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 150.

    "black children turned off history" another sign that multiculturalism has failed. However, we have to show the "real" history of whites being the bad guys "massacre of Amritsar" yes how very novel. Teach the black youth about Africa and there inventors and corrupt leaders even to this very day they show no move toward the developed world. Who gave white countries charity to build there countries?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    @ Not a strawman. Real people are being prosecuted, dissidents incarcerated as insane, their children removed, and school children indoctrinated."

    Really? Specific examples, please?! Unfortunately not enough children are being removed due to political correctness rather than too many and continuing to suffer real abuse and failed by their parents as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    For any question the answer is always education and perhaps history is one of the greatest tools we have as humans to understand not only where we came from, but who we are and where we are going. So I for one would relish any effort to increase education (and in this case specifically history education) for everyone

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    I can't agree. We have limited time in a curriculum aimed at the majority, and what about the many other cultures such as Chinese, Middle East, etc. As for our colonialist past - all I can say is most countries are guilty e.g. Spain and the Incas - and together most of Europe crushed the American Indians. You can't apply modern morality to history. The poor and the weak were exploited mercilessly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    History and it's sweeping under the rug again!
    The rug must be up at the ceiling,with everything never being told all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    105. Trout Mask Replica
    99. ProfPhoenix
    You just love these strawman arguments, don't you?
    @ Not a strawman. Real people are being prosecuted, dissidents incarcerated as insane, their children removed, and school children indoctrinated. My ideal is a race coloured blind society of equals under the law, not a relativist equality of cultures (some oppressive) legally but arbitrarily enforced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    These Sunday schools Ben teaches at. Does he teach about the mfecane etc.? Or does he talk about the slaughter of the Ndebele by Shona or the prominance of slavery in W Africa at the time of the transatlantic slavery?
    People with agendas often try to get that included in history lessons. Context, British history and encouragement to think critically is what should be taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    oh for goodness sake!

    How long has the educational system been ignoring the history of the Celts in these islands?

    I am Welsh, I can go a long way back, but I don't.

    Like it or lump it we are who we are.

    Before you start crying, consider those with longer tears to fall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    You'd never know that other countries had slavery, or that the slaves were sold to us by Africans. You'd also never know that we were the first country to ban slavery and we enforced that ban worldwide. Canadian Negro William Hall joined the Royal Navy, in gratitude for them freeing his parents from slavery, & was awarded the VC in 1857 for his bravery at the seige of Lucknow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.


    The teaching of history from an ethnic perspective is a must in a multi-cultural society, but it must be for all sections of the population.//

    Seriously, why bother, and why assume that 'everyone' wants multiculturalism? And how about teaching people about the atrocities inflicted by other peoples on each other - even nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    137 yes I don't disagree with you - war is a terrible thing. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, which is central to Benjamin Zephaniah's point. I wasn't taught about the massacre of Amritsar

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    8. Helen_of_Troy

    I agree, but you would get an empirically poor view of modern human history without substantial focus on "white males".

    I'm all for kids learning about their particular cultural history, I'm Irish myself, but to retrospectively cut white males out of modern history to meet modern PC expectations would undoubtedly leave something of a hollow, if comforting, shell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Cont from post 131

    I'll certainly make sure my kids are taught about these issues, even if I have to do it myself. After all, it's for their benefit and that of everyone else, except for a few racist bigots.

    129. Jack Napier

    Aren't you ignoring the obvious religious and linguistic differences?

    128. stracepipe

    Yes, but aren't you looking at it from a one sided, rose tinted perspective?

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    134.Al Gore
    Gove wants more focus on "traditional British history", though I suspect just the right-wing ideal of Churchill coming to the fore at the hour of need to see off the evil Hun...

    =>Yes, you don't often hear about Churchill destroying the French navy in 1940 and killing 1300 French into the bargain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    122. People will always generalise. You are yourself. The three modern countries you mention are huge and made up of numerous cultures.
    The controversy what is taught in history is as old as history. People have agendas. Ben even selects which parts of "black" and "Asian" history he wants taught. He doesn't suggest we teach about the eradication of Kanpur, Sati, Thugee etc. just Amritsar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I'm a History teacher and every year I teach my pupils about Mary Seacole and the Amritsar massacre. So does every History teacher I know in a variety of different schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Benjamin Zepahaniah raises an interesting point that draws into question the value of telling half the story.
    Gove wants more focus on "traditional British history", though I suspect just the right-wing ideal of Churchill coming to the fore at the hour of need to see off the evil Hun...ignoring his fight against privilege and for a People's Budget!

    A little information is a dangerous thing...

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I want to hear more about early African philosophers - maybe a couple of hours on BBC Four, please?

    The only two I can think of quickly are both Egyptian, which probably doesn't count anyway: Eratosthenes, who measured the Earth, and Alhazen, who discovered that light travels in straight lines from an illuminated object to the eye.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    //Jack Napier

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


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

    Though their attitudes towards religious and ethnic minorities in their own countries suggests they don't see things that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Cont from post 122

    If you mention the words 'partition of India' to a white person, they will most likely stair at you with a blank face, and it frustrates me as to how so many white people are ignorant to the most basic issues of cultural sensitivity.

    The teaching of history from an ethnic perspective is a must in a multi-cultural society, but it must be for all sections of the population.


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