By Beth Bhargava, 2021
History, as taught in British schools, remains fundamentally white. As multiple recent reports by the prominent race equality thinktank The Runnymede Trust make clear, the histories of people of colour within the British Isles remain marginal to the National Curriculum. Our pasts are folded into the catch-all category of ‘World History’, compartmentalised within optional addendums (such as Black History Month, as it is experienced in most schools), or told as part of a guiding narrative of ‘British Values’ (thus, abolitionism is celebrated as an exemplar of Great British Fairness and Justice, while the history of slavery – which cannot be similarly assimilated within the national myth – is left by the wayside). For people of colour, this reinforces our sense of otherness and inferiority within the classroom. Stripped of our heritage, we often fail to recognise our own historical agency. White students are never invited to interrogate the origins of their present, or to understand the exploitative foundations of British national wealth and culture.
Campaigners have sought to challenge the imperialist bent of the British curriculum, and to embed alternative histories within it. At the university level, students have long demanded the decolonisation of curricula; a process by which narratives of imperial domination and its legacy of racism would be weaved into our courses, no longer sitting at the margins of our study. More recently, there have been calls for a parallel process within schools. The Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto included a pledge to establish an ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’, which aimed to ‘tell the story of how slavery interrupted a rich African and black history’ via a new school programme. Many on the British left celebrated this move, and many more of us – myself included – have put a great deal of energy into the campaigns which preceded it. Yet it seems to me that ‘decolonising the curriculum’ must necessarily remain incomplete while curricula are situated within an educational system which was – and remains – founded on imperialism. This is not to deny the importance of such campaigns. The significance of recognising ourselves and our family histories in the texts we study should not be understated; the validation and sense of community we receive from this can be empowering. However, we must ask ourselves how much change has really been made – and how much can and will be, should we keep fighting this battle. The truth is that the British education system is designed to perpetuate the status quo, not to challenge it.
We live within a nation-state which was born out of imperialism. As the horrors of Windrush and Grenfell have proved, it continues to base itself and its economy upon the exploited labour of people of colour, making them invisible and then discarding them in the most brutal of ways. If we accept this discrimination as built into the system, it makes little sense to hope that change will come from within that same system. A state which depends upon imperialism to survive has no interest in creating citizens with the capacity to challenge its practices. To do so would be suicide. Thus, the crimes of the present militate against a state-led education which centres the crimes of the past. Rather than fighting for the piece-meal concessions which represent the limits of change within the current system, we need to work to develop an alternative. It is not enough to develop counter-narratives which oppose imperial visions of history, we must create structures adequate to their communication.
Fortunately, this is already occurring in a variety of forms. Efforts are being made to recontextualise the exhibits found within major British museums, often by means of self-organised walking tours which operate independently (and beyond the control of) these institutions. Initiatives such as the Untold Histories Museum Tours in Cambridge, or Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art tours in London, raise issues of looting and theft, consent, cultural genocide, and censorship. They problematise the explanations provided by museums, and challenge the presence and/or the display of objects from anti-colonial perspective. Similarly, the Slavery Trails which have been established in cities founded on wealth derived from the slave-trade (Liverpool; Bristol; London; Glasgow) allow local communities to view their lived environment in a new light. In some of these localities, residents have intervened in, and ultimately recreated, public spaces. An especially impressive example is the fate of the statue of the wealthy slave-trader Edward Colston. We all remember his dramatic fall last summer. Less well known is the long term resistance of a local community determined not to see a murderer celebrated in their name. In recent years, the statue’s face has been painted, a knitted ball and chain attached to his leg, and one hundred human figures have been laid out around his plinth in the same pattern as they would have been held in a slave-ship.
More than forty years ago now, the social historian and town planner Colin Ward first published The Child in the City. In this text, Ward argued for a form of education rooted in the fabric of everyday life. He wrote that capitalist citizens experience a profound alienation from their own lived environment. Resistance to a privatised, compartmentalised city should take its cue from the practices of free children’s play, which defies and ignores boundaries imposed upon public space. Ward wanted a form of education which cut across the traditional divides of age, involving the whole community in teaching and learning about their environment. This, he hoped, would enable them to feel ownership over it.
Briefly practiced for a short period spanning the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Ward’s ideas soon disappeared from view. However, the initiatives described above signal the return of this form of education, and this form of politics. They are a way of bringing people together to proclaim our own history, our right to the spaces we call home, and our right to respect. By these means, our alienation from each other and from our locality can begin to be countered. We can acknowledge the crimes of the past in the process of recreating our present; and our current circumstances perhaps present a unique opportunity to do so. As communities draw closer in the face of the pandemic, by means of mutual aid groups and volunteer phone-calling schemes, we have a chance to discuss our experiences with others, to discover and learn from different histories. Out of these conversations, it is entirely possible that a new way of approaching our shared environment will be born.
See Kimberly McIntosh, Jason Todd & Nandini Das, Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools (2019: TIDE and the Runnymede Trust) [https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/images/TIDE%20&%20%20Runnymede%20Teaching%20Migration%20report%204.7.19.pdf]; Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji & Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Making British Histories Diversity and the National Curriculum (2012: Runneymede Trust) [https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/MakingBritishHistories-2012.pdf].
 https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/100-human-figures-placed-front-2122990; https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/ball-chain-attached-edward-colstons-1539315; https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/vandals-paint-face-edward-colston-30443.
About the author
Beth Bhargava is a Master’s student whose work focuses on the history of environmental movements in the UK, and the legacy left by British colonialism in the country’s built environment