The luminary American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once observed: “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
This year, the Black Lives Matter movement has forced Britain to begin a searching conversation about our national past and the contents of our history curriculum, and it is hard to think of a more inspirational or encouraging call to action than Angelou’s statement as we continue forward.
It was against this backdrop that I recently heard the heartening news that an African Studies Centre is due to open in East London and will be based at my old college, Newham Sixth Form (NewVic).
It is hoped the Centre will be a collaborative space where teachers from across London, including Hackney, can exchange ideas and resources for teaching African history in secondary schools and sixth forms.
For too long it has not been compulsory to teach vital sections of British history on our curriculum, resulting in an uncritical acceptance of Western hegemony being inscribed onto our syllabuses and only equipping students with a partial framework to navigate and understand the contemporary world.
The new Centre is designed to broaden the parameters of the curriculum and students’ sense of British history, re-examining prevailing assumptions about national identity and belonging.
The idea of opening an African Studies Centre was conceived by Carina Ancell and Alan Kunna, two history lecturers at NewVic.
The pair identified the need for a specialist place whilst undertaking research for a book they are co-writing on Charlie Hutchinson, the only known Black British volunteer in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.
Carina told the Citizen: “As far as we are aware there are not currently any schools or colleges in London offering a comprehensive super curricular African Studies programme. As such, this is a real opportunity to develop expertise amongst the capital’s teaching community whilst developing students’ interest in and appreciation of African history.”
The National Curriculum dictates that in Key Stage 3, prior to choosing GCSE options, pupils should be taught a syllabus which enables them to “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative […] how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”.
Last year, the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent think tank on race equality matters, published its Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire report, which found, despite these guidelines, that there is considerable variability in how schools deliver lessons on British imperialism and post-colonial migration.
Further to this, academies are not legally required to follow the National Curriculum, making it difficult to ascertain how these topics are being explored with students.
Revealingly, a small-scale survey of 112 teachers undertaken by the Trust, in conjunction with the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, found many urgently wanted further support to bolster their confidence in exploring issues of empire and migration.
Eighty-three per cent of history teachers reported a desire for additional training on teaching about migration and 74 per cent on teaching about empire.
The Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire report emphasises the significance of these topics to our history, stating: “Migration and empire are not marginal events: they are central to our national story. As it stands, the story we are telling is incomplete.”
The hope is that the African Studies Centre will provide a much-needed infrastructure of support so more teachers are given the tools they need to tackle these subjects.
Carina is resolute that all teachers, regardless of cultural background, must be encouraged to engage with this important section of history.
She said: “We believe that it is really important that teachers who may not have a background or specialism in African history feel confident and supported in delivering materials on this topic.”
The Centre will also benefit from the expertise of Toby Green, a senior lecturer in Lusophone African History at King’s College London.
Speaking to the Citizen in a personal capacity, Green said the Centre’s opening will “focus community and school leadership attention on how important it is to ensure that a full range of historical experiences are included within the school curriculum”.
He added: “In so doing, it will empower more teachers to deliver a range of options in African history, speaking more inclusively to society as a whole.”
A principal goal will be to widen the scope of Black history that students are exposed to.
Traditionally, British schools have only taught African history through the prism of European colonisation. In teaching such a narrow segment, the implication for students of all backgrounds is that Africa was ahistorical prior to European discovery, propagating a false perception that no noteworthy events, discoveries or civilisations occurred there.
The African Studies Centre hopes to challenge this narrative of Africa by exploring its history that predates Colonialism.
The traditional conceptual frameworks used in the British curriculum to understand Africa have been devised by Europeans so, to counter this, the Centre will also explore how African civilisations recorded and told their own histories.
Those involved anticipate that taking this approach will encourage students to begin interrogating and questioning accepted knowledge bases about Africa more broadly.
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Hackney’s Deputy Mayor and cabinet member for education, young people and children’s social care, has welcomed initiatives such as the African Studies Centre which expand the breadth of the curriculum.
She said: “The Black Lives Matter movement has shown the need to educate ourselves on the historical challenges faced by black communities.”
Bramble added that the Town Hall has also “begun work to enhance the local curriculum and provide more guidance to schools on how Black history has shaped the Hackney we know today”.
For Alan Kunna, along with so many others, the desire to reimagine the history curriculum is not only an academic endeavour but rooted in profoundly personal experiences.
Having been born in Whitechapel in the 1960s to a Sudanese father and English mother, and later studying at an East London school, the Black British experience was all but invisible from the curriculum.
As a young mixed race man, the only text Alan came across which explored race in Britain and resonated with his own experiences was Peter Fryer’s Staying Power. Aside from this book, it was the soulful melodies of musicians drifting across the waves of the cold, desolate Atlantic and into his boyhood bedroom, with their testimonies of police brutality and state oppression, that spoke to him the most.
Although an ocean may have separated him from the musical giants in the Caribbean and US he heard on the radio, their songs ultimately proved to be far better lectures in history, politics and sociology than any lessons he sat through in his classroom.
These experiences ignited in Alan an early love for history and imbued him with an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of historical study.
He said that broadening the history taught in schools presents the possibility of “adding to public knowledge and perceptions of what the history of the British people actually is and what it can be if we allow people a voice and a chance to see the relevance and importance of different peoples.”
He went on to say: “We close down the possibility of being one people by ignoring others or disparaging their pasts which allows for division to exist and widen. Many Black and Asian students need to be encouraged to discover the relevance of their own histories in relation to current events in Britain today.”
Like many schools in East London, the student population of my old sixth form college is primarily comprised of the children of first-generation immigrants.
Whilst I was at college, the BNP were running for the council in the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham – although they ultimately lost all 12 of their existing seats at the time, it felt close – and there was increasingly xenophobic rhetoric in public discourse.
In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, I remember feeling a palpable sense of uncertainty and unease.
At college, although myself and many of my friends felt a genuine sense of belonging in London, equal numbers also felt excluded from the notion of Britishness.
For me at the time, the concept of British identity conjured up snatches of the red, white and blue of billowing Union Jacks, genteel games of cricket and matchbox country villages of the kind glimpsed on TV programmes like Midsomer Murders.
As I got older, I realised my perceptions of Britishness were not only simplistic but also deeply ironic.
The pervasive, brutal nature of British colonialism meant that the family histories of practically everyone at the college had been indelibly shaped by the British Empire, almost as much as if our families had indeed been English.
We need a history curriculum which illustrates that what we consider to be British history has not just been produced on the island of Great Britain. A curriculum which accepts that the exploitation and subjugation of whole countries of people is permanently encoded on to British history.
British colonialism has played a considerable role in creating and sustaining the gross inequalities that people of colour continue to face, in this country and across the planet. Reckoning with this reality will enable us to forge a more expansive, honest and inclusive idea of our national identity and what is means to be British.
Alan finished by highlighting why Black history cannot continue to be erased from view and must be afforded its rightful position on the British curriculum.
He said: “One of the lessons the Windrush Scandal has taught us is that when the boarding cards were destroyed, the history of individuals was destroyed as well, along with the proof of why they belonged.”
Teachers and schools interested in forming a partnership with the African Studies Centre can email firstname.lastname@example.org