Yes, yes I know that there should be no need for a Black History Month – instead Black history would be embedded in every school's curriculum, and it would be obvious that Black people and their history are - for better or worse - completely embedded in British history and in the everyday British experience.
Sadly, we don't live in an ideal world and most of our children are not taught this inclusive, honest history. It's quite the opposite, we are currently under a UK government that doesn’t even think Black History should be a mandatory part of the national history curriculum 1 . The consequences of this are staggering, not only are a generation of children ( of all races) leaving school unaware of fundamental parts of UK history but it also contributes to Black people not feeling part of British society as a whole, with a just released report from Cambridge University finding that the majority of Black Britons do not feel proud to be Black British. No-one Black would be surprised to hear these findings, but the fact is, we are on our fourth-generation of a major Black British presence in the UK, something is really going wrong in this state of affairs.
We all know that education is the answer to so many ills of society and one powerful tool the Black community can wield to tell our stories is school is October’s Black History Month. All schools should use this once-a-year opportunity as a chance to celebrate Black culture and learn about Black history.
But where do you start with Black history? Definitely not with slavery, as Black history of course pre dates slavery. This is a month where British children could learn about the triumphs of Black civilisation, such as the great kingdom of Benin which was said to be one of the most beautiful and best-planned cities in the world, - “ the city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses” 2
In contrast , London at the same time is described by a professor of English at the University of Virginia, , as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market ”. How about that for blowing children's minds wide open!
Benin city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses”
However Black History in schools should definitely include slavery. Contrary to the belief prevalent in many African heritage parents, it’s still so important for the greatest indignity to human beings, the transatlantic chattel slave trade, to be taught in schools. The problem actually is, to paraphrase the historian David Olusoga, that we don’t talk about slavery enough! Consider this contrast - how much do we all know about World Wars 1 and 2 - the battlefields, the victors, the vanquished, the causes and consequences, the compensation that some of the victims received? Then ask yourself this - how many slave revolts can you name? How many achievements of enslaved people can you name? how many slave plantations can you name? How many apologies and reparations to enslaved people have been given?
I am personally tremendously proud of my enslaved ancestors – who am I am privileged enough to be able to name through the wonders of modern genealogy) and I believe that learning about their resilience and resistance (along with their suffering) is a necessary part of our children's education.
why Do we have to educate the educators?
As you might imagine a month isn’t long at all to pack in all this (especially as half-term cuts into it) and unfortunately, many schools across Britain are doing very little to nothing at all to celebrate Black History Month. I can think of many reasons why this may be but one reason is certainly that so many schools I come across (particularly in the independent sector) have very un-diverse teaching staff, in stark contrast to the UK society at large and also sometimes, in complete contrast to the ethnic make up of the student population.
A few years ago, my daughters’ school (fee-paying junior school, North London, very few Black students) was one of these schools that didn’t celebrate BHM or have an inclusive curriculum. However, I am so happy to report that after complaints from a united group of Black parents - stirred by the Black Lives Matter movement - complaints which were listened to and acted upon by an engaged teaching staff, the school had a complete turnaround and now runs what I consider a best-in-class Black History Month and an inclusive, de-colonised school curriculum. This new curriculum is to the benefit of all the students and the school is simply thriving off this refreshed curriculum and indeed refreshed learning environment. As a result, I feel like I am in a valuable position to share some details on what the school does for Black History Month and also some general pointers as to what your children’s school could be doing for Black History Month.
One point to stress at the outset, is that the need to educate schools on how best to teach our children takes emotional labour and time from us as parents - the schools are meant to be the educators! These are schools that we pay our tax monies – or school fees to - we should feel empowered to demand better customer service! I was happy to assist my daughter’s school but I must stress, it was more about us explaining the vital importance of diversity and how the school was lacking. The detail and the content were left to the educators who really took the baton and ran with it (to the extent they now have black and brown coloured plasters in the sick bay, and school play characters called Kehinde!).
