For over 30 years, Black History Month has been an annual event dedicated to celebrating black culture and the achievements of underrepresented black role models. Originating in the US, the roots of Black History Month can be traced back to the early 20th century when African American historian, Carter G. Woodson, decided to document the history and experiences of black people in America. His pioneering works which include A Century of Negro Migration and The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, led to his nickname as “the father of black history”.
The influence of Carter G. Woodson can be found in the mission of present-day Black History Month in the UK: to put the spotlight on black British history and celebrate the incredible work of black members of the community. It is an important opportunity not only to honour the contributions and achievements of black people, but also to increase education around the effects of racism and discrimination. Black history must be an ongoing and everyday part of social discourse if we hope to overcome the social and political obstacles which still present a very real-life threat for black people. Starting in schools, it is vital that the curriculum reflects, and is inclusive of, the experiences of black people throughout history, year-round.
The Department for Education encourages schools to teach black history as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. While we are starting to see improvements with diversity in classrooms, thanks to the work of campaigners and organisations such as The Black Curriculum, there is work to be done to ensure the curriculum reflects the depth and breadth of black experiences. For example, while many schools do teach students some aspects of black history, many campaigners have criticised how the teaching of this subject often focuses exclusively on oppression and slavery. Of course, while this is a hugely important part of history, it is also one aspect of an incredibly rich, broad and inspiring narrative.
Teaching and celebrating the achievements of black people across all sectors, from medicine to science and sports to literature, is key to raising aspirations amongst children and young people today. From Mary Seacole, the 19th century nursing hero celebrated for her efforts in the Crimean War, to Tessa Sanderson, the first British black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, and British-Nigerian singer, Sade, one of the biggest selling British female artists, to critically acclaimed London-based writer, Bernadine Evaristo – these are a few examples of inspirational figures we could be teaching in the classroom.
This year the Minister of State for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, wrote a piece for Black History Month also looking at the importance of teaching around black role models and why their accomplishments should be shared in order to inspire people of all colours and backgrounds:
“During Black History Month, I want us to tell the stories of those less well-known individuals who we will forget if we don’t showcase them. Where people have been excluded, it is right that we highlight them so their valuable contributions to that evolution are not forgotten.
“Celebrating black Britons is integral to this. People like Lord Bernard Ribeiro, who pioneered the use of keyhole surgery which transformed patient experiences around the world; or Lionel Turpin who fought for Britain in the trenches of WW1. There are so many more, from all walks of life.
“These achievements aren’t only of interest or relevance to black people. They belong to us all, whatever our skin colour. We’re all standing on their shoulders in some way, as we aspire to evolve further to fulfil our potential – individually, and as a nation.”
Teachers must be equipped with the resources, knowledge and skills to not only teach black history in its full vibrancy and complexity, but also embed this into lessons year-round. The TIDE project, launched by the University of Liverpool, and the Runnymede Trust, published an influential report on this subject titled, Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools. The report calls on the Government to make the teaching of migration, belonging and Empire mandatory in secondary schools and, vitally, provide practical support for teachers to deliver this in a sensitive manner.
Following research with teachers and exam boards, the report offers key recommendations for what Continuing Professional Development (CPD) on the subject matter could involve as well as learnings which the government can take forward from the success of the Centre for Holocaust Education. Organisations such as The Black Curriculum, BBC Bitesize, BLAM UK and TES further have a range of practical resources to give teachers different ideas and topics for teaching black history as an integral part of our wider shared narrative.
Black History Month is a wonderful opportunity to mark and learn about black heritage, but the lessons learned can be taken forward and embedded into the everyday curriculum. In doing so, we can help students to understand the complete picture of British history and to respect and celebrate diversity.