Zephaniah warns 'black children turned off history'

Benjamin Zephaniah Zephaniah said Britain's role in the empire did not look "so rosy" in the "real history" of the world

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Performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah says black and Asian pupils are turned off history because they are told only "half the story" in British schools.

But all over Britain, he says, many regularly attend Saturday schools to learn about their own community's history.

The poet, who works in schools, also says multiculturalism is under attack.

History Curriculum Association chief Chris McGovern said black pupils wanted to study traditional British history.

He said black pupils and their parents he had met in Lewisham "were fed up with a diet of slavery and deprivation" and preferred some of "the more traditional diet of schools like Eton".

Zephaniah was speaking ahead of a talk in memory of Anthony Walker, who was killed in a racist attack in 2005.

The comments are particularly pertinent as Education Secretary Michael Gove has said schools should focus on a traditional narrative of British history in response to concerns it had become too politically correct.

Start Quote

We get kids that are playing truant in the week, still going to classes on a Saturday to learn the real history”

End Quote Benjamin Zephaniah

He has said that the current approach to history denies "children the opportunity to hear our island story", and that this has to change.

And reports last weekend suggested schoolchildren would have to learn about 200 key figures and events in British history from the Anglo-Saxon kings to Winston Churchill.

But Zephaniah told the BBC: "The reality is for young black kids in school, the majority of them know that when it comes to history, especially the history that includes the Caribbean and Asia, we have only got half the story.

"That's why all over Britain in our communities we have classes in people's front rooms and community centres teaching us the real black history.

"We get kids that are playing truant in the week, still going to classes on a Saturday to learn the real history.

"Most of the history teachers that I come across cannot name any early African philosopher."

'Not so rosy'

He added that there was far greater focus on the the work of Florence Nightingale in schools during the Crimean War when the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole made just as big a contribution.

He continued: "The truth is if you have the real history of the world, the British involvement in the empire would not look so rosy.

"For example the massacre of Amritsar is not spoken about."

This was the incident under the British Raj when 379 people were killed and 1,200 wounded when native troops under British command opened fire on a crowd in the northern Indian city.

He added: "Black history is not just for black people - it's important for all of us who want a real history of the world."

Secretary of the Campaign for Real Education Nick Seaton added: "All youngsters live together in the same country and they need to know about the history of the society that they're living in."

He added that all countries focused on teaching their own history and that it was ridiculous to suggest a large proportion of the time should be given over to African or Asian history.

Citizenship tests

Zephaniah also expressed concerns that multiculturalism was under attack, saying that "to be against multiculturalism is anti-British".

He said: "When politicians say, as [David] Cameron has said, 'What we want is not multiculturalism, but muscular liberalism' - what does he mean?"

He complained that the Britishness test for those wishing to become British citizens was laughable.

"Some of the questions are like how many Catholics live in St Albans. I see people who are really stressed about it. But it doesn't make you British passing that test," he said.

The comments come ahead of a lecture commemorating the life of Anthony Walker. The poet, who runs poetry workshops in schools, gave the lecture in Birmingham on Friday evening.

The NUT, which sponsors the event, used it to launch a set of new educational materials tackling racist and religious hate crime for schools.

They also highlight the persecution of black people during the Nazi regime.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Racism in schools or our communities needs to be eradicated. As multiculturalism is being attacked on a daily basis, we need to celebrate the diversity of modern Britain and work together to raise children who are proud of themselves and their communities."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    History is always written by the victors of wars, and the elites in power. It would be foolish to believe that anyone, of whatever race, is taught the truth, rather a sanitised, biased version of events that fit the political ideaologies of the day. Truth gets you persecuted, just ask stuart syvret, leah mcgrath goodman, or the former inmates of haute de la garenne, or blanche pierre group home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Benjamin Zephaniah, 'Britain's Greatest Ever Poet', is disrespectful, prejudiced and bigoted against other peoples' culture. How disrespectful, prejudiced and bigoted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I had nothing to do with slavery, neither did my parents or grandparents, so don't spout your predjudices to me Mr Zephaniah. You cannot judge historical events against current morals. All history is written from a certain perspective, the French hardly mention Waterloo, the Spanish, Trafalgar. Mr Z should grow up and get on with living in the 21st century rather than the 18th!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    It is important that children know about and respect the history of each other's communities. However highlight what is done well in addition to what needs to improve.- all of my children learnt about both Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale during their primary education, and were encouraged to compare and contrast attitudes to their work in the Crimea and their subsequent lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Surely the real message of British history has to be that when a foreign power tried to invade Britain and steal our land, let's say Napoleon, it was a dastardly evil act of aggression and when Britain did that to about a third of the world it's part of a glorious heritage. Nothing hypocritical there and anyone who says there is is a traitor and should be chucked out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Black and Asians are not the only "they" who might be told half the story.

