When you hear “Black History Month”, what – or rather, who – springs to mind? Is it Rosa Parks? Martin Luther King Jr.? Malcolm X? Harriet Tubman? The Civil Rights movement in America? These are some of the most recognisable figures and events that many of you have probably learned about and come across in school – I certainly remember learning about all this every Black History Month in primary school. But, I have a small problem with this particular “canon” of prominent black historical figures and activists.
They’re all American.
This is not to say that they don’t deserve all the recognition they get. They are some of the most inspiring people who have contributed so much to the reshaping of societal perceptions of black people and how they are treated around the world. But the world is so much bigger than the US, and African Americans were not the only ones who fought for equal rights for black people. The only non-African Americans I remember learning about at school were Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse who tended to British soldiers in the Crimean War at the same time as Florence Nightingale, and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela from South Africa. A lot of the black history taught in UK schools is African American history – even the slave trade was primarily taught from the context of America despite the British Empire being actively involved in it. I’ve also just started an African American Literature course in English, and it made me wonder why there isn’t a Black British Literature equivalent on offer. As a black British person, I would have liked to learn more about other people like me in the country I was born and brought up in and the contributions they made to British society.
This “America-centrism” has clearly had an effect on how we view black history and racism in the UK. George The Poet was questioned on Newsnight on whether he thinks racism exists in Britain and the extent to which it does. He answered that the lack of education on black British history and Empire has led some to believe that it doesn’t exist. The British media always keeps up to date with instances of police brutality and racial violence in America, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement after George Floyd’s death earlier this year has been yet another atrocity. But in doing so, we are almost led to believe that racism does not exist in our country. Lavinya Stennett, founder of The Black Curriculum, is campaigning for the teaching and learning of black British history to be compulsory in England from Key Stage 1 to Year 9 (just before students choose their GCSE options), and stresses how important it is for this rich history to be recognised throughout the school year, not just in Black History Month. Too frequently, the positive contributions black people have made to British society have been completely ignored, and it’s time that they were recovered. Here are some bits British history have overlooked:
It is commonly believed that black people first appeared in Britain and other western countries through the slave trade, but historians have confirmed that this can be traced back as far as Roman times. Did you know that Henry VIII had a black trumpeter in his court? The Westminster Tournament Roll, a tapestry from 1511 depicting the royal celebrations after Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a son (the child died later that year), features a black trumpeter: John Blanke. He contributed to many musical events in the courts of Henry VII and VIII, and is also documented in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber (responsible for wages) as “John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter.”
What about Charles Ignatius Sancho? Sancho was born on a slave ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to England in 1729, and spent most of his childhood and adolescence as a house slave. It is unclear when he was emancipated, but he remained a butler of his previous owners the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. They had informally educated him, and Sancho became an author and composer – it is said that he provided one of the earliest English accounts of African slavery. With the help of the Duke, he came to own a grocer’s store in the London borough of Westminster, and as one had to be a property owner at the time to vote in a British general election, he was eligible to do so and was the first known black person to have voted in a British general election in the eighteenth century.
One of the most-learned aspects of British history has to be the World Wars, which commonly focuses on what Britain did with very brief mention of the European allies. However, this rarely extends to the efforts of soldiers from the Commonwealth. At the end of WWI, the lack of jobs and employment opportunities was blamed on the presence of black people and other people of colour, which eventually led to the 1919 Race Riots. Additionally, some 10,000 soldiers from the Caribbean fought alongside Britain and other Commonwealth countries in WWII. My family is from the Caribbean, and to find out that our efforts to protect Britain in the war isn’t widely known is really upsetting. It is appalling that these histories have been completely glossed over, especially because these people were considered British citizens, but this was until they came to Britain and were made to feel like they didn’t belong.
Whilst racial segregation was legally enforced in the United States through the Jim Crow laws (until 1964-1965), Britain had a “colour bar” where there was no legal punishment for discriminating against black people and other people of colour – landlords wouldn’t rent to them, employers wouldn’t hire them, and pubs and restaurants wouldn’t let them in. The Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ black and Asian drivers, and turned them away when they arrived for interviews despite being told that there was an abundance of vacancies just the day before. Inspired by Rosa Park’s defiance and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in America a few years before, Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett, Guy Bailey and a few other men of colour, that had all been rejected by the organisation due to the colour of their skin, led the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. After four months, coincidentally on the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington DC, general manager Ian Patey revoked his “colour bar”, and the first non-white bus driver was hired later that year. Stephenson, Hackett and Bailey were each awarded OBEs in 2009 for their initiative, but this slice of history isn’t widely known outside of Bristol.
Britain may be considered more ethnically, culturally and racially diverse today, but our history has yet to reflect this. It is not that British history is being “erased”, as some Britons argue, but that there is a call for the positive contributions that non-whites, non-males have made to our country throughout history to be uncovered. This is essential in breaking down the colonial legacies that have existed for centuries, as several black British generations have grown up unaware of how people like them have been a part of this history. I have learned more about black British history in researching for this article than I have learned in the entirety of my years in education. And that’s a problem.