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 270.

    I have to say as black man that I'm opposed to the idea of black history month. Not only is it a patronising token gesture, but there isn't really that much history to tell - might be more justifiable in the US, and even if we were what makes black history so special, why can't other ethnic minorities have their own history months.
    Real history should be enjoyed by everyone and it should be global

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    Maybe it's true and ancient Egypt respected peoples right of freedom. It would have been a shining beacon in the ancient world if true."

    As humans settled into agricultural communities this created surpluses which then allowed those communities to build great works. Organised slavery, is believed to have come after that phase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    I went to school from 86 onward and did not touch on English history really. We learned about Hitler's rise to power, The Russian Revolution, The Slave Trade routes, The Vietnam war and The American Civil Rights movement. So we learned about the beer house putsch and not Dunkirk, we learned about Martin Luther King rather than William Wilberforce. My whole generation was robbed of British History.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    Shouldn't British children learn predominantly British history?
    I don't see how race-relations will be improved by encouraging black children to associate themselves with Jamaica or Africa rather than the country where they live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    I was asked the other day how I had done in the history exam and I said I did quite well
    What was the main question they asked, it was about 18c history , how I felt about them white people taking their women and invading their towns.
    That was difficult but I liked How do you feel about cooking them white people in a pot…..

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    "Trout Mas Replica k"

    "putting the discovery forth as more evidence that slaves did not build the ancient monuments."

    A little early to be talking about "myths" - slavery is uncomfortable for the perpetrators, so it's often conveniently hidden in history.

    Maybe it's true and ancient Egypt respected peoples right of freedom. It would have been a shining beacon in the ancient world if true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    259. ProfPhoenix

    Well your comment hasn't been removed so I guess your rather stupid remark is incorrect. You might be interested to know that I have in font of me a current GCSE textbook. It has a module on slavery. The first picture is an engraving 'Arab slavers buying prisoners from African tribal leaders'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    This a case of ethnic minorities wanting to change us!
    Our kids have to eat halal food in schools now to pacify a minority, why is it us that have to change to suit minorities? I had to stand in line for many hours as a kid in Bradford to get a TB vaccine thanks to immigrants, we seem to have TB on its way again, should we say thank you for the diversity this brings? I think not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    There will be a point in the future when this story will be in the past (as will the jimmy saville story hopefully). Hopefully we will have learnt not to be so tolerant of abhorrent behaviour. I don't want to read headlines including the words black or gay as if it actually matters, especially on a medium that portrays itself to be impartial, i just dont want to see it, its divisive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Absolutely hilarious how people are voting down historical facts. Seems that some people want to learn their own history, and by that I mean 'their' own history.

    This is why history is important. Truthful history. So we can 'all' learn from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    I will wager if people started to discuss the black slaves sold by the Arabs and followers of Islam, the BBC would close this discussion down. So let us keep up with the cultural Marxist argument and denigrate the wicked white people. Anyone want to bash the yanks here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    The BBC introduced racialy segregated broadcasting, the Asian network
    Asian immigrants introduced racialy segregated football, the Asian Leagues
    The Police service introduced racialy segregated policing, Black Police Assoc
    Wannabe black managers have introduced racial segregation with the BACA and our black poet wants racialy segregated history lessons.
    The white majority are appaled by apartheid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    256. Trout Mask Replica
    Who the hell is Benjamin whatshisface to tell us???"

    I believe he's using that long standing British right known as "freedom of speech". It's such a popular right that other countries have adopted it and even codified it in international conventions that when those conventions are then ..
    Some people seem freer to speak than others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Who the hell is Benjamin whatshisface to tell us???"

    I believe he's using that long standing British right known as "freedom of speech". It's such a popular right that other countries have adopted it and even codified it in international conventions that when those conventions are then codified into British law we get told this is "unBritish". Bizarre.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    If anyone cares, the British didn't invent the slave trade on the African continent.

    A third of the continent was in slavery from Arab immigrants 1,000 years before the British arrived.

    The history of slavery goes back as far as the written word.

    When you marvel at the pyramids, think slavery. When you marvel at the Taj Mahal, think slavery. When you trek to Machu Pichu, think slavery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    247 Wordcount

    '... they live in Britain therefore they study British history.'

    So you would argue then that any student in an Australian school should learn no British history before about 1780 and anything before that has to be Aborigine history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Black history? What black history? There isn't any that's not covered in a standard school history syllabus. It makes for short reading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Benjamin is clearly a pet of the BBC, he ticks all the boxes and so has a lot of air time! How much does the BBC give him a year? Our colonial BBC, paying him is akin to slavery, has the man no scruples?
    But come on BBC get this into perspective, ethnic minorities are just that, minorities, so the amount of say should be proportionate!

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    The most important contribution made by Nightingale was her application of statistics, sanitary reforms, the furthering of evidence based medicine, and many social reforms.
    Her role in history goes far beyond just being caring, comparing her to Seacole based on being a brave nurse demonstrates quite remarkable ignorance of Nightingale's historical role in nursing. Pot, Kettle...dare I say it?


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