In 1884 in Berlin, a conference was held by European powers. It legitimised the carving up of Africa, established Africa’s mineral wealth as a resource for the West to profit off and no longer gave those in Africa control of their own fate. At the time, British imperialist Cecil Rhodes stated: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. … If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible”.
A recent YouGov Poll shows that Rhodes is not alone in his thinking, as a third of those surveyed stated that former colonies were “better off” as a result of Empire. The notion that these nations were “better off” suggests that little is known about many of these countries prior to British invasion and occupation. Colonalisation, one of the greatest products of white supremacy/dominance oversaw and implemented many horrific and grave atrocities including; slavery, the Mau Mau Massacre, The Congo Holocaust and the Bengal Famine.
Britain is yet to fully come to terms with the horrors of empire. It is a part of history that many know very little about, as it is not mandatory teaching on the National Curricula. The little we do know has been romanticised; suggesting it was a time in which Europeans helped people on the continent and ushered them out of the “dark ages”.
We are currently in the “United Nations Decade for Peoples of African descent”, an initiative that directly acknowledges the historical impact of slavery, colonisation and racial discrimination on society. Surprisingly, the UK has “no specific plans to mark the decade”.
The UK’s failure to even have a dialogue with this part of history shows its inability to deal with it’s unsavoury past. When I learned about the World Wars in secondary school, not once did I see, let alone learn about any African and Caribbean soldiers, even though over one million fought in the Second World War. Not once was I told that they too were fighting for the empire and that many of them lost their lives fighting as subjects. Not once did I understand the reason why my grandparents like so many others came to the UK to study in the late 1950s. I never understood how I as a black girl came to be in Britain; my reality made no sense. I was never taught about the Windrush generation and how they came to the UK as British citizens to help build the UK after the war. Our narratives were simply silenced.
So, what is currently being done to challenge this? Not enough, evidently.
In order to ensure young people are taught a curriculum that is truthful and allows them to better understand the world they live in, I started a Grassroot organisation called BLAM ( Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health).
BLAM is currently based in two schools in Lambeth running The Grounded Project, in which we teach African, Afro Caribbean and Black British history sessions.
Since launching the project online, we have had parents as far as Cardiff contact us for access to the worksheets and endless thank you’s from parents.
The current closure of schools due to coronavirus has, as is the case in most sectors, had a massive impact on the project. We were meant to start at a new partner school at the end of March, which has now understandably been cancelled.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still make a difference. In light of Covid-19, we are now running The Grounded Project virtually, by providing free interactive worksheets to parents on a weekly basis. Parents then send completed worksheets back to us for feedback and assessment. Given the lack of school resources available to parents at present, it’s important for us to make the process as accessible as possible for all young people in the UK. Money or a lack of it should not be a barrier to learning.
Our key stage 2 and 3 topics cover an in-depth understanding of the empire and the emergence of Pan-Africanism. We also look at pre-colonial Africa, African-Caribbean history and pan-African art, as well as looking at the concept of citizenship to explore the varying depths of life for black British citizens post-Windrush.
Lambeth Council found that when it did a Black history inclusion course, all the students that took part saw their grades massively improve. Parents whose children have taken part in our summer project have told us their child’s attitude towards their homework changed since they started attending.
In 2017 there were 25,000 signatures to parliament requesting for Black History to be included in the school curriculum. Schools do not have to wait for the government to ensure they have a curriculum that better serves their students. Adopting a grassroots change approach and using the leeway given in Education Act 2002 to fashion a more diverse curriculum is clearly overdue.
As xenophobia and racism continue to escalate, the UK can no longer ignore the ugly truth of systemic racism.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall once opined that “there is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions” – the government should take note.
Ife Thompson Is founder and project worker at the Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM) Charity