Are black histories still being overlooked?
The global protests of 2020 thrust the importance of understanding black history into the spotlight – but, three years on, has that focus been maintained? As the UK marks Black History Month, Matt Elton gauges the views of three historians
What’s your take on the usefulness of Black History Month? Do you have any concerns that it might lead to the subject being overlooked the rest of the year?
Hannah Cusworth: A couple of years ago there was a debate among history teachers – myself included – about the merits of Black History Month. Had it outlived its purpose? Did it make your school less likely to integrate black history in the main curriculum? Shouldn’t we just be teaching black history all year round?
For a while, I was of the opinion that we should get rid of a special month and teach it all year round. But then I had a discussion with some of my students one July, in which they asked me what we were doing for Black History Month. I said: “We do black history all the time!” But they wanted something beyond that regular teaching: something more celebratory to mark individuals who had achieved great things.
You can debate the rights and wrongs of that opinion, of course, but it did change my perception, because the students seemed to see it a bit differently. Clearly there is still a need to do something much more focused.
Pamela Roberts: I’m in favour of it for a few reasons. It’s surprising how often I still meet people who say they have no idea that October is Black History Month. So it’s a good catalyst to start the conversation.
I’ve also noticed that the conversation has shifted recently to include a greater explanation of what the month is for and what comprises black history. There’s been a move away from enslavement history to more celebratory narratives, looking at individual achievements and contributions. I hear the arguments that a month is tokenistic, or that it means the work done by black historians and other professionals isn’t acknowledged as much as it should be – and that debate needs to be had. But I think it’s a good way of getting those issues out into the mainstream.
Hakim Adi: Black History Month is, to some extent, the recognition of a problem – that generally speaking, for the rest of the year, this history is hidden, ghettoised and neglected. That’s how I look at it: as a sign we still have a problem we haven’t dealt with. That encourages us to consider our attitude to Black History Month, and how to utilise it alongside the other 11 months.
I spend every day focusing on the issue of how to make sure this history is integral to the history of the UK and the world. How can we make sure that people recognise the role of black people? How do we actually look at this history, not just in terms of celebrating individuals? What are we trying to teach people about history, and what lessons are we drawing from it? These are important questions to consider every October, and in every month of every year.
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How would you assess the state of black history in UK universities?
HA: A problem in education generally is that very few people of African and Caribbean heritage actually engage with history.
The percentage of school history teachers of African and Caribbean heritage is very small, for instance. And then, among black undergraduates, history is among the least popular subjects. So why people are being turned off history at university and even before university is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Another problem is that black British history, and the history of the African diaspora, is generally very poorly taught at university level. One or two new people have been employed to teach it in the years since 2020, but there are still very few courses on the subject – and some of the courses that did exist have been closed down. And, of course, we have very few academic historians of African and Caribbean heritage. There are literally only a handful.
We then come to the particular issue that we’ve had at the University of Chichester recently. We established a course there in 2018 specifically to address these problems: to encourage black students to come back into education, to study the history and to begin research into the subject. We ran that course for five years, during which we produced seven PhD students. And at the time I’m talking to you [in mid-August], the course is being threatened with termination, as is my post as course teacher. We have 16 black postgraduate students, which is at the moment the biggest such cohort in the UK.
So we have a situation in which the first person in this country of African heritage to become a professor of the history of Africa is being threatened with redundancy. To me, that suggests that the sector as a whole should be concerned about this kind of history, and needs to take action to defend it. Our history is important, and those who study it and teach it are important.
I should add that a University of Chichester spokesperson stressed that this was a wider issue of funding across several postgraduate courses. Do either of you have any other thoughts on this issue?
HC: Just that I fully echo what he’s saying. It’s worth noting the extent to which people who were employed in black history positions at universities are now leaving, either because of cuts or because of really unpleasant work environments. Some of those people have felt unsupported and isolated.
It’s quite a bleak picture, and in my opinion a lot of the momentum from 2020 has now gone. There just wasn’t time for it to bed in, and from my experience of being a recent student in higher education, the knowledge of black history, its literature and methods, is really poor. That can make it quite hard as a black student, because those things are well-established in other countries, especially in the US, but in Britain there just aren’t enough people in place to support this kind of research.
PR: After the horrific murder of George Floyd [in Minnesota in May 2020] there was a rush by corporations and parts of academia and education to – dare I say – jump on the bandwagon and do something. But they put very little thought or creativity into it, and there was also a lack of resources and infrastructure to ensure that it was done in a way that would allow for it to become fully established. It was all very piecemeal and more about appearances than anything else.
Against this backdrop, I also want to return to the point of how we make this history accessible to the wider public, and to fully acknowledge the value and relevance of people doing that kind of work. I don’t think that’s being done nearly adequately enough.
There also has to be a recognition that this subject needs to be properly resourced and properly funded.
My background is in the arts sector, where things were always talked about in terms of an ‘initiative’ or a ‘scheme’ rather than being properly embedded. So you’d begin work as if it was the start of a new cycle, rather than building on work that had already been done. And then the funding would run out, and in two or three years you’d see the whole thing being repeated by another organisation. In the time I’ve been around, I haven’t seen any structures being built upon that would allow us to progress.
