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 250.

    The number of negative votes on all comments here tells me this is a broken subject. Seems there's no pleasing anyone, any of the time.

  • Comment number 249.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Guess what my comment of 182 is showing minus 5.

    Strange that when I ask for history that is truthful, people don't want to know the truth. They would rather hide from it. So what does this show. It shows that there are those that only want their own version of the truth especially if it makes others look wicked. If you want the truth you have to face it may not be to your liking

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Excuse me Mr Zephaniah - they live in Britain therefore they learn British hiistory. You may not have noticed that.
    I have lived in many different countries, my children have attended schools abroad and learned the local history and funnily enough countries teach their own history.
    It is attitudes and foolish s**t stirring like yours that fosters ill will and spite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    My abiding memory of school history lessons was the predictable"but what has all this got to do with me?"-because of my age,not my colour! TV docs,as a substitute for exam-level study,have enthused me since then and wider life experience helped make a sense of a lot of it-the 'why' part. Do Sat classes teach that Africans sold their POWs to Brit traders,possibly initiating the slave trade?

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    As always peoples' views are tainted by political stand point, Banjamin seems to want to be British but wants history to be written from other countries' view points, simple Benjamin, you are in Britain, remember that or go and try life elsewhere and see what other countries do. I doubt the french would give a fig at your gripes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Yet again the BBC plays its own little game of racial discrimination by ignoring the facts of devolution.
    Education is a devolved responsibility - Wales and Scotland have their own education ministers.
    Michael Gove does not speak for us and we most certainly will not be introducing a history currIculum including rote learning of a list of Anglo Saxon kings

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    I'm no historian, but what i have learnt is that, as humans, we have been inherently and casually racist. What i'd prefer to do is look forward to a time when people are capable of seeing every other person as an equal as opposed to looking back. The longer that people keep one eye on the murky past, the longer it will take to build a brighter future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    238. Rognvaldr
    The success of immigration into the UK is integration.
    The failure is multiculturalism.

    Integration is celebrating our common values.

    Multiculturalism is celebrating our differences.

  • Comment number 241.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.


    I don't know whether you are agreeing with me or not. I must confess I did not know about the Dacii extiction I will find out more about them. But I have read, note read not been taught, about the total extinction of a people that happened in pre-China. However I would also like to see History taught warts and all. Not just selective, including ours.

  • Comment number 239.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    The problem with Britain is that we're pulling in different ways, on the one hand we're big supporters of multiculturism, yet on the other we are opposed to globalisation, and by that i mean opposed to being integrated into the world outside Britian. Can we even say we are big supporters of multiculturalism? or are we big supporters of cultural assimilation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    British history is poorly taught too and this should clearly be the foundation of the British society and education. I don't want my child to learn about what a Jamaican nurse did during the war at the expense of learning what a British nurse did. Unless there is deliberate context for this but the colour of her skin isn't one of them in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

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

    =>Hardly different from now in China, Taiwan, Vietnam etc so even the poorer among us in the West can have our knock-off jeans, ipads, smartphones; and Apple and Samsung can slobber over their obscene profits while those orientals die in the pollution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Also don't forget the millions of whites that were stolen from all over Europe by barbary Pirates and taken to North Africa. Don't forget that the Majority of Africans were sold into Slavery by other blacks. Also the Arabs had and still do a part in Slavery. So it's not all the Big bad white man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    230. he wants his side told, not all sides. Focussing on the Transatlantic slave trade without putting it into the wider context of slavery in Africa and the condition of the British working class etc. smacks of bias.
    As I said, he is a Rasta that worships the last African Emperor and doesn't see the irony/hypocricy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    There is a big issue underpinning this subject; the British people have had mass immigration and the concept of multiculturism forced upon them by the last government and previous governments since the war.
    The fact is most British people do not like being told by immigrants and their offspring that to dislike multiculturalism is anti British! Who the hell is Benjamin whatshisface to tell us???

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.


    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...???
    Buy an Atlas

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    history doesnt teach that everyone is equal and that is why some of it isnt taught today because we live in a society where some of it would be called racist and discriminative.


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