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Black British History for the Briton: A Chinese whispers gone wrong

The American organisation Black Lives Matter found itself in the UK during the recent summer of 2016. Whilst there has been many opinions surrounding the relevance of its existence in this country my mind trickles down to the so-called memory lane of Black British history in the UK. I figured this would be the only way one could arrive at an opinion of its relevance along with perhaps the relevance of many arguments raised regarding race in Britain.

Here was Great Britain — an Island so powerful and majestic in everything. Her monarch ruled in all their splendour. It’s upper and middle class were classic evangelism of what the term ‘higher echelon’ should mean. Similarly, the working class would epitomise to the world the beauty of campaigns, protests, livelihood and happiness, even much better than the rest of late eighteen hundreds Marxist Europe. As women from east London forget all manners and common etiquette taught in their Home Economics lessons for the hopes of gaining the right to vote.

This was greatness worth sharing with the world, in which is known today as British History. It would be history explained and taught from the Victorian times until World War Two. Within this are brief mentions of non-British Black figures such as the American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Late Nelson Mandela in schools. The American Civil Rights movement and the South African Apartheid campaign, two events that have no direct bearing to Britain or its history, nonetheless, hypocritically it did overlook its own tainted racial past which has hardly been disseminated within the British education system.

In October I sat in a discussion about the curation and the memorialisation of William Wilberforce and the trans-atlantic slavery in Britain. Much to our never ending solutions in the discussion, it struck me that perhaps efforts on memorialising trans-atlantic slavery in Britain have been futile because it was not part of British history and past stories, (besides the heroism of William Wilberforce of course) but rather it was part of British foreign policy at a moment in time. Which perhaps answers the queries of Black Britons that question why history lessons about slavery usually relates to American history. Essentially, slavery was never a homeland dealing nor a battle which was won by a British. Rather it was foreign trading deals by a powerful empire with small areas in Africa involving human beings which over time sparked ethical and moral awareness.

The answer to this question is two-fold, one answer which I have termed the ‘the Construction of History’, this is the idea that for an event, key figure or an idea to be noted as ‘History’ in an imaginary history world it’s value to the ideals of Britishness and traditions must be considered. This also includes the number of academics who may dedicate themselves to such studies, which goes beyond popular demand and activism. The other reason is that over the years Black British History taught institutionally has been confusingly amalgamated with African-American History, this poses as a danger for the younger Black British generation of whom the inculcation of racial laws against race, extreme brutality, social denigration of Black Americans spanning from the 1800s till the 1960s will be the misinformed history that they identify with. In the future this chinese whispers gone wrong, the miseducation of Black British history, may have a detrimental impact on a rising generation who may demonise and scapegoat Racism in Britain as implications for their life chances and social mobility much like in the United States.

Ultimately, realising that Imperialism/Colonisation, Immigration and Institutional racism are the main characters of Black British History would be a great beginning in ending the miseducation. Perhaps then the ‘whispers’ will stop and pertinent dialogue can begin.

Celine Akosua Henry.