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Monday, 18 October 2010

How British schools are failing black children

Black and British?

History, Identity and Citizenship

Andrew Wrenn

labelled ‘black’ and ‘British’ within the United Kingdom, set against the discourses
about the historic development of British and other identities as well as strands of
post-modern thinking. It will relate these tensions and contradictions to emerging
practice in citizenship and history curricula in England at Key Stage 3 level.
This paper will explore some of the tensions and contradictions in being
‘The English’ by Jeremy Paxman (1998) has been a recent best seller in British
bookshops. Paxman quotes the late, black, labour MP Bernie Grant as saying that
he would rather be introduced as ‘Black British’ than English. This hybrid label ‘Black
British’ is appropriate ‘because it includes other oppressed people like the Welsh or
the Scots. It would stick in my throat to call myself English.’ His statement deserves
closer examination. Grant appears to imply that the ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Scots’ are
‘peoples’ while the ‘British’ are not, at least not in the same way. A particular view of
the past is also taken as read. The ‘English’ are cast as historic oppressors while the
term ‘British’ becomes a more neutral label to which the term ‘black’ can be safely
linked. Grant sees himself as belonging to a dual identity, ‘black’, by implication
founded on skin colour and ‘British’ founded on a looser identity, closer perhaps to
legal citizenship of the British state. This citizenship is shared by the English, Scots,
Welsh and black people but not on an equal basis, for Grant defines black, British
identity against one of these peoples, the English. The shared legacy of past
oppression unites Scots, Welsh and blacks as historic victims of another people, the
English. In shifting the term ‘British’ away from a more traditional notion of
nationhood, Grant was actually taking part in a much wider discourse about how the
concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘Britishness’ are ‘imagined’ in the future. (McKiernan, 1993).
The role of history is crucial in helping to shape how these concepts are ‘reimagined’.
There is an influential stand of historiography that seeks to redefine what constitutes
‘British history’ and by implication what we understand as British identity. Colley
(1994) asserted that ‘Britishness’ emerged as a concept in the eighteenth century
after the Act of Union (1707) between England & Scotland. It was founded on a
common loyalty to protestant values (among other things) and allowed Scots, and to
an extent the other peoples of the then United Kingdom a stake in both imperial and
economic expansion. Other historians (Davies, 2000) have asserted that ‘British
history’ has come to mean ‘English history’. The other peoples, the Scots, the Welsh
and Irish need to reassert their distinct histories so that ‘British history’ is rewritten to
be more representative of all constituent parts of the United Kingdom, not just
England. Davies goes out of his way to deconstruct what he views as an anglicising
domination of the historic record. He insists that the term ‘British’ cannot be
anachronistically applied to events prior to 1707 since the only substantial use of the
label ‘British’ before this was derived from the Roman province of Britannia. A label
that only ever referred to the southern half of the island of Great Britain. When
speaking to a conference in Dublin, capital of the long independent Irish Republic it
occurred to Davies that referring to the term ‘British Isles’ in this setting was
inappropriate. Thus his book is referred to as just ‘The Isles’.
While Davies is claiming to be rewriting ‘British’ history from a more ‘accurate’
perspective, the wholesale process of revisionism can be justified even further by
reference to strands of post-modern thinking. In 1978 White wrote that historians
should be forced “to abandon the attempt to portray one particular portion of life right
side up and in the true perspective….and to recognise that there is no such thing as
a correct view’. The very concepts of truth and objectivity can be viewed as elements
of a modernist paradigm of history deriving from the imperialist west. Paula
Rothenberg, (1992) claimed: ‘the traditionalist curriculum teaches us to see the world
through the eyes of the privileged, white European males and to adopt their interests
and perspectives as our own …effectively defines this point of view as reality rather
than a point of view itself, and then assures us that it alone is ‘neutral’ and
Zinn (1994) supports this view: ‘all history is subjective, all history represents a point
of view… and since its not possible to be objective, you should be honest about that.’
It is a small step to then espouse that within whatever rules historians can articulate,
all interpretations are equally valid. Were such a view to prevail with regard to the
