It’s a strange moment, the first time you realise your teacher doesn’t know as much about your history and culture as you do.
My first time was when I was 5, in the first term of my first year at my new school. Mrs S, massive blow dried hair, bright pink lipstick and a kindly face (it was the late 80s, after all) asked us each to give an example of a vegetable. Our little hands shot up, and when it was my turn, I proudly said “Yam, Mrs S!”
“Yam?” A kindly smile, a slight shake of the head. “There’s no such thing, dear.”
I remember being more confused than hurt. I knew yam existed. It was in my house. It was the first thing I told my mum when she asked me about my day later. She gently explained that teachers don’t know everything, and that we can teach them things too. I went into school armed with a piece of yam the next day, and explained what it was and how it could be cooked. Mrs S, wise and secure lady that she was, apologised, thanked me and told the rest of the class all about what I’d just told her. Good old Mrs S.
I thought of Mrs S 8 years later while arguing with my history teacher about the work she’d just set during our US Civil Rights Movement class. Instead of listening to my quiet refusal to write a pamphlet from the perspective of the KKK, she was yelling in my face about disobedience. I could have done with Mrs S that day.
Ignorance is real, friends. For the many people who aren’t history buffs or particularly given to reading reams of non-fiction for fun, the history you believe is the history you’re taught at school. That Empire was, on balance, good. That the Golden Age was prosperous because Elizabeth I was a noble determined queen, not because of the slave trade. That Black British history begins with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which Wilberforce ended. That the British left India by choice and hey, railways. That the Commonwealth is a bunch of countries Britain is friends with.
The solution for all this, of course, starts with education. Generation upon generation of Britons have been received the same kind of watered down, unhelpful version of Britain's history I had at school, replete with glaring omissions and wilful rewriting of intention and outcomes. Families like mine have never been able to rely on mainstream schools for a curriculum that reflects Britain as it is now, and we've seen how divisive and expensive ignorance turns out to be. I remain at a loss to understand the level of vitriol levelled at the various campaigns throughout academia to correct these wrongs. I'm reminded of the level of hysteria and fury that met those who first tried to demonstrate that the Earth is, in fact, spherical rather than flat.
I've heard a number of commentators now talk about their fatigue with this conversation - haven't we had enough of being told how awful Britain was? Don't we deserve to be proud of our collective history, and just agree that not everything Britain did was great? Can't we all leave the past in the past? My response will always be, not when it so deeply informs our present, we can't, no. And however tired some might be with rebalancing the history books, I guarantee you that it pales in comparison to how exhausting it is to have one's ancestors' contribution, pain and triumph systematically ignored and written out of your own birthplace's origins stories.
So yeah, I’m passionate about what The Black Curriculum does, and I’m grateful I get to support it through my work with London's Bakers Against Racism. Thank you to every single person who donated and bought our stuff at the two sales we've organised so far. There will be more.
We have much left to do.