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 90.

    While I disagree with Mr Zephaniah's opinion; what to put into the limited time of school history classes is a complex question with no right answer; I nonethless think it's an interesting point, worthy of discussion. But the unpleasant, snearing tone of some of the responses here assures me that racism is alive and well in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    When I was at school, until 1975, we were taught English history in Scottish schools. We were taught about the battle of Hastings but never about Scottish battles, we were taught about English kings but never about the union of the crowns.
    Everyone wants to know their own history and a refusal often leads to an unhappy faction, I am glad to read that the kids are having their own history classes

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    people flock to Britain every year to get educated here.
    If they don't agree with the way we teach then go somewhere else.
    when i was at secondary school and college the talk was all about black power meetings, now its black history lessons, what is the difference or is it just a name change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    He has a point but its not just the history he focuses on that is missing from the curriculum. This isnt a particular fault of British history curricula either. All countries focus on certain aspects of their own history and exclude the wider picture. It could be improved but not just in the direction that Benjamin calls for.

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I think he misses the point about history lessons. This subject is not just taught to help people understand the past, it teaches students to analyse, test and compare sources and information.
    Historical topics are always subjective, regardless of the content. Would a British child get a rounded and objective history syllabus in Nigeria or Pakistan? I very much doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    I wonder how welcome Saturday morning history classes would be if they were being run by adults teaching 'White' history for Anglo-Saxon heritage children? Yes, that does sound a bit odd, and I doubt if the BBC would produce such a positive report as it has done here. Perhaps all this is further evidence of the tribalisation of English (and I mean English) society. Hey ho.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Perfectly correct about the Britishness test, who really knows or cares whether 'Ulster Scots is a dialect which is spoken in Northern Ireland' is true or false?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I have never heard such rubbish in all my life. These remarks have no substance whatsovever

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    41. Bradford

    But you're more than happy to succinctly point out that immigrants should be more like you and your lack of tolerance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    59 DrWibblyPig

    I was in a school six months ago and the students were debating issues around Nazism. The class was divided into groups and each had to research a viewpoint and then argue for that point of view. One of the views researched was that of Sikhs fighting for the Nazis. I suggest a bit more research and less 'everybody knows' might help you understand schools today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    @53 vin

    Oh, is education only relevant if there's a direct causal link between it, and a job? Crikey, if this is true I'll have to reassess all my values because even the most ignorant and hateful can hold down some sort of job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Each country has a version of its history which is part myth, part one sided but it is a common glue that even if you don't completely subscribe to you still have a shared consciousness with everyone else. It's what keeps us cohesive as a nation. It's political.

    Now if you want to learn the history of West Indians, West Africans or whatever I suggest you go to a school in one of those countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    As ever only the British (shorthand: English) must not celebrate their history.
    Maoris; yes. Australian Aborigines; yes. North American Indians; yes. Afro Caribbeans; yes. Scots (Albans?); yes. Welsh (Cymry?); yes. English; no. You don't have a cullture; you have a multi-culture.
    Oh and by the way, never forget: be ashamed of yourselves. You have given the World nothing but pain and suffering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    The history of the British Isles is our history and goes back 8000 years - subjects such as empire which seem to obsess certain areas of the community only occured over the last 300 years, and by over-emphasis distort history. The fact that Africans sold other Africans into slavery seems to have been conveniently forgotten.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    surely we should have world history lessons in schools.
    By separating Black history and White history sounds very racist and proves that integration still isn't working.
    I wonder how this will be manipulated to sound right for history lessens in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    They do already teach black history. It's similarly not-so-rosy. Is he seriously saying that any culture that teaches it's own history does not subconsciously feature the good more prominently than the bad?

    It's pretty likely that besides labouring to point out the empire's many flaws, these Saturday schools will similarly gloss over uncomfortable parts of black or asian history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Will Zephaniah include all that is evil in black history as good.

    Will he include Shaka who in his lifetime as Zulu Leader had his army kill over 2 million people, a mini holocaust.

    I get the feeling that Zephaniah would want to skew the History of Black people in a favourable way so as to compare Black and White history as one good and the other wicked. And guess who would be the wicked.

  • Comment number 72.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

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

    Nor did Italy's in real Roman history; nor did Carthage's in the real Punic Wars. We can play that game forever, quite aside from certain shameful tactics practised by Africans during slave-trading days. That's before we get to America's rosiness.


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