historical interpretations of Davies (the professional historian) and Grant (the
professional politician), the past would merely become a quarry for the endless
restructuring of politics and identity in the present. It would be possible to argue
against their points of view but only up to a point since ‘all interpretations are equally
valid’. If Grant and other blacks choose to define themselves as ‘Black and British’
and not ‘Black and English’ by reference to a particular view of the past, that is their
Of course this kind of relativism frequently draws heavy fire from the Right. Kerridge
(1998) attacks the very idea of black history from a more modernist perspective: ‘Do
we need to rewrite the curriculum…. in order to make blacks visible in the books, as
they are visible in the streets of modern Britain…. If so what should be changed?
Which bits of history must be censored out, which newly included and which
rewritten, so as to change the emphasis or even change the facts? They (ed: those
questions) lie at the heart of a new intellectual endeavour to produce a black -
centred curriculum and to overthrow the cultural hegemony of ‘racist Britain’.
Writing in The Guardian of October 9
disintegration and anarchy flowing from pluralistic alternative histories breaking down
commonly accepted concepts of British history. ‘Youngsters of all races born here
should be taught that British history is their history or they will forever be foreigners
holding British passports and this kingdom will become a Yugoslavia.’ As Phillips has
noted (1998), in the struggles for control of the prescribed content of the National
Curriculum for history in all its versions (DES 1991, Dfe 1995, Dfee/QCA 1999), to
call for the inclusion of a whole raft of voices and viewpoints in historical narratives of
the nation is to court controversy.
If black identities in the United Kingdom, as well as others, are being continually
reforged in such ideological cauldrons, how does this impact on a child in a Key
Stage 3 (11-14) history classroom. How do children from ethnic minority
backgrounds and even more, those with more complex patterns of ancestry see
themselves? How do they relate to a history curriculum that in its prescribed content
preserves much of a conservative, ‘our island story’, framework of the past? Is it
possible to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable? Is there a way through?
The new government emphasis on Citizenship gives a potentially valuable
opportunity to find a structure for teaching about aspects of identity. The concept of
multiple identity - that is, simultaneously belonging to a number of different
communities at once - can be a way of formalising the reality that many children and
adults live with from day to day.
We may identify ourselves through our family upbringing in particular local
communities which may possess religious, ethnic or class differences to that of the
locality in which they are set. A Muslim girl from an Asian background in Bradford,
might assert her religious identity at school by contrast with her many white
classmates while stressing her Britishness at home, as a form of adolescent
independence in a traditional Asian family. Living in Scotland, a child might choose to
call themselves Scottish before being called British. They might prefer to be called
European instead of British. An Ulster Protestant might claim to be simultaneously
British and Irish but never English. The concept of identity is wrapped up with notions
of citizenship. Heater’s (1998) model of multiple or layered citizenship used as a
pedagogical model would allow any number of varied combinations of identity to be
found among the school population of the United Kingdom to be accepted.
With regard to the history curriculum, such a degree of pluralism has already been
incorporated into the National Curriculum of history. One of the required key
elements for Key Stage 3 History states that pupils should be taught:
a) to describe and analyse the relationships between the characteristic features
of the periods and societies studied including the experiences and range of
ideas, beliefs and attitudes of men, women and children in the past.
b) about the social cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the societies studied,
both in Britain and the wider world.
So the complexities of layered citizenship in the present should already be bolstered
by the expectations of the way history is taught in class. Although at first sight the
areas of study for the National Curriculum for England at Key Stage 3 outline a
traditional framework of British history from 1066 onwards, there is a requirement to
incorporate potentially diverse narratives within and across the various periods. This
allows teachers to make selections of content from the breadth of study that can
readily reflect black history and other narratives reflecting varying emphasis.
