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 210.

    199 you were unlucky I was also in school during that period and had many teachers who were embarrassed by our past. The influence of 'Make love not war" was strong, there was only a small handful of non white English in a 1600 pupil comprehensive but slavery, the Raj, the treatment of native peoples in NZ, AUS, USA, SA, child slavery in the UK etc. were all presented as appalling behaviour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    As long as the historical facts are accurate, you can then "interpret" asmuch as you like and leave folk to make up their own minds.I am trhorouighly delighted that multiculturalism is under attack,it should be euthanised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    No, it's not the real history Benjy, it's the history of that particular ethnic group that they attend.
    I sent my 2 to Saturday school to learn Polish Lit/Lang and history because I didn't expect it to be taught during the week. I expected them to learn the Lit/Lang & history of the indigenous people's culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Many properties owned by the National Trust, many titles held by Aristocratic families were created because of the wealth of Slavery. These families owned Mines and Ironworks. The products of these factories Iron shackles and chains were sent to Africa and the New World to enslave africans. Working people here were slightly better of than Black slaves. Only slightly..

  • Comment number 206.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    79. Ken Thompson
    “The British industrial revolution was financed by the terror of slavery”.

    And the ruthless exploitation of a poor powerless working class (white) who were worked to death from childhood to the Workhouse.

    That’s why there were so few African slaves in England. They were more expensive than the white equivalent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Actually I did history GCSE and studied the cold war(largely America USSR based and certainly not anything to do with my own white middle class heritage)and then the black struggle in the deep south USA.I ended up answering the question on the second world war in the exam (despite the fact we hadnt studied it and it was there for those who had)and getting a B.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    The massacre at Amritsar was spoken about when I was taught History and so was the brutal punishments imposed by the British (like tying rebels to the front of cannon and firing). But that was a long time ago when a more traditional history curriculum was taught. None of my children are interested in the subject at school because the subjects taught are so PC and uninspiring (they say!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    Between the spaces

    I know and many are not taught I have been trying to find reference to the only real genocide where a complete people were wiped off the face of the world. I read about it some 2 years ago. It was in China before that country was united. If think that The Qin were perpetrators, but I cannot recall the victims. Every Man, Woman and Child were exterminated even their animals

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    Why do we have this "Black History Month"? At best it's positive discrimination, at worst it's racist. Why should the black community be favoured above any other. The Irish have contributed far more to British society than any other group aside from the British, yert we get no recodnition at all. It's time to scrap this "pandering" in the name of political correctness. It does more harm than good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    193 "The superiority argument can be levelled at the Americas especially after abolition"
    Yes, unlike the people of Europe who abandoned the Eugenics movement, for obvious reasons, America never quite let go. We need to be especially careful of its pernicious inluence.

    The last thing we want here is a party of superiority nutters trying to teach every perceived "pleb" their "F$*£ing place"!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Benjamin Zephaniah is so right. Much of what I was taught in the 60's and 70's portrayed Britain - through the empire - as having saved the world from itself. By ignoring all the events where Britain was not so nice means we are unable to understand often where others are coming from when dealing with them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    141. The Bloke

    I believe in multiculturalism so surely I should have the right to teach my children about something which is becoming increasing relevant to the world in which they live and which the state education system (in my opinion at least) fails to inform them about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    My family were Poor Agricultural Labourers before the industrial revolution and Miners, Foundry, and Glass workers afterwards. Living in really dire straits at the will of the Rich Mine owner / Land owner. These same land owners are the ones that invested in the West indian sugar trade and the Slave trade. Keeping both white and blackmen in their place and poverty. Visit Penryn Castle Gywnned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    182 Shaka's atrocities are appalling, similar events seem to exist in most cultures. Religion, land ownership, competition for resources, lust for power, there are many reasons as to why people behave badly within individual homes or as nations. It is not just history lesons where these truths should be discussed if there is even a glimmer of hope that we will become a caring and loving species.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    It will be an interesting challenge to explore all sides of recent conflicts, in multicultural Britain, without re-igniting many of the problems.
    To live in harmony we need to forgive the past, but often those unhappy with the way history is written still have hate in their hearts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    182. I simply asked the question if Ben taught about the glories of the Zulu empire or the tragedy that was the mfecane it caused? Or if he taught about the transatlantic slave trade or the W African slaving nations and their large slave populations? e.g. a balanced history. But I got negative votes too...

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    176. pb
    Not by people in Britain most of whom lead a pretty grim life with no education and no awareness of anything outside of few miles from where they lived.
    The superiority argument can be levelled at the Americas especially after abolition but not at England where most people would never have seen a black person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    So basically Zephania wants to tell every black child in Britain that s/he is the victim of oppression by eeeeeviiiil whites?

    That's really going to help 'community cohesion' isn't it?

    Trust the BBC to give a platform to such racist nonsense,

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    School history creates bias. Tell a story of a massacre and suddenly everyone in the Empire is a racist. Teach something else and suddenly it is all the other way around - neither is accurate.

    Want to know what the Empire was like for ordinary folk?


    Ignore the stories of people NOT involved in huge events and you ignore the truth about ourselves.


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