As I said at the start, we don’t live in an ideal world. But we all try our hardest to make the world as perfect as possible for our kids. I hope these ten-pointers help you do just that for Black History Month.
Ten Pointers for Schools to Celebrate BHM
1. Put your posters up
Posters all around the school are a really important gesture to signal that the school is committed to diversity & inclusion and specifically Black history Month. Schools can make their or use the posters available in the resources pack from the UK’s Black History Month organisation 3 .
Hopefully, throughout the month, more will be added throughout the school environs as children create their own Black History Month-themed work.
Posters are just a signal though- there is more to be done ……
2. It’s showtime!
A powerful BHM assembly is the perfect opener or closer to BHM. Again, the BHM resource pack has headteacher’s assembly notes. The amazing instagram account @everydayracism has a free Black History Month assembly pack too that can be downloaded. Or else choose your own theme. This year, my children’s school is doing a 75-year anniversary of Windrush theme which is being put on by the Black students, assisted by their ever willing parents. Think also about the music used in assembly throughout the month, Black music could be used, from steel pans to African American spirituals, to the classical music of forgotten Black British composers such as Samuel Coleridge Taylor.
3. Give Black kids a starring role
Black History Month is a great way for your Black child to have a chance in the spotlight and get to celebrate and share their heritage. We can talk about how cool being from Africa is at home till we are blue in the face, but it is affirmation and recognition from peers that really makes the difference! This BHM my daughter is playing a piano-cello duet of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds for the assembly. In the past, she has given a presentation on “Life in Nigeria” which went down a treat. For very young children, parents might need to get involved instead, especially in schools with few Black teachers, so volunteer to read a book or to talk about an aspect of Black culture that you feel familiar with.
Another option is to get older Black pupils involved. We have had sixth form students come and talk about Afro hair or share individual experiences with the younger pupils.
4. Bring a book to life
I would hope all schools have diverse reading lists! If not why not?!
I was thrilled to see at a recent tour of an independent boarding school that Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was an A-level set text. If your school is lacking in the diverse book department then Roundtable Books 4 is a good place to start, a wonderful Brixton based bookshop that will curate book lists for you and source the book. Malorie Blackman's "Noughts and Crosses" should rightfully be in all book lists but it should not stop there!
For Black History month it can be set so every class is reading a fantastic book by a Black author. There can also be a display in the library highlighting books from Black authors, encouraging pupils to give them a borrow.
Howabout taking a book to the next level and bringing it to life for Black History Month? For instance, my daughter’s school after reading Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus book, brought in a young Nigerian heritage lady to teach them how to tie the headscarves that feature so heavily in the book and the children loved it and it is now part of the school curriculum!
Or how about an author visit? Is your school monitoring the diversity of author visits? There are so many brilliant books written by Black British authors these days who are happy to do school visits, there is really no excuse!
And then inspire children to get creative themselves! There is a National Poetry Competition for Black history month , entrants open till 15 November. Encourage your school to get involved!
5. Jollof or Jerk? You choose!
Get the school canteen involved in Black History Month?! Can the catering staff serve some Caribbean or African food across the month? Jollof rice, jerk or rice and peas anyone? Even tropical fruits! However, be warned if the school population taste plantain they may never want to go back to mashed potato!
6. Repeat - Africa is not a country!
Perhaps all BHM should all start here - repeat after me, Africa is NOT a country! This pervasive myth really irritates and affects how Africa is perceived by both children and adults. It also does the continent of Africa a great disservice.
Perhaps drill down into a country or two in a lesson. Atinuke’s book on Africa is particularly great in serving interesting facts about the 54 countries of Africa .
Or perhaps a lesson on the diversity across the continent of Africa. There is more genetic diversity across the African continent than between Africa and the rest of the world. Hence race is a social, not a scientific/ genetic construct!
Or why not blow their minds (again!) and explain how the maps we all look at are “wildly distorted”, and Africa is actually four times larger than it appears, big enough to hold the US, China, and India combined– Africa is one country indeed!
