The Good, The Bad and the Amnesia: The History that Britain's School System Forgot

When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” - bell hooks.

This essay stresses the importance of teaching British colonial history in schools, so that children will understand the negative impact of colonial history from a young age, and will be able to fully appreciate and celebrate Black History in the UK. There are reading suggestions at the bottom of this essay including articles, books and videos to watch. We also have a Cherry Flower Library where you can borrow books free of charge!

This book is available to borrow from our Cherry Flower Library.

Our lack of acknowledgement of our colonial past has become an unavoidable topic of conversation. The ongoing cultural ignorance towards colonial atrocities, particularly with regard to legacies of the British Empire has resulted in a neglectful, ill-constructed history of British colonisation. How has this level of neglect been perpetuated? The answer, I believe, is through the school system. It is the task of this article to question the extent of cultural injustices within education and ask: how has our national curriculum been shaped by racialised hierarchies of power?

The truth of the matter is that until an accurate, equally representative history of British colonisation is taught in schools, racial ideologies will continue to be recycled and repeated intergenerationally, perpetuating a narrative that fails to recognise the unjust extent of white oppression through a collective cultural amnesia. If we never have the opportunity to acknowledge Britian’s uncomfortable past, how will we ever understand the imperial legacies looming over us in the present? And perhaps, even more importantly, how can we move forward to celebrate Black British History! How will we ever understand who we really are?

So, how do we break this historical cycle? How do we create a curriculum that is expansive in its perspectives instead of narrow? Answer: we evolve the curriculum to match the changing national undercurrent of society – the world is waking up to histories worth retelling, worth re-evaluating, and the school curriculum must follow suit. We should educate our students to be inclusive citizens. It is the task of educators everywhere to unpick the overcast remnants of empire and evaluate their influences in the present so that we might have a more accurate understanding of who we are.

This book is available to borrow from our Cherry Flower Library.

Since the dawn of Social Darwinism – the perturbed belief that certain people become powerful in society because they are innately better – racial ideology has been constructed on the basis of human difference, justified by centuries of racist pseudoscience. It is important to remember here, that just like gender, race is a social construct created by those in power to control and maintain their influence in society. Prominent 19th century scientists and philosophers have helped formulate the national agendas of societies today; national agendas which have ideas of western superiority and racial inequality at their core. These ideas however, will scarcely be found in a school syllabus, it is up to the individual to educate themselves on this kind of fundamental human stuff.

Let’s look at the U.K for example; when we learn about British history, what modules do we study? In English literature, what books do we have to read according to the curriculum? Focussing on teaching Empire, in most schools, British imperial history is taught solely from a British perspective, and therefore, ignores the impact on other global cultures. Modules entitled ‘Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain 1745-1901,’ and ‘the development of the British empire,’ are suggestive of a whole host of tropes that highlight the overall power of the nation, rather than the suffering imposed upon its colonies. Meanwhile, the English literature syllabus will not be winning any prizes for diversity either, contents of which include:

  • At least one play by Shakespeare

  • At least one 19th century novel

  • A selection of poetry since 1789, including Romantic poetry

  • A post-1919 fiction or drama from the British Isles

So how are we, as students, as learners, as educators expected to expand our minds and broaden our own perspectives if we are not given the knowledge to do so? Let alone be taught how to read history itself from a different point of view. It would be so beneficial for students to learn about Black British history, triumph and joy; Paul Stephenson, a Civil Rights Activist who organised the Bristol Bus Boycott; Lilian Bader, a First Class Aircraftwoman; Olive Morris, an active member of the UK Black Panther Movement, who created safe and uplifting spaces for Black Women; Mary Prince, the first woman to publish an enslavement narrative, heavily influencing the 1833 Abolition Act.

This book is available to borrow from our Cherry Flower Library.

It is white privilege to tailor a national curriculum that continues to recycle historical narratives that fail to acknowledge our nation’s past. And, it is my belief that in dismantling the national curriculum and restructuring it to be more inclusive, diverse, and culturally sensitive, we are able to become active participants in the fight for racial equality.

I looked at the twitter petition created by @esmiejp after the Black Lives Matter movement was popularised across social media; the argument being that colonialism shapes all of our lives and it is time for us all to acknowledge that fact, starting in school. Entitled ‘The Impact of Omission,’ Esmie proposed a new curriculum to be considered, one that is inclusive, ethnographic, culturally diverse and educative in its eras of history, literature, and authorship. The petition got over 32,000 signatures, but where is the change? Is Shakespeare so ingrained in our literary canonical psyche that he can never be removed? That is not to say that Shakespeare is not worth studying but it begs the question, what is canonical? Who decides what is valuable and what is not? Why is Shakespeare more valuable than Bell Hooks, for example? So perhaps this is not a question of value at all, but a question of necessity. It is my opinion that it is vital we change our curriculum so that we can somehow de-construct recycled narratives, and allow ourselves to learn, and indeed, fall in love with a revised history, one that is truthful, compassionate, and most importantly, equally representational. As Maya Goodfellow concurs: ‘if histories of exclusion, colonialism, and the fierce resistance to this were more widely known, it could mean a more nuanced, inclusive understanding of the present.’

This book is available to borrow from our Cherry Flower Library.

So what exactly should be on the school curriculum? Maybe there is no right answer, but these are the suggestions that I would make.

I’d propose that students read books like Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners – a Windrush narrative from the perspective of a Jamaican migrant and his struggle to live in London. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – a YA novel that tells the story of two black friends and one of them falls victim to police brutality in America. For non-fiction, David Olusoga - Black and British: A Forgotten History provides an expansive and detailed history of Black people and communities in the UK. Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation by Colin Grant is a beautiful and stirring history of Caribbean British Lives. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race provides readers with a decolonised confrontation of who we really are, as well as the uneasy everyday mind-set of white privilege. Small-Axe is a British Anthology Series by Steve McQueen which explores the lives of the Windrush Generation from the 1960s onwards, all available on BBC iPlayer. There are also lots of incredible videos on Youtube, for example this short documentary about the history of Notting Hill Carnival:

I’d propose that studying modules focussed on Black British history, indigenous/native history or ethnography are paramount to providing students with a well-rounded, multi-layered perspective to look at not only history, but everyday life. By studying we learn empathy, we learn compassion, and we expand our own viewpoints. Yes, we can learn about the British Empire in terms of industry, power and affluence, but let’s also offer the full story; a history that interrogates the truth and retells the story of our past, so that we can understand who we are in the present. Maybe then, we could become lucid in the midst of cultural amnesia, and wake up to the history that Britain’s school system forgot.


Writer: Eliza Crawford / @elizacrawford_

Editor: Charlotte Hampshaw

Images: Cherry Flower Library

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