How Studying Britain's Diverse History Can Help The Black Lives Matter Campaign

I was flicking through my news feed and I saw an article posted in The Telegraph, which offered up history as a way to change views amid the Black Lives Matter movement. And they were absolutely right.  

The thing about history is that it's happening around us, all the time. Our grandchildren will look back at the twenty-first century and see much more clearly the mistakes we made with fresh, new eyes and have their own opinions on what we should have done differently. 

With hindsight, it's always easier. It's less easy when you're living through it. When we look back, we see a clear timeline that culminates in an end result, rather than the jumbled bits of news and varying viewpoints that we're bombarded with while we're trying to get the dinner on, find time to walk the dog and get to work in the mornings. 

If you could go back in time you'd probably have a hard time trying to convince Henry VIII that his courtiers were manipulating him and influencing who he would be buying a wedding ring for next, just to get themselves into power. And you'd struggle to make Elizabeth I understand that more people would know she had black teeth and wore wigs in the year 2020 than would remember that she defeated the Spanish Armada. 

People will look back on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag differently than we look at it now. 

On my Facebook feed I see so many differing opinions, some of them fuelled by a general lack of compassion and knowledge about how we got to this point. 

And I think the way we study history in our schools can help. 

When I was at school I learned about the Native Americans and General Custer. I felt compassion for the natives because we were taught that they superstitiously painted their bodies to repel the bullets they would face from Custer's army. I would always feel strongly about their struggle for the rest of my life. 

John Blanke, 1511. Public Domain

My teenage daughter learned about the First World War, and felt compassion and understanding for the men and boys who returned home shell-shocked, trembling with PTSD from the shouts, bombs and gunfire. She feels their struggle whenever Remembrance Day comes along and has total respect for them. 

Neither of us learnt any black history in our syllabuses, even though I sat my GCSEs in 1993 and she's sitting hers next year. Actually, I lie. She did one lesson on segregation and Rosa Parks in year 7. But it's not enough. 

Giving young minds an insight into the struggles and achievements of all communities fosters an understanding and compassion that we're not going to get from sharing a hashtag on social media or clicking on a meme. Isn't that why we study history? To gain a deeper understanding of communities to try and make our lives better today? I think that's why I study it. To understand, compare and see what changes we've made and what changes we still need to make. It's like figuring out where we're at. 

Another subject I studied at school was the history of medicine. We learned about Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner and William Harvey. But we never learned about Otis Boykin, who invented a control unit for the pacemaker in the 1960s. Or Marie M. Daly, who in the 1950s discovered key information about the link between diet and the causes of heart attacks. Or how about Ernest Everett - who pioneered ideas about the effects of ultraviolet carcinogenic radiation in the early twentieth century. Patricia Bath? Who did groundbreaking research into the treatment and prevention of blindness? Nope. Radio silence on these guys. 

And this is what I think needs to change.

And yet, in 2008, it was announced that students in secondary school would learn about slavery to help them understand immigration. But I have a different, more inclusive idea. 

We need to incorporate all communities' histories into one. The Britain of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Medieval, Tudors, Stuarts and beyond was varied and mixed. We know this from historical sources - paintings, documents, chronicles and letters. We have evidence that black communities existed in Britain since the year two, under the Roman Empire. The 3rd century AD. But how many times are they referenced in school projects? Historical dramas? Historical novels? It wouldn't be too difficult, when learning about The Tudors, for example, to explore black history, or the influence of all people that lived in the era. To explore John Blanke, who was a handsomely-paid and respected black trumpeter for the two Tudor Henrys. Or Reasonable Blackman who worked as a silk weaver in Elizabethan London. And what about Lady Rebecca Rolfe, who was a Native American woman who married the Englishman John Rolfe and moved to London in the early seventeenth-century. And don't forget that the first person to translate Chinese works at the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1687 was Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-tsung, a Chinese visitor. We need to normalise the idea that mixed race communities have existed since the earliest times and get away from the idea that it's a very new phenomenon. It's inauthentic to study a period and not place it in its actual, diverse context that's backed up by historical sources.

Rebecca Rolfe, 1616. Public Domain

By teaching history we are encouraging young, fertile, critical minds to question the past and see where things need to change in the future. After all, we can't see where we're going if we don't know where we've already been. 

Black Lives Matter, of course they do. They've literally shaped history alongside us, shoulder-to-shoulder, since the earliest times. So let's report on a history that actually happened - with everyone into the picture. 

Further Reading
Tudor, English and Black - And Not a Slave In Sight, The Guardian, accessed 4 June 2020
An American Princess in London, Rebecca Rolfe, accessed 4 June, 2020
Chinese Translation at Oxford, 1687, Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-tsung, accessed 4 June 2020
Famous Black Scientists, accessed 4 June 2020

You might also like this post: Won't History Ever Just Run Out?  and my review of the book Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann. 

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