7. Papier Mache Benin bronzes anyone?
How about a Black history-themed art project? Benin Bronzes in papier mache? Pictured here is my 9-year olds attempt at a Benin bronze leopard! Or learning about the stories behind Ghanaian Kente (both projects my girls' school has taken on ).
This Black History Month my daughter's art class is focusing on African American artist Alma Thomas , who makes wonderfully exuberant paintings that can’t help but inspire children.
8. Black Techstars
Black achievements in tech and science, often accomplished despite mind-boggling adversity and discrimination, are far too little known. A lesson on Black inventors always brings thrills and surprises. Do you know that a Black woman invented GPS that powers all their mobile phones? That a Black man invented traffic lights ?And also the internet? And a Black man invented the potato crisp? And his name, you couldn't make it up, pure teaching gold, was George Crum.
Pupils should know that the practise of vaccination that that saved us all from COVID was introduced to the West from ancient African medical knowledge?
Why not a lesson on contemporary Black Scientists? Space scientist Maggie Alderin Pocock is a good place to start and she was a fab book out, pictured here!
9. Where is my history?
Well this is the big one. I have already mentioned the great African civilisations and slavery but of course there is so much more .
A key pointer here – especially for our Black British kids, Black History is not all Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Yes, these two are heroes, but we are consistently (systematically?) overlooking home-grown heroes: As well as Rosa Parks and her bus boycott, you should learn about the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 - as the year 6’s in my daughter’s school do. And also about Dr Harold Moody, our very own Martin Luther King, who perfomed great anti-racism work out of London in the 1940s which we all benefit from today.
Children love learning about African and Caribbean soldiers in WWI and WW2. Pictured is the great RAF Airman Ulric Cross DFC (DFC as in Distinguished Flying Cross) . There are many resources on this and so many extremely exciting tales of Black serviceman's heroics on the battlefield. And so many lessons to learn, the story of West Africa's Burma Boys, their bravery in the most desparate of circumstances, and they way they were treated afterwards is extremely moving, And these war stories are a perfect lead up to November’s Memorial Day which can feel very un-inclusive, despite the immense contributions of Black and Brown people.
Or how about modern history? The Junior school is looking at Britain’s first Black MPs as part of their work on democracy and parliament.
10. but What about the other 11 months of the year?
This is clearly a whistle stop tour I have given you for Black History Month and it would be so sad if it was all pens down come 31 October. Instead, BHM can be a great kick-off event to talk with your school about wider issues to do with decolonising the curriculum and also about diversity and inclusion.
Some questions to ask -
- How many Black teachers are on staff? (and please don't be bought off by that old corker "oh but they don't apply")
- In selective schools, a question to consider is how ethnically diverse is the student body – is that representative of applications?
- Do teachers have racial literacy training?
- Does the school use Personal, Social and Health education (PHSE) time to prepare the students as citizens in a multi-cultural society?
How representative are the images and names used in school for instance in classwork, in religious imagery, in school plays?
black history makes for inspiring lessons
Upon reflection I can see that the key takeway here is that Black history is not only vital for a full education, it is also fun, memorable, inspiring and surprising. All things the best educators want from every one of their lessons.
My hope in writing this blog post is that you are empowered , as a Black or a white parent, to go into your child's school and insist that they raise their game, take advantage of the wealth of thrilling resources and stories there, and start giving your children the balanced and inclusive education they deserve.
- The Black Curriculum - a social enterprise set up to promote Black history in schools https://theblackcurriculum.com/resources
- The UK Black History Month organisation https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/
- Roundtable book store - diverse bookshop in London https://www.roundtablebooks.co.uk
- ACEN - African Caribbean Educational Networks, Puts on amazing anti racism training for teachers and assists parents and children. https://www.aceducationnetwork.com
- Black Victorians National Archives workshop https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/sessions/black-victorians/
- Black Cultural Archives – runs fantastic workshops for schools. https://blackculturalarchives.org