It is quite common to find secondary history departments teaching the black peoples
of the Americas - a Key Stage 3 area of study that embraces the Atlantic slave trade
and its abolition. Yet the resources departments use for teaching this topic (by which
I mean textbooks, worksheets and the like) sometimes tend to portray blacks either
as helpless victims or in a heroic mode. The resources themselves have emerged
out of an old discourse within the historiography of the slave trade and its abolition.
This discourse polarises between two extremes. One is a traditionally Euro-centric
tribute to white abolitionists, where blacks appear mostly as passive victims and
recipients of freedom. Much contemporary documentary material supports this view
as it was produced by white abolitionists themselves. Alternatively a more radical,
Afro-centric view, stresses the heroism of blacks and the role they played in their own
liberation. A recent film from Stephen Spielburg called ‘Amistad’ dramatises this kind
of interpretation as did the 1970’s television series ‘Roots’. This series in itself
reflects the change of black American identification from ‘coloured’ to ‘Afro-
American’, ‘the term adopted since the 1960’s by black consciousness movements of
all kinds, highlights the tremendous preoccupation with historical roots’ (Samuel,
Bernie Grant would probably have supported an Afro-centric interpretation of the
slave trade and its abolition. He might even have dubbed the traditional Euro-centric
view as ‘racist’, with some justification. A post-modern view of history would readily
allow any such competing narrative, claiming to overturn a traditional ‘white’ one
(such a view might have the additional virtue of deriving from an oppressed minority
So how can secondary history departments teach this period in some kind of
coherent way? In my own view, to accept the ultimate conclusion of postmodernism
that ‘all interpretations are equally valid’ would be disastrous. At the heart of the
National Curriculum for history the current strand of skills, knowledge and
understanding ‘Historical Interpretations’ has been evolving in history teaching for
over ten years. Macaleavy (1998) defined an interpretation as any ‘conscious
reflection on the past’, made up of a mixture of ‘fact and fiction, imagination and point
of view…. dependent for its historical worth on, among other things, purpose and
intended audience.’ This implies that any interpretation of the past, from whatever
viewpoint can be rigorously tested for its historical validity to the same standard. Yet
this same rigour of analysis is sometimes not applied to minority narratives for fear of
causing offence. As Downes (1993) claimed: ‘the politics of identity…. rests on a
disturbing epistemological ground. Only those who share the group’s identity and
have lived its experiences can know what it means to be black, a woman…. in an
America constructed as white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.’ This kind of reasoning
can be used to attack an opposing view of history when supported by an historian
who does not come from that particular group.
As Evans (1997) points out, if the study of history is driven by primarily political or
moral aims ‘the scholarship suffers’. ‘Facts are mined to prove a case, evidence is
twisted to suit a political purpose, inconvenient documents are ignored, sources
deliberately misconstrued or misinterpreted.’ It is right and proper that black history,
long neglected and ignored, should be an object of study in schools history. Grant’s
identification of British blacks with the Irish, Scots and Welsh can be defended as an
historical interpretation but it can also be challenged. For just as there is no single
‘white history’, there are also diverse black histories. To be ‘black and British’ for a
teenager from an ethnic minority background, may well be important to reinforcing
that child’s identity in the present. But if Britishness itself ultimately disappears and
with it, Grant’s particular view of the past, where does that leave the teenager as an
adult? Probably confused. How much better to teach about the past, but also equip
children with the cultural awareness to deconstruct any interpretation for themselves.
Within the scope of school history teaching, there is every reason to present varying
historical interpretations, not as though they were equally valid but as subject to the
same analytical framework as rival historical points of view. Hennessy et al
commented in 1991: ‘History is a contested subject…I have a daughter who teaches
in a big comprehensive in North London….lots of Irish children, lots of Afro-
Caribbean children, and lots of children from the sub-continent. And it is contested,
and it is discussed and so it should be.’ As Evans says ‘black history deserves to be
treated with scholarly rigour and care as much as white history does.’ Children in
history lessons deserve no less.
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