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 70.

    Who knows the real story - the while people, historians or the Africans? I remember a past saying that power is not give, it is take. So since we have lots of black intelligent people today, is there anyway that they develop a sort of power rally the black children and teach them their history? Educated in Africa, I know very much African , Asian and European history and I'm passing to me kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I am lost for words. Will the BBC's relentless left-wing attack on Britain's true history, culture and identity never, ever end.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Being a second generation immigrant that has partaken in multiple levels and areas of the Anglo-Saxon (as I believe this is what you mean when you say British, no place for Celtic) 'way of life', after 50 years, I have to conclude the only mutuality or 'Britishness', is the deluded belief that they are the only people that understand fairness, and it's their right alone to express what that be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    This is Britain. If you are born in Britain you are British regardles of coulour, race or religion. So what if you are black, you are just another of the various waves that have created our mongrel nation. PC rubbish is devisive and the cause of more problems than it prevents. One nation, one people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    The government leads the way, showing us the true culture of Britain

    Just look at the current cabinet if you want to know what they really think

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    It is naive in the extreme to suggest that we aren't all, wherever we live, subjected to our domestic versions of historical events. We all make judgements based upon our upbringings,etc. It has and always will be that way.

    I've always found it odd that people choose to come here presumably because it offers a better way of life and then spend their time criticising us! The choices are simple!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    51: Doctor Bob

    ' ... it would be nice if they taught British history properly as well.'

    Meaning. What do you call 'properly'? Maybe you have a clarity of thought about this which will help us put Zephaniah's contribution to the debate into perspective. Do share?

    55. bob76: spot on. You must despair over the proposals Gove is forcing through around history teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I didn't realise history had a skin colour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    It would be absurd to spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching black history when such a small minority of children in Britain are black. I personally feel that children spend nowhere near enough time studying the Enlightenment. This would benefit children of all colours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    @57. penguin337

    Black history gets taught in Africa
    White history gets taught in Europe


    Scottish history gets taught in Scotland
    British history gets taught in England

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    55% of young black men are unemployed.

    Benjamin wants to teach them “Black History” which will presumably help them get a job in modern Britain.

    Perhaps Geography would be more in order, here is the UK, population 90% white and there, three and a half thousand miles away, is Africa Population 98% black.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I trust the NUT will also look at the Indians and North Africans who fought with the Nazis as part of the Free Indian Legion and the Free Arab Legion. Not to mention the Arab Algerians who fought for Vichy against the French Resistance. Or the million and a half Soviet citizens who fought with the Nazis. See - it's all very complicated. I hope the NUT can find a real historian in its ranks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Seems odd that anyone can comment on the historical events depicting the bad things Britain has done round the world but express views of european history (2nd world war) and you are only allowed one opinion in case it upsets the millions of survivors.
    It proves the point of children being coerced into gov't way of thinking.
    Religious and political opinions have been forced into our children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Black history gets taught in Africa
    White history gets taught in Europe

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    ...Students should not be 'taught' history. Instead, they should be taught historical skills that enable them to explore and judge for themselves what is relevant and true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    We certainly teach events such as the Amritsar Massacre at our school. It is part of a whole Yr 9 unit on Gandhi and Indian Independence. A shift away from 'traditional' teaching towards independent learning would allow students to follow their own lines of enquiry and explore their personal interests. Unfortunately, this has yet to be embraced fully by all teaching professionals and the govt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I don't recognize the picture he paints, at schools I've worked in inner London there's always Black History Month, Black Reading Week, Black this, Black that, to the extent that the white pupils are marginalized. Multiculturalism HAS failed, we need to share our similarities not always 'celebrate' our differences as this clearly hasn't worked with radicalised youth / gang culture, etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Why should my "white" child have to learn about black history?
    what use would it be in gettting them a job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I met a well educated Chinese girl recently who hadn't ever heard of the Tianmen Square massacre, and I thought that typified the Chinese education system. Kids here are not taught about the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, nor Churchill's decision to starve millions of people in India to get food to his troops, nor the Mau Mau massacres. I see a lot of similarities

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The narrative of history of this kind depends entirely on who writes it. There are always at least two versions.

    If Mr Zephania is willing to fund such lessons from his own pocket, fine!
    But I doubt this history takes precendence over maths and reading which are not yet up to standard. Moreover it would be nice if they taught British history properly as well


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