Searching for black voices in the UK curriculum

By Alice O’Connell

My latest essay as a first-year English literature student was about the importance of peripheral narratives emerging — particularly the damage caused by suppressing black voices in imperial narratives.

The more I investigated how black narratives are blocked or prevented from emerging, the more I recognised how this same argument applies to our education system. Here, black voices representing culture and history are systematically silenced and replaced with an omnipotent white voice.

But why has it taken 14 years of education for me to realise this?

This omnipotent white voice permeates the curriculum but its influence lies primarily in two subjects: History and English.

The lack of black narratives in the history classroom

It is shameful and embarrassing to reflect that in 11 years of compulsory education I never once had a mandatory lesson on slavery, colonialism or the Civil Rights Movement. My Catholic education assumed that ‘love thy neighbour’ was sufficient enough in condemning racial discrimination.

My first, albeit brief, exposure to slavery was in a Year 9 History classroom. Having covered all topics on the curriculum, the teacher invited suggestions from pupils for subjects to cover in our remaining lessons. The floor was open and a lot of us suggested feminism. 

A group of black students suggested slavery – it would be impossible to cover its origins and repercussions with what remaining time we had but they were asking for an introduction, a crash-course. Pupils, myself included, still wanted the feminism lesson; the UK wasn’t racist, and the world was progressing – right? 

Aged fourteen, and a minority, these girls had to argue and convince a white male teacher and his pupils that theirs was a more pertinent issue. In a small classroom in Bradford, West Yorkshire, they were arguing that black lives matter.

In the end, the lesson on slavery went ahead, but it should not have taken a group of black teenagers to convince their peers and the person with authority that we needed to be educated on such critical events. I don’t blame the teacher I blame the institution he represents. I don’t blame any single student for their resistance to being educated on slavery. I blame the institution that lulled them into a false sense of knowledge that they had been sufficiently educated on Britain’s history. 

Consequently, our younger generation leaves the education system with a glass half empty view of the world. The result is complacency and the false perception that racism does not exist in the UK. This institution presents a British history bereft of black voices in order to enable white narratives to take centre stage. How can we learn about oppression when the voices of those who experience its extremes are supressed?

The right books are not just white books

It is not enough to educate on the history of our black peers. Our education system needs to actively promote black stories and cultures through the literature it prescribes. The first black-penned piece of literature I encountered in education was ‘Handa’s Surprise’ in primary school. I didn’t encounter another until my first year of university.

The first black-authored book I read at university was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Articulately written, rich in plot and extremely accessible, I struggle to see why it wasn’t studied much earlier at, say, A-level or GCSE. Instead, at these levels I was presented with literature such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men and Jane Eyre in which racism was always resigned to the periphery (note: all white authors), a topic reserved to only one paragraph in an essay. White-authored fiction about racism is itself problematic. Writing ventriloquistically about the experiences of black people lacks the proper understanding and necessary empathy. 

My A-level English Language course revolved around an anthology of 20 non-fiction texts of varying genres, eras and authors. The anthology featured, among others, the surrender speech of indigenous tribe leader Chief Joseph, a twitter conversation from feminist Caitlin Moran and a Parliamentary speech from Australian MP Julia Gillard. The course encouraged students to read beyond their comfort zone by analysing the various writing styles of different voices. Of the twenty texts provided, only one featured a black voice; it was a white author satirizing Obama’s speech style.

Over 1180 students took this exam and considered this collation of texts their bible for the two years the course ran. To not include a single black voice in its curriculum is a blatant display of discrimination. It is imperative to have black narratives in the English classroom at all levels of education. To limit black culture to History lessons is to deny its modern influence on literature, arts and music. Essentially, it is to deny the existence of black people in British culture.

Determining the National Curriculum

Investigating the ratio of white to black teachers in both primary and secondary British education led me to the statistics published by gov.co.uk. In 2018 the government recorded that only 2.9% of secondary school teachers were black compared to 89.3% of white secondary school teachers. Just 1.6% of primary school teachers were of black ethnicity compared to a staggering 92.9% that were white.

 92.9% – my jaw dropped. I thought my white-washed experience of education was the exception; it was merely the rule. Additionally, the data shows that white British people accounted for 92.9% of head teachers across both levels of education. These people are in relatively minor positions of power and have little to no influence on the national curriculum- let us look instead at our Department of Education.

The Wikipedia page for the Secretary of State for Education provides a chronological list of everyone who has ever undertaken the role, dating back as early as 1857. Each name is accompanied by the person’s term of office and a picture. As I scrolled through the 78 chief decision-makers pictured, a sea of 78 white faces stared back. 

Our curriculum is devoid of black history and literature because there is nobody in a position to mandate it. The lack of diversity in the Department of Education is reflected in its decisions. I must accept responsibility for not educating myself on Britain’s black history earlier. I regret that it took reading Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge to learn that slaves were not emancipated until 26 years after slavery was abolished in the UK. I regret that it took buying Why I No Longer Speak to White People about Race to learn that up until 2015, reparations were being paid to slave owners for their loss of business, but no such compensation was awarded to the black families affected by this despicable trade.

But I resent that it took paying £9,250 for me to be encouraged to research Britain’s imperial past. This education is not accessible to all.

The national curriculum for History, as determined by the Department of Education, aims ‘to know and understand how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’. 

It is not the role of black students to educate their peers on the history of racial discrimination; for them it can be exhausting and traumatising. It is the role of the government to inform and educate young people about Britain’s history and role in racial discrimination; for them it is a responsibility, a bare minimum.

Linked below are four petitions advocating for the diversification of the UK curriculum. I urge everyone to support these:

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