Are heritage organisations also experiencing this kind of situation?
HA: For me, the issue that isn’t being addressed stems from the nature of our society and its endemic racism. It could be argued that society in general does not think that any repair needs to be done for the crimes of the past, and that this history is not important.
The statement you mentioned from the University of Chichester is an example of that: everything is seen in terms of money and funding, which is why no commitment is made to education of a transformative kind. That approach, of seeing things merely in terms of pounds and pence, is in my view essentially racist – or if we want to be a bit more polite, Eurocentric. Whether we’re looking at schools or universities or heritage institutions, that’s the underlying issue.
Generally speaking, we’re not exploring the ways in which history can help us address the legacies of the past. In my experience, although we need to call on institutions to help with that – and, indeed, we should demand it of them – it’s us as individuals who actually need to get it done.
There’s now much less burden on proving there were black people in Britain in the past. That work has been done
HC: There’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered both in schools and in the heritage sector. A few years ago, for instance, we got excited about the prospect of teaching about early modern African kingdoms. We thought we were the first ones to do it and that we were being very innovative – and the children enjoyed it, so it was worthwhile work. But then I was reading an article about the introduction of the National Curriculum back in the late 1980s, which mentioned the teaching of that very same subject in London schools, and that the people involved thought they were doing really exciting, innovative work. And they probably were! But how did that fact get lost in that span of 30 years?
It’s because the institutional support isn’t there, and because the structural racism that Hakim mentions is present in a lot of these environments and institutions. I work with heritage organisations in a freelance capacity, and they’re obviously interested in black history, otherwise they wouldn’t employ me. But very often, there aren’t many – or indeed any – black members of permanent staff, so as Pamela says it’s all projects and initiatives. If there is anything with any kind of permanence, it tends to be a small exhibition, and the main galleries of these historic houses and museums don’t change – and nor do the permanent members of staff. So the work gets packed away and forgotten about.
That’s why it feels as if we aren’t making as much progress as we should. Hakim’s point is very important: sometimes it will come down to us, as black people and black historians, to organise and to work intergenerationally so that institutional memories don’t get lost. Hopefully then we can accelerate this progress, rather than endlessly reinventing the wheel every 20 or 30 years.
How has this conversation moved on since 2020? What new and exciting areas of research should we be covering?
HC: There has been progress. Twenty years ago, maybe even as recently as a decade ago, certain institutions would have argued that black people didn’t exist in Britain before Empire Windrush arrived from the Caribbean in 1948. So I do think that the knowledge that there have been black people in Britain for thousands of years is starting to filter down, and people are becoming more familiar with the idea of African Tudors and black Georgians.
You can like or dislike the popularity of [Netflix period drama] Bridgerton, but I do think it has sparked an interest in, and an acknowledgement of, black people in Britain before the Second World War that just didn’t exist a few years ago. That, in turn, has enabled younger historians to ask different questions, because there’s much less burden on proving that there were black people in Britain in the past.
That work has been done. The archival material is undeniable. The task now is to think about different questions.
So there’s really exciting work going on: on blackness, sexuality and gender and the experiences of queer black people; on the entrenched connections between Britain and the Caribbean; and about the early history of Nigeria (I grew up thinking everyone there lived in mud huts with no technology, when that couldn’t be further from the truth).
There’s also some fascinating work into methods in black history, because there just aren’t stacks of papers in archives in the way that there are for British political history, for instance. If we’re thinking about black mothers in 17th-century Jamaica, for instance, those people clearly existed – so we have to think about the other methods from other disciplines, whether it’s literature or sociology or linguistics, that can help bring their stories alive.
PR: There’s been much less of a reliance on African-American history, I think. Thirty years ago, it was only about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. You were pleased to get something rather than nothing, but I’ve seen a gradual move towards black British history and the way in which the contributions of individual people have shaped the overall landscape. There’s also been less reliance on enslavement narratives.
Once, when I was teaching, I showed the class an image of [African-American scholar] Alain LeRoy Locke wearing a dinner jacket, and one black child put his hand up and said “Miss, did black people really dress like that back then? Whenever they tell us about black history, all we see are pictures of slavery and black people looking raggedy. They never tell us about this kind of work or what we’ve done.” Enslavement history is important, but the landscape is wider and more three-dimensional now.
HA: I wouldn’t want to understate the work that we’ve done over the past 40 years. It’s made a huge difference: there has definitely been progress, and we have definitely made advances. There are more young people engaged in history and carrying out research than there were 20 years ago for instance. But still a lot of room for improvement.
One issue in education is the fact that academies in the UK don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. Meanwhile, research on the eras before the 20th century remains limited, as it does into areas outside of London. It’s very difficult – and I speak as the person who’s probably written the most and published the most as a historian in the field – to get publishers to commit to a book on the subject. It’s hard for young researchers to get funding. And we still hear from pupils that they are only being taught about slavery.
HC: The appetite for black history is huge. I think people just get turned off when it’s taught badly or the focus is just on slavery. But if you teach it well, you just see such a transformation in people, particularly black children. It’s so important that it’s present in schools, in universities, in heritage organisations, in the media – right across society.
This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Pamela Roberts is a creative producer, historian and author
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