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

Related Stories

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."


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    For 10 years in a multicultural workplace and as a white Briton, I have worked in an atmosphere where certain individuals from other races go out of their way to paint the LEAST rosy picture as possible of "The Empire" and try to make me feel constantly ashamed. It has really taught me a lot about how most people want to point fingers at other people instead of learning to become united.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    301.longshot356 - "......Multiculturalism only serves to reinforce divisions, to solidify the antipathy between "Us" and "Them". We need to become one culture, so there is only "Us"....."

    Read that sentance again & you'll realise how utterly ridiculous it is......multi cultralism now & look, no slavery, no mixing of the races in the dark days of Empire & oh look, lots of slavery.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    Zephaniah is forgetting that only a small percent of the country is ethnically diverse and the majority of school children go to practically all white schools as reflects the geographical make-up of the UK.
    He can pin point majour historical instances as mentioned above but fails to argue why they should replace what is taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    "Only half of the story" - this is ridiculous. I teach history and the large part of the current history curriculum focuses on Britain's colonial past but very much from the point of view of both the indigenous people and those whom we displaced via slavery. Zephaniah ought to look at some history text books and perhaps then he'll see that his vision for history teaching has already been realised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    I do not think Zephaniah advocates teaching the history of every country which "sent" immigrants to Britain. Instead, he proposes teaching a more complete British history that includes the age of empire and its aftermath. But I don't think you could avoid mentioning Africa or Asia during some lessons. Perhaps just as strategically located regions with indigenous workers know elsewhere as humans?

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    299. I don't think anybody is advocating either. I think they are advocating that teaching British history in British classrooms is a reasonable expectation and deliberately over emphasising Black and Asian history isn't. Or are you suggesting more emphasis should be given to Jewish history other than the holocaust? Or Eastern European history given recent migration? Where do you want this to end?

  • Comment number 304.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    We do only tell a small part of history.

    Most of people of ALL races who lived under the British Empire had short miserable lives. See Rowntree's York report 1899 or read "The People of the Abyss" 1903 about London.

    History should teach us how bad things used to be for people like us and it should show us how regulations and trade unions changed things for the better.

    Race is irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    I can't help thinking that BZ has slightly blown the gaffe regarding these Saturday classes, which I assume are unregulated and held on private premises with volunteer staff. Well done on the effort to preserve your heritage and culture but do, please, keep yourselves one step ahead of those who would pry into what's taught and presume to regulate against what they don't like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    So Mr Zephaniah thinks he's the only to realise the Empire's history wasn't all "rosy."


    This lack of insight is representative of his banal, naive, shallow opinions and will make matters worse.

    Multiculturalism only serves to reinforce divisions, to solidify the antipathy between "Us" and "Them". We need to become one culture, so there is only "Us".

    That is the way to defeat racism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    298. Cont.
    BZ has just said he wants to hear more history relevant to black and Asian students. Only highlighting +ves from those histories and -ves of British colonial history. It would be different if he had said he was interested in the slave trade, including W African slave nations etc.
    African history is interesting but is it a subject relevant to all the students in a British classroom?

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    What should black children be taught in "Black History"?

    Should they be taught that they have hope for the future based upon descent from clever ancient African peoples who built civilisations and structures?

    Should they be taught that they have no hope due to descent from the less clever and slower people who were unable to avoid capture and sale by their fellows?

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    286. History is a massive subject and there simply isn't the time to teach African history in British schools. The history of the nation and its historical context should be the syllabus. Children should then be taught to be critical and allow them to study other histories on their own.
    Plus BZ is not advocating balance, he is pushing an one side of history he wants to hear, as a black man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    Any migrants that move to this country should be duty bound to learn our culture, history, traditions and, of course, our language. Multi-culturalism doesn't work. Who said that? Angela Merkel not Nick Griffin and she was right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    293 Bob Smyth

    Wow, three ignorant and stupid comments in one post. Well done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    As much as I respect Benjamin, I really am not sure what his problem is. We have so many migrants from across Asia, Africa, America and now eastern europe that to cover all their specific histories in a National curriculum would be impossible. So we do generalise, we don't just ignore migrant history, we don't pay enough attention to the role of women either. All nations have their dark sides!

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    Are you saying "surpluses" built these great works, not slaves?"

    Surpluses enabled a hierarchical system to develop: artisans, artists, craftsmen, standing armies, priests, kings and raise taxes to fund them. If there were no surpluses why would societies build pyramids, irrigation systems, organised warfare if they would starve in the process?

  • Comment number 293.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    Get over it, Benny!

    Black people account for around 3% of the total UK population, of which around 92% are white British. They should be glad they get the coverage they do. Besides, multiculturalism is an outdated concept that does not work and should be removed. That way, everybody will get on far better than they do. Young black kids consider themselves to be English anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    Nick Seaton. That's what our country needs. More people like Nick Seaton denying other ethnic groups and his own indigenous the knowledge that is added and the enrichment of other communities when the vast narrative of African and other histories are added to what is perceived as world history. The continuing ignorance and bigotry that informs Seaton's white centric perspective is plain to see.


Page 1 of 16


More Education & Family stories



  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

  • Aimen DeanI spied

    The founder member of al-Qaeda who worked for MI6

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • Woman with closed eyeStrange light show

    What do you see when you close your eyes?

  • Sony WalkmanLost ideas

    What has happened to Japan's inventors?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.