Getting Black History Month Right
By Kate Hollinshead
This October marks the 30th anniversary of Black History Month in the UK, an opportunity for people from all walks of life to learn more about a history that shapes the way everyone lives their lives today. Black History Month is often a focal part of the school calendar, where students learn more about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Civil Rights Movement in America and its prominent figures Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, as well as Apartheid and the life of Nelson Mandela. These are vital learning points for all, however Black history is so much more than this, and, despite teachers’ best intentions, teaching about Black history can be problematic and damaging if not thoroughly thought through.
The starting point for Black History Month must be careful preparation by the teacher. Firstly, it is important to think about what topics to include in lessons, secondly how to include them and finally, how teachers can prepare for teaching these topics effectively.
So, what topics should be included? Whilst there is certainly an important place for learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the civil rights movement, broadening out Black history is just as important. Without this, teachers may send out the message that throughout history people of African heritage have only been the targets of oppression, impacting negatively on the comfort and self-esteem of African heritage young people in the classroom and denying the rich heritage of Black history. Broadening this work out should ensure that a range of perspectives from different communities and from different periods in history are reflected, allowing pupils dignity and respect whilst extending pupils’ knowledge of globalisation and interdependence. For example, work around great Black authors, scientists, artists, inventors and musicians, great cities in African countries, and great Black political leaders and their rise to power, are all valuable additions to this work. Let’s discuss Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three Black female scientists whose work led to the successful launch and orbit of the space capsule Friendship 7 in 1962. Let’s discuss Claudia Jones, the founder of London’s Notting Hill Carnival. Let’s discuss Dr Daniel Hale Williams, a Black doctor, who performed the first open heart surgery. Let’s discuss Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States and the history that enabled him to rise to power.
Black history month can also be an opportunity to look at the histories of all people of colour. For over 350 years, Lascars, or South Asian sailors, played a crucial role in Britain’s history, ensuring goods from India reached British ports safely. Stories of hardship, cruelty and heroism have been passed down through generations but have rarely made it into classroom teaching in the UK. Similarly, the role Asian women played in the Suffragette movement in early 20th century England has largely gone unnoticed, as well as the achievements of Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid, who, amongst other things, designed the aquatic park at the 2012 London Olympics.
That being said, in exploring the contributions and achievements of all people of colour, it is vital that teachers do not deny people of African heritage their experiences. The University of Kent has recently caused upset by using the faces of Zayn Malik and Sadiq Khan on their Black History Month literature, neither of whom are Black nor have African heritage. The literature has been described as insensitive and misdirected. Therefore, taking the time to think about what to include and how that will impact on learners, and consulting on this, is crucial. Teachers must strike a balance in representation, so that Black history is not only made relevant to all students but also ensures that no part of Black history is erased or forgotten.
So, how do we include these topics in teaching? Firstly, it is essential that we do not teach Black history in isolation, but instead make connections between Black history and current issues today. If we fail to do this, then we may not allow pupils the opportunity to examine and understand how racism manifests itself today. Contextualisation is very important; if we are teaching about heroes or celebratory events, they should be placed with the context of the time, – how they came about, who helped, what they fought against, their successes and failures. Similarly, it is great to teach pupils about Black music, however teachers should explore the political and social contexts that give rise to musical genres such as hip hop and R n B. Without this contextualisation, teaching could become tokenistic and crass, and reinforce stereotypes about Black people. Indeed, teachers must know their starting points in any topics exploring Black history, for example, teaching about the Transatlantic Slave Trade should never start with African people as slaves, but with the great African civilisations that existed before slavery.
This leads us to start thinking about how we should prepare for teaching Black history. Careful preparation is vital to all successful teaching. It is important to know your own perspective on the issues you are teaching about. Many teachers themselves will have been taught Black history from a very Eurocentric perspective, reading colonial textbooks which place many elements of Black history within a deficit model. Unconscious bias and value judgements may seep into teaching if teachers don’t take a step back and explore a topic from all perspectives. Indeed, some teachers may not see the issue with their teaching about Black history if the issues do not affect them or have not affected their family or community. Taking time to understand privilege and think of topics from the perspective of all pupils in the classroom, will help teachers begin to teach Black history successfully.
It is also important to ensure that the resources teachers use highlight the complex nature of a topic, for example, teaching about the slaves who took part in the fight for abolition and were the principal agents of change, as well as White abolitionists, will ensure that pupils receive an accurate, rather than Eurocentric, understanding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Preparations to the classroom environment should be carried out before any work on issues that may be sensitive and/or provoke a lot of questions and discussions. Creating a safe space, so that pupils know that they can voice their opinions respectfully, without being laughed at, told off or judged, allows open and honest discussions to take place, meaning that controversial or unresolved issues are not shied away from or spoken out openly and respectfully, so that pupils are able to think critically about tricky topics and formulate evidence-based opinions and conclusions. Taking the time to develop ground rules for discussion in partnership with the pupils will allow pupils to take ownership of the lesson and feel safe and able to contribute. These techniques should help ensure that young people of colour in the classroom do not become the focus of issues or are made to feel uncomfortable or are the subjects of name-calling or teasing, either in the lesson or in school afterwards.
There may be times when pupils make inappropriate comments. These should be dealt with quickly and effectively, not by silencing the pupil but instead by providing education for all pupils in the class as to why the comment was not acceptable. Sentence starters, such as ‘I feel differently about this because…’ or ‘To build on this, I think…’ will aid pupils to frame their contributions positively, and ensure that the pupils themselves bounce comments from one another rather than the conversation being led by the teacher all the time.
All pupils should be involved in all activities, rather than young people of colour being singled out. It is important to avoid assumptions that Black children will be experts on Black history. For example, allowing all young people the opportunity to research their family histories and then using these as a starting point for historical investigation will ensure all pupils will go on a journey of understanding and discovery.
Whilst these are all good practice techniques which can be put in place to help teachers with this work, it is essential that teachers know their limitations, whether that be in knowledge, time for preparation, or framing of a successful discussion. Engaging with the local community can bolster work around Black history and bring expertise and experiences the teacher may not have, as well as highlighting any current issues the pupils may be facing, which may not have been considered by the teachers and school leaders. Partnership working with other teachers or external agencies may also add merit to teaching in this area.
Perhaps one of the most important points to consider here is that lessons delivered within Black history month should never be stand-alone before the month finishes for another year and ‘normal service’ resumes. Indeed, whilst Black history month serves as a useful tool to focus and celebrate Black achievements, Black history should never be confined just to one month, but interwoven and related to other parts of the curriculum all year round. This may not be as obvious to undertake as it may seem. Not all teaching resources are inclusive, with many ignoring the presence of Black people in England. However, Black history is entwined with British history; done correctly, it will serve to bolster Black and Asian children’s experiences of school and the world around them, highlighting that Black history is as an important part of life today, as all histories are, and show that there is no hierarchy of histories or forgotten histories. Black history naturally permeates alBlal subjects at school and all areas of our lives, and it is only right that schools showcase this to all pupils. Only then can real community cohesion and good relations between pupils be fostered within the school community.
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