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 110.

    Zephaniah, here's 50p

    Go phone someone who cares what you think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Perhaps we should teach the history of the only country in the world that has nothing to be ashamed of....Oh dear there is not one!

    => Right. I was just on the phone complaining to Belusconi about Julius Caesar but he'd just slammed the phone down on Hannibal who was complaining about the way Scipio treated Carthaginans when he bombed them out.

  • Comment number 108.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Sad to see how many commenters are responding along the lines of:

    "chip on his shoulder"
    "gets away with using 'black' in this context but try that in public!"
    "what about ?"
    "get over it"

    Stop being so damn reactive. The man has a point, grow up and listen to what he's actually saying instead of making various additions in your own head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    History certainly favours the white male. The average female role is also underplayed until about the time of the suffragettes."

    Not entirely true. History I was taught favours the white ruling classes, which included women (queens, you know..). History as taught rarely features the lives of the majorities, however they lived, possibly because there is not that much on record.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    99. ProfPhoenix

    You just love these strawman arguments, don't you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: “Racism in schools or our communities needs to be eradicated. “

    It would be interesting to know their definition of racism.

    I imagine it revolves around the bigoted left wing idea that only whites can be racists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    A very simple answer for dissatisfied immigants/offspring and relatives ,there are no exit barriers in the UK!
    Knowing "which side your bread is buttered "seems to be one part of british culture that has been embraced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    It is right to offer an alternative view and ito put this island's history into context. Catering to the history of every culture at the expense of the indiginous is patently unrealistic and unhelpful.
    The inevitable quandry/contradiction of multiculturalism. How do you intigrate different and often opposing cultures into one? Continually dragging up historic "attrocities" isn't the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    80. Anglerfish

    Good to hear it. But I wasn't making an 'everybody knows' comment, I was referring to the NUT element of the BBC report which stressed Black people as victims of the Nazis. My general point was that history is stunningly complex. Oh, and I am an historian, and I was a school teacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Schools can't teach everything. We have a rich history but obviously not all of that can be fitted into a few years of history lessons. We should focus on the major issues that affected Britain, regardless of the colour, creeds or race of those involved. If pupils are that interested they can always ask the teacher to point them to further reading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    This is a plea for indoctrination of children about evils of colonialism and spreading guilt. Whereas a multi-racial society is an ideal of equality of individuals,multiculturalism is an oppressive ideology sustained by imprisonment, snooping and grassing on people, declaring dissidents insane (phobics) and a biased media just like Nazi/Soviet ideologies. Keep from schools, stress universal values

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    All school children here should learn first the history of the United Kingdom & Great Britain - ALL the countries that were colonised or traded with or fought against or considered allies should be represented - revealing historical data made available at that time and the subsequent impact of political decisions on all concerned. But the starting points must always be on "common ground" - here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    RE 93 RichardBritton
    I totally agree......... and i rest my case .

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Perhaps we should teach the history of the only country in the world that has nothing to be ashamed of....Oh dear there is not one!

    Why should any country have to be an apologist for things that happened in the dim and distant past? We have enough things to bother about in the sad place that is the world today IMHO

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The history Mr Zephaniah is talking about is fraught with problems - hopelessly biased narratives n reports. It interleaves with French, Dutch and German of the same period. I have lived n worked in Haiti. There're masses of hugely distorted French colonial docs to pore over but no African/Mulatto records exist, the reason for which is part of that history. Very difficult to research

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Zephaniah's intentions are good, but the problem here is that you just know extremist groups will jump all over these comments as a means of re-writing history to be unfavourable to Britain. There seems to be an assumption that because Britain did some bad things in the Empire (which they certainly did), therefore the good they did should be overlooked entirely. It's a slippery slope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Benjamin Zephaniah is wrong. Amritsar IS taught to any students studying the British Empire in India - I know both as an A Level student in the nineties and as a teacher of history in the 2000s. Zephaniah is, and always has been, a stimulator of controversy over racial issues that is based on a lot of untruths and inaccuracies. He actually discredits the good work of multiculturalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    The history of Britain includes the history of the many Africans who have come here since Roman times at least. They should be included in the curriculum.

    My own study of Africans in Britain, 1500-1640 found over 350 Africans here, who were not slaves.

    Read more:



  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Encouraging those who feel alienated to blame the system & go a separate way isn't going to help anyone trying to get on in Britain.

    Few employers are going to go out of their way to employ people who don't try to fit in and the problems are perpetuated.

    Zephaniah would be doing a service to the young if he found ways of integrating them better into a society.


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