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Angela Allison

Is there a demand for 'Black History' courses?

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Is there a demand for 'Black History' courses?

What evidence suggests any demand?

I think there is some evidence to suggest that some black parents feel that they would like their children to spend more time studying Black History. A small, but significant number of history teachers have been urging the study of Black History for a very long time (I have been involved since 1977). The start of this campaign in the UK dates back to the 1960s with the emergence of the History Workshop Group. We of course were not only concerned with Black History. We believed that the history of the working class and women had also been marginalized.

It was not so much that these groups were not taught about in the history classroom. The issue for us was how it was taught. I have given an example of this on another thread about the teaching of slavery.

Conventional history books place great emphasis on the role that white middle class males have played in bringing slavery to an end. This completely distorts the past. For example, virtual every textbook provides a case study of the work of William Wilberforce in bringing an end to slavery. In reality, until just before his death, he was in favour of slavery. Wilberforce campaigned against the slave trade, not slavery. Historians give the impression he was against it for moral reasons. They do this by placing great emphasis on his religious beliefs. However, Wilberforce was against the slave trade for economic reasons. He had been greatly influenced by Adam Smith who had argued in his book Wealth of Nations that the slave trade was not in the long-term interests of British capitalism. If Wilberforce had been against it for moral reasons, he would also have been against slavery as well.

There were of course some white people who were against slavery for moral reasons. They usually were either members of nonconformist churches such as the Quakers or were people without religious beliefs. There were also a large number of women who played a prominent role in Britain against slavery (Elizabeth Heyrick, Anne Knight, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge, Lucy Townsend, etc) but they rarely appear in school textbooks.

Why? Two reasons. (1) School textbooks are written by white males. (2) Most school textbooks do not do enough research and depend too much on their information from reading other school textbooks.

When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up in 1783 it had an exclusively male organization. Some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement such as William Wilberforce were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign. One of Wilberforce's concerns was that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. Most women activists were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade.

Although women were excluded from the leadership of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers.

On 8th April, 1825, a meeting took place at the home of Lucy Townsend in Birmingham to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham).

The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Ann Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Alderson Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery.

William Wilberforce refused to work with these groups and gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies. He tried to marginalize them. As far as most school textbooks are concerned, he was successful in this.

School textbooks have not given enough credit for the role that blacks played in bringing an end to slavery. The overriding impression that is given is that blacks obtained their rights because of the action of white, middle class, Christian gentlemen. The same goes for women and the working class. The message is clear, if you wait long enough, the ruling class will generously give you equal rights (although not equality as they don’t believe in that).

Does all this matter. Yes it does. It is vitally important that young black people do not see their predecessors as passive victims waiting for handouts from the ruling class. They need to know that the slaves got their freedom because they were willing to fight for it. History is not about the past, it is about the present. It is about providing them with information to help them make good decisions. It is about giving them the tools needed to continue the long fight against inequality, racism and sexism.

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Is there a demand for black history courses at my school? I am not sure if this is the right question. Should there be a demand for black history courses? yes. Is there? sort of. Why do I give that answer, well as a white middle class male (yes another one!) who has a passion for teaching multicultural British history I find myself in a difficult position. I have tried to increase not only the amount of black history taught in my school and integrate it into the school's history curriculum. I have run a very successful Black History Month celebration for the last 5 years and have produced online teaching material to support all of this. The problem is that I / we should not have to be in a position where I / we need to do all of this, but I have met very few black historians and even fewer black history teachers in the UK. The consequence of this is that there is not a huge amount of consciousness amongst the black (and white) pupils that I teach and hence not the demand for these courses. I would be absolutely delighted if there were and I would happily retire to pass on the baton to the next generation.

A few years ago I took a group of students to the Tabernacle in Notting Hill as part of a radio debate about Black History Month. It was a very passionate and heated debate and there were many people in the audience arguing that BHM had been hijacked by the white m/c liberal agenda. When I was asked to speak I was heckled by a group of young Pan Africanists and by a journalist on the platform. To my surprise I was supported by a speaker from the Nation of Islam who praised me as a 'brother' who should be respected for bringing his students to the debate in the first place. I wasn't bothered about the heckling but my students were a bit upset that their teacher had been 'disrespected'. I told my boys that I was very happy to be heckled because I wanted to debate with the Pan Africanists, and that at least this was a group of young people who were passionate and knowledgable about their heritage and were 'conscious'. I have always hoped to have students in my school / lessons that would be able to argue their case, after all that is what makes them good historians.

My most recent lessons with my year 8s have also reinforced the need for multicultural history in our schools today. I put up an image of the Drake Jewel, which is shown here: Elizabeth23.jpg

and this led on to a debate about immigration and asylum as I hoped it would. The attitudes of some of the white students could only be described as totally racist and ignorant. I allowed them to spew out their Daily Mail spleen (reassuring the other students that this was a controlled environment and that these views should be challenged by them if not by me) and then explained how over the next few lessons I would prove them wrong. Today I showed them a bar chart to prove that there are not 'millions' of Somalis in England but in fact officially 20,000. The same number of estimated Africans living in England during Elizabethan times. We then discussed why Elizabeth was unsuccessful in repatriating the 'blackmoors' from England and will go on to further discussions about the positive contributions that people from different ethnic mniorities have made to this country.

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Is there a demand for black history courses at my school? I am not sure if this is the right question. Should there be a demand for black history courses? yes. Is there? sort of.

