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 130.

    Re "a real history of the world". All history is a story from a particular perspective. None of it is "real" in the sense that "it absolutely did happen that way". That's not to say we can't trust any of it, but we must accept that all history telling, consciously or otherwise, is a reflection of the self-image of the teller.

    By definition that is subjective, and Mr. Z's version is no different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.


    'it amazes me how so many people regard the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as being one and the same thing.'


    Possibly because until the artificial boundaries imposed by partition 60 odd years ago they were?

    Ok there have always been cultural differences caused by geography & religion, but they are basically the same people with a common history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    In a way he's right. Kids are only taught the negative side of Empire. They're not taught that the it brought education, healthcare, infrastucture, law & order and an uncorrupt civil service to Africa & India. They're also not taught that the other European nations had Empires. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: if the British Empire had been that bad, we wouldn't have the Commonwealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    The black population is about 2%. The gay population is about the same

    I am only too happy for both groups to have a voice and be listened to but fail to see why both groups feel the agenda should be focused on them to the extent they appear to feel it should be

    Both groups appear to be very concerned about a separate identity rather than inclusion

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    The syllabus is always going to be limited. There simply isn't enough time. So, teaching the skills to critically assess and look for context is the most important to encourage the kids to investigate outside the syllabus.
    The syllabus should be about British history and its context. Slavery is given more emphasis than serfdom and the Union movement. We can debate which has the greater influence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Unimpressed with the idea that black children need to learn about Africa any more than white children. And multiculturalism is dead. Your identity does not depend on your colour in the UK - that's what makes it so great to live here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    // baryon97 . We're not racists and we're sick of being told we are.//

    Actually, by the pc definition, most white Brits probably are racist. Not particularly happy about mass immigration, not entirely in favour of multiculturalism as currently practised, unwilling to regard ourselves as owing anyone anything because of our history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    How about also teaching Scandanavian history, Chinese history, Canadian history, history of the former Yugoslavia, South American history, history of the Phillipines, history of the component parts of the Russian Federation,...

    Actually just fill school classes with history. Cancel all other lessons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Part of the problem is the massive lack of understanding among the white population of even the most basic historic and cultural issues affecting the black and Asian communities. I live in Birmingham, one of the most diverse cities in Britain and it amazes me how so many white people regard the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as being one and the same thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    As ever only the British (shorthand: English) must not celebrate their history. "

    What ridiculous nonsense. You and ProfPhoenix should compare your stawmen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Its not just black and white other colours are permitted

    =>It's those Greens that came down from Mars with HG Wells early in the 20th century who have never been allowed their history. That's why the Americans sent up their curiosity to find it. :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Everything Mr Zephaniah says may be true. Or it may not.

    In any case, this country is still one of the best places to live on the planet and the older I get the more I believe that.

    Come on, Benjamin: stop trying to make people feel like racists. We're not racists and we're sick of being told we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    History is by definition a huge subject & it's impossible to teach everything at school or even university.

    This is compounded by that African narrative history only starts in the 16th century, whilst 'Asian' narrrative history can be taken back to around 3000BC making it a massive subject in its own right that can't really be skimmed through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    The real racism in the UK is the fact that more airtime is spent on football racist language than is ever spent on the racist murder of a white by a non-white.

    As for Z. Frankly, who cares what he thinks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Events in history need to be considered within the context of the times in which they heppened, not many events are isolated from other events taking place around them.

    It is dangerous indeed to take a historic event and to judge it with todays moralty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    He's only telling half the story, ALL children are offered one version of events, a history that endorses the ideologies of patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism and the biggy religion! No wonder the worlds a mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    They are schools funded by all UK taxpayers - they should teach UK history. If a group wishes to specialise in something else, they can use their own time and money not everyone else's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Its not just black and white other colours are permitted

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Wherever their origin, these pup[ils are in GB attending GB schools so they learn GB history. If their parents want them taught something else, they need to take them to wherever that is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I don't agree with the current trend back to facts and dates which was the way when I was at school.
    We should keep the emphasis on critical thinking skills, assessing the evidence and bias in historical accounts.
    These skills are invaluable throughout life whether or not you are interested in history. The truth about colonialisation should be taught within this perspective.


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