    The Inclosure Acts, which dispossessed the common people of this land, of most of the 93% of it (which is today largely private farmland), were not properly explained to us at all, when I was at school, for instance.

    This was the foundation of the enormous wealth, by the ancestors of many of today's rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "We get kids that are playing truant in the week, still going to classes on a Saturday to learn the real history."

    Er. What's the point in teaching black history if all the black kids have bunked off?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I believe that in Germany, schools are very uncomfortable teaching the history of the 20 th century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Multiculturalism is a result of policey, not a goal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    29. SpacePirateFTW

    Britishness cannot be explained "succinctly" or put into a formula. If you cannot see that you have missed the point, but part of being British is being proud of being British & in particular proud of our history, our triumphs, our hardships, our ability to stand together & overcome. Our shared sense of humour our tolerance (not one of my strongpoints) & our sense of fairness

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    History is always recorded by the victors and if the losers record history and the winners find out, they destroy it if possible. This is one of the reasons why conflicts happen world wide. "My way and truth is right"
    Slowly this is changing in more "enlightened" teaching and a "realistic" truth is being taught. This shows that all societies throughout history are not the nice people told about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Zephaniah is right but only gives half of the story . White kids aren't told about their history either. In Bristol there is no acknowledgement of the hundreds of years of the white slave trade before the African trade was even thought of. And which black history do we teach kids -my Nigerian friends have a very different spin on that story. What we don't want is more PC racially biased spin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Oh, here we go again. Bad things happened to native people in the days of Empire and we try to hide it from our kids today. Hogwash. Kids are taught about plenty of the negative stuff that went on, from slavery onwards; the problem is they are not taught about the good that was done and the prosperity that we brought to much of the world. But that isn't politically correct of course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Will "Black History" include the raids on Cornish and Devon villages by African slave traders to capture people into slavery to be sold into the Islamic Empire east of Africa?
    Will it include the Rwanda genocide where up to 1 million people were killed in an orgy of Hutu - Tutsi racist murder in 100 days?
    Will it include the fact that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1883 and Mauritania in 1981?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    It's good that people like Zephaniah are opening up a debate about history as Gove's appallingly narrow new national curriculum lumbers into view. Gove says currently history teaching 'denies children the opportunity to hear our island story.' So Ofsted did a history review and found this to be 'a myth'. Doesn't stop Michael 'I'm always right' Gove repeating it endlessly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    If all the 270 nationalities that make up London, whinged as much as the Africans there would be no point teaching 'history' ... Benjamin, clearly leg riding the recent rise in racism towards asians by adding south asians in his rant.

    And why is it 'Black History' and not 'African History'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Hey Benjamin why not do an article on the Ashantis and Dahomeyans,along with Oyos,Bakongos,Mbundus,and Fantes,selling slaves to the Europeans?Im sure history would love to hear your voice on such matters and a greater knowledge spread maongst our school children,funny how history relates to use of the word" black" but in any other context its branded racist?Move on with your life ben..

  • Comment number 33.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I commented at #17. I should make it absolutely clear that I intend to agree-- in a multicultural society, the education of children about a multitude of histories, ideally something of their own, is crucial. Furthermore, much of British history *is* a history of interaction abroad and at home. Recently, British Isles history *is* multicultural. Ignoring that is harmful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Which history should we teach?

    In the past six or seven years, London has become the Babel of the modern world. More than a third of Londoners are now foreign born - that's around 2.5 million people. Our city encompasses more than 270 nationalities and 300 languages.


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