I agree, but the far right idiots- those who blather and wave flags the most, yet who actually know the least and are hypocrites- would beg to differ! B)

I sometimes feel that "black history" (which to me suggests 'Africa') but usually encompasses the Chartism movement and heroism in wars etc, should be merged into, simply...British history?

As the characters who are [rightly] studied lived in and often took an important part in the history of this island, why distance them by labelling them so? This only serves to segregate them...again?

After all, do we also have an Irish British history module? A huge % of the British population is descended from that other island, yet there is far less mention of this?

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History probably began when people started singing about the deeds of their ancestors. Later this became tribal songs, and later still - by jingo - 'national songs'. Now that it is widely recognised we live in a global village (not that we haven't always lived in a global village) - and an international song book is required.

To put it another way an 'English' national history doesn't make sense in isolation - whatever colour you make it, since English history is intertwined with the History of the rest of the British Isles. Not only that, but most important changes in the world can be understood only in the context of regional and world history. However, getting this balance into a school curriculum is difficult, particularly as often the only history that makes immediate sense to young people is local history. Schools were actually tackling this in the 1970's, and producing syllabuses with a much more balanced view - I can remember an excellent syllabus produced by an ANC refugee from Apartheid in an Essex secondary school. But this shouldn't have been a cottage industry: it required the same resources as are now being put into supporting the National Curriculum.

Then in the 80's Thatcherism plus the Falklands War killed off, amongst other things, any notion that there was such as thing as 'human history'. The notion of 'Black History' in British schools was, in my view, one of the many compromises History teachers adopted in order to instill some sort of balance into the jingoistic stuff that initially came out the History National Curriculum. Although History in the National Curriculum now encourages a much more critical approach to the content of history, there is still a long way to go. I hesitate to raise their hit rate, so I won't give their web address, but the 'English Pride' website of the BNP demonstrates just the sort of nonsense that has crept in because of a long period of government interference in History teaching.

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I hesitate to raise their hit rate, so I won't give their web address, but the 'English Pride' website of the BNP demonstrates just the sort of nonsense that has crept in because of a long period of government interference in History teaching.

You and me both, Norman. I've visited it many times- so brave that they have a forum for the opposition to speak out? Not.

Those idiots- some of whom polluted an old history forum I once ran- will spout any warped and over-emotive tripe to the dumb and ignorant masses, who believe alot of it.

So much for the absorption rate of the public in the education system in this country?

Edited by John Wilson

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Then in the 80's Thatcherism plus the Falklands War killed off, amongst other things, any notion that there was such as thing as 'human history'.

I seem to remember a rather promising little KS3 History book called 'They Came to britain; A History of a multicultural Nation' in the mid 80's using which we did some excellent work - unfortunately swatted aside by the National Curriculum a few years later.

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Is there a demand for 'Black History' courses?

What evidence suggests any demand?

I think there is some evidence to suggest that some black parents feel that they would like their children to spend more time studying Black History. A small, but significant number of history teachers have been urging the study of Black History for a very long time (I have been involved since 1977). The start of this campaign in the UK dates back to the 1960s with the emergence of the History Workshop Group. We of course were not only concerned with Black History. We believed that the history of the working class and women had also been marginalized.

It was not so much that these groups were not taught about in the history classroom. The issue for us was how it was taught. I have given an example of this on another thread about the teaching of slavery.

Conventional history books place great emphasis on the role that white middle class males have played in bringing slavery to an end. This completely distorts the past. For example, virtual every textbook provides a case study of the work of William Wilberforce in bringing an end to slavery. In reality, until just before his death, he was in favour of slavery. Wilberforce campaigned against the slave trade, not slavery. Historians give the impression he was against it for moral reasons. They do this by placing great emphasis on his religious beliefs. However, Wilberforce was against the slave trade for economic reasons. He had been greatly influenced by Adam Smith who had argued in his book Wealth of Nations that the slave trade was not in the long-term interests of British capitalism. If Wilberforce had been against it for moral reasons, he would also have been against slavery as well.

There were of course some white people who were against slavery for moral reasons. They usually were either members of nonconformist churches such as the Quakers or were people without religious beliefs. There were also a large number of women who played a prominent role in Britain against slavery (Elizabeth Heyrick, Anne Knight, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge, Lucy Townsend, etc) but they rarely appear in school textbooks.

Why? Two reasons. (1) School textbooks are written by white males. (2) Most school textbooks do not do enough research and depend too much on their information from reading other school textbooks.

When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up in 1783 it had an exclusively male organization. Some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement such as William Wilberforce were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign. One of Wilberforce's concerns was that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. Most women activists were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade.

Although women were excluded from the leadership of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers.

On 8th April, 1825, a meeting took place at the home of Lucy Townsend in Birmingham to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham).

The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Ann Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Alderson Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery.

William Wilberforce refused to work with these groups and gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies. He tried to marginalize them. As far as most school textbooks are concerned, he was successful in this.

School textbooks have not given enough credit for the role that blacks played in bringing an end to slavery. The overriding impression that is given is that blacks obtained their rights because of the action of white, middle class, Christian gentlemen. The same goes for women and the working class. The message is clear, if you wait long enough, the ruling class will generously give you equal rights (although not equality as they don't believe in that).

Does all this matter. Yes it does. It is vitally important that young black people do not see their predecessors as passive victims waiting for handouts from the ruling class. They need to know that the slaves got their freedom because they were willing to fight for it. History is not about the past, it is about the present. It is about providing them with information to help them make good decisions. It is about giving them the tools needed to continue the long fight against inequality, racism and sexism.

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