“Black history is British history”
For Black History Month, we spoke to Josh Garry and Sam Jones, two Teach First ambassadors and members of the BeBold History Network, to hear more about the importance of teaching diversity in history lessons all year round.
We met at a Teach First-organised meet in 2016. Since then, we’ve worked hard to ensure we expose our students to diverse voices at our respective schools. Students in Year 7 stop off in Medieval Mali. In Year 8, we’ve abandoned the balance sheet when we teach the Empire. Dr Harold Moody is one focus in Year 9 as we teach students about the British Civil Rights Movement.
Along the way, Josh has been part of the Historical Association’s Britain and Transatlantic Slavery teacher fellowship programme and led a workshop at a summer Schools History Project conference. More recently, Josh has written an article in the Teaching History journal about this work. We’ve planned resources for Edexcel’s new Migration Through Time course (rolled out nationally later this academic year). Sam also founded and now chairs a growing national network for history teachers, BeBold History, and Josh sits on the committee.
We have a shared interest and passion to change history teaching for the better in the UK. It does feel, especially since the birth of Black Lives Matter, that there is a movement developing among UK history teachers - it’s what’s kept us working together after all this time, and in many ways has drawn us closer. It is wonderful to be a part of it.
We should always teach Black history
Black history shouldn’t be a tokenistic necessity, rolled out for one month a year – it should be weaved into curriculums at large, because Black history is British history. The longer you spend studying history, the more you realise that Black history plays an intrinsic part in many of the narratives we teach. It ought to appear in curriculums wherever appropriate. This elevates the history we teach, rendering school history more authentic and more appropriate. Diversifying history actually involves us extending the depth of knowledge and understanding of pupils.
The only diverse history we learnt at school was the US Civil Rights Movement, yet we have our own heroic activists: figures like Dr Harold Moody and Claudia Jones. We've had our own legal fights against the state - the Mangrove Nine. We even had our own bus boycott in Bristol.
Whilst Martin Luther King Jr was one of our first history heroes, and remains an inspiration, we believe focusing solely on the US Civil Rights Movement and ignoring the British Civil Rights Movement in UK history teaching is actually damaging. We ought to prioritise British stories. They're more relatable to our students and give a better understanding of the communities they live in. They also might help pupils from BAME backgrounds situate themselves in our society in a positive way. Teaching this way might help prevent the type of misconceptions my history education instilled.
How to bring diversity to the classroom
The biggest thing you could do is persuade your department leads to switch their thematic unit to one of the Migration Through Time courses. They're now offered by all three major exam boards (OCR, AQA and now Edexcel). We both planned the classroom resources for the Edexcel module, designed to accompany the textbook (in which Josh wrote some of the chapters!).
We ought to be inspired to deviate from specifications in ways that still meet the parameters of them and in doing so, construct our own more diverse, more representative curriculums. This could mean incorporating the story of a Black serviceman like Walter Tull next time you teach WWI, or unpicking the Piccadilly Nuisance when covering the Industrial Revolution.
We also need to read widely. But history teachers are incredibly busy - it’s infeasible to read all the books published. At BeBold History, we invite academics to give talks about their research at the cutting edge of history. We’ve created our Empire Playlist on our YouTube channel, a series about the Empire and abandoning the balance sheet. The brilliant Luke Pepera spoke about Mansa Musa and Stephen Bourne discussed Dr Harold Moody and the LCP. We’ll be building on this over the next academic year.
We have conflicted feelings about Black History Month
Does Black History Month make us complacent the other 11 months of the year? Wonderful, brave teachers such as Robin Whitburn, Martin Spafford, and Dan Lyndon-Cohen have worked tirelessly to introduce BAME narratives into the history classroom for over 30 years. Luckily, work is now happening apace to improve schools’ history wholesale, but could Black History Month have played a role in inconsistencies prior to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020?
We should include diverse histories, not because we should do, but because they were there. It will only serve to enhance the history we teach, because, to put it simply, it will be more accurate and mean more to the students that we teach.