops leading to no further action… black people were about 5.7 times, more likely to have force used on them than white people….’ And ‘….of the 650 children aged 10 to 17 who were strip-searched by the Met police between 2018 and 2020, 58% were black… For 2018 alone the figure rose to 75%. In Greater London 19% of10- to-17-year-olds are black.’ (2)

– Universities – faculty: There is only one professor of ‘Black Studies’: Kehinde Andrews at Birmingham City University. Hakim Adi is Professor of ‘The History of Africa and the African Diaspora’ at the University of Chichester. Important: among the Black professors of relevant courses, is Olivette Otele, appointed Professor of the ‘History of Slavery’ by the University of Bristol in January

Due to ‘exhaustion’ and ‘constant banana skins thrown my way by other academics…backstabbing from colleagues’, she resigned and was appointed Professor of the ‘Legacies and Memory of Slavery’ by SOAS. (3)

– Universities – courses: There is only one BA
‘Black Studies’ degree and three relevant postgrads: the MA course at Goldsmiths London, has been suspended.

– School curriculums: These have been revised again and again. 240,000 signed a petition calling on the Government to ‘teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum; diversity and racism should be in all school curriculums which should be more inclusive of black, Asian and minority ethnic history’. The Parliament’s Petitions Committee did some research; its report included that ‘far too often, subjects are not being taught because teachers lack confidence and, above all, proper training. One in four teachers told us that they lack condence and
the ability to develop their pupils’ understanding of black history and cultural diversity…..’ (4)

– Established a few years ago, the Young Historians Project (5) ‘formed by young people encouraging the development of young historians of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain’, has published two free KS3 and KS4/5 workbooks and publishes History Matters, a free online history journal. Hopefully their work will have some/much influence.

2 The Guardian 22 April 2022 , 8 August 2022
3 Times Higher Education, 5/5/2022; SOAS Newsletter, 11/4/2022
4 Hansard, 28/6/2021

Marika Sherwood is an educator, historian, researcher and author and has published prolifically on Black and colonial history. She is a Liberation member

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