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 190.

    183 you have quoted Ken as saying "as bad as other attempts to rule the world" and then go on to say "whereas everyone else's history is beauty and light..."
    This clearly betrays that your bitterness is blinding you to the facts before your own eyes.

    There are none so blind as those that will not see...

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Another uninformed reactionary, I went to a very traditional public school and various incidents which portray Britain in a less-than-favourable light were covered comprehensively, including the Amritsar Massacre. Mr Zephaniah should ensure that he's properly informed before making such sweeping statements about one of the world's most tolerant societies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    @20. MinnieQ

    'A peace-loving people, invaded and slaughtered, then told they were savages who impeded progress!'


    Native Americans or Afghans?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Immigrants have a choice to become part of our common culture, values and history or hold themselves apart. It is not a cost free choice. As soon as groups hold themselves apart troublemakers get busy painting the differences as threats. Multiculturalism is a recipe for long term strife and trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Re: 181: if we don't learn about history we risk repeating past mistakes. Like the disastrous financial stupidity of the 1920s that caused a global recession... But Zephaniah is talking nonsense. My kids were taught about Rosa Parks but had never heard of about Wat Tyler - and who was more significant in our history?

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Succesful invaders get to write history - in current-day England ours is Roman, no, Anglo-Saxon, no, Norse, no, er Norman. Yep, the feudal UK system is Norman.
    Any little-brain..britainers out there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    I agree that there is a limited exposure to the vast range of historical events and influences and this needs to be improved.

    If we increase the coverage of black history issues we should also increase coverage of a host of other cultures. Is it practical to cater for the history of all of the different cultures that people living in England belong too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    // Ken Thompson
    The British industrial revolution was financed by the terror of slavery. The British Empire was a completely immoral grab for wealth by the aristocracy. It was as bad as other attempts to rule the world but more successful for a while. I am still proud but the past has many important lessons.//

    Whereas everyone else's history is just beauty and light...

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    I placed a comment a few hours ago about Black History, how Shaka murdered 2 million other Black people in the 1800's.

    Guess what it's showing a minus 4.

    Now the evidence of the atrocity is there for all to see

    So my question is do you want to know about Black History or not. For if you are to teach it, then as Zephaniah wants the real history, then show its reality not just the fluffy parts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Re: Dave0510
    "So I for one would relish any effort to increase.. history education.."

    Really? And where has history ed. got us? It is a hobby & won't get people a proper job unless they want to be a politician - just shows how useless it is! We should increase the maths & science curriculum from 5 yrs upwards. No discrimination or hidden agenda & everyone benefits - look at India and Korea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    history......... no one learns about the beanfield or the miners , watt tyler barely gets a mention , the torture of catholics by protestants and vice versa is hardly touched on .....the fact that through the years any shown dissent is put down ruthlessly by our leaders and still is . there are two sides to history and we are only taught one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    The history of England is a history of multiple cultures often treating other cultures badly. The British industrial revolution was financed by the terror of slavery. The British Empire was a completely immoral grab for wealth by the aristocracy. It was as bad as other attempts to rule the world but more successful for a while. I am still proud but the past has many important lessons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    171 It's just as much Zephaniah's "place" as anyone else's.

    Of course he's going to speak out against racism and as he has the opportunity, he has the responsibility to do so. If you genuinely feel you, your family, your religion or race are the victims of injustice then speak out - we have the responsibility to purge this from all society - it's not moaning to strive for greater fairness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Comment number 26. presario
    "but I think such an exercise would serve to reduce some of the prejudices of the English and the resentment of the rest of us"

    Excuse me? The "prejudices of the English?" If you can't spot the irony and hypocrisy of what you've just said, words fail me.

    There is no greater prejudice than those who claim an entire nation is prejudiced. Read a book, please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    169. Simpletics - isn't this an oversimplification. Black slaves were thought by many to be sub-human, no better than animals - and this is how they justified their terrible exploitation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    All history has to be interpreted because even with detailed written accounts the thought processes that lead to decisions are often lost.
    We can see ‘what’, ‘who’, and ‘how’, more easily that the ‘why’.
    When we try to deduce the ‘why’ cultural bias will inform our interpretation, its not a sinister plot it the way we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    As for the sinking of the French fleet: we were fighting the most evil political system in human history & losing. I am 100% confident that if we hadn't done everything we could in WW2 & had lost, the same historical revisionists condemning the sinking would be condemning us for not sinking them. Of course, the French could have avoided those casualties by putting up more of a fight in 1940.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Amazing how 1 over politically aware ethic minority group can high-jack the mainstream agenda. We are now multicultural.

    for example kids should explore their ethnic backgrounds and bring that context to the class room to enrich the lessons for all.

    The death camps are not just a part of WW2 but what about the balkans. Many classes have pupils from many sides in that mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    143. Actually, history shows us that the peoples of these islands didn't consider themselves Celts and were never called Celts. Genetic studies show little "Celtic" lineage in Wales etc. Only language and some cultural influences are evident. Then, we don't call Singaporeans English because they speak English, listen to Cold Play and are taught Shakespeare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    //Al Gore
    156 why is there always this resentment and sense of injustice whenever there is a pro-black article? //
    Because there are only ever pro-black articles.

    Because the likes of Zepaniah only ever moan about the place, even though they have it pretty good here. They might want to consider being an ethnic or religious minority in say, Nigeria, Kenya etc.


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