Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.
Do we need to call time on Black History Month? Should this October’s be the last? This is not a popular question to pose. We are, after all, in the midst of its celebration. Schools are submerged by it, the media is awash with it, and our political leaders are publicly embracing it.
Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, is particularly enthusiastic:
“Iconic figures like Mary Seacole, whose heroic service as a nurse during the Crimean war inspires us today in the fight against COVID-19.”
Seacole has been voted the Greatest Black Briton. Sanctifying her must seem like a sure-fire political winner for politicians. Undoubtedly she displayed some heroic qualities. In 2016, indeed, these were commemorated by an impressive statue of her that was erected in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Her un-woke views, though, hardly chime with the spirit of our age. Seacole (1805-1881) was, after all, prepared to put her life on the line in defence of a British Empire that is now much maligned. In her autobiography she classified Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs’ and opined that, ‘the fleas are the only industrious creatures in all Turkey.’ She, also, dismissed ‘the cunning-eyed Greeks and ‘the lazy Maltese‘.
Her guide in Constantinople she addressed as ‘Jew Johnny’. Add to this, her deployment of the n-word and her reference to the ‘dirty skin’ of foreigners and we can see that her views on race were not much different from Churchill’s and of most other people at that time.
Too much Black History is tokenism, and this will not suffice. Black History should be taught, where relevant, across twelve months, not one. Norwegian-born anti-racist and Guardian columnist, Afua Hirsch argues my case with persuasive logic:
“Why should the focus on black figures of historical significance be confined to one month of the year? If they are important, they should be entered into the mainstream of the rest of the curriculum and, outside school, into cultural events. If they aren’t significant, then there is no greater justification for focusing on them in October than there is at any other time of the year.”
She is right. The danger is that we end up distorting history by filtering it through a lens of political correctness. Abundant filters have been applied to the past, of course – Tudor, Whig, Tory, Marxist, Liberal and so on. PC history provides a new distorting mirror. Black History should be integrated into history teaching across the year, where it is relevant. It does not merit special or privileged status. Nor should its subject matter be filtered.
An important lesson from the past that children need to learn is that people have similar characteristics and behaviour patterns, regardless of their racial background.
Slavery, for example, was widespread in Africa and in central America, including the Caribbean area, before the Europeans turned up. Nor was human sacrifice unusual in those parts of the world. The Aztecs, for example, practised it on a large scale.
In the historical kingdom of Benin, too, part of modern-day Nigeria, human sacrifice was a component of the state religion until stamped out by the British in the late 19th century, just as the Sati or suttee – widow burnings – was suppressed by the British in India.
The presence of Africans in the Roman army that was stationed in Britain is becoming a must-teach topic of Black History, and so it should be. Children are unlikely to be taught, however, that the African legionaries were here in Britain as part of an army of occupation and enslavement. In addition, the African Emperor Septimius Severus, decreed genocide against those living north of Hadrian’s Wall but died in York (Eboracum) before his command could be implemented. This is a nasty but necessary truth of Black History that needs to be taught.
Anther necessary truth is that the African-Caribbean dimension has little part to play on these islands during the thousand or so years of what historians describe as the Middle Ages. It becomes increasingly significant for British history in modern times with the growth of empire and so, of course, needs to be taught. The history of other racial groups and other parts of the world, though, has an equal claim on curriculum time.
If children are allowed to scratch the surface of Black History, they will find that what racial groups have in common, outweighs their differences.
In October 2018, the Royal Historical Society published a report entitled: ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History’. It was supportive of calls for greater diversity in the curriculum. It noted, however, that what amounts to a non-stop force-feeding of slavery and deprivation was putting black children off history. The “seemingly relentless focus” on the exploitation and abolition of slavery can be “intellectually limiting and, at times, alienating” for black pupils, it concluded.
Black History month needs to concern itself with more than the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition. Here are a few other Black History topics that children need to learn about; some already do:
My choice of topics is there to be argued over. That is, after all, what history should be about.
Black History Month, sadly, can too easily descends into patronising tokenism built solely on the concept of an exclusive victimhood. This is dishonest. The ghosts of a million or so UK citizens who died of starvation across a few years in 1840s, for example, might feel they are missing out.
The lesson of history is that there is no colour-bar on human wickedness and suffering, just as there is no colour-bar on human achievement. Black History and non-Black history should be taught across every month of the year – warts and all, good and bad, wicked and wonderful! Most certainly it should not be regarded as yet another opportunity for virtue signalling by manipulative politicians of whatever political persuasion.