Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Barack Obama stood up and said: “Yes We Can.” For many, this remains the extent of their knowledge of black history. It is a narrative of persecution and vulnerability in which those of colour are presented as the victims of a largely untold story, filled with stock images and stock narratives.
The education system continues to laud our history as a tapestry of pioneers and war heroes whilst ignoring the seemingly undeniable fact that the victories of the British Empire were deeply embedded with a dark history of colonialism and slavery. In countries which have both caused and harboured similar atrocities, their historical narrative is marked by a deep and inescapable shame. They acknowledge the failings of the past, and look optimistically to the future, in the thorough knowledge that such events cannot repeat themselves.
Yet Britain’s curriculum remains in denial, and monumentally so. In my secondary school there was no option to study black history, and Black History Month was limited to a display board of the faces of Afro-Caribbean icons. Such efforts were acknowledged as a token gesture to the small number of black faces which walked the halls, rather than an attempt to educate the largely white student body. Black History Month holds value because the impact of black history pervades every aspect of our present society, totally inescapable no matter how much we try to disguise it. Over the past five years there has been a 49% increase in ethnic minority long-term youth unemployment, compared with a 2% fall in white youth unemployment.
The same report also found that black and Asian workers are more than twice as likely to be in insecure work. Figures tell us that black workers with degrees on average earn 23% less than white workers with degrees. Such statistics shatter the self-congratulatory rhetoric of ‘post-racial Britain’. Perhaps the reason our country still harbours racial divisions and insensitivies is because we are yet to confront our questionable history with any sufficient vigour.
British scholars will make a conscious effort to engage disparate voices, realising necessarily that their own narrative does not tell the whole story. There are of course figures within academia who acknowledge the euro-centrism of the current system, approaching prominent intellectual figures with a certain degree of scepticism. They understand that the position which such intellectual figures hold in the academic hierarchy has the potential to demonstrate how deeply racist ideology is rooted in our education system and an inherent colonial bias.
But this does not change the fact that the villains of British history in the large part hide in plain sight, and despite some valiant efforts, remain there, unexposed by our education system. In some cases, they are made to be the heroes. Just last year, the History faculty took steps to correct the disparity between prizes offered for European and African history. More still needs to be done, however – and not just in Oxford.
British history is clearly full of triumphs, tales of military strength and groundbreaking innovation. But it has had more than its fair share of gross miscarriages of justice. Part of the mark of an intelligent community is not to conceal our errors but to shove them into the light, warts and all. It is, if anything, to make British history more holistic and accurate. Black History Month has an important role in the British consciousness. It is affirming to those who are often overlooked, and educates those who, through no fault of their own, have been left largely oblivious to the complexity of black history. But it can be better. Instead of just championing our black heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, we should take this opportunity to assess our own British villains.