Today marks the close of Black History Month and across October it has been suggested that organisations, in particular schools, explore themes that highlight and focus on the black experience in history.
Is one month sufficient?
When I was a student, there was a debate about whether or not this kind of themed event was helpful – did it mean that by designating one month for black history, the element of history could be ignored, glossed over or simply forgotten in the remaining 11 months of the year?
At university I often steered away from women’s history, arguing that it shouldn’t be separated out because it should be an integral part of all historical study, and likewise with black history. Of course, now I look back and realise that my stance was both naive and idealistic.
The truth is, the history of minorities and the oppressed are all areas that are frequently glossed over or not included for the sake of the bigger picture or to maintain the traditional historical narrative. One of the major problems for studying any of these groups is that they were not usually the major political players in the history being studied or rarely ever the chroniclers of it.
Opening up young people’s minds to the diversity of history
For schools where there is already a time pressure to achieve so much in a crowded curriculum, looking around to find examples to include in lessons is not always a priority. Include these groups too much and there can be accusations of tokenism. I have realised that it isn’t tokenism if you are opening up young people’s minds to the diversity of history, to the multi strands of experience that contribute to the historical record.
The contribution, experience and impact of the war on different communities
I was recently talking to a battlefield guide (not one I work with) about disappointments from the centenary of the First World War. Prompted by the fact that Black History Month was coming up, I mentioned how I had hoped that the global dimension would have been covered more by the media. The fighting across the world as well as the contribution, experience and impact of the war on different communities seemed to me an obvious part of the history to be addressed after 100 years. However, people still look at me with blank faces when I talk about the contribution of British Indian Forces on the Western Front, in Gallipoli and in the Middle East. They seem even more surprised when I tell them of the presence of African soldiers fighting for Britain and the devastation the war created in East Africa.
Walter Tull, the first British black officer
I had also hoped that there would be a greater exploration of the different nationalities and ethnicities that fought for Britain and some of the prejudices that they encountered. I told the other guide how surprised I initially was that many of the groups I took to the battlefields knew nothing about Walter Tull, the first British black officer. My original fear had been that everyone would focus on Walter Tull and not explore the wider ethnic diversity of the war. The other guide said he mentioned Walter Tull if he had black students with him, but otherwise he didn’t. I was open-mouthed – surely the story of Walter Tull, a British officer mentioned in despatches, was important for all students – especially those who perhaps didn’t know about the diversity of the men on the battlefield.
The point for me is that all students need to know about black history. Black and ethnic minority students need to know that they are a part of British history, making significant contributions, and white students need to know that history is not all about them, but is diverse, made up of many groups with shared experiences and interdependent narratives.
Explore the ‘real people’ in history
There are organisations trying to address the need to share the different stories of the past to audiences. The Historical Association is focusing on Untold Stories for its next few forums and Justice 2 History is an organisation run by teachers that helps to explore not just the presence of black history in the curriculum, but the ‘real people’ that the history includes.
When I take groups to the battlefields or other historical sites, I try and include the breadth of the experience that occurred in that place – men, women, black, white, etc. What Black History Month 2016 has made me aware of is how many stories of those groups are still not being told and if they are they are being targeted rather than being opened up to all.
Do we know the diversity of the peoples of our history?
Black History Month is important – it is the prompt to make us ask ‘do we know the diversity of the peoples of our history?’; it encourages us to focus on the different experiences of many groups for a month and then to weave them through the history being taught in the remaining 11 months.
With that in mind, I will not tell you the full story of Walter Tull now, but I will next year in a different month, and I will ensure that the guides I work with always explore the wider picture of history, as well as the many faces and peoples that make up that wider history.