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 230.

    229.happytravelling - "......Ben is a Rasta. Haile was a dictator but his deity. The Zulus formed a great empire by conquering others. That's not controvertial. Its history."

    BZ wants all sides told, not just one.....you are accusing of him of wanting something he has not aksed for......

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    222. looks like you need a geography lesson as well as a history lesson. Egypt is not in sub saharan africa.
    I'm loving the people who want to white/black wash history. I keep making comments that illustrate that one person's winner is anothers tyrant. Ben is a Rasta. Haile was a dictator but his deity. The Zulus formed a great empire by conquering others. That's not controvertial. Its history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    How on Earth can you teach history from every perspective? This is one of the consequences of immigration. I'm afraid you just need to be pragmatic and accept that specific histories will need to be taught outside a generic education system.

    The point of reference for any education system should be it's location.

    I doubt schools in Ghana teach the history of the Plantagenets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Black History = Blame Whitey

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    The idea of teaching "Black" history is laughable. I find it insulting that such a rich vast tapestry of a subject is proposed to be taught under the banner of "Black". His propositions doesn't sound like integration, but opposition and certainly not teaching pupils the valuable skills of assessment and interpretation. There is should be no such thing as white or black history, just history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    New book out Mr Zephaniah by any chance? Laughable comments by a professional stirrer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    History is not usually what has happened. History is what some people have thought to be significant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Black slaves cost Hundreds of Pounds at Auctions in the West Indies. On the contrary whites who lived on Rich aristocrats land or in their Tied cottages were free... Very few enslaved africans actually were present in England. Those that did were " trophy" servants. Check out " Francis Barber". The servant / slave of Dr Johnson. His now white descents still Live in the Lichfield area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    219.Shaunie Babes - "Prior to the arrival of Western civilisation, Sub-Saharan African hadn't advanced economically, socially or technologically much past the iron age....."

    Er, hello - you need to restudy your history. The style of living associated with Western civilisation started first in Eygpt.....

    ....ever heard of the Pharohs et al...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    It won't make any difference when Mr Gove has renamed History "Winston Churchill Studies".

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    202. Lefty Lucy - the Romans did it to the Dacii. I learned that in my own studies, not at school. And that's how it should be. You want to learn something supplemental to the history of the UK, learn it yourself. We can't teach every facet of every bit of minority history in the county.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    Prior to the arrival of Western civilisation, Sub-Saharan African hadn't advanced economically, socially or technologically much past the iron age. So there's not a lot of history to tell

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    its according where you live i think, and it should be because more white people live in certain areas / go to different schools, therefore, we should learn about our own history and then eveyone elses because we dont know who we individually are otehrwise, we also need the history of the country we abide/live in because that is the place your walking and breathing at the end of the day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

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

    African history predates Egyptian but what we've learned from it is through religious and philosophical details handed down mostly by word of mouth although many of its symbols have persisted. Its remarkable consistency gives it credibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    I've worked overseas for several years and really feel Zephaniah needs to do the same. He has a very simplistic view of multiculturalism and denies aspects of other cultures that are deeply disturbing and that we should never embrace. I have worked in countries where female genital mutilation, honour killings, arranged marriages, mysognism, racism, etc., are perfectly acceptable. No thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Personally, I don't agree with highlighting of one peoples history based purely upon their colour, as this creates discrimination and what is fair for one colour must therefore be true for all other 'colours'. By highlighting colour, it only serves to do the opposite and divide / categorise people by their skin (or differences). History" should be taught in the context of time and place.

  • Comment number 214.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    History is written by the winners.
    You have to dig really deep to find the other sides of the story as this side is rarely represented and taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    As a Rasta, a culture that deifies a brutal Emperor, I find it amusing that Ben has not read enough history to be a bit more philisophical. One thing history does teach us, if you read enough, is that all cultures and races have committed attrocities and good. Winners win at the expense of the losers. So, nearly all glories are at the expense of others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    I'm all in favour of teaching blacks that most of the people who ran the slave trade were African. centuries of ethnic violence, and the economic decline of African colonies when they became independent


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