Black History 365: Five Books for Teachers
For years, there has been campaigns to decolonise curricula in UK schools. After a meeting with East Northants NEU members I have been inspired to make this shortlist for schoolteachers.
When I was at school, I was told West Indian history began in 1492, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his soldiers — “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, said my history teacher when I was ten years old. We know that Black history more broadly goes back millenia. Below I will talk about five books that teachers can use as a first step to aid in decolonising their curriculum. Whilst these texts are quite dense reads, teachers will feel better having read them, and inspired to do their own research based on what they have read.
Don’t Touch My Hair (2019), Emma Dabiri
Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian author, broadcaster, and academic. Reading Don’t Touch My Hair jogged my memory and made me remember the importance of role models. It also got me to think about my own role models — from family members to more high profile author-activists and I then realised a good chunk of mine are Black and mixed-race women. Reading through the references as well, this text is anomaly in academia where students often get this notion that knowledge isn’t valid unless it comes from an old white man— often long dead. In Don’t Touch My Hair, the references are diverse. It was heartbreaking on my degree to have sources and texts that were whitewashed, and nearly dominated by men. Despite this text coming from a female perspective, I felt seen and it is unapologetically Black. That it shows people that look like me writing in their field, tying back to lack of Black representation at UK universities, especially Black women.
Through her relating to the Nigerian ancestry on her father’s side, as well as the histories and stories of Black people in the United States, Britain and Latin America, in Don’t Touch My Hair she explore the history of Black hair and how we have been conditioned to relate to it. Wild. Unruly. High maintenance. Colonialism has done a number on Black people and those racialised as Black, depriving a whole people of positive beauty standards, including hair history.
The existence of Emma Dabiri and people like her, including Reni Eddo-Lodge and Gary Younge, bring a comfort — something to aspire to outside of the white gaze. In Black Hollywood, on film, actor David Oyelowo said “we are in the middle of a renaissance” and I would extend that to literature too. Emma Dabiri is a role model to Black British people today, of all ages, perfectly placed in the decolonial fight and her book Don’t Touch My Hair defies gravity.
Staying Power (1984), Peter Fryer
The Trinidadian historian and socialist writer C. L. R James called this book “rare in its mastery” at its release in 1984. Staying Power by the late historian-journalist Peter Fryer is an encyclopedic book showing the history of the Black presence in Britain going back to Roman times. From African Romans to Equiano, Black soldiers and Black Tudors — and how Black people have been part of the most iconic events in British history. This is a history book that paints a vivid picture of Britain’s recorded two-thousand year Black history. Here, Fryer takes “black” or “Black” in the divisive nature of “political blackness”. In the preface, he says “Black people — by whom I mean Africans and Asians and their descendants — have been living in Britain for close to 500 years.” He goes on to say “This book gives an account of the lives, struggles and achievements of men and women most of whom have been either forgotten or, still more insultingly, remembered as curiosities or objects of condescension.” Today, I have found white writers often criticised for looking at histories and cultures out of their experience.
But what’s fascinating about Staying Power, is how Peter Fryer, a white man, articulated my experience as a Black person. What’s more, I would like to comment, this is a fantastic use of white male privilege in an industry (publishing) which stil has much farther to go into terms of representation. Chapter one ‘Those kinde of people’ starts “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here” and that shows the measure of the man, easily one of the best opening lines of any book. Author-activist, in 1956, Peter Fryer was expelled from the Communist Party for rejecting Stalinism, and later fought the imperial fraud of whitewashed British history. Legendary.
Denouncing Stalinism then making a career of unwhitewashing British history, a great way to weaponise your whiteness and privilege. What an absolute Don!
Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Rebellion and British Dissent (2019), Prof. Priyamvada Gopal
In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, this book could not have arrived at a more poignant time in our history. Insurgent Empire indirectly contextualises Black Lives Matter as part of our human history of protest and unrest, pertinent in discourses about the British Empire. Cambridge academic and author Professor. Priyamvada Gopal “recasts the histories of major anticolonial struggles” (as on the blurb) — from the Indian Mutiny (1857) to Morant Bay (1865) to the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya during the 1950s, whilst additionally showing how Black voices have also played imperative roles in radical thought and political ideas. In his book Black People in the British Empire, Peter Fryer wrote “nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters” and Insurgent Empire is a testament to that, depicting Black activists of empire with their own agency.
Join Northamptonshire Rights & Equality for a free in-conversation with Dr. Priyamvada Gopal (July 15) via Zoom.
Black and British (2017), Prof. David Olusoga
The existence of David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History reminds me of the late American author Toni Morrison’s argument of racism as a distraction. “It keeps you from doing your work… somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up” and she goes on. Black and British is a rebuttal to the people saying “there is no Black British history.” Following Staying Power, Prof. David Olusoga shows unequivocally, that there has been a recorded Black presence in Britain since Roman times. Still, today, we are having to make the case that Black lives matter and that goes to Black history as well. Being Black is not being debated but being Black British and the existence of Black British history is. That there is no Black British history outside of postwar immigration and The Slave Trade has been disproved countless times. Yes we were immigrants and we were kidnapped from the shores of Africa but Black history goes way further and deeper than that. Professor David Olusoga’s book tells the vast story of the relationship between Britain and the people that hailed from Africa and the Caribbean.
This is a story that goes back to Henry VIII and the Black Tudors; it goes back to the importance of the sugar economy in the 17th and 18th centuries and to Elizabethen times with “blackamoors.” There were Black soldiers at the Battle of Trafalgar, as depicted on the Bronze Relief in Trafalgar Square (London), as well as Black soldiers fighting in the world wars. Black history is British history and Black and British is well-placed, as a first step in helping to decolonise not only history but also geography, because these histories are as much about place as they are about time. In Black and British, he shows that we belong and that Britishness breaks the tunnel-visioned annals of empire.
Black Tudors: The Untold Story (2017), Dr. Miranda Kaufmann
The blurb starts “A black porter whips a white Englishman in a Gloucester manor house.” The blurb goes on to talk about how “From long-forgotten records emerge the remarkable stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England…” What gets me about this book is how each chapter is about a single character and the society in which they lived, perfect for schools to adapt workshop-esque exercises. In an era that fascinates school curricula like no other, there were Africans that lived in Britain as well. “They were present at some of the most defining moments of the age. They were christened, married and buried by the Church. They were paid waged like any other Tudors” the blurb continues. The Tudor period is probably the most coveted period of British history after the war years, between 1939 and 1945.
Anyone who went to school in this country would have learned about Churchill and “how he won World War Two” on his own with no help. We would also learn about Henry and his six wives — divorced, beheaded died, divorced, beheaded survived. And yet, in the Tudor saga, there were Black Tudors who lived it, and that needs to be taught. A period of history more so than most that still is thought of as quintessentially white in popular memory.
When it comes to decolonising the curriculum, it’s the stories of these Black Tudors who did jobs just like everyone else that children and young people need to be learning at school, in addition to how people were beheaded for disagreeing with Henry. Ahem. Through the existence of Black Tudors, it makes me ask questions about Black British identity. This is how we can engage children in schools, through these conversation provoking critical thought via discussions on sense of self through this readily available history.